Monday, July 30, 2007

Ingmar Bergman: In Memory

“I want to be one of the artists of the cathedral that rises on the plain. I want to occupy myself by carving out of stone the head of a dragon, an angel or a demon, or perhaps a saint; it doesn’t matter; I will find the same joy in any case. Whether I am a believer or an unbeliever, Christian or pagan, I work with all the world to build a cathedral because I am artist and artisan, and because I have learned to draw faces, limbs, and bodies out of stone. I will never worry about the judgment of posterity or of my contemporaries; my name is carved nowhere and will disappear with me. But a little part of myself will survive in the anonymous and triumphant totality. A dragon or a demon, or perhaps a saint, it doesn’t matter!”
- Ingmar Bergman

I was still somewhat drowsy when I saw the news. I hadn't been up five minutes and I was shocked to learn of Ingmar Bergman's death. Yet that shock subsided and I was quickly filled with sadness as the realization came over me that cinema has lost one of its great artists. At first I couldn't understand why this news affected me so, especially since I have only seen one of Bergman's films: The Seventh Seal. But then I remembered where I was in my life when I first saw it. The memories and feelings came rushing back, and suddenly my own life at this instant came into perspective.

Seeing that film was so important to my blossoming as a future lover of and writer on cinema. It was in High School English class. I was just consciously discovering my love of movies and had been spending much of my free time in the library paging through Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide. I remember having heard of the movie when my teacher introduced it before screening it, but I still knew relatively little about it. But I was intrigued mostly because that teacher made such an impression on me. It's somewhat ironic that I first learned about the craft of film criticism in conversations with this teacher; he challenged me to think differently about movies and to be more receptive to their sensibilities and details. Classes were only about 40 minutes, so it took about a week's worth of class to get through the movie. But I remember being so struck by its stark images, its absurd contrasts. The opening images, especially, seized me. Seeing a Knight returning from the crusades to meet Death and play chess with him was profoundly strange, yet inevitably provocative. The image seemed to tease me; I couldn't make sense of it. It defied any and all logic, yet I was enamored by it. None of it seemed to make sense. But then again, all of it made sense in a way I couldn't make sense of.

I couldn't consciously understand why I was so affected, but I remember allowing myself to feel and think about the images and the feelings for myself. My teacher was always good at fostering this simple philosophy by which I live my life; allowing myself to really swim in my thoughts and feelings in my own way, even if it doesn't seem to make sense. This was harder than it might seem in High School, especially when most of the students left the class each day making fun of the movie, probably for being "old and absurd". That week of class was one of the most memorable I ever had (along with the week I watched Schindler's List in my junior year history class). I learned a lot about myself, art, emotion, and abstraction. I have since not seen a single Bergman film, much to my disappointment. I have learned about Bergman's unique place in the history of cinema in the books and articles I've read, and I have seen his work inspire many of my favorite directors. One such filmmaker is Woody Allen, whose movies taught me everything I can know about Bergman without seeing his films.

I have put off seeing Bergman's work in the past (I've had Fanny and Alexander and Scenes From a Marriage inexplicably looming around 20 or 25 on my queue for several years now). But it's amazing how death can cause one to consciously reflect on unconscious thought and emotions. I suppose it's a bit of irony that the death of this artist of the cinema, who so frequently explored death in his work, will now inspire me to remember one of my cherished memories of "birth" into cinephilia, film criticism, and a rich love of cinema in general. The Seventh Seal compelled me to explore not just my own thoughts and emotions but also the challenging works of filmmakers I may have never have heard of had I not had watched The Seventh Seal at that time and place in my life.

But this is likely just one story among many, for I'm sure that all movie lovers, critics, and scholars have their own personal stories of how Bergman's work has inspired them in some way. And that is why his legacy as one of cinema's most prolific and important artists will continue to grow along with the art form of inifinite possibilities that is cinema; a medium that can only be considered as such because of his contributions to it.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Let the Cleansing Begin

This is a sad day for Nick Naylor. Just months two months after the MPAA announced that depictions of smoking in cinema will figure greatly into the ratings system (essentially saying that smoking equals a higher rating), Disney today announced that it will purge all representations of smoking in their films. From Reuters:

"LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Walt Disney Co. on Wednesday became the first major Hollywood studio to ban depictions of smoking, saying there would be no smoking in its family-oriented, Disney-branded films and it would "discourage" it in films distributed by its Touchstone and Miramax labels.

Disney Chief Executive Robert Iger also said in a letter to U.S. Rep. Edward Markey, whose committee last month held hearings on the effects of movie images on children, that the studio would place anti-smoking public service announcements on DVDs of any future films that feature cigarette smoking.

He said the company would encourage theater owners to show screen anti-smoking public service announcements, or PSAs, before such films.

Iger cautioned, however, that "cigarette smoking is a unique problem and this PSA effort is not a precedent for any other issue."

Markey described Disney's commitment as "groundbreaking" and urged other studios to follow suit.

Dr. Cheryl Healton, president and CEO of the American Legacy Foundation, commended Disney's move but said the studio left "some ambiguity about what would happen in relation to Touchstone and Miramax."

Research cited by American Legacy, a nonprofit created out of landmark litigation between the tobacco industry and states attorneys general, shows that 90 percent of all films depict smoking and children with the highest exposure to smoking in movies were nearly three times more likely to start smoking.

Tobacco is featured in three-quarters of G, PG and PG-13 rated movies and 90 percent of R-rated movies, the studies showed.

The independent Weinstein Co. already is using PSAs produced by American Legacy ahead of its films that depict smoking, Healton said."

I'm sure child advocacy groups and those in support of "cleansing" entertainment will rejoice when they hear of this news. Yet the implications for these actions are massive as well as unsettling. What troubles me most about this report is that Disney will now "discourage" its subsidiary brands -- Miramax and Touchstone -- from employing images of smoking in their films. But there is something even more troubling about all of this.

Gradually, the movies are becoming the equivalent of the advertisements they are purported to be by the MPAA and other lawmakers. Rather than invoking a dialogue concerning matters of representation and consumption in the digital age, these "clamping down" effects actually limit our perceptions and interpretations of electronic media, imposing particular ideologies onto the collective so as to build a world of commodity and hypercommercialism. Disney's decision in reality has little to do with the harmful health effects of smoking or promoting more positive lifestyles in American youth. If it did, than the diet-promoting Shrek probably would not have had the endorsement deals with McDonald's or Coca-Cola. No; this is about something much larger and discomforting. Smoking is now just the trendy target for the massive corporate interests whose influence set the larger ideological agenda.

Once again, we seem to be hung up on the message, while the real changes are happening on the level of the medium, which is continually shifting so as to serve these interests. Under the guise of public health interests, institutions of power are really promoting a larger movement of commodifying everything to the point that we are gradually becoming numb to it. It seems that we are being lured into gentle complacency as we learn to be better consumers.

Of course, the "cultural cleansing" had to begin with Disney.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Great Movies Can Come From Anywhere

It's been reported that the latest and final Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, sold more than 8 million copies on its first day alone. It should come as no surprise, given the media frenzy around all things Potter, but it still interests me that so much interest can be generated for a written work of fiction. It seemed when the Harry Potter craze was in its inception, these works were being hailed as a celebration of rich storytelling and and mythical archetypes. Some even considered the novels to be comparable to its many influences in literature and myth. But somewhere along the line, these voices became suppressed under the media firestorm that now circulates around Harry Potter, which is arguably now more of a trademark than anything else. That's nothing against J.K. Rowling and her writing abilities, for it seems that she has upkept a high level of writing quality and narrative structure throughout the series. Nevertheless, among more serious circles, Harry Potter seems to have lost its stance as works to be taken seriously along with its rise in commercial popularity.

Back in 2001, I was introduced to young Harry by the intense media coverage surrounding Warner Brothers' movie adaptation of Rowling's first book in the series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Since I am interested in pop culture (especially anything to do with movies), I went to a midnight screening, where some fans were costumed as witches and wizards, and I watched a movie that I considered a good old-fashioned adventure yarn about naive innocence and magic. Others came down on director Chris Columbus for being too stereotypically "kiddie", which the movie no doubt was at times throughout its duration. But I was delighted by the movie's sense of whimsy, flightiness, and ambivalence. Little did I know at the time that it was only the first in what would be a series lasting as many chapters as the eventual series of books.

Now, five movies later, Harry Potter's cinematic journey through the ever-expanding and intense magical universe is shaping up to be one of contemporary pop cinema's most intriguing stories. With the release of the fifth movie two weeks ago, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the last six years of American box office has seen the young wizard atop (or nearly so) the top-grossing list on all but two years. Now that's staying power. Sure, some of that is inevitably due to the massive marketing efforts on the part of Warner Brothers and the synergy between the movie and publishing business. The books therefore became more of a craze with the release of the movies, which then amplified the desire for future movies. Apart from market shares and economic accounts of success on the part of Warner Brothers' series of movie adaptations, the movies themselves represent an interesting experiment of largely consistent casting and artistic collaboration as the series has experienced four very different directors, each surprisingly lending a unique touch to the series.

