Monday, August 27, 2007

Roger Ebert and his Great Movies

As I do most Sundays, I was perusing Roger Ebert's website yesterday morning and saw that the Great Movies section appears to be up and running again. Of course, this is great news. The column has been a staple in my online film reading for as long as I can remember. Running once every two weeks (with the Answer Man column appearing on alternate Sundays), the column features some of Ebert's best writing and film criticism as he reflects on cinematic treasures. His insights on individual films are unique, even subtle and are sufused with an extensive knowledge of film history and cinematic style. Unlike the lengthy analyses appearing in film journals or books, these columns can usually be read in less than 15 minutes and are smoothly written. This coupled with the aforementioned insights make the column an essential read, 26 Sundays a year. Another great aspect of the column is the unexpected nature of the selections. At first glance, it would seem that he adheres to your typical movie critic canon, with expected choices like Casablanca, Citizen Kane, The Godfather, It's a Wonderful Life, and others. But a closer look reveals that Ebert's tastes and sensibilities are very ecclectic, even brashly contrarian. On what other list will you find Saturday Night Fever just below Santa Sangre or Yojimbo right after Yellow Submarine?

This week's selection, Pan's Labyrinth is in some ways expected, due to his absence from reviewing when the film was releases last Winter. It might seem that the Great Movies column is appropriate for it because it would give him a chance to review the film (as he clearly loved it). But as with most of Ebert's criticism, there is more to this selection than might initially appear. Over the last month or two, Ebert has revisited some of bigger releases over the last year that he was not able to review during their release. These reviews, which include four-star reviews of The Departed, Zodiac, and Casino Royale, were not published in the great movies column, but instead ran alongside reviews for current films in release. While I have no inside information on this, I would guess that the choice to run the aforementioned reviews on the main page of was to call readers' attention to the fact that Ebert has now officially reviewed several prominent movies of the last several months. Why not then go back and review dozens of late 2006 and early 2007 releases? Because it appears that Ebert is selectively choosing a couple of films that seem as though they will be "around for a while"; by this I mean that films like Casino Royale and The Departed are going to be analyzed and discussed for a long time to come and represent memorable artificats in mainstream American cinema while Ebert was gone. Of course, he can't go back and review them all, or even get to all of the similar memorable staples during his absense. But his reviews of these respective films represents an effort to record his own contribution to the dialogues about them.

So what does it mean to survery the collective interests in determining what will be discussed or deemed cinematically important, if not for quality but perhaps for influence? Difficult to say. It's more a guessing game that it seems. His initial three choices are rather safe (among them one best picture winner and an origin story for one of cinema's most influential characters), and I would expect that his reviewing such films does not continue for a whole lot longer, since he must commit the majority of his time on reviewing new films. Notably, Roger thought highly of all of the older films that he has reviewed, which I believe only includes The Departed, Casino Royale, and Zodiac (but I could be wrong), which is why it would seem appropriate that he would include his review of Pan's Labyrinth among this effort to survey "important" movies of the last year. Instead, his review of Guillermo Del Toro's film appears in the Great Movies column, which is typically grounds for established classics that have cemented themselves in his mind and that he has seen a number of times over the years. A curious choice, for sure, but one that I may understand.

Time plays a big role in cinema; both within it and outside it. I should note that I don't take the word "great" lightly. Like "classic" or "masterpiece", it's a term that suggests another level for a movie, one that can't really be determined based on a single (or even mutiple) viewing/s of a film, however much it may grab you or announce itself as great. Yes, these terms are broad and flimsy, and are rather empty without sufficient analysis and examination, but they wield great influence for both critics and readers, as the continued popularity of Top 100 movies lists suggests. As Edward Copeland notes in the regulations for his Non English-Language Films List, assessing cinema essentially requires the critic to really wrestle with the text before placing it among the pantheon of films that s/he has seen in many contexts and places in one's own life; these films show new colors each time, while unveiling new dimensions to old perspectives each time they are viewed. In that sense, time is required for any movie to be considered great or classic.

But in our experiences as critics, scholars, or film lovers, some movies ingrain themselves in our minds and souls, where they continue to live. Although once is never enough for any great movie, there are rare instances (which I find often depend upon the individual and her/his experiences with life and cinema) when we latch onto a movie when we first experience it. During these experiences, we can both be invovled in the immediate moment of the film's sensibilities, compositions, sights and sounds, while simultaneously recognizing that this movie's treasures --a few of which may be breached in that first viewing-- lay in store to be discovered in more detail on further viewings. It's a strange intuition, to know that a movie will stay with you and affect you so deeply in so many different ways, but it's one that I would guess every movie lover experiences every so often. For me, and I would guess Roger Ebert, Pan's Labyrinth is such a movie. In recognizing this, perhaps Ebert felt it necessary to place the film immediately among the many great films over the past 100-plus years.

I'm sure others would disagree, but my two viewings of the films suggest to me that Pan's Labyrinth deserves to stand among the best. Although I hope to someday examine the film from a variety of perspectives (I shared my initial thoughts here), I can now only observe those those intangible intuitions and feelings of how the experience of seeing that film (or any great film) can affect me so profoundly. Most great movies are in some form (albeit in very different ways) ruminations on the elusive human condition as manifest in visual narrative. In that sense, all great movies are reflexivse of some element of narrative or cinema, as narrative is one of the very few defining elements of humanity throughout all civilizations, right down to every individual. Narrative is apart of all of our lives, and, in the case of Pan's Labyrinth, we have narrative that is equally ethereal and brutally realistic. Some how, some way, Del Toro captures the fleeting feeling of that enraptured state that any person may find her/himself in while experiencing a narrative. The film juxtaposes two different worlds, the endless spectrum of imagination and the harsh reality of organized warfare and governmental control. The beauty of the film is not in how it separates these two worlds, but in how it brings them together, demonstrating their indelible influence upon one another.

Here is a short excerpt from Ebert's review of the film (the first and last paragraph -- it's up to you to read the rest!):

"Pan's Labyrinth" is one of the greatest of all fantasy films, even though it is anchored so firmly in the reality of war. On first viewing, it is challenging to comprehend a movie that on the one hand provides fauns and fairies, and on the other hand creates an inhuman sadist in the uniform of Franco's fascists. The fauns and fantasies are seen only by the 11-year-old heroine, but that does not mean she's "only dreaming;" they are as real as the fascist captain who murders on the flimsiest excuse. The coexistence of these two worlds is one of the scariest elements of the film; they both impose sets of rules that can get an 11-year-old killed.


What makes Del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth" so powerful, I think, is that it brings together two kinds of material, obviously not compatible, and insists on playing true to both, right to the end. Because there is no compromise there is no escape route, and the dangers in each world are always present in the other. Del Toro talks of the "rule of three" in fables (three doors, three rules, three fairies, three thrones). I am not sure three viewings of this film would be enough, however."

I'll just make a few more notes about Roger Ebert and the Great Movies column to wrap my thoughts on this...

I generally consider Roger Ebert the Steven Spielberg of film criticism inasmuch that he is often dismissed by his peers for being to "mainstream" but routinely offers subtle insights into filmmaking and film watching throughout his varied work. Yes, he plays by many of the rules (as one must do to thrive in the mainstream), but within those broadly familiar frameworks of informal, seemingly simple weekly reviews, he slides in subtleties that go unnoticed by those who only allows themselves to see the more conventional elements. Not all of his work is brilliant or cutting edge (but whose is?), which is tough considering that he reviews hundreds of films a year. Like the films themselves, his critical insights are not all poetic, incendiary, or great, but he maintains a level of consistent interest and quality in his work that is unparalleled by many, and very often offers sound, subtle, even sublime movie criticism.

