Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Musing Pictures: Chronicle

It's a shocking revelation when someone tells a tired story in an entirely new way. Josh Trank and Max Landis came up with a revelatory twist on the superhero origin story in "Chronicle". Before I was struck by that (the twist on the origin story doesn't make itself apparent until fairly late in the film), I was struck by their frank and straightforward approach towards telling a story about telekinesis. I happen to love the idea of telekinesis -- I think it's a fantastic visual tool, a perfect element for a magical medium like cinema, and I've been struggling for years to come up with a story to tell that could rely on telekinesis as a central device. I applaud Trank and Landis, not just for coming up with the story, but for executing it so well, and for finding ways to avoid the tired cliches without forgetting to pay them homage as well.

The aspect of the film that I most admire contains spoilers, so please see the movie first before reading further!

"Chronicle" begins with a trio of characters, three superheroes who help each other learn to refine and control their newly acquired power. They stick together, and even seem to share a psychic bond of sorts. For the first half of the film, it seems like it's an origin story for a superhero team. But the narrative shifts in subtle and startling ways, as one of the characters, the one whose perspective controls our own, the character whose camera provides us with the footage that we see, begins to spiral out of control. He grows drunk on his own power, casts aside his friends, and becomes not the superhero we expected him to become, but the supervillain! The character who seems most likely to become the sidekick dies, and the character who's most likely to become the "brains" of the operation becomes the last remaining hero. The story is structurally sound, and its reversals are shocking. I'm glad that Mr. Trink and Mr. Landis are as young as they are -- with luck, they'll have many more stories to tell us.


Sunday, February 19, 2012

Musing Pictures: The Artist

Watching "The Artist", I was reminded of challenges that I faced as a teacher, introducing high school students to some of history's earliest films.

To a contemporary audience, especially an audience looking to be entertained, silent films can be hard to stomach. My students, who I generally respected and admired, often found the silent films I'd show boring. Boring! I can understand if an "art film" is boring -- art films are often made to be dissected, and require a certain kind of active intellectual engagement if they are to have any meaning at all. Silent films, however, were mass entertainment, and they were very successful at entertaining the masses! How could such successful mass entertainment come across as "boring" less than a hundred years later?

At first, I chalked it up to the pacing. Scenes progressed more slowly, action unfolded more methodically in some of these older films. Perhaps my students understood the scene faster than an early 20th century audience, and were bored by all the time it took for the film to catch up to their story sense?

Maybe the stories were simpler? Without the nuance that my students had grown to expect of their media?

Maybe the lack of color and sound failed to fill my students' capacity for simultaneous information. Perhaps to them, proper entertainment provides just enough information to slightly overwhelm the brain, so that the pressing concerns of "real life" must get pushed aside and temporarily forgotten? Maybe their capacity for distraction, tuned by the frantic and explosive content of the late '90s, was such that a silent film simply couldn't distract them sufficiently from everything else they were thinking about?

Ultimately, my thinking on the matter shifted as we approached the end of the silent film section of the course. By this point, I had tortured my students with very early silent shorts, DW Griffith's "Birth of a Nation", some early Chaplin... and the reactions now were a little different. They didn't always like the films I showed them, but by this point, they were reacting to these films as films, not as exhibits in a history class. Here's what I think happened:

We all have to learn to consume our generation's media. We have to learn the difference between important information and "fluff". In a fast-paced action sequence, for example, we have to very quickly differentiate between the frantic cuts that are meant to simply convey pace or motion, versus the brief images that are meant to convey important narrative beats. With sound films, much of the way a scene impresses itself upon us is through sound. We've learned that not every piece of narrative information comes from the screen -- it may come from the speakers. As a result, our viewing habits allow us to look away from the screen, to zone out of what we're seeing for a while, to take visual breaks. We may not know we're doing it, but sometimes, all we really focus on are sounds.

We don't think about it, of course, because it's what we've always done. It's like learning to walk: for the most part, once you've learned to walk, you never have to think about it again.

But watching a silent film, to continue with the analogy, is like walking on the moon. You can't rely on what you're so used to doing, or you'll fly off in directions you never intended! You can't rely on sound, and you can't look away from the screen in the way that you could with a sound film -- if you do, you'll lose the narrative, you'll miss the details, and most of the film's effect will just pass you by. It's a different discipline, and it's not easy. My students had to suffer through several feature-length silent films before they began to settle in to the experience, before they figured out how to watch and absorb those films. They had to learn not to look away, and to take in more of the visual details in the scene. They had to learn that sound wouldn't draw their attention back if they let it drift elsewhere. Once they learned this, they were able to watch silent films and be entertained by them.

I wonder how "The Artist" has played to the unsuspecting public. Film critics and folks who caught it on the festival circuit have no doubt been exposed to the experience of watching silent movies. I would imagine many of them have seen quite a few silent films as part of their film education. But for those people who had never seen a silent feature, what was it like?

In some ways, "The Artist" can be especially challenging, because some of the shots have a more contemporary feel. They're the kinds of shots that you expect to come with sound. Watching a film from the '20s, for example, you never get the sense that someone behind the camera shot the picture with sound in mind, because, frankly, they didn't! But here, despite their greatest efforts, "The Artist" does have some images and sequences that feel that way. I think the mechanism at work here is basic and quite subconscious. I don't think a contemporary filmmaker can shoot silent scenes without the aesthetic pressure of eighty years of sound films pushing against him. This makes "The Artist" somewhat more challenging to watch because we see the kinds of images that we're used to seeing, but we don't get the sound that we're used to getting. It's not like watching a silent film, but it's more like watching a sound film on "mute".

These moments don't happen frequently in "The Artist" -- in fact, I think they did a fantastic job capturing much of the aesthetic of late '20s movies. But they do happen, and they can jar even a seasoned silent film viewer out of the immersive experience.

If you were a student of mine in one of those classes where we slogged through silent features, I'd love to hear from you!