In an article last week for the New York Times, A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis took a brief look into this largely consistent level of quality of the five movies, something that's mostly unheard of in Hollywood tradition, even for series as popular as Potter. Their account is brief, but in it they breach several intriguing aspects of this building film franchise:

Looking at the five movies side by side, you can see how the material lends itself to diverse film genres and styles, from breezy children's movie to ominous political thriller, and how very dissimilar directors approach, sidestep and conquer similar material."

Whether aided by the books or other factors, the simple fact of it is that the movies are becoming more nuanced, appropriately darker, and are ever-changing in their approaches to a world that is in many ways pre-built by audiences (from their knowledge of the books) and previous movies in the series. It would seem that creativity would lag along as the series went on. But if the recent movie is any indication of quality, these movies will continue to creatively build on themselves as they continue. So far, they were lensed by four different directors, each with a different approach to the elements of detail and character, as well as visual storytelling. It hasn't all been an organic growth, with each moving improving in quality, but what we do see with the series is ever-more reliable staple of quality and care that goes into these movies. Seeing the battalion of young actors grow up together is as interesting as discovering what happens to their characters. By contrast, with a few small exceptions due to tragic circumstances, i.e. the death of Richard Harris, the adult actors playing teachers and wizards look remarkably the same over the course of the movies, as more of Britain's finest thespians join the Potter universe's ever expanding host of characters. Fine acting talent from the likes of Michael Gambon, Gary Oldman, Brendan Gleeson, David Thewlis, Kenneth Branagh, John Cleese, Robbie Coltraine, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonhman Carter, Maggie Smith, and Julie Walters have anchored the franchise with a sense of consistency. Seeing these actors return to their roles with each film is a welcome bit of familiarity. With such a huge base of major acting talent, one wonders who they will enlist next.

As these movies continue toward their conclusion in Year Seven, one cannot deny their staying power and their overall amazing balancing act between convention and innovation; each of the four directors have been limited, certainly, but have also been allowed to inject their own vision into the Harry Potter universe. And while I like each of the films for their own reasons, there is one film that stands out to me as the emotional and visual anchor of the series; and that is Alfonso Cuaron's entry (the third in the series), Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Were it not for Cuaron's willingness to abandon such stringent faith to the books (which he took much heat for from the biggest fans of the books) as demonstrated by Columbus' two films, the movies would not have been able to mature and grow as they have. As emotionally rich as Order of the Phoenix is, it is not only not as nuanced as Cuaron's entry, but its explorations would not have been possible had Cuaron not been given the freedom to overturn Columbus' more simple vision of Hogwarts, which was necessary-for-its-time but potentially constraining in its directness. As essential as Columbus' by-numbers direction was in getting the series onto its feet and moving, so too was the need for the third film to be challenging of that straight-aheadness.

Unlike its predecessors, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is rich in subtlety and surprisingly daring; not just as an adaptation, but as an entry in a multi-million dollar film franchise. It straddles the perfect line between convention and abstraction as it introduces shades of dimension to Harry and the wizarding world that were not possible in Columbus' singular interests with first two movies. Unfortunately, the film is underappreciated. Its sublimities are often glossed over by fans expecting a visual regurgitation of the written word and by critics who limit their interpretation of cinematic images by pre-digesting them, comfortably labeling a movie like Azkaban as "kiddie fare", "Hollywood", and "sequel".

Before discussing the movie, I'd like to make note of an issue of readership and spectatorship. A movie is not just made differently, with hundreds, sometimes thousands of individuals collaborating to create a moving image, but they are perceived and thereby interpreted differently as well. The relationship between the spectator and the image is vastly different from that of the reader and the page (or word). So different are they that one should not strive to embody the other because this leads to an unproductive and limiting means of interpretation rather than a wise use of the tools of the medium. Often times, (pop) movies get a bum wrap by people who claim that Hollywood has run out of creativity and that it must rely on books and old ideas for its millions. This is true now more than ever; however, there are many social and economic forces contributing to this. Some pop movies inevitably capitalize on the creativity of our best writers, whilst failing to come up with new stories on their own. But popular filmmaking has been zapped into a state of market shares and commercialism that it cannot afford to enable screenwriters and artists to really explore the medium and come up with fresh material. The pressure isn't for new material so much as capitalizing on the lastest book series that hasn't already been optioned. The world of fiction is much different in the sense that anyone, literally anyone can pick up a pen and write a story. But as the saying in Ratatouille instructs, although a great artist (or writer) can come from everywhere, not everyone can be a great artist. There are probably millions of unpublished books out there ranging from excellent to terrible, some of which are lucky enough to be seen by the right people, others not. But that's what the publishing business comes down to. Movies simply cannot be made unless there is a source willing to fund it. Often those sources (studios) are not willing fund creative ventures; although some small studios position themselves as the answer to Hollywood's conquest of homogenization.

Another note about movies is that the moving image is more complicated than the written word. That does not mean that movies are better than books or that cinema is a superior medium, since that would be falling into the trap of assuming they operate under similar principles that enable us to really compare them. However, this is the "logic" under which many movie viewers operate. They have been lulled by the familiarity of convention to the extent of expecting movies to embody the books they read. This, however, is a fundamental misunderstanding of the medium of cinema. Cinema and fiction offer completeing differing things, but since they both work under the principles of narrative, many audiences expect movies to just be visual representations of books. But it's just not that simple. To expect that of a movie is to limit its possibilities. Unfortunately, many filmmakers and studios pander to this movies as books mentality and want to offer streamlined, unchallenging stories that do not challenge the viewers to emote from the sights and sounds of something. Viewers are discouraged from feeling subtleties and unidentifiable feelings created through the complex relations of images on a screen. Therefore, many pop movies are made to go against the unique properties of this visual, auditory medium.

These issues present themselves in fascinating manners in the Harry Potter movie and book series, and equally interesting as the texts themselves (in how they compare, contrast, and live from/off one another) is how critics and fans respond to them. (For more on this crisis of readership/spectatorship, check out Damian Arlyn's post, Books and Movies: The Enemies That Never Were. Oddly enough, he posted his thoughts due to his experiences watching Harry Potter and the Order of Phoenix). Amazingly, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban that is is the most cinematic and sublime of them all is the one that has made the least amount of money and seems to be labeled as the worst by most fans. This only evidences the crisis of readership and spectatorship in pop discourse. Cuaron understands that cinematic storytelling is a different craft than other forms of fiction, such as written fiction or the stage, and his film is a careful experiment in pushing the comfortable confines of Hollywood storytelling to its brink. The best of popular cinema achieves this balance, as seen recently in Ratatouille.

The movie opens with a set piece that is one of the most preposterous events in the entire series, in which young Harry "blows up" his Aunt Marge after she disparages his parents. The scene itself, about four minutes into the film, is handled with Columbus-esque humor, and the movie seems to be right on track with the previous two in its visual style. But it's the moments before and after it that really are designed to jolt your comfortable Potter viewer. Immediately, Cuaron announces his washed out color palette, as opposed to the cartoony colors of Columbus. The camera frames Harry in shaky shots, as if he is an arbitrary element of the composition. But the fascinating aspect of this nature of framing actors (as Cuaron shows in his masterpiece, Y Tu Mama Tambien) is that these shots actually reveal more detail in performances, as opposed to a more adherent intensified continuity. Harry not only looks different, but he talks different, he emotes more, and he has more feeling in his voice. When Marge insults his parents, Cuaron frames the shot with Harry foregrounded and the dinner table in the background. Cuaron sustains one long shot with Harry's reactions/reflections to/on what she says, as he goes from frustration to nonchalant grinning to all out rage in just a few moments. It's a wonderful little moment, and that shot alone both in design and its attention to Harry's emotion immediately sets the film on a different path than its predecessors. After the "blowing up", Harry runs upstairs to his room, where he kicks the bureau, sits down on his bed, and then sees a picture of his parents (all one shot after he enters the room). In one shot, the camera zooms in from the wide shot of Harry walking to his bed and focuses on a photograph Harry's parents dancing happily, constrasting their once joy with his pain and anguish, John Williams' subtle score signals Harry's ultimate tragedy in a few quietly stated notes with a contrasting sustained line of high strings, adding pain and tension to Harry's pain. The shot lasts no more than 25 seconds, but it brings mood, atmosphere, and evokes an ambiguous (yet familiar) affect to the proceedings. It's a perfect moment, one of many in a film that masters the emotional burden and complexity of Harry's celebrity image, loneliness, and tragedy.