Perhaps the most important lesson I've learned from Roger Ebert through his criticism is that any movie can be great, whether its about dueling spaceships or existential voids. Ebert's passionate writing about a diverse field of movies not only expresses his broad taste for storytelling, but also communicates his philosophy that cinema is a medium for all stories and that critics should never be above certain kinds of movies. Blockbusters or indies, new or old, greatness can be found in all corners of the medium, in all types of stories. No piece says this more than what is perhaps my favorite article by Ebert, which is a retrospective of the First 100. This article spoke to me 10 years ago, and (much like a great movie) continues to speak to me today, only in new ways. Here is an excerpt:

"I like to sit in the dark and enjoy movies. I think of old films as a resource of treasures. Movies have been made for 100 years, in color and black and white, in sound and silence, in wide-screen and the classic frame, in English and every other language. To limit yourself to popular hits and recent years is like being Ferris Bueller but staying home all day.

I believe we are born with our minds open to wonderful experiences, and only slowly learn to limit ourselves to narrow tastes. We are taught to lose our curiosity by the bludgeon-blows of mass marketing, which brainwash us to see "hits," and discourage exploration.

I know that many people dislike subtitled films, and that few people reading this article will have ever seen a film from Iran, for example. And yet a few weeks ago at my Overlooked Film Festival at the University of Illinois, the free kiddie matinee was "Children of Heaven," from Iran. It was a story about a boy who loses his sister's sneakers through no fault of his own, and is afraid to tell his parents. So he and his sister secretly share the same pair of shoes. Then he learns of a footrace where third prize is . . . a pair of sneakers.

"Anyone who can read at the third-grade level can read these subtitles," I told the audience of 1,000 kids and some parents. "If you can't, it's OK for your parents or older kids to read them aloud--just not too loudly."

The lights went down and the movie began. I expected a lot of reading aloud. There was none. Not all of the kids were old enough to read, but apparently they were picking up the story just by watching and using their intelligence. The audience was spellbound. No noise, restlessness, punching, kicking, running down the aisles. Just eyes lifted up to a fascinating story. Afterward, we asked kids up on the stage to ask questions or talk about the film. What they said indicated how involved they had become.

Kids. And yet most adults will not go to a movie from Iran, Japan, France or Brazil. They will, however, go to any movie that has been plugged with a $30 million ad campaign and sanctified as a "box-office winner." Yes, some of these big hits are good, and a few of them are great. But what happens between the time we are 8 and the time we are 20 that robs us of our curiosity? What turns movie lovers into consumers? What does it say about you if you only want to see what everybody else is seeing?"

Below is a short list of some of my favorite Great Movies reviews over the years.

Dark City
E.T. -- The Extra-Terrestrial
Groundhog Day
McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Saturday Night Fever
Star Wars
Strangers On a Train

It's worth noting that I agree with Ebert that each one of these movies is indeed great, which would lead some to deduce that my love of Ebert's criticism is tied to the fact that I love his reviews I agree with. As I've noted before, sometimes I couldn't be in greater contrast with Roger regarding some movies (ahem, War of the Worlds!). But engaging criticism is not about agreeing with the critic. It's about learning and challenging one's own interpretation of a movie or understanding of movies. Why then do I highlight these movies? Because they represent a diverse collection of his writing that is personal, knowledgeable, poetic, sometimes even profoundly moving work about films I personally hold closely. That love or appreciation of these films was enhance, stretch, even challenge after reading his reflections. I believe that all of Ebert's best writing and critical qualities are contained in these reviews to varying degrees. For me, they highlight his flexibility and out-and-out quality as a film critic. His writing continually shows me that writing about cinema is both incredibly important and very personal. Nothing better sums up Ebert's place in film criticism than Jim Emerson's observation in May: "He's so very much more than the sum of this thumbs."

Now that I've showed you my list of favorite Great Movies, let's see yours.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Non-English Language Films Project

[Update: Elusive Andy Horbal post found. See below.]

For the very few who haven't read about or contributed Edward Copeland's Non-English Language Films project, I suggest you do so over at at Edward Copeland On Film. Regrettably, I was unable to contribute to the first round of nominations but I will be contributing my Top 25 in just under a month (ballots are due September 16). I think this is a rich project for a number of reasons. First, as a follow-up to the inevitably flawed project that was the Online Film Community's Top 100, this list serves as something of a statement from online film writers concerned about their own image and place in film scholarship and eager to contribute to that larger dialogue, a dialogue which (as I wrote previously) is happening right now, partly because of the growing body of worthy criticism here on the web.

One especially notable aspect of this project is that it doesn't include just film bloggers, but instead a wide variety of critics, scholars, and online writers. On that list, we see established journalistic critics like Carrie Rickey and Jonathan Rosenbaum alongside several prominent film bloggers, not to mention a few academic critics. Putting together such a list is a progressive step in the interactional nature of blogging and its place in film criticism. When it's finished it will not represent an authoritative list as voted on by a group or committee falling under the same name such as the "Online Film Community" or "American Film Institute". This instead includes a variety of perspectives and exists primarily for the exposure of these voices in a participatory experience (almost like a seminar) during which readers and contributors can learn about films they've missed and what other film lovers and critics think about international films.

Of course the rigorous structure to this list --which bars silent films and all English language films-- is limiting, but such restrictions are necessary for this project to succeed. Besides, this experiment will not represent the be-all-end-all of non-English Language movies but instead will generate discussion and dialogue about films that deserve more discourse and criticism in the online writing circuit as well as in the published ones. As Edward has noted, this may only be the beginning of projects like this. That there are some restrictions will not hinder the experience for me at all; it only opens possibilities for more projects like this in the future. Personally, I'm glad to take part in it. Although my experience with many of these movies is not nearly as vast as most other contributors, I have been watching these films rigorously of late in hopes of broadening my sensibilities before I submit my list. Many of my picks may still be fresh in my memory and will have seen only once (I just saw Jacques Tati's wondrous Playtime for the first time last night and its still dancing in my head), but that probably adds a flavor to my contribution that others may not have. In time, I'll have seen many of these movies; some several times as others have. So though I feel somewhat inexperienced, this project like online film writing in general has opened innumerable possibilities for me as I continue my own experiences in online writing and criticism.

One last note, somewhat unrelated: Andy Horbal recently shared a brief thought (which, he explains, was posted, accidentally removed, and is now up again) comparing film blogging to filmmaking, which is kind of a profound insight in its simplicity. In light of the above discussion and the participation and collaboration I'm seeing in the online film writing world, Andy's words resonate strongly. It's actually kind of inspiring (If I can find the post, I'll provide a link). I have always been of the mindset that art requires criticism just as much as criticism requires art, but this specific comparrison of film blogging and filmmaking --and the various levels of them-- is a neat idea.

Monday, August 20, 2007

The Digital Embrace

"To read a narrative continuum is in fact to arrange it in a variety of structures, to strive for concepts or labels which more or less sum up the profuse sequence of observations." - Roland Barthes

Just recently, I watched Zack Snyder's 300 on DVD, which, like Sin City (2005) and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004), superimposes "real" actors on a sythnetic canvas: lumbering beasts, endless armies, gallons of blood, severed limbs, and entire cities were added in post-production while production likely consisted of actors in front of a green screen. Like the aforementioned films, 300 is a sometimes harsh melding of digital and analogic properties of cinematic style and narrative. Audience reception of these green screen films varies, but their presence in the Hollywood mainstream is becoming more prominent.

