Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Musing Pictures: Avatar

Though the film itself lacks a certain degree of depth and complexity, James Cameron's "Avatar" is the strongest argument in a while for a shift in focus when it comes to Hollywood cinema.

I was fortunate to catch "Avatar" on an IMAX screen in 3D. (full disclosure: I own roughly 15 shares of IMAX stock). The film has been made available to audiences in several other formats, including two "regular" 3D formats, and a "flat" version for traditional movie screens. It follows several recent blockbusters (including the latest in the "Harry Potter" franchise) which were also released in 3D and IMAX 3D formats. This 3D trend is not entirely new, nor is it entirely original.

In the '50s, 3D first emerged as a way to compete with the emergence of television and other factors that cut in to ticket sales. At the time, the technology was very rough - projectors were known to malfunction, and enough viewers complained of headaches that the process was temporarily abandoned.

the '70s brought new technology to the realm of 3D films, as well as new challenges to Hollywood in the form of the VCR. Again, Hollywood included 3D in its arsenal to win back audiences, and although new technologies virtually eliminated the headaches and the projection glitches, 3D did not catch on. There were many theories as to why this might have happened. Some suggested the glasses were uncomfortable. Others thought that perhaps theaters didn't want to have to deal with the extra process of handing out and then collecting those glasses from every customer. Whatever it was, it killed 3D everywhere outside of theme parks and state fairs.

Now, Hollywood is faced with some of its biggest challenges: People are watching plenty of movies, but they're watching them at home, on television or on DVD, which places several additional barriers between the studio and its profits. To lure people back to the theaters, Hollywood has produced a decade's worth of giant films, high-budget special-effects spectaculars that audiences could only expect to appreciate on giant screens. That seems to have worked, somewhat. For the first time since World War II, US ticket sales have increased. But Hollywood is paranoid, perhaps rightly so. As the films have gotten bigger, to require bigger screens, so, too, have televisions grown. Home-viewing technology is hot on Hollywood's tail.

And so, again, we have a cycle of 3D movies. Will it stick? Will the cinematic landscape take to this change, or will it fall back on the simplicity of two-dimensional production once the fad dies down?

Perhaps the biggest potential contributor to a more resilient wave of 3D movies is the technology behind "Avatar" -- whereas 3D films were once shot with complicated two-camera rigs, new 3D films are shot on cameras such as the "Pace Fusion 3D", shoulder-mountable digital cameras that can match the flexibility and maneuverability of a prosumer digital video camera, but can shoot it all through the two lenses required for 3D production.

That, in itself, does not make "Avatar" unique -- other films have utilized these cameras. I suspect that their versatility will come in to play much more actively on the sorts of films that follow "Avatar's" giant footsteps. By being such a highly anticipated film, "Avatar" could convince theater owners to add 3D infrastructure to their theaters, thus expanding the potential reach for smaller, more modest 3D productions.

Now that the technology for relatively low-budget 3D production is becoming available, the final element required for 3D to take hold is more of an embrace of 3D on the part of theatrical distributors and exhibitors. If they're willing to show 3D content, more of that content will be created, and we'll be wearing glasses to many more films. A strong theatrical run for "Avatar" (and especially a strong run for its 3D screenings) would be all it takes. If the numbers add up, theaters will be happy to show more 3D fare. If "Avatar" can prove that 3D is a profitable way to shoot things, it'll enter the mainstream in ways that could not have happened otherwise.

So, what does it take for "Avatar" to demonstrate the profitability of 3D? Well, every time you hear someone recommend that it be seen in 3D, you're hearing a part of that process at work. The film's narrative is very thin, full of cliches and uninspired plot points. But the world woven by the film's creators is exceptionally rich, vividly painted, and entirely absorbing. Seeing the film in 3D is a powerful immersive experience. The appreciation of this experience is reinforced by the plot's own meta-commentary. In the film, humans on a remote planet connect themselves to genetically constructed alien bodies -- they are able to control these alien bodies, to walk around and speak through them. They can experience this alien planet from within the body of an alien -- as if they're right there, among the trees. When the lead character says about the experience, "this is great", he is priming us, giving us the words that will paint our experience. Our experience of seeing this planet as if we're right there, among the trees.


Sunday, December 13, 2009

Musing Pictures: Coraline

There's something very basic about Neil Gaiman's stories that speaks to me whenever I encounter one. I was first introduced to the storyteller's work in high school, when I read the "Sandman" series of graphic novels. Gaiman is a consistent reinventor of myth, letting the stories, characters and structures of folklore, religion and mythology inform and occasionally populate his very contemporary fiction.

There was a moment in "Coraline" (which is based on a Gaiman novel) when this mythic consciousness struck me. The title character (voiced by Dakota Fanning) recently moved with her parents to a large, strange house. She is sent at one point to meet her quirky new neighbors, which she does with some reluctance. The neighbors, of course, serve the very familiar purpose of providing Coraline with both a context and information about her pending ordeal. They play a role that is unabashedly classical -- lifted right out of an ancient myth or well-worn folktale. And it's immediately obvious, too. Neither the film nor the narrative that precedes it attempt to mask what critics might call "formulaic" turns of the story. But this is what I like about Gaiman's stories -- he is a master of formula. What I mean by this is not that his work is flawed by formula. On the contrary, Gaiman is one of the rare storytellers who knows the power of formula, cliche, and the patterns of mythic narrative. He knows how to incorporate these patterns in ways that are new and refreshing, but also deeply and profoundly familiar. That profound familiarity is something that too few artists consider when creating their work. There is such a heavy focus on "originality" these days, and the result, more often than not, is shallow. Gaiman's originality is very liberated -- his work is full of some of the most creative, inspired images and ideas I've come across in contemporary literature. But that originality is grounded firmly, its roots intertwined with the full scope of narrative history, which is the history of how we tell our stories, of how we reflect on ourselves.


Monday, November 30, 2009

Musing Pictures: The Counterfeiters (2007)

There is something that makes me uncomfortable about "The Counterfeiters", and it has something to do, I think, with what makes it a powerful film.  The Austrian/German co-production, released in 2007, is another link in a two-decade-long chain of Holocaust films
.  This time, the focal point of the narrative is Operation Bernhard, a Nazi economic warfare project, and Salomon Sorowitsch, the expert counterfeiter who is tasked with making it work.

In some very clear ways, the film (like all Holocaust film since 1993) is a response to Spielberg's "Schindler's List".  In that film, a non-Jew (Schindler) shows us (the identity-free public) that we, too, can make a significant difference in the lives of those around us.  As individuals, we can be tremendously powerful.

The tone in "The Counterfeiters" is rather different.  Salomon (to him, being Jewish is little more than a coincidental nuisance) shows us the path of least resistance.  To get out of work details in Mauthausen, Salomon agrees to paint portraits and propagandistic murals for the Nazis.  When he is brought in to run Operation Bernhard, he is tasked with the creation of what could have become the war's most catastrophic economic weapon: the counterfeit US Dollar.  Again and again, Salomon is challenged about his willingness to work on the Nazi project. His response is always a selfish emphasis on his own desire to live another day.  He does not express concern for other Jews, nor does he see himself as a 'Jewish' victim -- he was arrested, after all, for counterfeiting, not for being Jewish.  When Salomon finds out that a member of his counterfeiting team is sabotaging their work, he refuses to name names, to identify the saboteur, but not because of a Jewish or ideological allegiance.  It's a part of the criminal's code of honor - you don't rat out your fellow criminal. (this code of honor appears in German films as far back as Fritz Lang's "M" (1931))

It is clear, in the end, that the hero of "The Counterfeiters" is not Salomon, but the saboteur in his ranks, the man who risked his life to prevent the Nazis from getting their hands on this potent piece of economic warfare.  But we aren't ever expected to see ourselves in the hero's shoes.  We identify with Salomon.

Perhaps that's a hard pill to swallow.  After we saw the film, my wife turned to me and asked, "what would you have done?"  It's not an easy question to answer.  Would I have quietly aided the enemy in order to survive another day?  Or would I have died making a grand statement against them?  The American version of the Holocaust features the grand self-sacrifice, and celebrates those who took tremendous risks to save others around them.  But what about those who took tremendous care to save themselves?  How are we to view them?  I'm not so sure.  All I know is that this film tells just such a story, asks just such a question, and leaves it to us to find our own answers.