Following this is exposition and various meetings amongst characters, which is structurally similar to Rowling's style but looks and feels very different from Columbus' take on them. Yet, we're dealing with many of the same locations and characters, which feel very distinct from the previous two movies. Gone are the "big" moments of magic of transition scenes and conversations consisting of talking heads and reaction shots. In place are dreary images, oozing with sublimity in traditionally understated ways. One such example of a transition shot is the first shot of the Hogwarts Express, which travels alongside the hills of England through downpours of rains. Yet the shot, starting from a distance, narrows in closely on the train with the sound of the rain faintly in the background, accompanied by moody music consisting of abstract woodwinds chords and a harpsicord, which captures an atmosphere so beautifully in such a short time (less than 10 seconds) that blows me away each time I see it. As for staging, Cuaron constantly plays with depths of focus, staging actors in the foreground and background of busy shots, in so doing achieving a visual complexity in simple conversation scenes that seem more appropriate in character-based European cinema.

The sensuous fluidity (as Fernando F. Croce of CinePassion expertly calls it) with which Cuaron imbues the film breathes life into small transition shots and exchanges between characters; in said moments, the spirit of the school and the quirky idiosyncrasies of characters both new and familiar are revealed in tiny ways, but they set the tone of the film and its atmospheres. The endless hallways of the labrynthine Hogwarts school and the landscape outside of it seem more real; like we can feel the cement archways, and the blades of grass one our feet as the students walk down to Hagrid's hut. Harry's emotion is palpable when he's thinking of his parents, as is the icy dread of his encounters with the haunting dementors. Each shot in this movie is treated with care and precision, and it shows in big and small moments from expressions on Harry's face to shots of the changing seasons. (Watch for the brilliant montage of winter becoming spring, as drops of water drip from the brown leaves and branches of the whomping willow.) Part of what gives this movie such life in its brilliant compositions and editing patterns is how the filmmakers allow the sound and images come together brilliantly to provide a real mood and life to this world through its most minute details, like the "sound" that wands make when they are used, or the birds chirping on the school grounds. These details of sound -- including John Williams' aforementioned subdued score; one of his very best -- coupled with the unique visual style of sustained shots that fill every corner of the composition with movement and detail, enable the viewer to feel this wizarding world as an actual place with dense characters inhabiting real space, not some phony magic world of color and speed.

Cuaron also manages to hone in on the oncoming darkness which approaches in later stories. While this story isn't the real loss of innocence of the young wizards and witches, it signals the inevitability of darkness and maturation. It stradles both innocence and maturity, as is reflected in Daniel Radcliffe's introspective performance. More than any other movie in the series, this movie enables the spectator to identify with Harry's loneliness and despair, which even he can't quite come to terms with. In probably my favorite review of the film, Eugene Novikov over at FilmBlather details this feeling and how Cuaron so brilliantly captures it throughout the movie in unexpected (as well as expected) moments. He writes:

"Professor Dumbledore intones, 'happiness can be found even in the darkest of times,' and indeed, director Alfonso Cuaron finds room for friendship and love even in the midst of his generally pitch-black vision. Watch for the little stuff -- the way Ron grabs Harry's shoulder and turns him away when Draco Malfoy and his Slytherin compatriots start in with their unceasing, merciless taunts, or how Harry instinctively shields Hermione with his body when dementors and werewolves and animagi start attacking in the last act. These details moved me halfway to tears, and they are exactly what was missing from the earlier films -- a dose of genuine humanity within this elaborate magical world. When Harry goes for a ride atop Buckbeak the hippogriff, smiling and laughing and holding on for dear life as the animal soars through the sky and glides along the water, he's not just a kid having a blast, but a boy taking solace in a momentary break from the harsh reality below -- where Hagrid, Ron and Hermione are waiting, yes, but more importantly also Malfoy, Snape, Azkaban guards, and perhaps even the dread Sirius Black."

His mention of Harry's brief moment of pure exhiliration while riding Buckbeak is perfectly stated. There is such intangible feeling to that scene; it refuses to offer up conventional images of wonderment but instead locates a real sense of wonder from the simplicity of it. It melds together happiness and sadness in unspeakable ways, and it does so by removing Harry (literally) from the ground and separating him from all he knows, if only for a few moments. The images and music evoke this feeling to a tee.

Throughout the rest of the movie, there are small asides that don't seem connect with the overall plot, but which lend the film a sense of organic ingenuity that the other four films have largely abandoned in service of plot. Cuaron dares to dream of those little moments and sounds which contrast with the movement of the plot so ingeniously, such as talking heads and carolers in the snowy town of Hogsmeade or a flying creature floating about the school grounds before being snatched up by the Whomping Willow. These little moments, although arbitrary, give the film a strange, offbeat personality, one that sets it apart from the others.

But there are also character moments littered throughout, such as a short exchange between Professor Lupin (David Thewlis) and Harry, as Lupin tells Harry about his memories of James and Lily Potter. With the rest of the student body in Hodsmeade and Hogwarts feeling as empty as Harry's heart, this scene comes at just the right point in the narrative and strikes a muted affective chord. Once again, the camera locks in on Harry's expressions (with Lupin in the background, on the other side of the bridge); he is framed by the window of the bridge in the right side of the shot. It is one of the most revealing compositions of the movie in which we can peer right into his soul. At the end of the scene, Lupin rejoins Harry on the camera's side of the bridge and it eventually pulls out to and cuts to a long shot image of the bridge.

Another rich moment like this is between Harry and Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), who is revealed to be a loving godfather of Harry's rather than the vicious villain he'd feared to be throughout the film. Harry and Sirius gaze at Hogwarts at dusk during which time Sirius recalls his first moments entering the school. The camera sits behind their heads as they look up at the silhouette of the school cutting through the darkening, moonlit sky. The sounds of night creatures swarming from a tree echoe in the background as the quiet horns of Williams' music once again seem to mix hope with melancholy as Harry and Sirius share their first real moment together, each more cautious about expressing their inner vulnerabilities than they desire to be. They look to the horizon while they talk, never really looking at one another, even when Sirius nervously asks Harry if he'd like to live with him rather than his Aunt and Uncle. It's yet another small moment --one of many-- that makes up the emotional core of a movie of understated depth.

When I was putting together my list of favorite movies, one of the very first to go on was Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Others may scoff, for sure, or cite me as a fanboy. But I learned when I saw this movie that the impressions I get from surface details of a movie before seeing it can never capture what a movie's about. Cinematic greatness can creep up on you in the most odd of times and places. I was enamored with this film from the first time I saw it; no experience with another Potter movie came close to equaling the emotional spectrum and pure feeling I experienced watching this movie. Since that first experience, it has remained strong in my memory and has held up to be just as emotionally rich on subsequent viewings. It's not just a atmospheric fantasy picture or a good character drama. This movie is a hybrid of so many genre styles, narrative techniques, and visual perspectives that it defies the easy labeling so often ascribed to it. Often, these labels and categorizing processes can pre-package the cinematic experience for us, conditioning viewers to process sounds and images as pre-digested concepts and feelings and limiting our interpretive abilities, in so doing suprressing the feeling of experiencing strangeness and pure unfiltered feeling, which cinema can aesthetically deliver. But if we allow our sensibilities to open beyond the easy interpretations offered to us, sometimes we can experience something much greater, more challenging and meaningful.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is a movie that may be difficult to make sense of in terms of its plot or its positioning in the middle of a series of stories. Structurally and stylistically, it plays by the rules. It is not free of classical movie and narrative conventions; but it demonstrates that even the most traditional of storytelling convention can be explored in new ways so as to reval complexity and sublimity in the most unexpected ways. With Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Alfonso Cuaron finds that perfect balance between sameness and innovation, showcasing the undeniable lure of classical storytelling and mythic archetypes as well as the aesthetic potential of cinema to find the sublime in just about any image, moment, or story.

Friday, July 20, 2007

When movies become more

I recently saw Miller's Crossing (finally!), a movie I savored every moment of. I must admit I found it difficult to follow some details of the plot; but it didn't matter. The film is an exercise in pure atmosphere and feeling. Even when I wasn't able to follow the trappings of the narrative, I felt its rhythms. The color palette and layered compositions allowed entry into the subtleties of its central character, Tommy (Gabriel Byrne, in a fine performance) as well as the thematic core of the movie, which explores the rigorous structure and ethical frameworks of organizations that thrive on death and violence.

Certain movies, like Miller's Crossing, strike me like that on first viewing; it's as if I intuitively know I am feeling the movie's deepest, most strange beauties despite having not completely familiarized myself with its details. For me, this is the feeling of seeing a great film for the first time. Obviously, feelings and thoughts differ according to the movie, but there is something about such a unique experience with cinema (or any art) that enables the spectator/reader to feel the spectrum of affect from the images in ways one cannot describe but can positively experience. It's an unidentifiable feeling, really, but great cinema sustains that abstraction and builds on it for the duration of the film, all through the motion of images. Because cinema allows the spectator to see its story played it in a controlled, deliberate manner, the subject almost becomes irrelevant to the manner in which it is committed to the viewer's memory -- visually and auditorily and imbued on her or his memory and emotive state. Virtually any kind of movie can provoke such ambiguous response to sounds and images, even ones which are traditionally simple in design and execution.

