Monday, September 6, 2010

Movies Everywhere

image courtesy
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about movie watching.

I’ve always agreed with the former owner of Baltimore’s historic Senator Theater, Tom Kiefaber, who would say before each screening,  that “the best way to watch a movie is on the big screen ...” What is better than watching Lawrence of Arabia on a 90 ft by 40 ft screen with big, booming THX Surround Sound? I never like sitting in a far smaller multiplex theater—although stadium seating has been an improvement  sound bleeding through the walls of theater #28 is not so much of one.

So I’ve been surprising myself, lately by how “intimate” I’m willing to go to watch films these days. Seems pretty darn intimate.

The other day I watched Pete Docter's Up on my brand new BluRay DVD player, feeding to my equally new 50” 1080p/720HZ plasma HDTV. An amazing picture, wonderful THX sound. Thoroughly enjoyable, right in my own living room. Amazing.

OK, how much less would I accept and still enjoy. I sat in my backyard and watched The Marx Brothers' Duck Soup ... 17” MacBook Pro. Feeding instantly from Netflix. Looked great, and with my soft-gel headphones, the sound was more than acceptable. Much more.

What a world.

Yesterday the computer and TV were occupied—more like dominated—by  teenagers, and I had a DVD from my Netflix queue—Marco Bellocchio’s 1968 curio piece, Fists in the Pocket. I really wanted to watch that on the HDTV, but I opted for what I had at hand—my portable 9” DVD player. Soft-gels in, I layed across my living room sofa and became immediately absorbed. To my mind, it felt like I was surrounded by the light.

What a world.

But I was not yet done my downward spiral to the uplifting prospects of 21st- Century movie-watching. Recently told by a student that Netflix would now stream to my 4 ½” iPhone, I eagerly downloaded the app, searched my Instant Watch queue and decided on The Last Detail. Gels in, cozy in bed 'round midnight, I watched one of my favorite Jack Nicholson films from one of my favorite periods of American cinema ... while my wife sleept next to me undisturbed (unaware, really). 

I still prefer movies on the big screen, but the quality of new technology gives me the opportunity to go to the movies whenever and wherever I want. And as long as I can see the entire frame (not that horrific “full screen” substitute), I find my mind’s eye adjusts surprisingly well—and joyfully—to movies anytime.

What a world.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Medium is, Again, the Message

Courtesy of

It’s becoming clear to me that with movies these days, to borrow a 20th Century chestnut, the medium is the message.

I stress to my students that in cinematic storytelling, the formal elements (shot, editing, sound and production design) are in the service of constructing character, conveying mood, creating space, manipulating time, and/or articulating theme.

When I was a film student, I was mesmerized by the zoom lens, and my first few films could have made one nauseated from the constant in-out camera movement. Worse, it served no purpose; I was just enamoured of the technology.

As it turns out, I’m not really a visual special effects guy. Not that good SFX don’t often contribute to a movie’s entertainment value; my problem is that too often they obscure what is only a mediocre story with underdeveloped characters just because the technology is there.

So to me, Avatar and the most recent King Kong were visually pleasing and thematically interesting. Just ... boring. When special effects are the movie, I’m underwhelmed.

Which is why I surprised myself by liking Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. And I know why I liked it: the medium—the special effects—was the message. But in this case the message was not that technology is nifty but rather it reflects how a generation exists in its world, reflecting its natural integration of information and entertainment both into their lives as well as an expression of their lives.

I see it in practice every day. As I log-on to our family computer, my teenage daughters have been using simultaneously several Word documents, Facebook (logged out, of course), Skype (no one available at the moment), two web sites, iTunes, Hulu and G-mail (also logged out).  

For 15 minutes this summer, my traveling family all reached back to me at once: a daughter in Michigan was speaking to me on the phone (so 20th Century), another in Spain was IM’g me on Facebook, another at summer camp was texting me, and my wife was e-mailing. For 15 minutes this summer, my entire universe existed on the screen of my iPhone. To me—now pressing the upper boundaries of middle-age—it was an astounding moment.