Thursday, October 29, 2009

Musing Pictures: Waltz with Bashir

I have occasionally explored the challenges of historical depiction in this blog, particularly in the context of depictions of the Holocaust on screen. "Waltz with Bashir", the Israeli contender for last year's Best Foreign Film Oscar, addresses these challenges openly.
To remind you: historical depictions on film, especially 're-enacted history', are never the same as the experience itself. As a re-teller of history, a filmmaker must decide between historical accuracy and emotional impact.
We have seen how "Schindler's List" depicts a fictionalized version of a Holocaust that really happened, with an emphasis on transcending the history to achieve an emotional impact for those who were not there to feel it directly. We have also seen how "Inglourious Basterds" represents a fictionalized version of the Holocaust that did not happen, freely transforming fiction in to emotional memory.

"Waltz with Bashir" takes yet another approach. The narrative that the film presents is not only a historical narrative, but it is woven out of memories of the people who were there. The film is structured and presented like a documentary. There are interviews with various people who experienced first-hand Israel's war in Lebanon in the early '80s. There is footage from the field. There are sections that would be called 're-enactments' had this been a History Channel special. But this is different in a profound way. In "Waltz with Bashir", the interviews are animated. They are cartoons, roughly sketched impressions of the people whose experiences the film recalls from the depths of memory. Perhaps more significantly, the glimpses we are provided of the war itself are interwoven animations of both direct recollections of the war and remembered dreams and visions. The film opens with what turns out to be a dream sequence, recalled by a friend of the filmmaker's, twenty years after the war. We see the dream, then the conversation in which it comes up. At one point, someone points out that dreams and visions are real - they may not be literal, but they carry truths within them that history books do not.

So, the film treats the ravaged memories of war with as much or more seriousness as the sanitized records of history. Although the film revolves around the filmmaker's search for his own memories, and for the truth behind them, the ultimate lesson is that the most painful memories themselves can be suppressed, and the only key to unlocking their secrets is to treat them as a part of the history itself.

Ultimately, "Waltz with Bashir" is an ode to subjective memory. In a world of objective documents, films and photographs that 'prove' events, a film that could have visually differentiated between historical fact and imagined dream represents them on equal footing. Dreams, memories and history share a format. We can not sort them out because they are all equally a part of the events they describe.


For a convenient list of Israeli films, visit

Friday, October 16, 2009

Musing Pictures: Where the Wild Things Are

In the context of the trend I referenced in earlier posts (more films about aging in this new retirement boom era), a mainstream film about a child's maturation makes for an interesting counterpoint. "Where the Wild Things Are", Spike Jonze's adaptation of the classic Maurice Sendak children's book, is at once a celebration of a child's imagination, and a cautionary tale about growing up too soon. In his imaginary world, the film's central figure, Max (Max Records), is crowned king, and learns, over time, that leadership is far more than parties and grand plans. When he falters and fails in his grown-up role, he returns to his childhood a bit more grateful for it.

There are, of course, many films about kids growing up. For decades, this was Hollywood's dominant theme, from the baby boom to generation X. Children were urged not to grow up too fast, and grown-ups were urged to re-discover their inner child (the Tom Hanks film, "Big"(1988) is perhaps the neatest encapsulation of this idea).

Looking at these two themes back-to-back -- the wish for a safe and happy childhood versus the need for a noble and dignified old age -- makes me realize just how similar they are. Both involve a person's progression from one distinct stage of life to the next. With childhood, the future is embraced, but often it does not embrace back. As for old age, that future is feared and shunned, but it can not be avoided. In one case, a return to childhood is seen as laudable, but also as an all-too-brief reprieve from the harrowing experiences of the real world. In the other, a return to pre-elderly life is dangerous, irresponsible, and often fatal.

Ironically, with the economy where it is, many retirees are forced to work, to earn a bit more money in order to keep themselves afloat. Our films seem to be urging them on to a noble, quiet, peaceful denouement, but our economy is dragging them back, ill-equipped, to their prime.

How will this cultural dilemma manifest itself in the cinema of the next few years? Which way will the movies push our retiring parents? Will they realign with the needs of a tough economy, or will they present the idyllic, peaceful, retirement that they have begun to suggest?


Musing Pictures: The Wrestler

A brief observation that Darren Aronofsky's "The Wrestler" (2008) is yet another film in the very recent wave of films about growing old. Specifically, it is a film that explores the tension between the dignities and indignities of growing older. Whereas other films seem to evoke a certain noble resignation to old age (characters coming to peace with their weakening bodies and lengthening lifespans), this film depicts that dignity and its loss, as the central character (Randy "The Ram" Robinson, earning an Oscar for Mickey Rourke) tries to accept his slow disintegration, and eventually gives up, refusing to "act his age", stubbornly clinging to a youthfulness that his body can no longer sustain.

It is perhaps not surprising that the film is about a man who does not successfully transition to elderliness -- the film is directed by Darren Aronofsky, whose other films (including "Pi" (1998) and "Requiem for a Dream" (2000) dwell deeply in to the failures of their central characters.

Hollywood once taught us that youth, even in old age, was king. Grandparents who learned how to play again were the ones we cheered, the ones we applauded for. Now that audiences are older, we're looking at age slightly differently. The heroes are those who can climb up and out of the prime of their lives, to a dignified, self-assured sunset. I imagine this new view will dominate much of cinema over the next decade. We'll see how it then transforms our culture (when life starts imitating the art that imitates it)


Thursday, October 15, 2009

Musing Pictures: Psycho (1960)

I recently took the time to watch this classic Hitchcock thriller again, in the context of a screenwriting course I'm taking at Hopkins. I won't write much on it, since so much has already been written, but I'd like to focus on one scene.

Early in the film, Marion crane steals forty thousand dollars from her employer, and skips town. After driving West through the desert for several hours, she pulls over to the side of the road, to catch a bit of sleep. In the morning, she is woken up by a startling knock on the window. A police officer has a few questions for her.

The scene is very suspenseful, but unlike other moments in the film which generate suspense through subtle and often subconscious manipulation, this scene's suspense emerges out of a very clear dissonance between perspectives.

I've written elsewhere about Hitchcock's particular methods of inspiring suspense, but it's a topic that is always worth exploring. It's not for nothing that he is known as the "master of suspense", after all.

This particular scene contains three perspectives, or subjective points from which it is seen. Marion, of course, provides one, and the police officer provides another. The third, of course, is our own, as the detached-yet-engaged audience, observing the scene without being within it.

Marion's mind seems fairly clear to us. She must be nervous, and her reaction to the officer betrays her fears of being followed, or of being caught. We don't know what the officer is thinking (the windows to his soul, his eyes, are obscured by very dark sunglasses). Marion must be feeling a lot of guilt. The arrival of a police officer inspires her first to start the motor of her car. It is only a moment later, once she has come out of her sleep a bit more, that she realizes that he's not necessarily there because of the money she stole, and she plays along (albeit nervously).

Our perspective tends to follow Marion's. We see much of the first act of the film through her point of view. Her initial panic is our initial panic. But we can see the scene from outside of her car. We can see that she's parked quite unusually on the side of the road, and that as such, there's another reason for the police officer to be there. We can see before she does that if she stays calm, and says the right things, she can survive the encounter.

We feel this, so we don't quite share Marion's panic, but we also don't know for certain that the police officer isn't a threat. On the contrary, when Marion behaves suspiciously, we recognize the suspiciousness of her behavior, and are made uneasy by the police officer's unchanged expression. Did he notice? Did he pick up on anything? We pick up on the slip-ups because we know Marion is guilty of theft. We are made uneasy by the police officer's apparent lack of response. This sets us on edge, and lays the groundwork for the scene's most suspenseful aspect.

Because we can see Marion's mistakes more clearly than she can, it is natural that we would want to warn her about them, or at least to reprimand her for slipping up, so she doesn't do it again. It's the "no, don't say that!" or "don't do that!" sensation. Since we can not actually reach in to the film to affect Marion's behavior, we are left biting our nails, hoping she figures it out herself.

By the end of the scene, Marion is driving away, but since the police officer's face remains impassive, we are still left with the question of whether or not her escape is complete. On one hand, we wished just a moment ago that we could reach in to the film and warn Marion to watch her words and actions, and on the other hand, we're now left without enough information to know if there's a need for caution or not. Over the course of the scene, we're shuttled back and forth between knowing what the danger is without being able to address it, and being on that fine razor's edge between the dangerous and the safe.