I may not be able to "figure it out" per se ("it" being a strong affective response), but if I could, then the experience wouldn't be as ambiguous or evocative to begin with. So how do we, as scholars or cinephiles make sense of these experiences in the structured ways we are instructed to? What is it that enables one to make sense of that experience of experiencing affect from watching a movie? What makes that feeling and association of images remain in memory so that one may recall the experience of a movie and put it on a Top 100 list? I just experienced the beginnings of this process while watching and reflecting on Miller's Crossing this morning; somehow I knew it would stick with me based on how I was seemingly inside the images. Recent theatrical experiences (within the last year) during which I had that same intuition include seeing Ratatouille, Pan's Labyrinth, The Descent, and Miami Vice.

Of course, writing about such experiences with cinema both involves the writer in that intangible experience, while also separating her or him from it. While reflection on the experience and active retrospective helps preserve the memory, it also removes one from that immediate experience insofar that the writer structures thought as well as forces that piece of moving images to adhere to the logic of criticism and structure. That is the real paradox, for it captures both the intoxication and the agony of what we do as writers, critics, scholars, and (yes) readers and viewers.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

"Political" Considerations: Documentary as Narrative

Like them or not, documentaries are in. They are the rising trend in contemporary audience sophistication and niche markets. But before I sing the praises of the documentary, maybe I should temper such a blanket statement. A documentary may never top the box office or come anywhere near the hundreds of millions raked in by the overmarketted products currently dominating the cineplexes. But anyone who follows the box office knows that net grosses are all relative. It's a bigger accomplishment for a movie like An Inconvenient Truth to make $49 million than it is for Transformers to make $250 million. It's a statement that Michael Moore's Sicko has cracked the top ten and has experienced a rise in box office receipts since its release. While the blockbuster movie industry directs all marketing efforts to opening weekend grosses, yet another signal of the shift toward cinematic fast food in the mainstream, documentaries (particularly political documentaries) have found their niche in certain markets and arguably outperform the mega-blockbusters. Personally, this pleases me immensely. It's great to see that audiences are seeking out thought-provoking movies (documentary and otherwise) and that this movement is actually starting to make a dent at the box office. Sure, it may not turn around the tidal wave of commodification that has overrun popular cinema, but it's a step in the right direction.

But this whole idea of a "political" movie troubles me. I hate to use the word "political" when describing certain popular documentaries, simply because one could argue that just about any action -- including making a movie in a specific way, marketing it, and distributing it -- is inherently political. Politics and power run deep within the very foundations of human communication that they are simply unavoidable. Certainly, some movies such as Michael Moore's Sicko (still unseen by me), Fahrenheit 9/11, and Bowling For Columbine are surface-level "political" documentaries in that they deal directly with matters of government control and influence. But I would argue that these movies are about much deeper political forces and movements than (dumb as it sounds) politics. Michael Moore seems to divide people and create debate like no other figure in media prominence today, other than perhaps She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named (or, as Jim Emerson refers to her, The Creature from the Puddle of Mud) and the Televangelist-in-Chief (another one of Jim's titles). Moore is known as an ultra-left wing fact-fudger by some and a working class hero by others. His movies vary in quality; their best and worst elements are a direct extension of Moore's empassioned personality. But they represent a collection of accessible documentary filmmaking which resonates with audiences today. Blending humor with seriousness, thought with emotion, Moore's movies represent the pop face of the contemporary documentary.

It always humors me when I hear someone say things like, "Michael Moore's movies aren't documentaries because documentaries are based in fact and are supposed to be objective." Really? I had no idea. Documentaries differ from fictional movies in their presentation of narrative, certainly, but they are just as much of narratives as fiction movies. There, I said it. Let the masses be up in arms for someone suggesting that "fact" and "objectivity" are idealistic concepts which work fine in a vacuum but not in motion. No matter how factual, everything is narrative; containing perspectives which reflect the experiences and background of the individual, organization, or institution telling them. Some consider this a bad thing. I do not. I think the sooner we all realize this, the better. Narrative is the basis of our conception of self, culture, family, country, and memory etc. It reflects the principles of the language which enacts us to perform as social actors within organizations and the great web of discourse that is communication.

Documentaries may jettison the notion of creating fictional characters to structure a narrative, but they are still representative of some interest, even if they use facts and data to build around. In that sense, even the most fact-based of documentary filmmaking functions like empirical research, which -- in its structure, focus of study and manner of inquiry -- reflects underlying assumptions (both individual and cultural) about the supposedly objective world. That's not to discredit quantitative research or to disparage it. Rather, it's important to understand contextual and relational details that are always in play, for it is those underlying assumptions (even ones we're not conscious of) that constitute consciousness, providing a limited number of interpretations of the world.

To think that documentaries (or anything else) should be fact-based, lacking in perspective, feeling, and experience is a highly unproductive approach to information. It's good that documentaries (like all narratives) express perspectives, thoughts, feelings, opinions, and experiences. As viewers of them, we shouldn't feel positioned by them to either agree or disagree with their "presentation of facts", but instead think about why they provoke us; how they uphold or deviate from our own individual or cultural values, beliefs, and conceptions of how the world outside functions.

As I have said many times before, cinema is about feeling, emotional abstraction, and empathizing with the experience of others - whether that's the experience of fictional characters, artists, storytellers, and people of all different backgrounds and perspectives. This is not exclusive to fiction films, but all films. Good documentaries can be fascinating stories/films/accounts of the most seemingly mundane things, such as the life of a troubled, fascinating comic artist in Crumb, or a deep contemplation of life, death, and choice as in The Bridge; they may shed light on political, ecological, and social issues such as the The Corporation (which I just recently viewed) or An Inconvenient Truth. These movies enable the viewer to see the eccentricities and details of human behavior. They inquire into what it means to be human in a wide variety of challening and provocative perspectives through diverse subject matters. I still can't fathom that so many sophisticated scholars, viewers, and critics of cinema often treat documentaries as having a fundamentally different makeup than so-called fiction films. I believe that documentaries are a necessary component to the greater affective, cerebral, and artistic prism of narrative as channelled through the visuality of cinema. The beauty of this medium is that its affective capabilities are not limited to certain narrative "types" or genres. The narrative is only the beginning...

Along with the above mentioned titles, other favorite documentaries of mine include Nanook of the North, American Movie, The Thin Blue Line, and Man with the Movie Camera. I'm interested to hear the favorites of others. So I ask you: what are some your favorite documentaries?

Monday, July 16, 2007

Thoughts on Television and Cinema

In conversation, I often hear the phrases, "It's just entertainment" or "I don't want to have to think, I just want to watch something and enjoy it," and countless others coming from people who claim they are unashamed to watch shows/movies they know aren't "quality drama". This is usually the case with most television and a fair amount of commercial films. Television and cinema are similar in design and function, but the split between them strongly exhibits my adopted notion that not only can nothing be understood or interpreted without context, but that context decides the content; to the point that context is more important than the text. Contextual elements include social, economic, and technological factors (all which are intwined), and they work together to allow consumers/viewers to interpret the difference between television and cinema.

Many have argued that technological and economic factors are drawing together in these media to the extent that the difference between them is growing thinner. Home theater systems and the hypercommercialism of the theater experience, I would argue, blend the boundaries the most. First, home theater systems boast audio and visual perfection so as to replicate one's experience in the theater. Television screens are getting larger, surround sound systems more crisp. Though traditionalists offer that theaters have biggers screens, in reality, one's position in relation to a screen however small or large is more important in terms of the "size" of the image. So what separates these media? It's tough to say. I touched on similar issues recently, which is why I'd rather now look at the texts themselves.

Generally speaking, the medium of television as a visual mode of narrative yields a high level viewer passivity. It seeks to gain a viewer's familiarity with its easily identifiable visual styles and conventions and then loops it, encouraging one to switch off and retreat into a state of numbness. "I don't want to have to think," is one of my favorite phrases because I find it a complete hypocrisy. The process of watching something on a screen, making sense of its narrative and visual cues (however simple they are) requires a lot of thought, actually, and investment. The cognitive and sociocultural elements of watching moving images on a screen and making sense of them are far more complex than most people allow themselves to think about.

Part of the lure of seeing something on a screen as a form of narrative almost entails a bit of shameless voyeurism, as if we know we're not supposed to be watching. This element is intrinsic to all of narrative, but visual narrative especially. And TV is the height of convenient passivity for viewers. That's not to say I'm above it. We all enjoy a little television or simple movies to take our minds off things. It's enjoyable in a very basic sense and for a number of reasons. But the primary source of enjoyment is the desire sameness rather than innovation, which is something that everybody deals with. It is part of our social makeup to fall victim to the lure of convenience and simplicity. Even the most sophisticated of critics cannot deny their indulgences in "guilty pleasures."