While many would agree that neither Sky Captain nor Sin City were entirely successful as genre narratives, it's tough to say whether that's due to their digital properties. That the manner in which a story is visualized greatly impacts the effect of the story doesn't help when attempting to assess these two elements independent of each other. Nevertheless, both movies relied upon familiar temporal and causual relations as they experimented with cinematic space via their digital design: Sky Captain is a very enjoyable throwback to a number of golden age film styles --from film noir to John Huston adventures-- while Sin City combined a hyper-violent Tarantino-esque visual design with a graphic comic aesthetic. These films' experimentation with spatial and temporal relations were successful with the target audiences for the respective films because their intended viewers were familiar with the genres and visual structures, and could "fill in the gaps" while acknowledging the artifice of the content and the sometimes harsh juxtapositions of the analogic and the digital.

300 is very much in line with this pre-established logic of spectatorship, not deviating much from the editing and compostional styles of contemporary music videos and popular cinema. It features digitally enhanced slow-motion action shots, detailed vistas and digitally created monsters that wrestle with the human actors; but this all serves to sustain the very same purpose as Mel Gibson's Braveheart and George W. Bush's war propoganda about honor, valor, and vanguishing evil. Some hail the film's supposedly groundbreaking visual techniques and synthetic compositions, but in reality, the film's images are purely conventional. That's not to say they can't be effective; but audience response (as well as some critical response) to the film has been overwhelmingly positive in my observations, and that response is what really interests me. 300 wants to convince you that it's status as digital --which the filmmakers boldly pronounce-- elevates it beyond the structural design and trends of photographically based films. It features self-consciously "different" movements and framing techniques by the standards of most risk-free popular cinema, but as compared to sitcom style framing and editing, that's not saying much. If we're comparing the film to the real originality from the likes of Tati or Kubrick, then it becomes evident that 300 fits more with the subset of popular cinema that prides itself on being different and noncomformist by showcasing overtly digital composition, but which really fits the mold of intensified continuity to a tee and challenges nothing.

Nevertheless, the film is worth analyzing for its employment of effects and how we are cued to perceive them. The digital environments inhabited by the respective characters of these films are at once supposed to be real and unreal inasmuch that the spectator may perceive them and form a spatial knowledge of them as concrete despite the acknowledged reality that they are unreal. These films therefore exhibit qualities of real, photographed space (an already questionable term). But by acknowledging the artifice of these environments, the viewer may thus accept the incongruent relations of cinematic space and thereby accept the faker looking effects as part of the storytelling. Coincidentally, this cues the viewer to settle into a state of passive admiration for digital images. It seems that the more overt filmmakers are with digital effects in movies such as 300 or Sin City, the greater response they achieve from their intended audience, of which many journalistic critics are apart. Yet distinct relations between the makeup of the images and the perceiver's ability to interpret them is largely underdiscussed.

Though I have staunchly defended digital technology in cinema since this blog's inception, I have focused on movies that I personally consider innovative. I have praised many big-budget films for their employment of the digital, but few of them have seen such high praise from popular audiences or even critics. As evidenced by what I consider to be significant advancements of the medium in movies like Miami Vice (2006) (a hugely budgeted movie whose treasures are only reaped by cinephiles and a handful of critics since it flopped with popular audiences), my interests in these media clearly differ with a common moviegoer or critic. Nevertheless, attempting to grapple with popular manifestations of digital media in cinema is crucial to my own perspective of digital technology. Specifically, I like to look at popular texts in relation to the greater advancement of the technology, especially how it is viewed in the eyes of consumers and moviegoers. There is undoubtedly a major shift occuring in popular cinema, if not from the filmmaking angle but instead concerning the collective understanding and interpretation of digital cinema.

Looking back on some of the more successful movies extensively employing digital technology, reception of them has been rather inconsistent both with critics and audiences. It's as if we are in a collective state of uncertainty regarding digital technology. Ever since Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) and Jurassic Park (1993), two movies that are discussed more for their use of digital effects than their storytelling, it seemed like digital technology was ready to explode. Now, roughly 15 years and millions of effects shots later, I cannot distinguish any clear direction in terms of how audiences and critics receive the technology. Some will often complain that movies are too effects-heavy, while others seem to crave effects since they spell out more destruction in high-budgeted action movies.

The prevailing current attitude in the critical community is one of trepidation, as movies are commonly criticized for their increased use of digital technology. About movies like 300 and The Matrix, we read popular cinema is embodying more aspects of video games as they are increasingly pixelated, to which I respond: How is that a criticism, and what does that mean, anyway? I have seen little real research or deeper analytical inquiries into how digital cinema is actually received with critics, consumers, and cinephiles. There are many opinions about it, but they are often based on uninformed assumptions. Meanwhile, there is so little actual criticism of digital storytelling outside your typical appreciations of digital effects in DVD documentaries and TV specials. Teminator 2 is routinely cited as a digital effects revolution and is considered a great movie because of it, yet its status as such has clouded the real issue of how those effects influence storytelling. (Note: Its arguably superior predcessor, The Terminator, by comparison, doesn't even seem to exist at all sometimes. I guess nobody wants to see a movie with stop motion animation anymore.) It seems that effects are often cited for why certain films are successes and others failures, yet there is no correlation between increased effects use and either box office revenue or critically agreed upon quality, which suggests two things: 1) that the reception of digital cinema may not be in line with the greater use of it in visual narrative, and 2) that critics and audiences are in many ways just as apprehensive about the technology as they were 15 years ago.

George Lucas' Star Wars prequels --which pioneered many of these digital filmmaking techniques and post-production-leaning filmmaking methods-- have raked in millions of dollars at the box office. But much of that can be attributed to the already rabid fan base of the series, Lucasfilm's and 20th Century Fox's successful marketing campaigns, and previous trilogy's status as a familiar mythology in moviegoers' canon. Though each recent Star Wars film made more than $300 million, critical and audience conjecture has not been kind to the films, even now as they are cemented as a trilogy. Yet when we hear about the failures of the films, one of the most common reasons is their reliance on digital effects, which in turns effects performances and the liveliness of the movie. But does that make effects inherently bad?

Since there seems to be little consistency when it comes to how certain digitally-based films are received, perhaps we can speculate that perceivers' expectations have something to do with it. Sure, we can lean on narrative quality, but that is often influenced more by personal and cultural ideology than real objective standards of quality. That some stories are poorly told for their over-reliance on digital cinema says more about viewers' notions of good storytelling (which shift according to the emergence of new technologies) than about the effects themselves. The fact is, there are innumerable potential contributors to how a film's images are perceived and interpreted that to single out effects not only is invalid and reductive, it says a lot about how a viewer conceives of visual storytelling at all.

In the scope of digital cinema's success stories, 300 is distinct insofar that its booming success was a great surprise to many. Although Frank Miller has a strong following, that alone cannot account for more than $200 million in theatrical box office receipts, in March especially (a month not known for generating big box office). The movie could have followed a similar pattern to like-minded predcessors; it could have been a relative success, such as Sin City ($74 million), or it could have borderline flopped, like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow ($37 million). But it far surpassed all expectations and is one of Hollywood's biggest success stories of the year. Yet one should note that while each of these films demonstrate the overwhelming presence of the digital in contemporary cinematic narrative with varying degrees of success, they each fit comfortably within specific genre norms and styles, further supporting the hypothesis that their images rely more on spectatorial acknowledgment of narrative relations and genre bounds, which thus yields passive admiration for supposedly new images.