When watching Hitchcock films, it's often worthwhile to track what we, as viewers, know over the course of the film. The dissonance between our observations and the observations of the characters with which we identify is at the heart of Hitchcock's scheme. He was named "Master of Suspense" because of his keen understanding of how to balance the delivery of these two types of information.


Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Musing Pictures: The Informant!

A brief thought on this nice little film from a filmmaker whose career I envy (in the best way, of course). Steven Soderbergh's story is set in the early and mid '90s. As such, it should be considered a 'period piece'. This is one of the first times that I've watched a 'period piece' and recognized the period being depicted as one that I've experienced first-hand. Until now, I've thought of films in three categories: First, there are those films that don't take place in a version of our real world -- fantasy films, some sci-fi, etc. Second, there are those films that take place contemporaneously with their production (so, a film set in the '50s that is made in the '50s is not a period piece, even if it might seem like one today). Third, there are period pieces -- films set in our world, but in a different era (be it past or future). Those are films that must both weave a compelling image of a world, but tie it so thoroughly to our reality that we can imagine them as being a part of the continuum of our history. Each of these categories can be sub-divided further, of course, but it's that third category that intrigues me. After seeing "The Informant!", it occurred to me that there are three kinds of period pieces -- films that re-create a past (or future, arguably) beyond recollection (films that take place in the middle ages, for example, or in the 19th century), and films that re-create a relatively recent past, one that can be remembered and reminisced about. This distinction is an interesting one because it is partially subjective. A film set in 1969 may be within the scope of memory for some viewers, but it depicts a world that other viewers have never experienced, and therefore, can not remember. One kind of film is full of interesting historical details (the roller-skating telephone operators in "Changeling", for example), meant to evoke in us not a memory, but a sense of wonder at the way of life that once was. The other kind is full of those details that are meant to evoke recognition and memory (the large cell phones, black-and-green computer screens, and boxy cars of "The Informant!") I think it would be interesting to look at films about the '90s that are made by people too young to remember that decade. It'll be a while before that happens, but I wonder what the differences will be between the depictions of the generation that remembers and the generation that re-creates.


Musing Pictures: Surrogates

I was fortunate to catch an early screening of Jonathan Mostow's "Surrogates" late last week. I had heard very little about the film, and as such, I could see it with a rare, open mind. The film plays on ideas established early in film's history: People are not necessarily who they appear to be -- all the more so when technology paints their mask. This classical sci-fi concept comes up in Fritz Lang's classic, "Metropolis", a German silent film from 1927. In "Metropolis", an inventor (C.A. Rotwang, played by Gustav Frolich, perhaps the original mad scientist) creates a robot in the image of a beautiful woman (Maria, Brigitte Helm). Maria is to be a sort of savior to the masses, but her doppelganger is meant to bring about their demise. The idea is very deeply cinematic -- in film, actors pretend to be other characters, and we accept the conceit, especially if it is done particularly well. Since we accept the conceit, we can believe that the characters in the film are justifiably fooled by similar imitations. After all, if we fault them for not seeing the truth behind a character's mask, we must also fault ourselves for seeing the characters and not the actors.

In a film that borrows heavily from "Metropolis", "Blade Runner" (1982, Ridley Scott) explores similar themes. Here, though, the imitation-humans are not designed to be re-creations of living people. On the contrary, they are so life-like, it is as if they have personalities and identities of their own. Where Fritz Lang's film is about the differences between the robotic/technological and the human/organic, Scott's film is precisely opposite -- it is about how inhuman humans can be, and about how much our technology can define our very humanity. In Scott's film, there are no clear distinctions between human and humanoid. Even within the film, characters have a hard time distinguishing between robotic and real. The effect works, because we can't make the distinction, either. After all, the characters are played by real people, regardless of the character's internal mechanisms.

To re-frame this: In "Metropolis", we see a good (human) and an evil (robot) version of the same character. We know the difference between the two because they behave differently, although their appearance is the same.
In "Blade Runner" we see human humans and robotic humans, and we can not tell the difference, which is precisely the point.
That brings us to "Surrogates", where real people control robotic versions of themselves, through which they experience life. Much like in "Blade Runner", no one is to be trusted -- people's 'surrogates' are not necessarily identical to the controllers themselves. This is established early on, when a beautiful woman turns out to be a robot controlled by an obese man. Whereas in "Blade Runner", the primary question to a character is "what are you?", "Surrogates" begs the question, "Who are you?" It's a "Mission: Impossible" scenario that includes and make suspect the identity of almost everybody.

Ultimately, all of these are attempts to explore what makes us human. Is our humanity our compassion ("Metropolis"), our substance ("Blade Runner"), our persona ("Surrogates")? As narrative devices, these all work because of the way we see movies. We see characters as people -- we see their performances, and extrapolate from them entire lives, backgrounds, personalities. When a film moves us, it is because we have been able to recognize humanity in the pattern of flashing lights and sounds that have danced before us. That is part of what makes movies so powerful: through film, we can be made to recognize reality on the surface of a screen.


Sunday, September 06, 2009

Musing Pictures: Inglourious Basterds

'Holocaust revenge fantasy' is not a genre to be taken lightly. Very few films and very few filmmakers have ventured far in to this territory in the past, and certainly, no mainstream film has entered so deeply as "Inglourious Basterds." This latest film from director Quentin Tarantino ("Pulp Fiction", "Kill Bill", etc.) has received primarily positive reviews, and a healthy box office run. It has also generated a great deal of discussion, particularly surrounding its treatment (or re-treatment) of the history and horror of the Holocaust.

The film begins with an odd twist: an instantaneous blending of two genres. On the screen, text informs us: "Once upon a time, in Nazi-occupied France..." It is fairy tale and history, fiction and fact, a story where the good guys win, and a story where the ending is dispassionate. Immediately, Tarantino alerts us to the fact that what we are about to see is both far from and rooted in reality.

This dichotomy is always present and extremely important in cinematic fictionalization of historical events. Every historical re-telling must acknowledge its fictional side, or risk being seen as a mere story. Holocaust narratives require this all the more, because they are almost universally stories of individual tragedy and individual triumph, set in the context of human catastrophe. Holocaust stories can never convey the full scope of the Holocaust literally, so they resort to metaphor, ellipsis, and other devices to indicate those ideas that are beyond literal depiction. The girl in the red dress in "Schindler's List" stands in for the victims of the Holocaust who could never be fully depicted in the film.

Tarantino's Holocaust narrative does something unexpected with this approach. Instead of trying to tell a true story as a metaphor for or a window in to the broader Holocaust, he creates a very obviously fictional, fantastical story. We know (because we are told, and because we can discern) that the events portrayed in the film never happened. We also know, though, that behind the narrative lies some sort of strange truth. We don't get a history lesson comprised of facts, but we do get something more visceral.

The film's first sequence involves an interrogation between Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) and a French farmer. Landa is known in France as the "Jew Hunter", and he is on the scent of a local family he believes is hiding in the farmer's care. Landa is always polite, a seemingly pleasant, happy man. Over the course of the conversation, it becomes apparent that he is much more nefarious, and by the end of the scene, Landa's easy smile shows us just how evil he actually is.

It is easy to imagine such a scene playing out in the French countryside in the early days of the Nazi occupation. But Tarantino isn't interested in the accuracy of the moment. Over the course of the conversation, several small things happen to remind us that we are watching something other than historical re-enactment. At one point, the farmer has pulled out his pipe, and Landa asks permission to smoke his own pipe. When the farmer gives his permission, Landa pulls an enormous, outlandish, out-of-place pipe from his pocket. The effect is almost cartoonish, something more at-home in "Mary Poppins" than a Holocaust film. But it becomes a part of what Landa stands for, what he represents. Landa is a character we are meant to hate, and we are meant to understand that he is there representing an arrogant, boastful, self-confident, and totally evil aspect of the Third Reich itself. In "Schindler's List", concentration camp administrator Amon Goeth is purely evil, but he represents a very specific historical figure who himself was a part of a much larger operation. Landa, because his character is represented with these un-realistic elements, represents not a real person, but something much bigger.