But this conflict is much more intricate. Consider the viewer's activity in television. Aside from process of comrehending a moving image, there is a very fundamental essence about TV that enacts its ability to embody passivity yet also breaches this conflict. If we are entertained by something to the extent that we maintain a weekly schedule of watching a show, there is not only thought in that show but investment. Despite readily acknowledging the simplicity of a simple or cliched television show or movie, many of us will invest in spite of this acknowledgment. Where does this come from? Why are we so compelled to watch the screen and engage in thought and feeling (which no one can deny the experience of watching a sitcom or drama is, over long periods of time) yet keep our distance from things we see on that screen that don't adhere to familiar structures and courses? I wish I knew. But it's fascinating to think about. Perhaps even the most sophisticated defenders and/or participants in these media are constantly at battle with some kind of inner desire for the movement-image, which, Deleuze says, is an image one can easily anticipate, and situate within a recognizable field of visual perception. Of course, Deleuze theorized that the time-image frees both the image and the viewer from the limits of the movement-image. But he notes that the movement-image is essentially inevitable, alluding to what seems to be a desire for visual familiarity both social and cognitive in origin.

Though I have only begun reading David Bordwell's Narration in the Fiction Film, its contents have already struck me as revelatory and intriguing. In an early chapter on narration and film form, Bordwell uses constructivist psychology to explore filmic perception and cognition, which proves useful in a discussion of visual perception in light of different visual media. He writes:

"Speaking roughly, the typical act of perception is the identification of a three-dimensional world on the basis of cues. Perception becomes a process of active hypothesis-testing. The organism is tuned to pick up data from the environment. Perception tends to be anticipatory, framing more or less likely expectations about what is out there."

He continues:

"Taken as a purely sensory experience, seeing is a bewildering flutter of impressions. The eye fixates many times per minute, using short and fast movements (called saccades); the eye rotates to compensate for head and body movement; the eyes trembles involuntarily; and most of the visual information we receive is peripheral anyhow. Yet we do not experience a flicker or smear of percepts. We see a stable world, smooth movements, constant patterns of light a nd dark. To the extent that seeing is a bottom-up process, the visual system is organized to make its inferences in an involuntary, virtually instantaneous manner. You 'immediately' see a visual array as consisting of objects distributed in three-dimensional space, and you cannot help seeing this. The automatic construction is also affected by schemat-driven processes that check hypotheses against incoming visual data.... Seeing is thus not a passive absorption of stimuli. It is a constructive activity, involving very fast computations, stored concepts, and various purpose, expectations, and hypotheses."

While Bordwell acknowledges that this concept requires more unpacking if it is to account for the intricasies of visual perception, this theoretical framework for seeing is nonetheless fascinating. The important point about this approach, in my mind, is how it blends the cognitive and the social to the point that they are nearly inseparable. We perceive and interpret according to our own perceptual schemata, hypotheses, and familiarity of visual and auditory conventions.

These concepts intriguingly tie together with the discussion of visual perception in different visual media. The reason I have been thinking about these ideas in more detail of late is that I have observed an a slightly more prominent mention of television's influence over cinema in many reviews of current films. For example, many have written that Live Free or Die Hard is less an organic extension of the previous films featuring Bruce Willis' John McLane but instead a direct inspiration of high intensity action programs such as 24, an assertion I would agree with. While Live Free demonstrates a slick use of action convetions and objects in motion, it rings up hollow as a pure cinematic experience. Perhaps this loose connection to television may have a hand in that. The similarities exist on narrative and stylistic levels, especially since often times the two converge. Other summer movies fall to similar patterns. For example, Evan Almighty contains an unusual amount of infantile "potty" humor for a story that wishes to be so prophetic. This, one could argue, is a direct extension of the sitcom sensibility of sequencing action-reaction shots (e.g. Shot A: squirrel bites Steve Carrell's crotch, shot B: close-up of Carrell's face, eyes widening as he prepares to yell in pain). This trend is seen not just in sitcom-inspired comedies, but also in the action epics like Pirates of the Caribbean. The film's talking-based scenes largely adhere to the same practice of cutting between two actors -- one's face screen left, the other screen right. This aesthetic borrows heavily from sit-coms as well as day time soap operas, both of which came to fruition in the 80's and 90's. For more on this, check out Henry Jenkins' excellent article.

In contemporary mainstream cinema, the "talking heads" method of editing and framing greatly determines the nature of the acting, performance, visual perception, and narrative interpretation. But the influence of contemporary television is much more vast on cinema. The Live Free or Die Hard example works well in this argument, since its visual style, both in its action sequences and expository scenes of establishing its villains heavily borrows from 24, among other shows. Observe the framing of the the villain as he watches a computer screen. Even the lighting gives us the slick, but intense 24-like feeling. The plot of the film could very easily had felt less like a television show than it does. Yes, the screenplay definitely demonstrates its influences, but the real feeling of similarity comes mostly from the editing techniques and compositions, which feel more like a contemporary television show than a movie. Another fascinating example of television affecting "big" cinema is The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which offers a lot of close-ups and talking heads editing contrasted with stereotypically epic compositions (wide open vistas, sustained helicopter shots. While the movies work better in their smaller moments of detail and precision, they definitely represent a strange tension of aesthetic design that echoes the convergence of the visual styles of television and cinema .

While such editing/framing techniques have always been used, they are emphasized much more since the explosion of television as drama/comedy in American culture. This, in fact, is a strange irony. In matters of technology and visual convention, TV was influenced primarily by cinema. But now cinema seems to be more influenced by TV than by its own growth as a medium. Perhaps its growth today is television, which is why so many films abide by conventions employed by TV shows, which themselves are filtered copies of film conventions.

This apparent shift in framing sensibilities no doubt emerges, at least partly, from the tried and true success of sitcom-style, passive-inducing framing styles. In a discussion of mainstream visual perception, one could say that while television was always the influence of the innotivation of cinema, movies are now one step behind television. I am referring to the visual style of its hour-long dramas, not reality television or sitcoms. Shows like Lost, The Sopranos, and various others seem to be pushing into new visual territory (again, by popular standards). They are often more daring and visually unique than genre offerings as served up by Hollywood today.

Yet these shows are not the real trend-setters. Since Hollywood by-and-large seems content to rest safely on conventions of editing, staging, and framing, non-commercial films seem to be the ones now that are exploiting the technological advances of visual media such as digital technology. (Of note, its massive productions employing technology in daring ways often fail, as last year's masterpiece Miami Vice did from a commercial standpoint.) Many of smaller these films engage these technologies and inquire into their role in visual storytelling. I would argue that Television has looked to non-commercial cinema for its influences, and it has done so with great success. Perhaps audiences have embraced these "new" framing and editing techniques because they are loosely and liberally applied to familiar structures that television offer and movies do not. One of the many potential reasons for this is that audiences may have more room for intrigue when they know that something still needs to pan out, whereas the anticipations and expectations of a movie are different. But this is just one of many potential reasons for such varying shifts in visual style in various visual media.

This is really just the beginning of a bigger dialogue about nature of inter-medium influence, connectedness, and disconnectedness and the varying shifts in visual style in various visual media. Situated within David Bordwell's theory of hyperclassical visual style in modern movies as layed out in The Way Hollywood Tells It, an analysis of film and television (on both popular and non-commercial levels) may yield a greater understanding of inter-media influence of visual style and spectator consumption. An even more lucrative entry point into these inquiries is the use of emerging technologies such as HD and digital film.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Cinematic Art's 132 favorite(st) movies

[Update (8/21/08): I have officially enforced Edward Copeland's "Five Year Rule" with my own list, meaning that I've cut out anything released after 2003. Next Year I will begin filtering in 2004 releases, and so on. I think it's a good rule because it's very difficult to assess a movie's place in one's own personal canon if it hasn't been around for very long.]

Equally frustrating and attractive, Top 100 Lists or Favorite All Time Movies Lists are a reality. Back when the Academy Awards were televised in the Winter, I offered many criticisms of lists, awards, and anything else that attempts to quantify artistic quality (here and here), as if measuring art is quantitative process and that quality is a tangible thing. I have since remained steadfast in my feelings. But in wake of the recent update to the American Film Institute's Top 100, and so many writers'/critics' commentaries in response to it (e.g., Jonathan Rosenbaum's Alternative Top 100), as well as the countless amount of personal Top 100 Lists that have appeared on movie blogs, I have since come to see some kind of value to lists. I still think they're dangerous and that they can do more harm than good in shaping the collective consciousness to approach movies (or anything for that matter) from the simple perspective of ranking lists and claiming one movie is the best in an arbitrary and condescending category (Best Animated Film, Best Foreign Language Film). But they are a reality, plain and simple. As a community, myself included, we are obsessed with them despite some of us claiming to be above them. Moreover, the recent critical conjecture over canons is interesting to me not only for the content, but also because of the manner in which our film theorists, scholars, and writes conceptualize of film history and film culture.