It's clear that digital filmmaking techniques have advanced in extraordinary ways over the last 15 years. However, although movies are becoming increasingly digital in design, it still seems that audiences nor critics can really make sense of this technology, even in spite of 300's success, which just shows me that audiences are becoming more comfortable with this particular use of the technology, which should be expected after 15-20 years of mainstream use. How these technologies alter our way of seeing images is moreoreless uncertain, though, which is evident over the nature of the discourse surrounding digital cinema. There are proponents and naysayers on both sides of the debate for digital cinema's validity, but even considering digital technology in a "good" or "bad" light assumes photographic means of visual narrative is the standard by which all future technology is measured.

I'm sure I could be proven wrong with a number of examples, and I anticipate these arguments. But when we really step back and try to look at the bigger picture of digital cinema, it looks increasingly muddled in terms of the discourse about it and how it is perceived. We can all frame our opinions about the technology --however informed or uninformed they are-- and piece together an argument about digital technology and its place in storytelling, cinema, and visuality. But for every argument one makes, several others can counter that argument and offer another. Now, more perspectives are emerging along with potential uses for digital technology, which is now being used as much more than a tool for special effects-laden movies, but itself is becoming an expression on its own terms. David Lynch's Inland Empire, while not being a huge hit by any stretch, represents a prominent filmmaker actively exploring the possibilities of digital cinema. On the maintream front, Robert Zemeckis' forthcoming Beowulf employs a rare form of digital cinema in which the movements of the actors are digitally captured and then animated into a completely photorealistic, yet synthetic movie. In the case of Beowulf, as well as other animated movies like it (namely Monster House and Zemeckis' own Polar Express), the end result is entirely digital, but is based on photographic properties.

The shear diversity of uses of digital media and the variety of perspectives about them speaks to the lack of definition that really pervades the cleanly defined analog/digital dichotomoy. Having just seen Lynch's Inland Empire, a true convergence of form and content in the digital realm, I was reminded of how much there is still yet to be explored with these media, specifically their relationship to narrative. That connection is rarely breached (at least that I've seen) in discourse concerning digital media.

Filmmaking has drastically changed due to the prominence of digital cinema, not just for filmmakers but for viewers of and participants in these media. Now more than ever, more emphasis is placed on pre-production and post-production, whereas in the analogic days of cinema the greater emphasis was on production itself. How this shift alters the effect of making and seeing a film is difficult to sum up by examining (however in-depth) a number of digitally influenced films. But we may still gain some insight by observing normative trends of popular cinema of today from two broad vantage points: 1) how it sustains and/or deviates from the stylistic and narrative norms established in last 20 years of digital cinema (which entails observation of how digital cinema has evolved in that time), and 2) how it stands in relation to pre-digital cinema, or photographic (analogic) cinema. The binding element of these two modes of analysis is that the digital exists with the analogic rather than displacing it. The medium itself is made up of many media, so to say that a given film is strictly analogic or strictly digital is foolish. How the digital exists in relation to the photographic properties should be the focal point of analysis, since digital cinema abides by stylistic, visual, and narrative norms established long before digital technology.

If we are to accept "digital" as separate from "analog", we would be suggesting that we are in a new age of cinema, free of the constraints of linear storytelling and photographic properties. (I'm not even sure this is possible since even the most abstract of films abide by some visual or stylistic narrative framework, even if that's not adhereing to one.) Nice as that sounds, it's an awfully big claim that just wouldn't hold up if applied in theory or practice. But it's a mentality fueled by the popular analog/digital model that so many of us use to understand these technologies. If anything, the wide use of digital technologies and the endless ways in which they enable narratives and images to be seen, constructed, and interpreted in entirely new ways suggests how flimsy terms like "analog" and "digital" really are. Perhaps as more ways of expressing visual narratives are increasingly exercised in filmmaking through the use of digital video, effects, and animation, the separation of analog and digital will no longer be relied on to understand these emerging media and the analog/digital model may finally be rightly seen as a false dichotomy.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Language and Images

Although I often suggest that visuality does not adhere to the same signifying principles of language (i.e., orality, literacy, textuality), I concede that moving images are often constructed and interpreted via a system of representation influenced by language. Images may not inherently exist as such (although many would disagree), but our perception of them is shaped by our use of language. Images may include language or complement language, and even though they require language so as to enable perceivers to interpret them and form meaning, images nor their elements intrinsically function as representative system of meaning. While images and language (i.e., letters, words) are not analogous to one another, it's clear that they need one another. That necessity assumes a relationship that can only be comprehended within the structures of language.

Despite not exploring this relationship specifically, David Abram nevertheless elucidates the connection between language and perception --which in my mind is closely linked to understand images-- in his book, Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. Images may not be a language, but one particular passage struck me as utterly essential as we seek to gain more knowledge of the elusive relationship between perception, language, and that which language signifies. Abram's note of the expression of language (or images) is particularly intriguing. Try substituting image/s for language and you'll see what I mean:

"The enigma that is language, constituted as much by silence as by sounds, is not an inert or static structure, but an evolving bodily field. It is like a vast, living fabric continually being woven by those who speak. Merleau-Ponty here distinguishes sharply between genuine, expressive speech and speech that merely repeats established formulas. The latter is hardly 'speech' at all; it does not really carry meaning in the weave of its words but relies solely upon the memory of meanings that once lived there. It does not alter the already existing structures of language, but rather treats the language as a finished institution. Nevertheless, those preexisting structures must at some moment have been created, and this can only have been effected by active, expressive speech. Indeed, all truly meaningful speech is inherently creative, using established words in ways they have never quite been used before, and thus altering, ever so slightly, the whole webwork of the language. Wild, living speech takes up, from within, the interconnected matrix of the language and gestures with it, subjecting the whole structure to a 'coherent deformation.'

At the heart of any language, then, is the poetic productivity of expressive speech. A living language is continually being made and remade, woven out of silence of those who speak... And this silence is that of our wordless participations, of our perceptual immersion in the depths of an animate, expressive world."

Heavy stuff.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Off the Blogging Grid

Tomorrow marks the beginning of a much needed vacation to Myrtle Beach. It's been a long enough summer as it is, and this is coming at just the right time. So for nearly a week I will be "off the grid", at least in terms of the blog. I will still have all the other other electronic annoyances with me, but this marks the first occasion on which I will be away from this or any blog for about a week, and I'm not really sure how I feel about that. Writing and reading film blog articles is such an important aspect of my daily life that I'm sure it will be difficult to cut myself off. Nevertheless, being away from it all will probably provide me new life and insights into my writing and that of others. Like I said, I won't be completely cut off like I would be at some lake somewhere in the Pacific Northwest for a week (though someday I'd like to do that), but this time away from home and the blog should give me some time to enjoy family and friends while also relaxing, watching movies, and reading. In that regard, I'm looking forward to this week off. Before I leave, I will highlight a number of blog and print articles (a la David Hudson at GreenCine Daily) that I've been reading over the last week, as well as what books I will be reading over this short break.