Perhaps to put it in a different context, "Inglourious Basterds" represents itself as a sort of fairy tale. In fairy tales, the Big Bad Wolf is not a character meant to represent a real, historical wolf, but is rather a stand-in for the wolfish dangers of the world, the predatory sadism and greed that children (particularly children) must be wary of when out in the world (which is, itself, represented by the woods, the forest, or wherever it is that the wolf lurks).

By setting itself in this very fictional framework, "Basterds" achieves through playfulness a greater sense of Nazi evil than do other films through gory, heartbreaking realism. At the end of "Schindler's List", "The Pianist", or any of the past twenty years' worth of mainstream Holocaust films, we find ourselves very sad, perhaps even in tears, shocked by the enormity of the loss of life, the loss of humanity that the Holocaust's victims endured. It is rare that we come away from such films feeling more anger and disgust at the Nazis than sorrow for their victims. In "Basterds", we really, really hate Nazis.

Interestingly, Tarantino accomplishes this feat with very little depiction of what the Nazis did. There is only one scene in which Jews are massacred, and very little of the massacre is shown to the audience. On the contrary, it is the violence of the 'Basterds' that clues us in (again, indirectly, through obvious fiction) to the facts deep beyond the narrative.

The 'Basterds' are a group of Jewish American soldiers sent deep in to Nazi Occupied France to terrorize the occupiers. They are brutal. They kill without mercy. One of them bashes Nazi skulls with a baseball bat. Another carves swastikas in to their foreheads. They are all under orders to scalp their victims. We are shown a lot of this brutality (in Tarantino's unflinching and overblown style), and it is absolutely gruesome and bloody. But we know that there is something we haven't seen. The 'Basterds' are getting revenge, but we are forced to ask, 'revenge for what?' The full extent of Nazi brutality is the reason, of course, that they deserve their brutal fate. By asking the question, 'revenge for what?' we are led to think of the actual legacy of the Nazis, and again, the film draws our attention to the broad scope of real history while depicting events that we recognize as pure fiction.

Even in the film's final act, in which most of the Nazi high command is killed, we are provided with encouragement to be mindful of historical fact. At various moments, text appears on the screen to indicate different characters from the Nazi leadership. We recognize Hitler from popular culture, and Goebbels is introduced in the context of the narrative, but other prominent figures of the Nazi regime are identified to us, as if to say "you should recognize these people". It is, in a fictional context, an invitation to learn more about the facts, to learn the history.

Rather than giving us a picture of the Holocaust that we can walk away from and say "now I understand, now I know what it was all about", Tarantino gives us an experience that makes us feel, viscerally, just how angry we should be, and reminds us, by showing us what we know to be false, just how much we don't know of the truth of the Holocaust, of its true horrors.

In a very sophisticated way, 'Inglourious Basterds' achieves the goal of many Holocaust films -- it reminds us through ironic fiction that "we should never forget" the facts.


Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Musing Pictures: Defiance

Before I begin discussing "Defiance", I would like to thank for syndicating this article, and to welcome all of the new readers who have arrived here via that site. is now publicizing my musings on Jewish or Israeli films, beginning with this one.

"Defiance" (2008, directed by Edward Zwick) is a mainstream, A-list Holocaust movie. It is the latest (or not even the latest any more) in a string of large-scale Hollywood films to tackle the subject of Germany's genocide. Any film that approaches this subject must do so carefully -- the Holocaust is a minefield of sensitivities, misinformation and anger. One of the central questions asked about Hollywood's various interpretations has to do with re-creation, and it is one aspect of this question that I would like to discuss here.

Aside from the obvious perverse aspect of "re-creating" the Holocaust, any re-enactment is necessarily less powerful, less monumental than the event itself. At the same time, a creative re-telling can often find a broader audience, and may bear meaning to more people than outright documentary. "Schindler's List" was, in many ways, a challenge to what had been considered the most monumental Holocaust film of its day: "Shoah" (1985). This documentary by Claude Lanzmann is nothing but interviews and contemporary, contemplative footage of the places where the recounted events unfolded. Jewish survivors, their non-Jewish counterparts, and other witnesses of the Holocaust tell their stories. The picture painted by "Shoah" is very broad, very personal, and very genuine. There is no archival footage in the film, no re-enactment, no attempt at creative short-hand to speed the story along. There is no doubt that this is one of the most compelling, important films on the Holocaust, but it has a fatal flaw: "Shoah" has a running time of roughly nine and a half hours! A few film buffs might have caught it at a film festival or two, but for the most part, the only people with the patience and commitment to sit through the entire film are people who are already very familiar with the Holocaust and its narratives. "Schindler's List", on the other hand, was seen by millions upon millions of people all over the world.
Re-enactment and dramatic re-creation can make the Holocaust accessible to the general public. Since "Schindler's List", large-scale films from Hollywood and elsewhere have been rising to the task. Of course, there are dangers behind using fiction to teach historical fact. First, especially with the Holocaust, narrative films always understate the situation. As vast and sweeping as films such as "Schindler's List", "Life is Beautiful" or "The Pianist" are, they still tell only a tiny fraction of the historical story. Each narrative includes characters and events that are meant to represent the broader catastrophe, but they can never fully capture its scope. Since many film viewers are not attuned to the representational tools employed by filmmakers, and since many films do not call attention to their own artifice, viewers often fuse what they see in films with what they've learned as facts. When those of us who did not experience the Holocaust think of the Holocaust, do we imagine things as they were, or do we imagine fictional images that we've seen on TV? The problem becomes more significant when it comes to the atrocities themselves. The Nazis were notorious propagandists, and as such, they maintained very careful control of the films and photographs taken in or around the central apparatus of their Final Solution. There is almost no footage at all from within a death camp or concentration camp during the war. So, when we think of the atrocities committed by the Nazis, what images come to mind? Are they images from historical footage, or are they re-creations? I would argue that the harshest images that come to mind are not authentic, but re-creations we've seen in films or on television.
Filmmakers who tackle the Holocaust must grapple with the challenge of presenting a compelling re-creation while reminding their viewers that what they are seeing is, in fact, not nearly as awful as the Holocaust itself. In effect, filmmakers must remind their audience that they are seeing a movie. This goes against the grain of the Hollywood aesthetic, which emphasizes hiding the movie-ness of a movie (you're not supposed to realize you're watching a movie when you're watching it -- you are meant to be completely absorbed in its narrative). Spielberg achieved this in "Schindler's List" in several ways, most notably with the well-known "girl in the red coat". Although the film is shot in black-and-white, the scene in which the Warsaw Ghetto is liquidated includes one splash of color - the red of a little, lost girl's coat stands out among the shades of gray. The scene is deeply moving, but also obviously artificial. As we watch the movie, we are reminded that we are watching a movie. Once we realize that, we can begin to understand the girl, the scene, and in fact the entire film as references to a broader historical tragedy.
"Defiance" approaches this challenge in a slightly different way. It begins with grainy, black-and-white footage of the Nazi invasion of Belarussia. We hear the gunshots, the screams, the sounds of chaos as the film unspools. I was very nervous when this scene began. The audio that underlies the archival images is not authentic to those images, but recorded nearly seventy years later by voice actors and sound effects artists half a world away from where the events took place. I know this, but would a typical viewer know it? Was the film trying to pass fiction off as fact (when the fact itself is strong enough without requiring falsification) After a short while, one shot, in particular, begins to change. It begins as a grainy black-and-white shot, apparently archival, but the scratches slowly fade away, and the image slowly gains its color. What appeared archival was, in fact, re-creation. We are shown this as a reminder of the artifice of what we are seeing, (a visual reminder, where the aural reminder might have been missed by most viewers) but also as a reminder of its connection to historical fact. In its first few minutes, "Defiance" defines itself in the context of the history it re-creates.
This somewhat self-reflexive moment is something to look for in any Holocaust film, especially in the context of education. Does the film offer reminders of its artifice, of the fact that what it presents is not the same as what it represents?
I am curious about how this will apply to Quentin Tarantino's "Inglorious Basterds", which comes out this month. That film's premise is so over-the-top that it might not need to incorporate this sort of visual disclaimer. I'm sure to have a lot to say about it when I do catch it in theaters a few weeks from now, and I'm sure I'll write about it here. See you then!


Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Musing Pictures: Public Enemies

I would like to begin by noting that what I have seen of director Michael Mann's work, I have generally enjoyed. "Public Enemies" is no exception.

That said, what I'd like to focus on here is, arguably, a weak point of the film.