Lists by committee, like the AFI list, intrigue me in this regard. But in no way do I acknowledge them to be an authority on anything. Though I do see the strengths of listing and ranking insofar that it can introduce those interested in the study and history of cinema to the subject. But the danger of it is that its status as such a starting point can shape cultural knowledge of cinema to fits its rather constricting and reductive mold of arbitrary ranking and assessment of quality. People may of course branch out beyond them, which and lover of film would obviously encourage, but something about very official tone of these list really gets under my skin. But I nonetheless think it's important to see this as a starting point for diving into cinema. After that, they are better ignored or seen for what they are... starting points. Great cinema exists in all forms and in all places of the globe. To have a definitive list of a certain kind of film and call it official is to misunderstand the subtle beauties of a various kinds of movies.

Despite this buil-in problem with list, I actually enjoy reading personal favorite lists because it provides one a sense of a particular critic/writer's cinematic perspective, if you will. Rankings and numbers (why must we settle on tidy numbers like 100?) don't interest me as much a list, however long, of films which one selects that brings together their cinematic experience. These lists should be unique and personal, exhibiting one's love of the art form and acknowledgment of its history and conventions. These lists shouldn't look the same, but rather consist of films that mean something to one's informed tastes and experiences. Obviously, there will be some overlap. There are undoubtedly agreed upon structural, stylistic, and narrative conventions which we deem good and others not. But if cinema has taught us anything as we now move into the digital age is that narrative is only the surface to the depths into which cinema in its many intricacies and eccentricities can explore. We need to constantly be shifting out sensibilities and pushing ourselves to grow as thinkers, theorists, and critics of cinema.

Art needs critics just as much as critics need art. It can grow based upon the dialogue between artists and critics and the discourse among critics and lovers of cinema. Lists and canons can potentially lure us into the trap of working from a given standard that is met by films on that list. Its design promotes exclusivity and sameness. But I say that we use that design against itself and construct lists based on a truly inquisitive and open perspective of understanding cinematic space and movement. But what's important to acknowledge in all of criticism is the bridge between the knower and the known and the relationship of the critic to that which she theorizes or writes about. In that sense, we must always be reflexive of the craft of criticism, scholarship, and even listmaking, because the structures that undergird them and guide our participation in them strongly influence our interpretation of the artifacts we study. That is why its so important to acknowledge the highly personal aspects of these lists.

My own list below contains 132 films that have shaped my experience with cinema. They are not the only movies that contributed to my movie life and overall self; there are far too many movies to mention for that. Any good movie I have seen has influenced me in some way, if not for challening my views or being grand narrativer statements, but sometimes for my watching them at a specific time in my life, in which a movie has helped take my mind off of current experiences or feelings or perhaps enable me to reflect on them. This can happen even when watching movies that aren't even particularly good.

And that's the beauty of cinema: all of cinema. We participate in a narrative, engaging our senses of sight in sound to experience feeling and thought. It can be an escape, a reprieve, or a world in itself into which we can delve and lose ourselves. A movie is capable of so much. I am both an enjoyer and critic of movies, taking the medium very seriously in attempt to understand the constitutive nature of narrative in our individual and cultural stance in lived experience. We are constructions of our own narratives to the extent that narrative -- in its signifying capabilities (like the language that constructs narrative) -- allows us as social actors to build an understanding of "the world" as we see it and participate in it in the unique ways that each of us do. I am not of the belief that there is an objective world "out there" for us to interpret. We interpret experience according to the narrative that we and others have constructed of it. To me, cinema represents a culmination and collaboration of so many kinds of narratives and aesthetic traditions that to coneive of it as a consumer spectacle is beyond my grasp. I watch movies and experience them for their small pleasures, the moments in which so much seems to come together in a moment of sublimity that all of us so often experience in our own lives.

These movies are my unique list of movies that mean something to me, for different reasons. Some of them represent maybe not so much an emotional connection to the material but a pure exhiliration of discovery in the medium - a discovery that I was not around for when it happened but can still oddly connect with in some way. Others are more recent and would not appear on many "Top" lists but mean something to me personally, representing an emotional connection. Some of these movies may not be structurally sound or critical darlings but may contain movements of complete transcendence, moments that snuck up on me and floored me in their emotional subtlty, provoking feeling and thought that I may not be able to verbalize or understand but which somehow affect me. I go to the movies for these nuances, and I think all of us have such experiences with narrative and in our own lives that, despite not being able to understand them, can feel them. These movies speak to me and my own narrative. I'm sure there are some I forgot to include, others that I may reconsider down the road, and others that I have yet to see which shall feature prominently. Of note, also, is that this list is distinctly slanted toward American cinema. I need to catch up on European cinema, both new and old, as well as Asian Cinema, but right I am content with this list reflecting that, since it representing "where I am" in my cinematic (and personal) life.

Although this is 102 over Jim Emerson's request for my 30 Favoritest Movies, I just couldn't bear to cut it down shorter and have my own narrative fit a pre-determined mold to a tee, despite the challenge (which I acknowledge is the point). So, without further pontificating, here is the list of my 132 Favoritest Movies. From here it will only grow...

"8 1/2" (Federico Fellini, 1963)
"12 Angry Men" (Sidney Lumet, 1957)
"The 39 Steps" (Alfred Hitchcock, 1935)
"2001: A Space Odyssey" (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
"Aguirre, The Wrath of God" (Werner Herzog, 1972)
"A.I. Artificial Intelligence" (Steven Spielberg, 2001)
"Adaptation" (Spike Jonze, 2002)
"Alien" (Ridley Scott, 1979)
"Aliens" (James Cameron, 1986)
"All the President's Men" (Alan J. Pakula, 1976)
"Annie Hall" (Woody Allen, 1977)
"Another Woman" (Woody Allen, 1988)
"The Apartment" (Billy Wilder, 1960)
"Beauty and the Beast" (Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale, 1991)
"Belle de Jour" (Luis Bunuel, 1967)
"The Bicycle Thief" (Vittorio De Sica, 1948)
"The Big Sleep" (Howard Hawks, 1946)
"Blade Runner" (Ridley Scott, 1982)
"Blazing Saddles" (Mel Brooks, 1974)
"Brazil" (Terry Gilliam, 1985)
"Bringing Up Baby" (Howard Hawks, 1938)
"Casablanca" (Michael Curtiz, 1942)
"Chinatown" (Roman Polanski, 1974)
"Cinema Paradiso" (Guiseppe Tornatore, 1988)
"Citizen Kane" (Orson Welles, 1941)
"City Lights" (Charlie Chaplin, 1931)
"A Clockwork Orange" (Stanley Kubrick, 1971)
"Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (Steven Spielberg, 1977)
"The Conversation" (Francis Ford Coppola, 1973)
"Crash" (David Cronenberg, 1996)
"Crimes and Misdemeanors" (Woody Allen, 1989)
"Dark City" (Alex Proyas, 1998)
"Dawn of the Dead" (George A. Romero, 1978)
"Do the Right Thing" (Spike Lee, 1989)
"Double Indemnity" (Billy Wilder, 1944)
"Dracula" (Tod Browning, 1931)
"The Empire Strikes Back" (Irvin Kirschner, 1980)
"E.T. -- The Extra Terrestrial" (Steven Spielberg, 1982)
"Eyes Wide Shut" (Stanley Kubrick, 1999)
"Fargo" (Joel Coen, 1996)
"The General" (Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton, 1927)
"Ghost World" (Terry Zwigoff, 2001)
"Ghostbusters" (Ivan Reitman, 1984)
"The Godfather" (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)
"The Godfather Part II" (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)
"The Gold Rush" (Charlie Chaplin, 1925)
"Goodfellas" (Martin Scorsese, 1990)
"Groundhog Day" (Harold Ramis, 1994)
"Halloween" (John Carpenter, 1978)
"Hamlet" (Kenneth Branagh, 1996)
"Hannah and Her Sisters" (Woody Allen, 1986)
"High Noon" (Fred Zinemann, 1952)
"The Hustler" (Robert Rossen, 1961)
"In the Bedroom" (Todd Field, 2001)
"It Happened One Night" (Frank Capra, 1936)
"It's a Wonderful Life" (Frank Capra, 1946)
"Jackie Brown" (Quentin Tarantino, 1997)
"Jaws" (Steven Spielberg, 1975)
"JFK" (Oliver Stone, 1991)
"King Kong" (Marion C. Cooper, 1933)
"La Strada" (Federico Fellini, 1954)
"L.A. Confidential" (Curtis Hanson, 1997)
"The Last Temptation of Christ" (Martin Scorsese, 1987)
"Lawrence of Arabia" (David Lean, 1962)
"The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Peter Jackson, 2001)
"Lost in Translation" (Sofia Coppola, 2003)
"The Maltese Falcon" (John Huston, 1941)
"Magnolia" (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999)
"Manhattan" (Woody Allen, 1979)
"Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" (Peter Weir, 2003)
"Mean Streets" (Martin Scorsese, 1973)
"Metropolis" (Fritz Lang, 1927)
"McCabe and Mrs. Miller" (Robert Altman, 1971)
"Miller's Crossing" (Joel Coen, 1990)
"Minority Report" (Steven Spielberg, 2002)
"Modern Times" (Charlie Chaplin, 1936)
"Monty Python and the Holy Grail" (Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones, 1975)
"Mulholland Drive" (David Lynch, 2001)
"Nanook of the North" (Robert J. Flaherty, 1922)
"Nashville" (Robert Altman, 1975)
"Network" (Sidney Lumet, 1976)
"Night of the Living Dead" (George A. Romero, 1968)
"A Night at the Opera" (Sam Wood, The Marx Brothers, 1935)
"Nosferatu" (F.W. Murnau, 1922)
"Nosferatu the Vampyre" (Werner Herzog, 1979)
"Notorious" (Alfred Hitchcock, 1946)
"On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954)
"Our Hospitality" (Buster Keaton, 1923)
"Patton" (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1970)
"Pinocchio" (Hamilton Luske and Ben Sharpsteen, 1940)
"Playtime" (Jaques Tati, 1967)
"Princess Mononoke" (Hayao Miyazaki, 1998)
"Psycho" (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)
"Pulp Fiction" (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)
"Raging Bull" (Martin Scorsese, 1980)
"Raiders of the Lost Ark" (Steven Spielberg, 1981)
"Raise the Red Lantern" (Yimou Zhang, 1991)
"Rear Window" (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)
"The Rules of the Game" (Jean Renoir, 1939)
"Schindler's List" (Steven Spielberg, 1993)
"The Searchers" (John Ford, 1956)
"The Seven Samurai" (Akira Kurosawa, 1954)
"The Seventh Seal" (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)
"Sherlock, Jr." (Buster Keaton, 1924)
"Singin' in the Rain" (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1952)
"Shadow of a Doubt" (Alfred Hitchcock, 1943)
"Some Like It Hot" (Billy Wilder, 1959)
"Spirited Away" (Hayao Miyazaki, 2002)
"Stagecoach" (John Ford, 1939)
"Star Wars" (George Lucas, 1977)
"Steamboat Bill, Jr." (Charles Reisner, 1928)
"Strangers on a Train" (Alfred Hitchcock, 1951)
"Sunset Boulevard" (Billy Wilder, 1950)
"Suspiria" (Dario Argento, 1977)
"The Sweet Hereafter" (Atom Egoyan, 1997)
"Taxi Driver" (Martin Scorsese, 1979)
"The Terminator" (James Cameron, 1984)
"Terminator 2: Judgment Day" (James Cameron, 1991)
"The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (Tobe Hooper, 1974)
"The Thin Blue Line" (Errol Morris, 1988)
"The Thing" (John Carpenter, 1982)
"The Third Man" (Carol Reed, 1949)
"Time Bandits" (Terry Gilliam, 1981)
"The Untouchables" (Brian DePalma, 1987)
"The Verdict" (Sidney Lumet, 1982)
"Vertigo" (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)
"Videodrome" (David Cronenberg, 1983)
"Wages of Fear" (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1953)
"Waking Life" (Richard Linklater, 2001)
"The Wizard of Oz" (Victor Fleming, 1939)
"Y Tu Mama Tambien" (Alfonso Cuaron, 2001)
"Young Frankenstein" (Mel Brooks, 1974)

