Friday, August 26, 2016

Musing Pictures: A Tale of Love and Darkness (2015)

Natalie Portman's directorial debut just completed its first week in theaters in the United States. "A Tale of Love and Darkness" started off with a limited theatrical run - just a few theaters in New York and Los Angeles to test the viability of a (slightly) wider release.

I caught the film on Thursday night at the Landmark Theater on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles, a few short miles from the heart of the biggest Jewish community this side of the Mississippi.

I was the only person in the theater.

This is a problem.

I'm going to get a little more personal here than I usually get in these blog posts. As some of my readers know, I am a filmmaker, a practicing Jew, and an Israeli-American.

I've been frustrated to see that there's really very little media that speaks directly to my sub-cultural experience. "Jewish" content in Hollywood tends to be trite and superficial, often written by Jews who, themselves, have very limited (perhaps once a year) contact with the Jewish faith. Israel, when it appears in films at all, is usually nothing more than a military/intelligence factory that produces Zohan-like super-spies.

So what? To many of my (Jewish) friends, the thought of Jewish content coming out of Hollywood (or from the larger-scale independent world) isn't so exciting. Why do we need another "Fiddler on the Roof"? Or another "Exodus"? Don't people think the Jews "control" Hollywood already?

My answer to this applies not just to Jewish content, but to all content that reflects a diversity of cultures. Movies and TV tell us stories, and in doing so, they introduce us to characters. If the characters represent people who we (in real life) don't know, they give us a chance to humanize the mysterious other, to wrap our minds around the lives and needs of people who aren't like us. I point as evidence to the tremendous change in the tone of the national conversation surrounding the LGBT community over the last couple of decades. There was a big push in the '90s and '00s to incorporate gay and lesbian characters (and not caricatures) into Hollywood narrative, and as those stories hit the screen, they kept reminding us that there were real people at the heart of the debate.

We live in a time when anti-Semitism is creeping back into popularity, when Israel, with its complex and emotionally-saturated history, is reduced to a cheap binary of slogans. If there was ever a time when we needed mass media to remind people of the humanity of Jews, the richness of Judaism, or the complexity and nuance of Israel, this is it.

So why wasn't there anyone in the movie theater on Thursday night? It was the only theater screening the film, so it was the only opportunity in that time-slot for anyone in the entire Greater Los Angeles area to see this movie.

I think that we (Jews and people with an affinity for Israel) have lost sight of the power of media (an irony, considering the anti-Semitic canard that we control media!) When "faith-based" films hit theaters, churches and other Christian groups buy entire blocks of tickets for weeks on end and hire busses and vans to shuttle their congregants to the multiplex. And it works: they get to enjoy their stories, stories that relate to their experience, stories that were made for them, and as a result, those films remain in multiplexes, get talked about in the press, and eventually reach other audiences that might not have much to do with the faith-based crowd. The economics speak for themselves, so more faith-based films get made with bigger budgets, bigger stars, and eventually, a much bigger audience.

But Jewish-themed and Israel-themed films simply haven't been getting enough of an audience, so the simple task of getting them made is nearly impossible. Natalie Portman, with all of her star-power, had to fight for her film's $4M budget (she produced "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" for $28M, which, I'm sure, was much easier to raise). Other filmmakers who want to make films for the Jewish audience have to fight just as hard, but raise much less. My own Jewish-themed feature was made for a tiny fraction of Portman's budget, and I haven't been able to raise any money for significant Jewish-themed projects since.

If we want to see Jews humanized on a global scale, or if we want to see Israel presented in far greater complexity than Hollywood tends to deliver, we need to be the initial audience that justifies the big investments required to broadcast those stories. These films won't get made without an audience to justify the investment. We need to be that audience.

What I'm trying to say with all of this is that filmmakers are trying to tell Jewish stories, to humanize the Jewish experience, to bring nuance, complexity and honesty back to the otherwise black-and-white public discourse. Some, like Natalie Portman, can inspire some investment by virtue of their star-power alone. But the rest of us filmmakers simply can't get these films made when our primary audience, the people who should care the most, simply don't show up.

Luckily, there's still a little time for "A Tale of Love and Darkness". Somehow, it survived its first week of release, and has expanded to a few more cities, a few more screens. If you see the importance of including Jewish and Israeli narrative in mass media, please go see it. Go with friends. Mobilize your congregation. We need to make this kind of content viable, otherwise our story, with all its richness, will not be heard.

You can find more information about the film, including showtimes at the Focus Features website:

-Arnon Shorr

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Musing Pictures: Independence Day: Resurgence

Our world has changed dramatically since the original "Independence Day" (Emmerich, 1996) was released, and I couldn't help but feel those changes in this year's long-gestating sequel.