It reminded me of a feature film I saw at this year’s Maryland Film Festival: Os and 1s (Eugene Kotlyarenko), described in the film guide as “a comic and relentlessly energetic story of the search for a lost computer, told on a laptop screen that explodes with chat sessions, virus warnings, and live-video feeds.” As was the case with my family’s communication, the story wasn’t what was so interesting as much as how I was getting the stories.

In both Scott Pilgrim and Os and 1s, characters are thin, plots are thinner, but the medium, through special effects, is clearly the message. And I was thoroughly entertained, which surprised me.

And isn’t that what we hope a movie will do?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Seinfeld's Spawn

The Maryland Film Festival 2010 has come and gone. Those folks do an incredible job organizing. I got to see 10 features and a whole lot of shorts (which you only really get to see these days at Festivals).

I’m not sure how representative the films are of the current independent film scene, but my sense is they represent.

That said, two basic stories—more like situations—emerged: the dysfunctional family and young, post-grads lost. In a few cases, they merge.These films also are constructed on a spare narrative and formal scaffolding that somewhat advances the mumblecore moment (see my blog "A Semester's Surprise," 12/18/09). Like Seinfeld, these films are largely about nothing. Well, they are about something, but that something is very small, very “present.”

I think these indies are to mainstream Hollywood what the French New Wave was to the established French cinema of the late 1950s: both demonstrated that there is a very different way to tell a story cinematically.

The stories these indies tell all but abandon—with abandon—the structural guideposts of classical storytelling; in other words, cause does not necessarily lead to an effect. There isn’t really always a cause. Effects often occur on their own, suddenly. Characters are not particularly fleshed out, but you sort get a sense of who they are from the time you spend with them (do we ever really know people, anyway?) Many are engaging, at some level, and others you want to smack in the head. Repeatedly. Endings seem to occur when the film—or tape—runs out. Ambiguous and often confusing, the final credits roll over furrowed eyebrows and a fair share of “Hmmm”s.

If these stories have any common thread, it is that they articulate the concept that lives don’t follow scripts. Things most often happen randomly and don’t always make sense or relate to anything else. And there are no Hollywood endings in life. No nicely wrapped up storylines with issues resolved and character changes in place.

Films about nothing. And everything. Audiences seemed very enthusiastic.

My wife asked, “Are they tedious”? The answer depends on what you think a movie should be about.

And how you think they should look and sound.

Imagine sitting in a stranger’s living room, but they don’t see you. You are a voyeur. They are un-selfconscious. You watch them interact much like you’d watch a tennis match were you seated at center court. Just turning your head from one to the other as they talk. Not a lot of cuts. No dissolves or fades. Often not even a tripod.

I tell my students that bad sound will ruin an otherwise good film. The sound in these indies is great. In fact, the technical achievement for relatively low-budget films is impressive. You can tell great time has been taken on lighting, finding locations, set design (when the set isn’t someone’s actual living space, untouched generally).

In these indies, things do happen. Confrontations occur. Interactions unwind. Much of these stories are about young people in their twenties trying to figure out where they belong in the world, how they relate to other people. There are hookups. Often rather graphic. But as I’ve noted in an earlier blog on mumblecore’s first lady (to me, anyway), Greta Gerwig, the nudity and sexual intimacies are not really lewd; they’re just sort of ... there. The whole thing is voyeuristic, again, like we’ve walked in on people who thought they were alone.

They act as if no one was watching. No affect. No filter on language or action. That’s how I’d describe the acting. It’s The Method without affect. Actors don’t act to appear natural, they’re just natural.

Filmmakers often play the leads in their films. They often are telling their own story, sort of. In Tiny Furniture, director-writer Lena Dunham tells the story of a 22-year-old who returns to her Tribeca home following her graduation from Oberlin College. What will she do? How will she integrate herself into a family that consists of an artist mother and a brilliant high school senior sister? Dunham stars as a character that is herself, and her real mother and real sister play the character’s mother and sister. In their real apartment. (Funny moment: in the Q&A after the film, someone asked Lena how the production designer created such a cold, ultra-modern living space, to which Lena laughed and said, “That’s where we live.”)