For the past several years, Michael Mann has been working at the forefront of the digital field, shooting features such as "Collateral" and "Miami Vice" in new, digital formats. In "Collateral", the digital medium served the film very well, lending it an additional and appropriate urban grit. "Public Enemies", which was also shot digitally, is a bit of a tougher call.

Before I go in to the pros and cons of the use of digital in this particular movie, I'd like to take a step back, to try to explain what this whole film vs. digital debate is all about.

First, a description of what it is you see when you see a projected film or a projected digital video.

Film is really just a thin layer of chemicals that at one point reacted to light, and that have since been 'locked' in such a way that they retain the very color to which they reacted. Each frame of a film is a photographic exposure, like a slide. When light is focused through that frame, the colors of the chemicals 'paint' the light, so that when it hits a white surface somewhere beyond the other side, an image appears. When twenty four of these images flash up on that white screen every second, they appear to blend with one another, and slight variations from one projected photograph to the next appear like movement.

Now, there are two critical elements to this discussion: Film grain and color depth.

I'll start with color depth, since it is fairly basic. Film has a very broad range of colors and shades that it is capable of replicating. As light changes, the chemical reactions in the film change to match it. Roughly, for any two shades of light, film can react to and recreate the shade in-between. Digital images, as their name implies, rely on digital interpretation of light. Different shades of light generate different numerical signals. Unlike film, video has no in-betweens. There may be millions of colors available to digital video, but since it relies on these absolute calculations, it misses the infinite varieties between those millions of colors (the color must be A or B or C, etc., so if the actual color is in-between, it gets forced one way or the other). As a result, digital images flatten out in low-light or low-contrast situations, where the slight differences in color and light are critical.

Film grain is a little harder to define, though I could probably point it out in a movie theater. When you're watching a film, look closely at the images. You may notice that there is a certain almost invisible 'speckling' on the screen. This is film grain, which is really the random arrangement of chemical molecules in a frame. Some film stocks are very 'grainy' (especially smaller film stocks -- 16mm or 8mm film, like old newsreels (often 16mm) or the Zapruder footage of the Kennedy assassination (8mm)), whereas other film stocks tend to be much finer (most of what we see in theaters today is very fine-grain 35mm film). The most important thing to note about film grain is that it is randomly distributed. If there is a thicker grain in one particular corner of the screen in one frame, it probably won't be there in the next. At 24 frames per second, especially if the grain is very fine, you're not very likely to see it at all. As a result, the colors on the screen blend together more smoothly, and take on a much more dimensional appearance.

Now, digital video functions in a very different way. We've discussed how it records light and color in increments, with none of the nuanced in-between steps that film can pick up. Another difference is the way that digital images are organized. Whereas film has randomly-distributed 'grain', digital images are projected in a neat grid. Row after row of pixels form the organizational structure of a digital image. With each successive frame, all of the pixels change color and intensity, creating the next photographic image. Here's the key, though: the pixels do not change location! This means that unlike film, where the grain's placement is random and constantly shifting, pixels stay stationary, and therefore, they are visible! Look closely at your computer monitor right now (which, chances are, is currently set to a resolution equal or greater than 'high definition' television). See the grid? Even if you were playing a movie, get right up close and you'd see the grid. The same goes for movie theaters. Get close to the screen when it's a digital image, and you'll see the individual boxes of color that make up the image, neatly arranged. Presumably, if there are enough pixels, they become too small for us to really notice. This is why high definition images have more pixels than standard definition images, and why the digital projections in movie theaters have even more pixels than the high def stuff we see at home. But no matter how small the pixels are, the grid itself is still there, and it's still a part of the image that we're seeing. It's like looking out a window through a screen. You rarely think about it, but if you were to move the screen out of the way, the image that you would see would be very different.

Will these issues always be present? I doubt it. There's a lot of innovation happening in the world of moving images. But does this mean that digital images are not as "good" as film images? Well, sort of. Depends on what you need. It's hard to justify shooting film for a TV show (although they do it for certain large-scale productions such as "Lost"). Video is faster, cheaper, more easily tweaked, and in the end, no one is going to watch their favorite sitcom on a big screen with a projector whirring behind them. We watch TV on TV, so why not shoot digitally?

For some movies, the digital option makes a lot of sense. Sometimes, it's an economic consideration. On the independent side of things, it's much cheaper to shoot video than to shoot film, so if you're going to make a movie without lots of money, video is the way to go. On a larger scale, the difference in cost is less substantial. Hollywood-level technologies are extremely expensive, and the personnel required to manage the data aren't cheap to hire, either. That said, digital works for some films (such as Michael Mann's "Collateral", mentioned above), where their content or subject matter or setting interact well with the 'look' of digital.

That brings me, at long last, to "Public Enemies". I saw it knowing it was shot digitally, and I found that I could strongly sense the difference. Some scenes looked 'cheap', with the colors or textures of a daytime soap opera, or of a 1990s action TV show, and others looked a little like they were shot on a camcorder, the darker areas collapsing in to 'noise' (the mess of dark purple floating spots that appear when the camera doesn't know how to differentiate between one kind of darkness and another -- the pesky 'in-betweens'). When I got home, I read this interesting article in Millimeter in which Michael Mann discusses the choice of shooting digitally, and the process of testing the digital process, and comparing it to traditional film. The kind of careful thought and consideration that went in to the choice to shoot digitally has made me wonder if perhaps I might have been thrown off by my own expectations. Mann chose to shoot the film in a way that would specifically undercut the romanticism of 1933 (whereas I expected it would be a highly romanticized story). He wanted it frank, straightforward, almost candid, so he chose a format that is still predominantly used for documentaries and the news.

Unfortunately, I think the way the film was shot may have undermined a little of what Mann was trying to do. There are some outstanding camera moves, fascinating bits of slow motion, very dramatic angles... all of which serve to romanticize the narrative. Also, the depression era was a time that seems to have romanticized itself. I'm not sure that it's possible to look at the high-stakes players of the era without romanticization creeping in. These inconsistencies between the choice of format and the other decisions surrounding the look of the film make the whole effect rather shaky. I wonder what might have happened if Mann had kept all of the beautiful production design (the cars, clothes, buildings, all the little details), but shot the movie with the kind of camera that local news stations use -- and if he had shot it as if he were just a guy in the room with a camera. It would have been totally different, but I think the unglamorized effect he was looking for might have come through more effectively.


Monday, August 03, 2009

Musing Pictures: The Philadelphia Story

For all that can be said about this wonderful, classic comedy, the thing that struck me the most was its pacing.

It is said of good comedy that it relies on a mysterious thing called "comic timing" in order to work most effectively. This comic timing seems to have a lot to do with the careful buildup, maintenance of and eventual reversal of expectations. Somehow, we enjoy the resulting surprise, and in the best cases, we appreciate the process by means of which we are led along to that surprise.

And so, before I saw "The Philadelphia Story", I expected a speedy sort of rhythm, a comedic cadence, something that I could identify as "comic timing". I think that much of my expectation rested on the film's editing. In most recent comedies, comedic timing is manufactured in post production. The amount of time we spend between a joke and its punch-line is dictated by an editor's choice of when to cut from one shot to the next. As a result, comedies have developed a certain quickness, especially around those scenes and moments where the greatest humor is intended. "The Philadelphia Story", by contrast, was surprisingly patient in its cutting. Some wildly witty conversations even seemed to transpire without so much as a single cut. The humor inherent in the film, then, is not so reliant on the editor's wit, but on the comic senses of its actors. The editor can't fix bad comic timing when the entire scene is contained in one shot.

This kind of comedy is rarely seen in contemporary movies. Filmmakers, understandably, hedge their bets by covering scenes from multiple angles, and by shooting with the expectation that comic timing come together in the editing room. Actors, too, seem to be deferring to the editor. There's less risk of a joke falling flat if it can be tweaked to perfection before the film hits the screen.

But there are many bad comedies! With all of this control over comic timing and delivery, it's astounding how hard it is to make a comedy work! I think that a part of the issue has to do with the palpable sense of risk. The best jokes are the ones that are riskiest to tell, because they can fall flat so easily. We've all had the experience of trying and failing to re-tell a joke that cracked us up when we first heard it. With constant editing and tweaking of comic timing, the danger of a flat joke is minimized, and as such, the humor that results is quite a bit less surprising. We know it'll be something funny, which already makes it less funny than it could have been. When the risk is still present, still palpable, there's always the chance that the most un-funny, profoundly level-headed thing will be said next, and when that's the case, the unexpectedness of the punch-line adds to its powerful effect.