Though this project probably needs no plug from me, I have to point out one of the most ambitious and all-around accomplished film blog projects I've seen this year: Damian Arlyn's 31 Days of Spielberg. Being an unabashed Spielberg fan and scholar myself, I look forward to Damian's terrific posts about each of his films every day. He approaches each movie equally as an unapologetic fan as well as an informed writer; this unique combination provides the flow and insight of each of his entries in this daily series. Though he is currently only up to 1981 --with about a quarter century of Spielberg's films left to go-- we are already seeing the beginnings of a very memorable project. When I return from vacation next Thursday, Damian's blog will be the first place I go to catch up on what will likely be a couple hours worth of great reading. [Note: For thoughts on the emerging plagiarism scandal, click here]

Speaking of Spielberg, seeing these chronologically ordered analyses of Spielberg's films is in itself a fascinating project. This got me thinking about another outstanding blog project, Jim Emerson's Opening Shots Project. As I read Damian's thoughts on almost each opening shot of Spielberg's movies so far, I realized how interesting it would be to examine all of Spielberg's opening shots in relation to each other. As Jim observes, an opening shot can tell you a lot about a movie. But looking at a director's oveure of opening shots may tell us hidden things about a director and provide insight into her or his artistry. I'm not sure if this will be something I pursue as a companion piece to the 31 Days of Spielberg, but it's definitely something I've been thinking about lately.

Anyway, here is a short list of some of some other notable articles I've read recently:

-- Henry Jenkins has recently posted an in-depth interview with Kristin Thompson, author of the upcoming book, The Frodo Franchise: The Lord of the Rings and Modern Hollywood, which I can't wait to get my hands on. Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films are loved by many moviegoers and blasted by most "sophisticated" critics, but the films remain in my mind a great cinematic achievement. Thompson, one of the cinema's premiere scholars, clearly loves the movies and examines them in light of their success and resounding influence in pop culture and today's media economy. If you enjoy reading her work or find Jackson's films worth paying attention to from any critical perspective (aside from the quality of the movies), check out this interview (Part 1 here, Part II here, Part III here).

-- Tram Ngo examines the problematic male perspective in Judd Apatow's Knocked Up.

-- Though I have only seen The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou only once and was not entirely won over, I have to admit that several sequences and images from that movie have stuck with me over the years. Now, having read Ryland Walker Knight's provocative essay on the film, I am intrigued to see it again. Even if you haven't seen the film or didn't like it, the essay is extraordinarly written; a bridge between poetic insight and academic prose.

-- Something that I am greatly looking forward to returning home to (besides hosting an end of the summer fiesta) is David Lynch's Inland Empire, which will hopefully be waiting in my mailbox. As a digital cinema enthusiast and a huge fan of the brilliant Mulholland Drive, I just can't wait to see this film after all I've read about it. Pacze Moj has recently put together a striking piece centered around various images from the film that's worth checking out.

-- IFC's 50 Greatest Sex Scenes may be the definitive countdown of sexuality in cinema. There have been many lists in the past, but this Top 50 hits all the bases and is notable for its shear variety. The list represents not a hypermasculine approach to sexuality in cinema. It does not prize the male gaze above all else; this alone makes it worth reading. The list captures the many manifestations of sexuality made visible in cinema. I only have one nitpicky concern, and that is why Cronenberg's Crash is not on the list. For me, that is the only glaring omission.

-- Jeremy C. over at Austintation, a new film blog, has put together a collection of images from Michael Mann's extraordinary Miami Vice. Appropriately, Jeremy does not supply any commentary. The images speak for themselves.

-- Looking at Ecological Theory and Hollywood Cinema, Brian E. Butler's article in Film-Philosophy represents an interesting juxtaposition of seemingly incompatible theoretical concepts.

-- Finally, In light of the recent news regarding the forthcoming definitive DVD release of one of my favorite films, Blade Runner, I thought I might highlight David C. Ryan's Senses of Cinema article, which takes a retrospective look at the film, its themes, and its resonance today. Much has been written on Blade Runner over the years, but Ridley Scott's sci-fi masterpiece is one of those films that will always seem like not enough has been written about it. It's a rich film with unmatched atmospheric tones and compositions, and it will be released on December 18, 2007.

While away, I will have the chance to dive into a number of books I just received, the first of which is Henry Jenkins' Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, which I have read about half of at this point. It's an outstanding book that deeply analyzes a number of trans-media narratives and events in pop culture today. The book also offers an insightful account of electronic and digital media and how they influence social interaction. I'm inclined to agree with the quote on the front of the book citing Jenkins as the 21st century Marshall McLuhan.

I will also continue reading David Bordwell's Narration in the Fiction Film. During my last vacation earlier this summer, I started reading it but only made it through the first few chapters. When I returned, I was knee-deep in class reading and didn't get a chance to finish the rest of this book. Now, finally, I can pick up where I left off. If the remaining several chapters are as good as the first three or four, then I'm sure I'll learn quite a bit.

I would as well like to get started on another book that I recently purchased, Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World by David Abram. Along with this and the piling research I have for the SCMS blogging workshop in March, I should have my hands full as the Fall semester approaches. If I ever get sick of all this film and media writing, which I find that often I do, I'll catch up on reading Harry Potter; I'm currently about midway through book six. Since reading fiction keeps me sane (along with watching movies), I think I'll have to make a point to at least finish The Half-Blood Prince over the break, after which I will probably plow through book seven.

That about does it for me. Have a great week, and expect me to return next Thursday with a post or two.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Knowledge, Perspective, and the New Life of Criticism

I have seen only one film by Ingmar Bergman and zero by Michelangelo Antonioni. But I have learned more about them over the past week than I had ever expected having not seeing their films. Why? Because of online writing (or blogging). It's extremely unfortunate that cinema lost two of its most prominent artists in such close proximity, but since their respective deaths there has been an explosion of online writing about them, their work, and their position in cinema history the likes of which few newspaper or magazine articles -- barring perhaps the New York Times -- can replicate. Here in the film blogging world, there is real discussion happening right now, and it's invigorating to be a part of in some small way. I should note that this writing not exclusive to bloggers; after all, Jonathan Rosenbaum's editorial in the Times caused a ripple in film criticism. Being somewhat ignorant regarding these two late auteurs, I can't comment on the validity of Rosenbaum's views. I can, however, observe the great amount of critical discussion that has followed, some responding to print-based writing, others not. And it's completely refreshing.

Jim Emerson has written a number of posts (here, here, here, and here) about Bergman and Antonioni, highlighting discussions at other blogs while contributing his own voice to the dialogue. His most recent piece, which asks the simply but difficult question, "Who Matters?" in light of Andrew Sarris' retrospective article on Bergman and Antonioni, is the last in a string of many provocative pieces touching on subjects of auteurism and contrarian criticism in which he surveys online and print writing in what seems to be a larger inquiry into restrospective observations of cinema. Jim's posts as well as others' such as Girish Shambu's terrific entry on Bergman (and the subsequent discussion), Zach Campbell's dissection of the Rosenbaum piece, Chris Stangl's thoughtful reflection on Antonioni, and Michael Atkinson's theory-based approach to the cultural impact of Bergman and Antonioni have inspired me to reflect on a number of important issues that critics, movie lovers, bloggers, and scholars now face, especially as the critical discussion grows larger and more varied with blogging. One thing I have learned over the past week or so about blogging is that it has the potential to inject life into the greater discussion of film with varying perspectives. Bloggers such as those mentioned above are significant contributors to the changing face of film criticism, one that is challenging dominant theories and assumptions by asking questions of them. In doing so, it seems that we (the bloggers) are collectively yielding new critical approaches to a medium whose continual shifts and changes requires these new approaches. Blogging will not displace print-based criticism, just as journalistic criticism does not displace sholarly criticism. All of these various approaches to criticism have a distinctly different viewpoint from which their members partake in criticism.

No artistic medium can really exist and grow without a strong criticism of it. Both criticism and cinema progress each other by evolving themselves. Cinema needs its critics just as much as critics need the cinema. The current discourse on the film blogging front over the past week has reminded me how true this is. It has also reminded me that the critical body is expanding for the better with the rise in prominence of film blogs. As for where I stand in this discussion, I am more like a sponge than an active participant; I'm trying to soak up as much information I can about these directors before I dive into their work and the films of other directors whose films with which I must familiarize myself if I am to take part in that dialogue.