Friday, July 6, 2007

A Feast of Cinema

Over the last twelve years, Pixar Animation Studios has maintained a consistent level of quality in their movies. Though I haven't fallen in love with all of them (e.g. A Bug's Life, Cars), their "disappointments" are usually good enough films in their own rights, and are only labelled considered minor efforts due to the high quality audiences and critics have come to expect from them and. Pixar has become renowned for combining visually unique animation styles with accessible, yet genuine stories that are all but lost in the majority of Hollywood moviemaking. Pixar's repertoire therefore represents a celebration of innovation and tradition, a fusion that manifests in different ways in all of their movies from the great to the good.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Brad Bird's Ratatouille is consistent with Pixar's standard of quality filmmaking. However, its status as a Pixar production may actually work against itself. An average viewer has certain expectations of a Pixar/Disney film in that its oriented towards children, is animated (often associated with children in the American mainstream), and features talking animals (again, associated with children's films). Make no mistake, though; this is a brilliant movie. Not a brilliant Pixar movie. Not a brilliant animated movie. A brilliant movie. So brilliant, I contend, that I would proclaim Brad Bird as one of the really unique voices in American cinema.

At one of my favorite blogs, My Five Year Plan, Brendon Bouzard has written a brief account of the movie that succinctly surmises why this movie is so good. In this short piece, Bouzard takes note of the film's visual style, specifically its "filmness". He writes:

"Here’s another thing to geek out about, animation nerds: if you were ever bugged (as I sometimes was, especially in A Bug’s Life) by the extreme deep-focus cinematography of computer animation, your worries are over. Ratatouille’s greatest formal innovation might be the incredible way it articulates focus as a storytelling element into popular computer animation. Its execution here is flawless, perfectly mimicking the depths-of-focus one might expect from various lensings used in the film, and adding yet another layer of stunning false indexicality to draw a viewer into the narrative."

Bouzard's comments strike the perfect chord in light of the stalled dialogue concerning digital cinema. Ratatouille, despite being purely digital, nonetheless exhibits a real love of the art of filmmaking: the cinematic staging of actors and mise en scene, the simple beauty of composition, the depth-of-focus in how the camera "captures", and the shear viscera of movement. This movie is not over-edited, but rather enjoys its "filmness" despite not existing as "film". Interestingly, Bouzard was responsible for some of the finest writing I've come across about another film which blends the photographic with the digital: Miami Vice. In different ways, both Vice and Ratatouille represent crucial works in the advancement of the medium of digital cinema. They each acknowledge and romanticize their photographic origins and properties, but which actively pursue new syntactical approaches to how we see cinematic images and construct the world of a film in our memory.

There are moments in Ratatouille so visually arresting and yet challenging at the same time. Its images do not exist for the spectator to become a passive recipient of information. These images actively involve the viewer in the construction of the "world" of the movie, which (in my mind) is closely connected to a movie's affective abilities. As we process the visual, auditory, and narrative information, we construct a knowledge of the cinematic space occupied by the characters and action. Too often, this aspect of film viewing goes unrecognized in criticism, but I maintain that the construction of cinematic space is crucial; specifically, how a viewer makes sense of a moving image and constructs a relational memory of its elements. This is no doubt an intricate process that I couldn't even begin to lay out in precise detail, suffice to say that the film exhibits a joy for movement and cinematic space that takes advantage of its digital and analogic properties. The end result is a film with so many memorable moments, images, and feelings that is both incredibly subtle and accessible to all viewers.

Its richness is found in moments both large and small, from the rich detail of the film's rainy opening shot, to the sweeping majesty of Paris when it is first revealed. Amazing detail went into the construction of every aspect of this movie; its tones of atmosphere and feeling come through in every scene and every shot. Some of these can be easily noticed and described. Others need to be enjoyed to be understood.

Apart from the details of the film's form, I simply marvel at how Bird, his animators, and actors gives life to the characters and narrative. The central relationship of the movie, between Remy, a rat who loves to cook, and Linguini, a clumsy amateur chef is brought to such poignant life. Yes, the structure of the film dictates that this relationship undergo conventional patterns of conflict, but the beauty of their relationship is in the small exchanges between them. One such example is immediately following their intial awkward meeting, when Linguini has the assignment of getting rid of Remy. Watching their budding relationship, the expressiveness of the eyes, the awkward speech and movements of a flustered boy without direction, and the vulnerable body motions of Remy, I was reminded of the births of so many memorable relationships in cinema, in particular Eliott and E.T. or between Chaplin and the bling girl in City Lights. Something so naive is captured in nuances of the characters' eyes and faces against the lonely backdrop of riverside Paris.

Ratatouille is full of moments like this. In the thematic background is an earnest inquiry into the nature of identity. Remy's basic conflict of his desire to interact with humans and engage in the very human art of cooking is in direct contrast with what his family, in particular his father, believes. The film does not so simply side with Remy and paint his family as buffoons who need to grow. Remy sometimes sees them as such, sometimes validly, sometimes invalidly. The whole movie deals with the notion that perception is often determined based on social context and one's own positioning in relation to that which is perceived. Remy's father has good reason to keep away from humans, yet Remy (in a moment of defeat and conquer) claims that "nature is change," before walking away from his father. When asked where he was going, Remy says, "With any luck, forward."

The above description may paint a picture of a movie that speechifies or condescends with messages about embracing those different from you. (I would expect that too if I hadn't seen the movie!) Incredibly, the films instead serves up these conflicts and ideas in subtle ways, allowing the viewer to feel them and ponder them. There are dimensions to all of the characters, some that go completely unnoticed by other characters, even viewers. Even the seemingly elitist critic, Anton Ego, is revealed to be much more complex than others (even himself) allow themselves to see. This thematic note is the center of whole film, and it strikes a resounding chord.