The longer takes and sparser cutting of "The Philadelphia Story" inject the comedy with that very sense of danger, of unexpectedness that many comedies miss. Not every joke is funny, but since we're not primed for the funny jokes, and since we learn to expect some of the humor to fail a little, the successful jokes hit us all the harder.


Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Musing Pictures: Unforgiven

It is interesting to look at "Unforgiven" and to see two sides of Clint Eastwood in deep, internal conflict.

The film hit theaters in 1992, roughly in the middle of his remarkable second career as a director, but before his most critically acclaimed work ("Mystic River", "Million Dollar Baby", "Flags of Our Fathers" and its companion film, "Letters from Iwo Jima")

The film also comes at the end of Eastwood's legendary acting career (though he has played in films since then, none of his performances have the legendary stature of his turns in "The Good, The Bad and the Ugly" or "Dirty Harry")

As I watched his performance and his direction take hold of one another, it occurred to me that "Unforgiven" gives a fascinating glimpse in to the mind of the actor and of the filmmaker. Particularly, the point of intersection between Eastwood's two roles sheds light on the secrets behind his acting success, and behind his filmmaking prowess.

Although his famous stoic performances seem to be the epitome of flatness, a careful look reveals a very calculated, often masked sense of depth -- there is always more underneath an Eastwood character than the actor overtly displays. This is true of his performance in "Unforgiven", just as much as it's true in his earlier acting work. It is fascinating to note how much this has affected his directorial style, as well -- Eastwood's films tend to focus heavily on their characters. Despite the fights, the shoot-outs, and the action, his films tend to be very mellow, very conversational, drawing us in to a small circle of personalities and quirks that are to become our companions for two hours. As a filmmaker, Eastwood does not rely on his camera (like Spielberg or Hitchcock) or on the structure of his narrative, or on eye-popping content, but rather, on complex characters with numerous hidden layers.

In "Unforgiven", this strategy is at play in both the direction of the film and in the performance of its leading actor. Taking a broader view of Eastwood's work, the strategy appears consistently in all of his major productions, from his stoic but layered performance in the Spaghetti Westerns, to his unraveling of Angelina Jolie's character in "Changeling" (2008)

It's inspiring to me that an artist who sticks his neck out as both an actor and as a director has such a strong vision for what matters in a story that both his performances and his direction clearly reflect that vision. It demonstrates an artistic integrity that is hard to find in most major productions.


Thursday, July 09, 2009

Musing Pictures: The Third Man

I have to say, I found this one to be a very strange and interesting piece of work.
With all the deep shadows, dutch angles, whole segments in German, the film maintains a steady, constant sense of imbalance. It's a sort of suspense that I haven't seen in a while, and that strikes me as almost unique to the Film Noir era, of which this film is a part. Most movies today rely much more on what they can show, not on what they can hide.

To me, the most striking element of "The Third Man" was the balance it struck between selfish motivations (which are prominent in film noir) and selfless motivations (more common to WWII-era films, such as "Casablanca"). The film's hero, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), vacillates constantly between higher and lower ambitions, between being a civic hero and a friend, between being a lover and a fighter. Interestingly, the film's intiial 'bad guy' shifts in his archtypal role as well, never comfortably fitting as an ally or enemy. Perhaps this is one of the film's triumphs (aside from the amazing way the camera is employed to twist one's mind). It is a remarkably mature look at the complexities of alleigance, loyalty, friendship and love. Perhaps even more striking is the film's historical context, with the nation on the verge of McCarthyism, and questions of loyalty at the forefront of the public consciousness.

On a side note, I imagine stories from the set must be quite wild. This is one of David O. Selznick's last films as a producer (he is not even credited, although the film was made by his company), and it stars Orson Welles at a time when Hollywood had yet to fully recognize his genius. Both men were known to be larger-than-life, with egos to match their talent, with fiery tempers, and with very clear and firm artistic visions. I wonder if they got along, and I wonder how milder personalities like Cotten and the film's director, Carol Reed, counterbalanced the dynamic personalities.


Friday, July 03, 2009

musing pictures: UP

A brief musing on this latest Pixar/Disney collaboration.

The American Dream used to be for the young. The message was clear: here, in this land of opportunity, there is hope for any young, ambitious, hard-working individual to achieve the greatest of dreams. If you build it, they will come. That train engine from that popular children's story thinks he can, and indeed he does. With your life ahead of you, you are encouraged to charge forward, follow your dreams, wish upon that star!

But what does this American Dream become when you've spent forty five years hard at work, when what used to be a lifetime is now the duration of your upcoming "golden years"? The new Disney/Pixar feature, "UP", revises the American Dream for the retiring Boomer generation, and it does it so cleanly and effectively, you could miss the switch if you blink.

Disney films are often about transitions; from childhood to adolescence, from adolescence to adulthood, from the pre-romantic to the romantic stages of life. Snow White, Aurora and Cinderella find their princes-Charming, Pinnochio and Dumbo learn to fill their own shoes (a real boy, a flying elephant), Belle learns to see past the frightful mask of the Beast. The young characters have dreams, and they learn to achieve them. By the time the characters begin their adult lives, they have reached their cruising altitude. "Happily Ever After" is a shorthand for the stable, static years of middle-life, years which are devoid of turmoil and free from challenge.

"UP" is very much a story in this vein. The main character has his own dream, he achieves it in a way, and lives happily ever after. Here's the difference: This man's dream is not achieved in the dawn of his adult life, but at the height of his sunset. It's a dream from childhood, and a dream that he and his wife pursue for their entire long life together, but by the time she passes away, the dream is still unfulfilled. Now an old man, our crotchety hero has lived through the promised "happily ever after" years without the dream coming any closer. Perhaps this is the boomer's worst fear: to work and work for years and years, only to retire no closer to the goal, or too frail or too tired to enjoy it. The new vision for the American Dream outlined so elegantly in "UP" provides the same uplifting hope, the same motivational message as the old version: the dream can still live on, the elderly can still do great things, there is meaning in being old, there is life to be lived in the final act of our days.

Although "UP" is the first mainstream film to lay this message out so clearly (and so much in parallel with the old American Dream of earlier Disney films), other recent Hollywood pictures have addressed the same themes. "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" did so by presenting an old man growing young, showing by metaphor a lively, adventurous option for a retiree's life. Benjamin Button is physically young, but has the life experience of decades. He sees the world as an elderly man, but fulfills the dream of many aging people by being young, by getting younger. Much like the old man in "UP", Button has his most youthful adventures at the end of his life, when most people tend to slow down.

As the Baby Boomer generation grows older, it is interesting to watch Hollywood's message shift. I'm certain that for the next decade or two, there will be a massive shift in the kinds of stories Hollywood tells, and in the kinds of heroes Hollywood invents. they will be older, wiser, and probably just retiring when these new stories begin. I'm very curious to see how this unfolds.


Sunday, June 14, 2009

Musing Pictures: The Dirty Dozen (1967)

Just a short musing on "The Dirty Dozen", a Robert Aldrich war film from 1967. In the film, twelve life-sentence or death-row WWII soldiers are pulled out of military prison to train for a mass-assassination mission, in which they are to kill numerous Nazi commanders vacationing in a lavish countryside chateau. Of course, the film's final act is the mission itself, and here are some interesting details (so if you haven't seen the film yet, but are planning to, save this musing for later). Things (of course) go awry, and most of the Nazi commanders seem to escape to their underground bomb shelter. The team, of course, has other plans for them. Above ground, their commander, Major Reisman (Lee Marvin), instructs the soldiers to find the bomb shelter's air shafts, and to drop gasoline and grenades down at the trapped Nazis below. They do this, and for a short while, the Nazis suffer the agony of knowing that they're trapped, and that death is being dropped down on them through holes in their ceiling. Then they are blown up.