The beauty of this writing form is that its interactional nature of critical discourse enables me to constantly stretch my own knowledge of and participation in cinema. My exposure to this ever-growing discussion and the variety of uniquely informed individuals contributing to it allow me to challenge and question my own knowledge of the medium and the level at which I engage it in criticism. Now that I've familiarized myself with the criticism, it's time to dive into the movies themselves. Some might look at the fact that I've only seen one total film of either Bergman's or Antonioni's. Most of my life as a film lover and critic has been spent on Hollywood and Indiewood films of today and the golden age films of yesteryear. I have seen a number of international films -old and new- and now with the knowledge I have, I can swim through the cinematic treasures I have not yet been able to reach.

Scholars or bloggers, we are all of us students of cinema and the only way our own perspectives can expand is by exposing ourselves to the criticism of those whose own approaches are informed by different experiences with cinema who have engaged it in criticism.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Comedy, Drama, and Everything Else

One of my absolute favorite films of the year so far is the brilliant (yes, brilliant) Hot Fuzz. As with their previous collaboration, Shaun of the Dead, director Edgar Wright and actor Simon Pegg have once again made a film with such care for its images, style, and characters that it transcends the boundaries the buddy movie formula as well as the somewhat predictable formulas of parodies and/or satires of them. Hot Fuzz doesn't fit comfortably within either mold, yet it shamelessly embodies traits of both.

Since buddy cop movies, action movies, and parodic comedies tend to strictly adhere to narrative and stylistic conventions of their respective genres, Hot Fuzz shows how a film can dance between these established norms and practices while maintaining an fresh exuberance in its own creation and pompousness. Structurally, the film follows a familiar mold. Simon Pegg plays police officer Nicholas Angel, a by-the-numbers law enforcer who takes his job very seriously and believes in the power of the law. In fact, his serious approach to the law prevents him from participating in meaningful relationships with those around him; he is unable to proverbally "switch off". At the onset of the film, we see his hard work paying off (or so we and he think) as he receives a promotion. The downside is that he must relocate away from London and to the the trappings of small-town England, which he is naturally unhappy about.

This makes for a solid premise to any drama, with the protagonist being plucked from his desired familiar surroundings and being placed unwillingly in an unfamiliar place. While the film maps these plot points, action movie cliches run rampant in the most mundane of scene transitions and cuts. Every time a door is opened, every time a change of location takes place, we are treated to a loud, rapidly cut montage of close-ups that are now typical by contemporary murder drama/action movie standards. There are small touches of visual humor peppered throughout the proceedings, but the movie keeps a straight face -- mostly through Pegg's earnest performance -- even as it stoops to the most pendantic of visual gags. Such contrasts are the foundation for a narrative that never overtly establishes itself with any kind of consistency when it comes to genre placement. Rather than haphazardly surveying a patchwork pastiche of movie conventions as many other directors might, Wright instead opts to use this aura of stylistic and narrative inconsistency to his advantage by building the drama, action, and comedy of the film around it.

Wright takes his time familiarizing the viewer with the film's strangeness, building visual references that come in handy later in the film while also introducing new characters into the mix in a structurally sound but dramatically honest fashion. Rather than making a mockery out of the town and its inhabitants, the film presents the townspeople as real individuals and allows their quircky details to supply the subtle bits of comedy. Important to note is that the film's visual trademarks of intense audio-visual stimulation during transitions and dramatic beats also contrast with the mundaneness of the proceedings. The funny thing is that Angel doesn't see law enforcement as a buddy cop movie, which clearly the movie itself embodies. He takes his profession very seriously, unlike his partner, Danny Butterman (Nick Frost), who spends most of his free time watching and quoting movies such as Bad Boys II and Point Break.

Hot Fuzz works so brilliantly because it steadily progresses the story from small-town simplicity -- with Angel hunting down shoplifters and elusive swans -- to a utter preposterousness in the form of a rather graphic murder mystery. While we're prepared to laugh at the movie's contrast of intense visual style and mundane events, it continues to move in unexpected directions, despite employing every predictable convention it can do so. Meanwhile, underneath its topical pastiche of movie conventions and comedy, it's building real relationships and real characters that we care about. Thus, when inexplicably violent or downright silly situations begin happening, the viewer is cued to recognize the stark constrasts but the reactions she or he is supposed to have to it is never really layed out. Therefore, the movie works on various levels of comedy and drama in strange ways; which works to perfection when the comedy and drama contionue to ratch up

While these contrasts make for much of the movie's conflict, comedy, and drama through the first two acts, melding together various conventions and styles to execute a less-than-ordinary plot, Wright establishes a narrative and stylistic flow which runs amoothly alongside the progressions of plot and character development. These constrasts and conflicting styles eventually come together to coincide with Angel's character progressions. When he and his partner decide to take down the villains at the beginning of the third act, Angel finally embraces those very hyped-up Bad Boys II-like impulses that the movie all along embodied. In this synthesis of Angel's embrace of his inner action hero and the film's visual and stylistic rhythms, everything towards which the film was building in the previous acts -- which initially seemed like a patchwork of parody -- is unleashed in a perfectly executed third act that is equally hilarious and exciting. This structural cohesiveness works on all levels, including character and visual style, which is why the film emerges as reflexively as embodying both a mockery of movie convention and a massive proponent of them. The movie is as much an actioner as all the movies it takes its cues from; it knows it, and it loves them for it. The third act is an unleashing of action and comedy the likes of which I cannot recall in any action film or comedy in quite some time. But it intwines excitement and humor in uproarious visual manners.

The movie is only so effective, however, due to the earnestness with which it executes its proceedings. Wright and Pegg clearly love the old movie cliches that they parody and embody in the film. They don't mercilessly rip these conventions apart or assert their own cleverness by comedically regurgitating conventional images. They instead infuse the film with wit, intelligence, drama, and comedy, which is more a difficult task than it may seem. It requires a deep knowledge and care of visual motifs and cinematic convention, which Wright demonstrates in every setup and edit and the depth. This film could very easily have been a disaster in the hands of a less-informed filmmaker. Its constrasts and comedic setups are complex and subtle, even if what we see on the screen appears simple. Comedy, after all, is incredibly hard to create in cinematic terms. But when it's done right, it comes off so smooth and can hit the right spot. Add drama, character, and a love of police procedurals, buddy comedies, and action movies into the mix and you've got an extremely difficult task of bringing them all together, which Wright aptly does. Also, the film holds together also because of Simon Pegg's masterful performance, which hits all the right notes as a comedic and action lead role. There is real richness to the character, interestingly enough, and none of the film's tones of humor or seriousness would have melded so effectively were it not for Pegg's wonderful performance.

