Thursday, October 18, 2012

Musing Pictures: H+ Episode 15

No, it's not a movie.  It's an episode of Brian Singer's web series on YouTube.  But I was struck by something here -- let's see if you see it, too.

Robert Altman is considered a pioneer of overlapping dialog, scenes in which several characters hold parallel conversations at the same time.  Altman made sure to put microphones on all of his characters, so when it came time to mix the audio, he could bring up a word here or a phrase there, and guide our listening.  We'd hear a cacophony of voices, but with Altman's help, we'd be able to tease out the bits of each conversation that were important.

Singer, in this episode of "H+", seems to be playing a similar game.  The conceit, of course, is that characters have computers implanted in their brains that allow them to communicate with each other, "digitally", in addition to their face-to-face interactions, as if they have Skype in their heads.

In this scene, I count at least three conversations, possibly four or five, two of which we are at least partially privy to.  There's the verbal conversation about the patient and her baby, and that's the obvious (and standard) conversation.  Then, there's the bearded guy on the right, who seems to be communicating via notes to someone else on the network.  The other bearded guy, clearly distracted, seems to be communicating with someone, too, and the patient is either communicating or observing something through her own implant.

What struck me here is that unlike Altman's scenes, where we need to listen to multiple conversations, but where we are guided to what we should pay attention to, here we have two modes of communication: verbal and written, and it appears that we need to pay attention to both.  We're not given one over the other, in the way Altman might mix certain words or phrases so they're clearer than the babble in the room.  It's confusing, but it's also very well-integrated in to the narrative itself:  The implants provide people with multiple, simultaneous layers of information, sometimes to the point of distraction.  And that, of course, is a stand-in for our experience of the internet, a vast source of all the information in the world, available to us all at once, but how could we possibly process it all?  Are we being overwhelmed by information?

What I don't know is whether or not the effect is intentional here, or is it yet another side-effect of the information age?

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Musing Pictures: Split: A Deeper Divide

Twice today, I encountered the media blaming itself for divisiveness in American politics.  First, on the radio, an NPR show (possibly "On the Media", but I'm not certain), the anchor wrapped up a presentation on misinformation in campaign advertisements with a hesitant conclusion: "I blame the media!"  I heard this on the way to a screening of the documentary, "Split: A Deeper Divide," produced by my friend, Jeff Beard.

"Split" explores the rancorous and divisive tone taken by American politics in recent years.  It suggests numerous reasons for this polarization, including the media's need to play to increasingly specific and narrowly defined target audiences.  Basically, with so many media options, it's more cost effective for news providers to tailor their news to a narrowly defined audience, rather than trying to provide a more broad-based message.

It's intriguing to me to encounter media that challenges The Media in this regard.  I heard it in the anchor's voice on the NPR radio show: an awareness of the irony, and perhaps of the mild hypocrisy of stating "I blame the media" on the air.  The statement is itself a blanket accusation, leveled flatly, without nuance, at an entire, enormous, diverse industry.  Isn't that the kind of new communication style that the media thrives on these days, that feeds audience's hunger for tension, for a good fight?

One of the things I appreciate about "Split" is that it takes a very even, non-judgmental look at the factors that contribute to American political divisiveness.  It blames the media without needing to resort to the blanket statement "I blame the media!"  Of course, in an atmosphere informed by stand-offish argumentativeness, this gives the film a bit of a dated feel, as if it's a '70s schoolroom film-strip, rather than a twenty-first century documentary.  But in a way, that's the best part about it.  It's not cynical about its own message (even if it is The Media, and as such, part of the problem.)

"Split" is making its way to various cities this election year.  If you're looking to understand what's making this country suffocate on its own hot air, I'd encourage you to check the film out.  The screening schedule is available on the film's website.

And for a snapshot, here's the trailer:


Thursday, October 11, 2012

Musing Pictures: Looper

Like any really good sci-fi, "Looper" (directed by Rian Johnson, whose debut feature, Brick, is the millennial generation's El Mariachi) isn't really about science fiction.  Instead, it takes a common, compelling narrative theme (in this case, the "what if?" scenario of second chances) and re-frames it literally, using the elements of sci-fi to accomplish what "regular" fiction can only do with metaphors.

Time travel represents a unique narrative opportunity (paradoxes aside) to push "what if?" scenarios to the extreme.  What if you could go back in time to rectify a past wrong?  To make bad things better?  To intercede on your own behalf, or on behalf of others?

Undeveloped narratives (such as my own film, "Paradox in Purple", made in 11th grade) focus on the paradox itself, using it as a cautionary mechanism: don't mess with the past (as if we could!) lest your changes come back to haunt you!  In real terms, it's a caution not to worry ourselves with the past, since the path that leads to our present is complex beyond our capacity to comprehend.  The paradox-centric time travel narrative is there to pacify those of us who wish we had done things differently, or that others had done things differently on our behalf.  We rest easier at night knowing that our present coordinates are the sum of far more complex elements than a few moments in time.

"Looper" is a mature time travel narrative.  The paradox is not the obsessive focus of the story, and the painful lesson that the past is unchangeable is not a part of this film.  "Looper" avoids the issue by keeping its story rooted in "the past".  "The Terminator" does the same thing, posing the same fundamental question:  If we know the future, and we know it's bad, what is the extent of our responsibility to change it?  In other words, rather than asking "what if we could change the past?" the film asks "what if we could change the future?"

What I like about "Looper" is that it pushes this question to such an extreme that it becomes, yet again, something the ancient philosophers obsessed about:  Is preemptive punishment justified?  Even when you know the details and extent of the future crime?  "Minority Report" asks this question directly, in a more judicial context.  "Looper" brings it around and makes it personal:  If you know something terrible will happen, how responsible are you to prevent it, given the chance?

In "Looper," Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis (who both play the same character, thirty years apart) have different takes on the answer to that question.  But the film doesn't leave us feeling certain that either of them was entirely right or entirely wrong.  The moral answer to the age-old question remains murky, and we've been left to continue pondering it for ourselves.

I think that's the profound sensation I felt when I left the theater: the sense that a profound question about responsibility and fate had been asked, but not answered.  It's not an unsatisfying sensation, because the story itself concludes clearly and cleanly, but it's unfamiliar, because most films these days take pains to come to a moral footing when their narratives conclude.  Johnson's background in Noir ("Brick" is firmly rooted in the '40s genre) may have something to do with the moral open-endedness, but "Looper" doesn't suggest a dark world without morality.  It suggests a world much like our own, where morality exists and motivates us, but doesn't make itself clear when the difficult decisions need to be made.