The imagery is striking. Hollywood's first overt post-war depiction of concentration camps did not hit the screens until Sidney Lumet's "The Pawnbroker, in 1964, three short years before "The Dirty Dozen", and even then, the images were fairly brief, just flashes of memory. Dogs, fences, cattle cars... It would be a very long time before a Hollywood film would venture in to the gas chambers themselves (this is something even Spielberg avoided in "Schindler's List" (1993)). But here, we have a clear visual parallel -- people jammed together in a concrete tomb with death being poured down on them (the same way that Zyklon-B canisters were dropped in to the gas chambers through vents in the ceilings). I do not know who in the production of "The Dirty Dozen" might have had the experience to know these details, but the scenes do seem like a dark fantasy of revenge. I don't think it's completely coincidental, either, that the perpetrators of this reversal are themselves criminals in this story. As nice as it can be sometimes to fantasize about exterminating the Nazis, even the imagination will not allow the 'good old boys' to do the deed.

When Tarantino's "Inglorious Basterds" hits theaters in a short while, I imagine that similar themes will present themselves (and I wouldn't be surprised if "The Dirty Dozen" is heavily cited as a thematic and narrative predecessor to "Basterds" in reviews and critiques of the newer film)


Monday, June 01, 2009

Musing Pictures: Star Trek

The analysis of a new Hollywood film tends to fall in to one of two categories: the review or the critique. Although J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek" is ripe with material for either style, I would like to shy away from critique, and as is my habit in these pages, I will avoid the typical trappings of a review. To me, the most fascinating achievement of "Star Trek" is not the film itself (which is, I must note, exceptionally fun), but rather in the fascinating way it simultaneously links to and breaks away from its predecessors.

I am compelled here to give fair warning that this article will not shy away from the twists or surprises of the film's plot. If you feel that such revelations may spoil your initial experience of the film, I recommend that you go see it, then return here for some thoughts to ponder.

From the outset, anyone tackling a new "Star Trek" narrative faces a dilemma: How do you tell a new story when so much of the popularity of the franchise rests on the old characters? The "Star Trek" narrative, which began with Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and the crew of the USS Enterprise in the mid-'60s, has remained true to its original universe through all of its iterations. "Star Trek: The Next Generation" brought viewers back to the same space, with the same planets, life forms, and even a version of the same ship, crewed by a new set of characters. The show injected innovation to the old concept by providing new characters, and new settings - new planets and systems in farther reaches of space. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine provided not only the same universe, but began while The Next Generation was still an active show, and takes place in the same era, with characters and narratives overlapping. Its innovations were primarily structural - yes, there was yet another new set of characters, but this time, the show adopted a more serialized format, and took on themes such as religious faith which had been forbidden initially by Gene Roddenberry, the visionary behind Star Trek (see Wikipedia: Star Trek Voyager, the next show to hit the small screen, returns to the old format, with a ship (a contemporary of the USS Enterprise and of DS9), a crew (of new characters, again), and the same universe... sort of. The Voyager narrative has the title ship flung accidentally to a part of space so far from Earth that it would take them seventy five years to return. This allows for the possibility of completely re-drawing the face of space, in that everything that USS Voyager encounters can be encountered by the crew and by the audience for the very first time. Star Trek Enterprise, the last of the TV shows, attempts something of an origin story, introducing the first captain and first crew of the brand new Enterprise, decades before the original series' narrative would begin. Again, same ship, same universe, but it takes a step back in time, rather than forward. The technologies that had become familiar have yet to be invented, many species that had been encountered over the decades have yet to become known to the first Enterprise crew. In all, the Star Trek shows all conform to one massive narrative line -- they all take place in the same universe, such that an event in "Enterprise" is effectively a part of the history in "The Next Generation", and an event in "The Next Generation" may be recent news in "Deep Space Nine", or the subject of a distant signal in "Voyager".

The Star Trek films, too, fall in to this arc of fictional history. The first of these, "Star Trek: The Motion Picture", picks up a while after the original series left off, and subsequent films proceed chronologically, with Captain Kirk at the helm of the Enterprise (which gets destroyed and rebuilt as the Enterprise A, and again as the Enterprise B). An episode of "The Next Generation" flashes back to the Enterprise C, but the show revolves around the Enterprise D. With the seventh film, "Generations", the Enterprise E is introduced, and remains the central ship in all subsequent films until this most recent addition.

And so, after decades of creative continuity, and centuries of narrative continuity, the business apparatus behind "Star Trek" faces a quandary. Since "The Next Generation", new Star Trek programs have been decreasing in popularity. The characters most well-known and most well-loved are played by aging and dying actors, which means that their characters are also aging, dying or already dead. New iterations of the franchise did not embed new legends in the public consciousness the way the original series defined Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and the rest of the crew, or the way The Next Generation brought Captain Picard, Data, Worf, and their compatriots to life. They tried new ships, but nothing is as legendary as the Enterprise. They tried new captains, but none have outshone Kirk or Picard. They have introduced new creatures, new technologies, but none have stood out like the transporter, phaser or hypo sprays of the first shows and films. The realization must have been settling in over the past decade or so that the best things Star Trek had to offer were already there, already created, already celebrated by fans and followers.

And that is where this new film enters the fray. "Star Trek", rather than being an attempt at creating something new in the world fans know so well, attempts to re-create that very world, to tell the story all over again, with the full knowledge of how it has played out before.

Yet again, "Star Trek" is the story of Kirk, Spock, Uhura, Checkov, Sulu, McCoy, and the rest of them. But here's where it gets fascinating. "Star Trek" is not a re-make. It is not like all of those numerous films from the past ten years or so that have attempted to update classic TV shows with new stars playing old characters, in worlds that are meant to be re-creations of the worlds we remember, but which are not contiguous with those worlds. When the mid-'60s TV show "Bewitched" was released as a film in 2005, with Nicole Kidman in Elizabeth Montgomery's starring role, the world of the film was not meant to be identical to the world of the TV show. There is not a sense that if Kidman's character were to go back in time, she could meet Montgomery's character at the market. They are two films telling the same story, not about the same characters, but about parallel characters. And there, perhaps, is the word that defines the process -- the re-make is a film that parallels its predecessor.

"Star Trek" could have easily taken this route. With a new cast playing old characters, the original series could have been re-created. New films could have been set in Kirk's time, with a Captain Kirk leading the Enterprise on its well-known mission. The new would overlap and replace the old, asserting itself in the greater Star Trek timeline, or simply ignoring that timeline and setting out anew. The Kirk we knew would no longer be relevant. The re-made Kirk would be captain now.

Although re-makes of that sort can occasinally be very compelling, interesting and effective, the process often strikes people as being somehow cheap, uncreative -- 'recycling' other peoples' good ideas, and often missing the point as a result.

It is fascinating to me that "Star Trek" manages to achieve all of the benefits of a re-make (new life to old standards, etc.), while maintaining the narrative integrity of everything that came before it.

What makes the film work in this critical, transitional way, is an element that the original show was often mocked for: time travel.

A character named Nero (Eric Bana) from a time somewhere near the end of the greater Star Trek timeline, goes back in time, by chance, to the day James Kirk is born. At that point, Nero changes everything. His appearance prompts Kirk's father, himself a starship officer, to investigate this new disturbance in space. The resulting encounter destroys the elder Kirk's ship, kills the father, and in an instant, changes the course of history. The James Kirk of the '60s knew his father. That had been a part of the Star Trek timeline for decades. How might things change, then, with this one event shifting history? Twenty five years later, Nero is emboldened to strike again. His nemesis, our very own familiar friend, Spock, has come back in time, as well. Nero, who thinks that Spock destroyed his world, sets out to destroy Vulcan, and wants Spock to watch. Even more dramatic than Kirk's twist of fate is that of the Vulcan planet itself. Nero does, in fact, destroy it, and we are left to wonder how it is that the planet exists in what had been the Star Trek narrative from this point forward.

Time travel stories often result in paradoxes. A character goes back in time, changes things, and the reason for his going back in time in the first place is made to never happen. So, why is he back in time? What prompted the journey? If there was no prompt, then there would have been no trip, and if there were no trip, the prevented event would have gone on as usual, which would have prompted a trip back in time... and so forth. Often, science fiction ignores the paradox, prefering that those who go back in time simply make the wrong thing right, then return to their own time, to a place where all is back to normal as a result of their tinkering.

Since that is the typical time-travel story (character goes back, fixes, returns to future), we rarely see it from the other side, from the perspective of the here-and-now that gets visited from the future.