In Bass Akwards (pictured above), we peek in on Linas (played by filmmaker Linas Phillips) as he goes on a road trip from the west coast to his parent’s Boston home to regroup after a messy patch with his married lover and no real direction. Phillips get in his car with some friends and ... they take a road trip. He meets three interesting people along the way. But their interactions don’t accumulate in meaning for some thematic revelation. At film’s end it’s just Linas finally stopping for a bit at the New York apartment of one of the guys he met on the road. Then the film just sort of stops (hmmmm).

OK, so, you either like this sort of thing or you don’t. I did, mostly. There were a couple I didn’t like or didn’t think worked, even within the context of what I’ve described. That said, these films are refreshing narratives, small films by emerging talents. But you have to see them for yourself because you either like this sort of film or you don’t.

In the next blog, I’ll take a look at a few specific films.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Opening Night at the Maryland Film Festival 2010

I’m blogging from the 12th Maryland Film Festival. Well, actually I’m not there now...but I was, and I have a couple of items to share.

The first is that the night of shorts—apparently a relatively particular novelty among film festivals—featured some really interesting work. Two works integrated to great effect animation, matte photography and live action—they call that sort of thing postmodern. But my favorite tonight was a 15-minute student film called Slow Pitch Relief, made by a young filmmaker named Mark Cummins. The film is a sweet telling of a traveling salesman, who is ready to get off the road after he meets a single mother on one of his door-to-door sales calls. She rebuffs his product pitch, but invites in the pitchman. Prone to fabrications, he tells a whopper to her 11-year-old baseball-crazy son, hoping to gain his favor.

Traveling salesman you say? That was like a 1950s thing. Indeed. Cummins locates his film in 1957, giving it a spot-on mise-en-scene--the clothes, Jolene's house, the neighborhood in which she lives. Incredible detail. The real accomplishment, though, is his stunningly saturated color palette, worthy of Douglas Sirk, all the more impressive given he made the film in 16mm without the best possible lenses. A little post-production color correction gave him a boost, but the vision was all his. I asked this tall, lanky twenty-something what exactly possessed him to locate a rather universal story—of  a single mother and a rootless man finding each other across the great abyss of lonliness—in the ‘50s. Turns out he selected it from a few student scripts offered him last year. He wasn’t drawn so much to the time period as to the baseball angle, the rootlessness of the salesman (Cummins himself feeling somewhat rootless as a displaced New Yorker) and—as a self-proclaimed liar—the idea of getting caught in a really tall tale.

The other highlight for me tonight was meeting Joe Swanberg. I’ve written about Joe before; he being to the oddly-named mumblecore movement what Godard was to the French New Wave—the filmmaker making the edgiest films like Nights and Weekends and Hannah Takes the Stairs. His camera never diverts the audience’s voyeuristic eye from the jagged edges of relationships and the open wounds of floundering relationships. His friend and his “Anna Karina”—Greta Gerwig—are so natural. She so comfortable in her skin. Or that they seem less acting as getting recorded by a hidden camera, just being themselves. We talked for a few minutes, and I asked him if he was an actor by training. He is not, he said. He just lets the story flow and he follows it.

But it’s more than that. They are so good in their naturalness--their faces, their movement. He and Gerwig, Andrew Bujalski, Mark Duplass, Justin Rice—all are interesting to watch in the same way method actors Paul Newman and Steve McQueen and Marlon Brando were interesting to watch in their youth.  They are so completely unaffected, which is their method. I asked Joe if their style is generational, and he thought perhaps it is. These guys grew up in front of a video camera. They played with it the way generations before played with baseballs and soccer balls. So, they’re just doing what comes naturally, naturally.

The Festival features two other mumbecore filmmakers—The Duplass Brothers’ Cyrus and Aaron Katz’s Cold Weather. Can’t wait.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Rediscovering Fellini

There’s that great scene in Annie Hall, with Annie and Alvy on line at the Beekman Theater and the pontificating middle-age academic behind them:

“We saw the Fellini film last Tuesday. It is not one of his best. It lacks a cohesive structure. You know, you get the feeling that he's not absolutely sure what it is he wants to say … Like all that Juliet of the Spirits or Satyricon. I found it incredibly indulgent. You know, he really is. He's one of the most indulgent film makers. He really is.”