The original film hit theaters at a time when the world seemed relatively safe. There were terrible wars going on, but they seemed limited to poor, "backwards" parts of the world. The "West" was relatively tranquil, and even the Middle East (which is the West's obsession) was in the midst of an unprecedented wave of peacemaking (Israel and Jordan had just signed their peace treaty in '94). We could contemplate the end of the world without worrying that it might actually happen.

It was also a time when technology began to promise a dramatically different future. I bought my first PC in 1996, and connected to the internet for the first time. We began to see hints that the world as we knew it was about to change. No one expected buildings to blow up, but the infrastructure of civilization was shifting. In that sense, an "end" was indeed coming, but with the promise of technological re-birth soon after.

Because of that, "Independence Day" was a perfectly-timed film. It presented a metaphor for the collapse and re-birth of civilization, something we could recognize and celebrate. It was a film not about our vulnerability, but about our resilience, about our future. Since we didn't feel especially vulnerable, the message worked.

But we live in a very different world now. I remember seeing the towers fall in September 2001, and noticing (subconsciously at first) the similarity to the way buildings were destroyed in "Independence Day". That fiction could no longer function as a pure escape - it triggered too many memories.

Reality (2001)
Fiction ("Independence Day" (1996))

"Independence Day: Resurgence" attempts to avoid 9/11 imagery. The alien ships don't zap landmarks with lasers the way they did in the original film. The destruction is different, bigger. Where the original film excelled in creating powerful images of an individual building's destruction, this film fills the screen with destruction - so much of it, in fact, that there's nothing to look at any more, no central point to draw our attention, just billowing clouds of debris.

But even those billowing clouds remind me of 9/11. On-screen destruction of cities, the death of countless civilians, it still feels too real. And since we're living in times when the fear of the "alien other" plays out in our daily lives, the very nature of an alien invasion story loses some of its best escapist qualities.

Truth be told, many superhero films feature 9/11 imagery and themes: "The Avengers" (Whedon, 2012) destroys Manhattan. Billowing clouds of debris fill the streets in "Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice" (Snyder, 2016) - and in that film, the images are almost perfect re-creations of the images we remember from the news reports in 2001. It makes sense that we, as a civilization, are still grappling with, still confronting the event that changed our world. But it's hurting our escapist entertainment.


Tuesday, February 23, 2016

MaxIt Magazine Articles

It appears that the Musing Pictures articles that I wrote for MaxIt Magazine are no longer hosted on that website. If I get permission, I will re-post them here.

Musing Pictures: An American Tail (1986)

I recently re-watched one of my childhood favorites, Don Bluth's "An American Tail". The version that I saw, streamed through, was presented in a "widescreen" aspect ratio, pretty close to the 1.85:1 aspect ratio of the film's theatrical release.

It looked like this:

A screen-grab from a YouTube upload of "There are No Cats in America"

But something bothered me about the images. There were occasional moments when the shots were framed very awkwardly The above example looks fine in this aspect ratio, but consider shots like this:

Who would animate a character so close to the edge of the frame? It almost looks like part of the image is missing! Did Universal crop the image from a different aspect ratio?

Some context here:  There was a period of about fifty years when movies were made in wide aspect ratios, but televisions were square-ish (4:3, or 1.33:1). There were two ways to fit a widescreen film onto a square-ish screen. You could letterbox the image (present the entire breadth of the wide image, leaving black bars at the top and bottom of the screen), or you could "pan and scan" - only show the middle part of the frame, scanning left and right as needed to include bits of action. This second method would 'cut off' the sides of the frame. Unsophisticated movie viewers preferred pan-and-scan, as it filled their entire TV screen, whereas letterboxing left them feeling like something of the image was missing (even though, in fact, letterboxing presented the entire image!)

According to IMDb, "An American Tail" was released theatrically in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, like the images above. But the "negative ratio" (the animation itself) was 1.37:1 - a square-ish shape called Academy Ratio, very similar to the ratio of old TVs!

A little investigation led to an older YouTube upload, likely copied off of a VHS tape, or maybe from a laserdisc. It presents the same scene, but in the aspect ratio of old TVs. Here's a side-by-side comparison of the "widescreen" and "academy ratio":

It turns out that yes! "An American Tail" was animated for Academy Ratio, not for 1.85:1! Although the film was released theatrically in a wide format, it looks like the best way to see it is if you can find a version that presents it in 1.37:1, the way the film was drawn. Although I don't own the DVD, lists it as presented in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The Blu-Ray is presented in the 1.85:1 that we got with the streaming version.

ADDENDUM 3/14/16: I recently spoke with someone who was intimately involved in the production of "An American Tail". His recollection was that the shots were designed for a 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio. He suggested that there's a possibility that the digital transfer might have been done off a 1.33:1 master (which, itself, would have been cropped from a 1.85:1 source). If this is the case, it's pretty shameful (and shouldn't be promoted as the "original" theatrical version!) He's looking into it. I'll report back here when I know more.