Those stories come up rarely because the power of a time travel narrative is that we know the future. I can't emphasize that enough: For a story about going back in time to be effective, we must know the future! Otherwise, the dangers of changing the past are irrelevant. When we go back in time in "Back to the Future", we know the world Marty McFly comes from. Without that, we wouldn't know what 'normal' he's fighting for, and we wouldn't know the difference when he returns to a very different version of his own time. If "Back to the Future" were presented exclusively in 1955, it would be a love story, but we wouldn't care at all about the future. We would have no access to it.

"Star Trek" is a story about not just any future, but about a future that we have already seen. By connecting it directly to the greater Star Trek timeline, it is identified as a part of that greater narrative, not as a re-hashing of it. An elderly Spock arrives from the future. He is the same Spock, the identical character as the one we know from the original TV series, from the previous films, and from various appearances on the other shows. This is a part of that great timeline. When Kirk's father dies, those very well-versed in the Star Trek narrative recognize it as a break, a discontinuity. When Nero destroys Vulcan, even occasional fans of the show know this to be somehow wrong, somehow not-the-way-it-should-have-been. To Nero, this is a story about re-setting the future, but he has no plans to return to that future. He is avenging the destruction of his world, but knows that nothing he can do will bring it back. He knows that his world exists in this past, but knows it is not his own. Spock, too, knows that he can not return to his own time, that the future that he left is no longer the future that lies before him. The future that we once knew so well is suddenly and dramatically redrawn. Things have changed so much, and as such, the new future of Star Trek is a blank slate, on which anything can be drawn. A new story can be told about Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, but it does not negate the stories that have already been told. To the older Spock, those stories from the original series did happen. He did experience them. They are just as real as these new, parallel narratives are, and he is the bridge that fascinatingly connects them.

In this way, Star Trek resets the clock without wiping teh slate completely clean. We begin again with Kirk, Spock, and the original crew, and their future is fresh, not the same as the history we already know. They have branched off in to an alternative timeline, but the universe is still the same. The Borg that Picard and company encounter in The Next Generation are still out there. The various planets and life forms still exist (minus Vulcan, of course). The familiar crew is about to set out on its first mission to explore strange new worlds that we have already seen, to seek out new life and new civilizations that we have already explored, to boldly go for the first time where their parallel selves have gone, not before, but in a future that is not their own.

Hollywood, as we all know, necessarily merges art and business. Most sequels, prequels, remakes and spinoffs emerge from the business end of the industry. They are designed to make money, to give fans another reason to go to the movies, and to keep an income-generating franchise current. From a business perspective, the ideal scenario is for the film to draw back the original fan base, and to attract new fans to the story, characters, or world. I can not think of any film, of any franchise, that has achieved this so artfully, elegantly, and with so much astounding narrative complexity as "Star Trek" has. Spock would raise an eyebrow and pronounce it "fascinating".


Sunday, April 19, 2009

Musing Pictures: State of Play

I did not expect to see this movie. With so little time to go to the movies anyway, I imagined I'd hit the major blockbusters, if I could. But this past Friday, with relatively few spectaculars hitting the screens, I found myself catching an opening matinee of "State of Play", the new political thriller from director Kevin Macdonald, whose "The Last King of Scotland" was quite engrossing.

If you catch this film, keep an eye out for the way that Macdonald uses the incidental, mundane moments of a busy, urban life to generate tension. I found myself marveling, by scene two, at the deft way that a morning commute could build to a tense, dramatic (and amazingly, un-revealed) climax. All we see are normal, every-day occurences, transactions and scenes. People walking, paying, driving, crowding... but that, combined with the score, the sound effects and the frantic (but not distracting) pace, becomes both engrossing and suspenseful.

Like many of the great political thrillers of the '70s, "State of Play" is presented at an observational distance. Macdonald presents us with the situation, the players, and their problems, and allows us to follow their worries, and in a way, to worry with them, but not through them. We care about the characters (or, at least, some of them), but we are not in thier shoes. In this way, we are provided with an opportunity to participate in the mystery without being quite as lost as the characters within it are.

The observational element takes on a sinister tone at some parts of the film where we are given a rare sequence of perspective. Typically, a point-of-view shot is book-ended by images of the character whose point of view we are seeing. We are primed, often by a close-up or a medium-shot of a character looking off-screen. We are provided with the image of what that character sees, the point-of-view shot. We are then returned to that character, to see that character's reaction, and base our own off of it. Several times in "State of Play", Macdonald provides us with a subjective perspective, indicated not by the book-end shots, but by a slightly bobbing camera, focused on a subject (a character in potential jeopardy, usually), with some element of the setting (like the hood of a car, or the corner of a building) partially visible in the foreground. We are provided with the sense that one of the characters is being watched, but without being presented with the watcher, we incorporate the role on ourselves.

"State and Play" pits characters against one another -- everyone is wrong about something at some point in the narrative. Just like the characters secretly scrutinize one another, so do we scrutinize them. It makes us uncomfortable, and we feel concern for the characters we see (thinking, for a moment, that someone else, not us, is watching them) but we are in this way drawn in to their world, and become at least partially complicit in the kinds of behaviors that lead the film along its narrative course.

The net effect is a good one. "State of Play" is a terse, effective, engaging thriller. I'm quite curious to see what Macdonald will work on next...


Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Musing Pictures: The Watchmen

It is quite rare that I find myself reacting to a film with exactly the opposite sentiments of Roger Ebert (whose tastes generally parallel my own). Ebert's review focuses on the story behind "Watchmen" (that is to say, on the innovations of the plot, of the characters, and of the way they break certain 'comic book' molds). Unfortunately, those innovations almost certainly did not originate with the film, but rather with its source material, a very popular and groundbreaking graphic novel.

After giving credit where it is due, the film itself lacks almost everything that would make for the outstanding classic that it could have been. It lacks what a good film truly needs (clear narrative, compelling characters, propulsive rhythm, etc.) and showcases a lot of what a good film really doesn't require (high-concept visuals and fancy effects). In many ways, this is much like Zack Snyder's earlier nightmare, "300", which also featured a paper-thin narrative, exceptionally flat characters, and all the evidence of a clear value judgment that opted for flashy visuals over pithy substance. Both films, despite being 'action' films, got rather boring, as there never developed any reason to engage with or worry about the central characters.

Ebert is right about one thing: the innovations and serious issues presented by the "Watchmen" narrative are extraordinary. This makes the film's choice of style over substance all the more befuddling. Why aim for style when the substance is what makes the source material so effective?

This is one of those films which really shouldn't have been released. The intrinsic problems with it are so elementary, so clearly on the surface that they should have been spotted and fixed by the many people who managed the production before it hit the screens.

The Hollywood system has produced many outstanding films over the years. Why was the ball dropped with this one?


Sunday, February 22, 2009

Musing Pictures: Tremors

I haven't even finished watching "Tremors" (1990, Ron Underwood) and I'm already quite struck by one remarkable thing: unlike most horror films, this one takes place almost entirely during the day. The effect is interesting, but campy. It had been done fifteen years earlier, of course, with "Jaws" (which includes more scenes in darkness, but which operates on the same principle of a visible surface concealing an invisible menace... Jaws does it better, of course...)

It all reminds me of another film that plays with the opposite construct -- "Pitch Black" (2000, David Twohy) sets the danger not in a typical darkness, but in a total void of light that is true to the title. All three films evince a very strong awareness of an important horror concept, not just that the unseen is more frightening than the visible, but the curtain we see in front of us is more frightening than the edge of the frame.

I ran in to this realization on a short film I recently directed. In the short, a character is brutally attacked by a large monster. When the scene was shot, it was staged in such a way that the monster consistently entered from off-camera. Sometimes a hand entered frame, sometimes a torso... and as it turned out, the effect seemed hokey. But when the monster emerged from the shadows, there was something much more menacing about it, something much more believable. (a lot of this realization is thanks to observations by my friend JB, who noted the effect in an early cut of the film).

In "Jaws", we see the water, and infer the shark beyond it. In "Tremors", we see the sandy ground. "Pitch Black" relies on our recognition of a very vivid, almost tangible darkness. These are the surfaces from which the terrors come. In many horror films, though, terrors emerge from around corners, or even from the edge of the frame -- from places that are not our focus, that we can not look at (the edge of a frame, after all, is nothing more than the difference between color, texture and light -- it is not a thing in itself, but a change of pattern that we are seeing). To see something tangible (a surface, physical or implied) makes the implied horror behind it seem more real as well.