What’s funny about this man-in-line’s rant, besides Woody Allen’s reaction to it, is that Fellini is indulgent, and joyfully so.  A cinema artist who traffics in images and memory, psychology and, most of all, the personal, Fellini’s films and dreams are very much one. Emphatically a non-linear narrator of stories, Fellini is a raconteur, colorfully telling snippets of stories, episodic ideas and images that express his dreams, thoughts, ideas.

If you are looking for political or social commentary in Fellini's work, you will be adrift in images that don't support either. He wasn't interested in politics. It is this very non-ideological--yes self-indulgent--formalism that led to the critical re-appraisal of his work. The early exemplar of the auteur theory became the very symbol of what was wrong with the auteur theory in light of more radical cinema theory of the '70s and 80s.

But not to me. I believe that one can apply any and all critical theories to any film and/or filmmaker, but one is not more vital--or more right--than another. 

That said, Fellini is an acquired taste, I think; aggravating if you favor narratives that follow the classic Hollywood style. But if you have some general guideposts, and an open mind, Fellini will take you on a wondrous, phantasmagoric journey through his mind.

Here are some early guideposts we’ve established for the four-film course I’m currently offering through the Johns Hopkins Odyssey Program.  

First, there is Fellini’s intent to make strange the familiar in order to allow a fresh, different perspective;

Second, consider his two versions of man and woman in relationship. There is the man who is both master of his universe and a prisoner of that very universe--his gender role. The first male is, at least superficially, respectful of women and on the other hand resentful, conflicted and angry at them. Mistrustful, perhaps. Confused, certainly.

Then there are Fellini’s women. The one demanding, needy, nurturing mother/wife—and partner in an ultimately problematic relationship—versus the available (often grotesquely so) sexual object.  One can argue that only Juliet, in Juliet of the Spirits, is the most fulfilled of Fellini’s women and that Maddalena, in La Dolce Vita, is most complex;

Fourth, Fellini comes back repeatedly to the idea and images of religion as spectacle, both fantastic and ritualized but most often disappointing, perhaps even disillusioning;

And finally is the episodic nature of his films. Loosely beginning with Nights of Cabiria, but in full throttle with La Dolce Vita, Fellini works in episodes rather than linear narrative form. There is little if any cause and effect in Fellini’s richest work, and each episode can be considered a film within a film, unified by a visual design that becomes more and more dreamlike as his films mature.

A good, overview is offered by Antonia Shanahan, at the online film journal Senses of Cinema. You also can read his New York Times obituary.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A Feast for Eyes & Ears

Give me a two-and-a-half-hour-plus movie that is slow paced, highly aesthetic, well acted and psychologically intense, and I’m going to be a pretty happy camper.

I just re-watched just such a film, one I’ve been meaning to write about for some time: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which is now among my favorite films. Andrew Dominick’s 2007 adaptation of Ron Hansen’s novel of the same name plays very much like another of my favorite’s—Terence Malick’s 1975 film, Days of Heaven.

I like them both for the same reason: their formal elements together are far more interesting and engaging than the plot itself. There’s no mystery here—not even much suspense—Jesse James is going to be killed by Bob Ford, who he has taken into his gang at the end of the gang’s long, bloody career.

Formal elements (the shot, the production design, editing and sound) only have value if they express the director’s narrative intent. They must articulate theme, help construct characters and convey mood. Dominick tells of a 34-year-old Jesse James worn down by his profession. Fear, paranoia, exhaustion burble just under the surface of his psyche as he tries to live a normal life with his wife and child after his last, murderous train robbery in 1881. But that won’t be his fate.

Dominick fought Warner Brothers, who owned the final cut and wanted a tight, fast-paced action film. Dominick’s vision was of a slow, psychological intertwining and unraveling (his cut actually was 4 hours). Producer Brad Pitt (Jesse James) and executive producer Ridley Scott supported their director, and editor Dylan Tichenor obliged the vision (What a perfect hire: Tichenor had just cut Brokeback Mountain and had The Royal Tennebaums on his credits; his next film after Assassination would be There Will Be Blood, which makes Jesse James seem like Die Hard.)