I wish I could recount all of Ratatouille's treasures. But I think I'll turn it to A.O. Scott, in his excellent review serves up the best possible conclusion to a reflection on such a masterpiece:

"Remy and Mr. Bird take a stand in defense of an artisanal approach that values both tradition and individual talent: classic recipes renewed by bold, creative execution. The movie’s grand climax, and the source of its title, is the preparation of a rustic dish made of common vegetables — a dish made with ardor and inspiration and placed, as it happens, before a critic. And what, faced with such a ratatouille, is a critic supposed to say? Sometimes the best response is the simplest. Sometimes “thank you” is enough."

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

"Why Does Michael Bay Get to Keep On Making Movies?"

"I miss you more than Michael Bay missed the mark when he made 'Pearl Harbor'. I miss you more than that movie missed the point, and that's an awful lot, girl."

So go the lyrics of the quintessential love song featured in Team America: World Police. Oh, how knowing that song is. It expertly sums up Michael Bay in a mere matter of words, yet its observations run much deeper.

Although Michael Bay has become a punching bag of critics and "serious" moviegoers, he has an undeniable presence in contemporary mainstream moviemaking. In just over a decade making films, Bay's trademark slow-motion intensity and perfectly formed explosions have become a staple in American cinema. So influential were Bay's early films (e.g. Bad Boys, The Rock, Armageddon), in all their guns-blazin', jingoistic glory, that Bay's unchanging directorial touch in recent films comes off more like a parody (see The Island). It seems that ever since Bay applied his skills to a historical tragedy in the disastrous Pearl Harbor, he has fallen from glory with the American moviegoing public, including the likes of his most ardent fans. Nonetheless, his presence remains strangely powerful in spite of his recent box office disappointments. Sure, his movies are plugged with multi-million dollar ad campaigns, but so are many other films whose directors seem to fade into oblivion. Even those that dislike Michael Bay often love to hate him. And despite that Jerry Bruckheimer has moved on, another somewhat prominent producer by the name of Steven Spielberg has taken Bay under his wing and may likely be the person responsible for upstarting his career once more.

Bay's latest film, Transformers, releases to cineplexes today, and I must admit that I am curious to see it. When I saw the trailer for Transformers, I wasn't surprised to see Bay's name attached, since it appears to have all of his trademark styles, i.e. extreme lighting around actors' faces, shaky close-ups, slow motion upward looking shots of intimidating characters). I tend to dislike sameness in visual style, but there is something really fascinating about la cinema de Michael Bay that I can't quite put my finger on. It's easy to label him as childish or immature, and peg his movies as consisting of little more than incoherent action, but I think there's more to it than that. Something separates Bay from the legion of imitators his films have spawned and even the filmmakers who have influenced him, namely Tony Scott. Maybe it has something to do with his unique image in American filmmaking being so strong even though it has undergone so many changes in such a short amount of time. Or perhaps the massive orgies of violence he orchestrates echo something deep-ridden within our collective unconscious. I think it's probably equal shares of both. But no matter how much critics and movie lovers loathe to see the phrase "a Michael Bay film," there is something to his visual style that remains interesting, if not praise-worthy in the traditional sense.

In short, Bay embodies everything big, simplistic, naive, and bloated about Hollywood blockbuster moviemaking. When he first emerged on the movie scene under the tutelage of one Jerry Bruckheimer, he exhibited a flair for melodrama, high intensity action, and pure movement that was, dare I say, enjoyable in films such as Bad Boys and The Rock. Both movies were sensory overload, but their energy level and quick pacing made them fun. Yet they always walked that line. It's as if Bay was a ticking time bomb, having made two decent action films and then just waiting for just the right story to unleash what he had barely avoided thus far. That opportunity came with Armageddon, one of the most assaulting, painful movies these eyes have seen. Bay demonstrated with this movie that his particular abilities of cinematic movement and sensory overload were delicate and could easily blow up (large pun intended) in his face if not provided the proper boundaries. Unfortunately, Armageddon may as well have been called "Bay Unleashed." The majority of the movie consists of stuff blowing up framed by shaky compositions or perfectly composed shots (depending on the level of visual effects) of city-wide destruction. Either way, it was stuff blowing up, and lots of it. Low and behold, the movie made millions and Bay was crowned the king of the modern action blockbuster.

Then came along Pearl Harbor. Thinking that he could probably take on anything that passed his way, Bay ditched the "asteroids destroying Earth" plot in favor of depicting one of the greatest slaughters in human history. This didn't seem in-line with the spirit of his last three films, all of which featured ludicrous plots, each of which Bay took more seriously as he made them. With Pearl Harbor, he'd be dealing with very delicate material and potentially character-driven drama. As anyone who has seen the movie likely knows, Bay showed for all the world that his gift was not with creating drama. His quick-paced editing may work for frenetic action sequences, but it doesn't hold up well in dialogue-driven scenes which deature sad looks on actors' faces. Fortunately, for him, there was still much to blow up, which he unleashes in the action centerpiece of the movie. Never had I anticipated such horrible death and destruction as I did with Pearl, since clearly the film builds anticipation of the Japanese attack and it wants us to enjoy it. When the movie finally got there, Bay once again went all out for about 30 minutes, creating as much carnage as the PG-13 rating allows.

The best review of the film I read was written by none other than Roger Ebert, whose remarks about Bay's ineptitude at drama and filmmaking in general remain some of the most memorable journalistic film criticism I have read. Ebert said of the film:

As for the raid itself, a little goes a long way. What is the point, really, of more than half an hour of planes bombing ships, of explosions and fireballs, of roars on the soundtrack and bodies flying through the air and people running away from fighters that are strafing them? How can it be entertaining or moving when it's simply about the most appalling slaughter? Why do the filmmakers think we want to see this, unrelieved by intelligence, viewpoint or insight? It was a terrible, terrible day. Three thousand died in all. This is not a movie about them."

Ebert captures the essence of a Michael Bay film in his description of the action, and that is the festishizing of violence, cinematic bodies, and nationalism. He doesn't fetishize these three elements individually so much as in unison with each other. Bay's slick images of violence, destruction, sweaty bodies firing guns, and red, white, and blue is what makes some of his films so striking, memorable, and continually prominent, if not always in a positive way. I wouldn't dare comment on such a massive ideological issue such as the effects and implications of American nationalism, suffice to say that Bay expertly politicizes his movies to pander to the unconscious desires of the general moviegoing public. Pearl Harbor likely failed for more reasons than being poorly made in every sense of cinematic and narrative style. The film represents an odd combination of Bay's worshipping of fantastic violence and a syrupy tone of faux-reverence for something that is very real in America's history. Hence, that movie feels more like mass-produced cinematic equivalent of fast food that it is.

A few short years after Pearl Harbor, Bay returned to his roots with Bad Boys II, Or did he? Yes, he has made a film with all the slow motion shots in the world of Will Smith and Martin Lawrence wielding handguns, yes we have hellicopter chases over water, yes we have incoherent, overly long action sequences. But where this was somewhat enjoyable in a guilty kind of way in the first film, it is excruciating in this sequel, which seems more a sequel to Armageddon than Bad Boys. No doubt, Bay fetishizes violence, death, and flying bodies through the air once again in Bad Boys II, but even that is only pleasurable in moderate amounts, right? ... And just like that, Bay's skill for making sweat-saturated bodies, gun violence, and destruction so enjoyable backfired when he supposedly "went too far." Suddenly, so many moviegoers and critics looked so unfavorably on Michael Bay (as his box office numbers in recent years show), as if we hadn't been enjoying the action films of his and others for the past 20 years, as if we have never slowed down while behind the wheel to observe the carnage of an auto-accident. That is one of the many reasons that I am more than curious ro see Transformers, as well as see how it fares with the American moviegoing public with whom Bay has been so estranged for the last several years.

His films may be juvenile and increasingly overstuffed, but Michael Bay's abilities to depict mass-violence so desirably should not be ignored. Occasionally, they can result in films that are pleasurable to view, if shamefully so. Nevertheless, Bay's images somehow tap into a greater unconscious feeling that both attracts and repulses audiences to/from not just his films, but violence as a greater idea. His melding of nationalism, violence, and bodies in slickly packaged images that ooze of the products they promote is endlessly fascinating. As spectators, we are both ashamed and overjoyed with the success of Michael Bay.

If Transformers tanks, then his career may tailspin and he will forever be remembered as the action director with one of the most successful decades in Hollywood and nothing more. But if it turns to box-office gold over this Fourth of July weekend (which it likely will), then Bay can rest easy knowing that he can safely blow stuff up for the next 10 or 15 years. And we'll either love it or love to hate it; either way, we'll love it.