For as all-over-the-place as the movie might seem, it's consistent in its inconsistency inasmuch that the idiosyncrasies of the characters, plot, and visual style all interact together to form a greater whole of a film that finds its own comedic and dramatic niche by letting elements of both exist at the same moment. Aren't terms like "comedy", "drama" and other cinematic labels just terms for us to limit our interpretations of movies and package them simply? Certainly, some are made with this in mind, and Edgar Wright's film certainly points this out through its references to the stylistic norms of movies that have placed themselves in such boxes. But by having these run up against each other in strange ways, Hot Fuzz explores the potential of cinema as a complex medium of moving images because it is not so easy to place so cleanly into a genre or style box. It covers a whole spectrum of affect both in its own witty references and how their juxtapositions form strange visual cues and relationships. The film is so genuine and original not for its inifinite number of clever incorporations of various established genre conventions and styles, but how it locates its own creative core from which a delightfully strange story emerges. Wright and Pegg seem to intuitively understand how, where, and why comedy manifests itself in cinematic terms and real-life interactions. That is what makes Hot Fuzz such a uniquely reflexive work of stylistic and generic contrast.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Visualizing Murder: Zodiac and Perfume

Last weekend, I caught up on some movies I missed in the theater earlier this year. Although I didn't intentionally plan it this way, both movies are intense accounts of notorious murderers: Tom Twyker's Perfume: Story of a Murderer and David Fincher's Zodiac. Despite that these films are so different and I that wouldn't ordinarily contrast them if I hadn't seen them on the same weekend, I couldn't help but think of them in relation to each other, especially along the lines of how they each depicted murder, particularly of women. Both films involved male serial killers at different times and places. The narrative focuses are very different, but both films are fascinating in their visualizations of death. How the spectator identifies with the on-screen action is handled uniquely in the case of each film, but both films undoubtedly feature grisly murder scenes that are after much more than sensationalizing violence. These films aren't merely symptomatic of spectatorial obsession with murder but are instead deep inquiries into that fascination. Therefore, each movie is fetishistic of violence in equally disturbing and alluring ways.

In Zodiac, there are three notable murder scenes, all in the first third of the movie, two of which are so suspenseful in their quietness and ambiance. Fincher stages these scenes by primarily focusing on the victims, in both cases a young couple, who are not movie stereotypes. They don't say or do dumb things, but instead feel like they are real, living people, and we are seeing them just before their lives end. Fincher knows the audience is aware of the couples' fate in both scenes, but he takes his time and builds a generally quiet, uneventful atmosphere built on typical conversation. This ordinariness makes the impending murders all the more cold. In the case of the opening scene, we have a more typical serial killer setup, with a young couple in a car overlooking town with the woods behind them. Fincher handles this scene by building quiet suspense, the images are subdued, and yet the spectator is cued to a deeper suspense, like that of watching "mother" walking ever closer to the shower in Psycho, but less visible. When the death occurs, it somehow captures a dramatic beat (as if everything is in slow-motion) and quick shock as if what you cannot believe how everything changes so fast that you cannot process it.

In the next scene, which is arguably more disturbing, a young couple enjoys the calmness of a daylight on the lake. The woman sees someone approaching, shows concerns while her male counterpart pays not attentions. She continually makes reference to this approaching figure, and then instead of a massive shock like before, Fincher draws out an encounter between the killer and the couple, in which points a gun at them. We are inclined to think that it will be a quick murder, like before, especially when he has the woman tie up the man. The killer has a calmness, even a humanity about him, but this changes in shocking fashion when seemingly our of the ordinary, he pulls out a knife and quietly stabs them as they lay, tied up, face down to the ground. They scream in pain, but there is a dreadful realism to it in how the sound of agony and dramatic images are deliberately avoided.

The traditional movie conventions are to play up the screaming when a victim is dying or dramatize the images or sounds. Fincher takes a different approach here, instead maintaining the same visual style previously established. In depicting the violence so plainly, when we're expecting something very different from a conventional standpoint, Fincher captures a voyeuristic crisis of identification and the images are more shocking than they would be if they were more dramatic. This approach would seem appropriate given that the movie examines the rhetorical effects of murder; how it's interpreted, covered, and delivered to people who make sense of it by calling it senseless. Zodiac therefore employs a disjointed style of juxtaposing familiar cinematic conventions of murder, which we all know so well, with deliberately uneventful images of brutal murder.

The effect is chilling. It creates a strange feeling within the spectator, one that both identifies with the killer as well as the victim. Although the movie focuses on the mystery of the killer and the murders are incidental to the rest of the violence-free plot, the incorporation of the murder scenes into the the narrative is both intrusive to its flow and necessary to enable its being. Through these jarring and disturbing scenes, we are provoked to implicitly reflect (knowingly or not) on why we so crave murder mysteries and closure. Some will inevitably claim that the movie "goes too far", but it only offers a dose of realism to typically watered-down violence to which we become desensitized to yet desire all the more as procedural investigations reveal the mysteries of the killer in the end. The movie is an active rumination on our the spectator's insatiable appetite for violence, which just about every spectator would assert is untrue. But Zodiac locates that hypocrisy in its structural and visual style and exploits it.

Perfume, on the other hand, overtly invites you into the pleasures of sensuous desire. It lures you in with sexual overtones before quietly shifting to violence. Despite that the killer is incapable of understanding sexuality, the film links sex and violence together, creating a strange interpretation of each and therefore justifying the taking of life with the innocent but overwhelming sensation of sensual satisfaction. The story centers on a young man, John Baptist-Grenouille (Ben Wishaw), who is gifted with an extraordinary ability of smell. Scents of all kinds are intoxicating to him. He can feel the very essence of pleasure through smelling the variety of aromas -- good and bad -- in 18th century Paris. The film tells the story of how he becomes incapable of understanding anything outside his own pursuit of unending sensual pleasure, which ultimately leads him to murder.

This is best captured early in the movie when Grenouille first walks the streets of Paris, taking in the variety of smells. As others have observed, it's amazing how the film understand the deep connection of sound and image to conjure anything within perceived sensory experience. Through its sounds, images, and music, Perfume is the epitome of sensuous; as Grenouille walks down a street in Paris, the quickly cut close-ups of various objects giving off odors (in which we see every detail) intercut with Grenouille taking it all in is a profound experience of discovery and sensuality.

Shortly thereafter, Grenouille senses a scent that allures him even more: a woman. He captures it from a distance, tracking her down through alleys at night, before he finally sees her. Although he still remains at a distance, the film cuts to incredible close-ups of the woman. In doing so, the images capture and evoke every moving detail of her beauty, from the way her hair touches her skin or the way she holds her basket of fruit. Grenouille is enamored and begins to follow her. At this point the film entirely immerses the spectator into Grenouille's perspective. We become his seemingly innocent stalking presence. As he approaches her -- quietly smelling her from behind -- his nose comes so close to making contact with her skin and the composition pulsates with sensation and pleasure. There is not a bit of dialogue; just pure cinema. It wraps us up in obsession and pure desire.

After she is startled by his presence, she runs away. But he continues to stalk her and he locates her once more. Although he likely has no intention of killing her (since he does not understand feeling or life), he does precisely that in covering her mouth so that she does not alert anyone else to his presence. She struggles within his clutches and he has not the faintest idea that he is draining the life out of her. After she is motionless, he removes her clothing and presses his skin up against hers, taking in her escaping scents. It's a profoundly disturbing scene in its gentleness. The images draws you into its state of innocent lust; you may consciously condemn his actions, but you identify with him and are still inquisitively seeking the pleasure of nostalgia that scent can so easily summon, even for memories and places we may not be able to visualize.

The whole movie is in that four or five scenes. They meld together images and sounds of violence, sensuality, death, and lust in ways that provoke a strange, but compulsive attraction to the images. They would be disturbing if it wasn't so inviting; but then again perhaps that's why it's so disturbing. Therein lies the complexity of the movie. While it doesn't quite sustain itself over its entire running time (that's at least my reaction on one viewing), Perfume is a strange, dark, and fascinating movie.