Then there’s the always excellent Roger Deakins, whose cinematography here paints a world closing in on Jesse: natural and low-key lighting; a muted color palette; swirling, dark, close-to-the-ground cloud cover. Deakins captures James’ recurring inner torment with long takes of Pitt looking lost in this world; lost in his thoughts. Lost against the empty expanse of the central plains he had for so long terrorized.

Brad Pitt won the Best Actor award at the 2007 Venice Film Festival; he gave Jesse just the right world-weary quality mixed with a natural ability to intimidate with either a whisper or his rage. But it is Casey Affleck’s performance as a creepy, fawning, psychologically strained Bob Ford that is mesmerizing and memorable. Affleck’s portrayal did win him a few critic and film festival awards and was nominated for an Oscar (losing to Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men). This, though, is among the best performances of the past 25 years (up there with Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects and Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight). Playing 13 years younger, Dominick allows Affleck room to express the subtle awkward anguish of a boy of no consequence who has weasled himself into the real life center of his hero’s waning days. Bob Ford means to be a man of destiny; a man who will do great things like the men of the James Gang themselves, whose escapades are captured in tawdry, breathless pulp fiction paperbacks, which he keeps tucked in a worn box under his bed. But this is just the delusional mask he wears, visible only to himself in his own mirror. As I watched Affleck’s Bob Ford become even more introverted and confused, I kept thinking that this is what it would have felt like if Mark David Chapman had somehow talked his way into John Lennon’s band six months before he gunned him down.

Interestingly, Dominick does not spoon feed us a lot of motivation for either James or Ford’s actions. Instead, he allows Deakins and production designer Troy Sizemore to visualize their motives, their reactions. And Deakins and Sizemore’s work is complemented by perhaps the strongest formal element in the film: the score composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.

I’m listening to it as I write this blog. Its dark cello runs and mournful violins convey the spiraling downturn of James, Ford, their relationship and their times. Its haunting melodies and bells construct both a sense of otherworldliness and impending doom. At some point we understand the unspoken psychological chess match the two are playing, with Jesse setting Ford up to checkmate him.

The “Song for Bob” floats with the “coward” as he roams the country, recreating what he protests was an heroic act (which also happened to net him a tidy reward). The cue plays against Bob Ford’s final years, revealing to me Dominick’s sense that Jesse James and Bob Ford both were heroes and cowards; that Bob Ford, ironically, had to kill the only thing he ever really loved in order to be even mentioned in the same sentence with a man of such great renown.  Through Deakins’ fog-filtered images, Cave and Ellis’ sad, ancient score and Tichenor’s deliciously deliberate editing, it is with intended sympathy we share Ford’s own assassination, a voice-over suggesting Ford’s killer did not share Dominick’s perspective.

Made for about $30 million (cheap by today’s Hollywood standards), the film opened on five screens in September 2007 to an opening weekend gross of $147,000. By the following year, it would total about $3.9 million (a financial disaster for the studio and a kiss of death for its director).

It’s not surprising that this long film--told in such lovely dark, slow, broad strokes--would be a box office bomb. The 12-to 24-year-old Hollywood target audience would never sit still long enough for this story to unfold (even with “assassination” in the title), and the “more mature” moviegoer has generally lost their taste for the western genre (though this is hardly one). The hope, no doubt, was that Brad Pitt would be a draw for female audiences, but I guess the pull of Good Luck Chuck (which opened the same day on 2,612 screens and took in $13.6 million that first weekend) was just too much competition.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Everything Matters--Even the Opening Titles

The New York Times runs a story in today's edition with this introduction:

"Can an introduction be an art form? The people who hand out film awards are beginning to think so.

Next week in Austin, Tex., the South by Southwest festival will honor the winners of a film and television titles competition, a rare move to recognize those miniature stories and graphics displays that surround the opening credits before the real story unfolds."

Towson University's Student Media Arts Festival has featured title graphics; in fact, last year I thought the entries in this category were absolutely astounding.