Both Perfume and Zodiac focus on the famous serial killers, of different times, places, and motivations. The fascination of their stories is how distinctly they explore taking life, life taken, and spectatorial obsessions with watching.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Bloggers and cloggers: Cinematic discourse in an age of digital reproduction

As a blogger, I think it's important to maintain a fair amount of reflexivity toward what I do and why I do it. There are times I look back on this experiment of mine and see nothing but good things; I've gotten lots of feedback on my blog, decent readership and comments, and I have seen other blogs from which I learned quite a bit about other areas of cinema studies and criticism. Nevertheless, I am sometimes dogged by the more negative side of what I do. When comparing the levels of discourse here in the online film community versus that of academia, I sometimes get depressed when I think of myself as a "blogger". It is true that perhaps online writing on any subject is viewed negatively as not amounting to anything substantive. And it doesn't help that many online writers (including myself) are easily offended by individuals who claim that the work online writers amounts to little more than message board banter, text messages, and geek/fan dialogue.

I would never try to reduce all online writing about cinema to a simplified plain, suffice to say that I often wonder where this digital discourse is really going and if it can advance film criticism and scholarship. Are we all just cloggers? Are we duped by ourselves into thinking that what we do can compliment and contribute to "real" film criticism. Certainly, essays such as Andy Horbal's termite criticism piece are encouraging and my daily visits to the blogs of David Bordwell, Jim Emerson, Girish Shambu, David Hudson, Henry Jenkins, Steven Shaviro, and others compel me to take this medium seriously. Most of these writers are established forces on either the journalistic or academic end of film writing and can therefore use the digital medium effectively; but I still sometimes wonder if such a small group of serious, reflexive, and informed film writers on the web can really add something when they use the same means of writing as the millions of people individuals who blog because "they have something to say". Some may come down on the due processes and checks and balances of peer-review publishing, but we cannot deny that it is a system that requires a certain amount of credibility. On the contrary, anyone and everyone can blog about their favorite films and try to convince readers that they're more than just a blogger.

The recently released Online Film Community Top 100 (which I participated in) is being cited as one of the most predictable Top 100 Film lists ever constructed. I have been outspoken in the past about lists by committee and I participated in this project because I believe in the advancement of online film writing and thought this would be a step in the right direction, if not for the list itself but because it represents a group of writers organizing for something. Now, seeing the list, it's just as arbitrary and homogeneous as the AFI's, which so many film writers were disparaging. It's funny that with so much vocal online buzz about how horrible the AFI list is, the online list turned out to be not so different. As Edward Copeland observes in the discussion over his post on the list, this list's similarity to the AFI list upholds the influence of canon in film assessment. One should note that the term "Online Film Community" is deceiving and that the list of contributors are by no means representative of the online film community. Nevertheless, the list mostly consists of AFI "safe" choices and films selected by individuals who have taken a film class or two in college and think they understand film history and style, making this list somewhere between the AFI Top 100 and the IMDb Top 250. It's basically a rehash of the AFI list with the inclusion of fan favorites like The Matrix, The Shawshank Redemption, The Big Lebowski, Fight Club, The Usual Suspects, and Reservoir Dogs to be great cinema. Here is the "Online Film Community" list:

1. Godfather, The (Coppola, 1972)
2. Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941)
3. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Kubrick, 1964)
4. Raiders of the Lost Ark (Spielberg, 1981)
5. Casablanca (Curtiz, 1942)
6. Blade Runner (R. Scott, 1982)
7. Jaws (Spielberg, 1975)
8. Godfather Part II, The (Coppola, 1974)
9. Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner, 1980)
10. Alien (R. Scott, 1979)
11. Pulp Fiction (Tarantino, 1994)
12. Chinatown (Polanski, 1974)
13. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (Lucas, 1977)
14. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968)
15. Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1976)
16. Shawshank Redemption, The (Darabont, 1994)
17. Rear Window (Hitchcock, 1954)
18. Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960)
19. Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958)
20. Seven Samurai (Kurosawa, 1954)
21. Apocalypse Now (Coppola, 1979)
22. It’s a Wonderful Life (Capra, 1946)
23. Fargo (Joel and Ethan Coen, 1996)
24. Lawrence of Arabia (Lean, 1962)
25. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Gondry, 2004)
26. Schindler’s List (Spielberg, 1993)
27. Wizard of Oz, The (Fleming, 1939)
28. Matrix, The (Wachowski/Wachowski, 1999)
29. Third Man, The (Reed, 1949)
30. Die Hard (McTiernan, 1988)
31. Back to the Future (Zemeckis, 1985
32. Annie Hall (W. Allen, 1977)
33. Brazil (Gilliam, 1985)
34. Fight Club (Fincher, 1999)
35. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Gilliam/Jones, 1975)
36. Usual Suspects, The (Singer, 1995)
37. Princess Bride, The (Reiner, 1987)
38. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Forman, 1975)
39. Once Upon a Time in the West (Leone, 1968)
40. Raging Bull (Scorsese, 1980)
41. Good, the Bad and the Ugly, The (Leone, 1966)
42. Searchers, The (Ford, 1956)
43. Singin’ in the Rain (Donen/Kelly, 1952)
44. E.T. (Spielberg, 1982)
45. Goodfellas (Scorsese, 1990)
46. Run Lola Run (Tykwer, 1998)
47. This is Spinal Tap (Reiner, 1984)
48. Sunset Blvd. (Wilder, 1950)
49. Big Lebowski, The (J. Coen, 1998)
50. Double Indemnity (Wilder, 1944)
51. Bridge on River Kwai, The (Lean, 1957)
52. Memento (Nolan, 2000)
53. M (Lang, 1931)
54. Shining, The (Kubrick, 1980)
55. 12 Angry Men (Lumet, 1957)
56. L.A. Confidential (Hanson, 1997)
57. Unforgiven (Eastwood, 1992)
58. Passion of Joan of Arc, The (Dreyer, 1928)
59. General, The (Keaton/Bruckman, 1927)
60. Apartment, The (Wilder, 1960)
61. A Clockwork Orange (Kubrick, 1971)
62. Incredibles, The (Bird, 2004)
63. Silence of the Lambs, The (Demme, 1991)
64. Aliens (Cameron, 1986)
65. Lord of the Rings, The: The Fellowship of the Ring (Jackson, 2001)
66. Heat (Mann, 1995)
67. Do the Right Thing (S. Lee, 1989)
68. Rules of the Game, The (Renoir, 1939)
69. Halloween (Carpenter, 1978)
70. Network (Lumet, 1976)
71. Graduate, The (Nichols, 1967)
72. Bicycle Thief, The (De Sica, 1948)
73. Conversation, The (Coppola, 1974)
74. Groundhog Day (Ramis, 1993)
75. Maltese Falcon, The (Huston, 1941)
76. American History X (Kaye, 1998)
77. Ed Wood (Burton, 1994)
78. Manhattan (Allen, 1979)
79. King Kong (Cooper/Shoedsack, 1933)
80. North by Northwest (Hitchcock, 1959)
81. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (Cameron, 1992)
82. Manchurian Candidate, The (Frankenheimer, 1962)
83. To Kill a Mockingbird (Mulligan, 1962)
84. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Capra, 1939)
85. Modern Times (Chaplin, 1936)
86. Touch of Evil (Welles, 1958)
87. Leon (Besson, 1994)
88. Aguirre, the Wrath of God (Herzog, 1972)
89. 8 ½ (Fellini, 1963)
90. Ghostbusters (Reitman, 1984)
91. 400 Blows, The (Truffaut, 1959)
92. Notorious (Hitchcock, 1946)
93. Toy Story (Lasseter, 1995)
94. Lord of the Rings, The: The Return of the King (Jackson, 2003)
95. His Girl Friday (Hawks, 1940)
96. Reservoir Dogs (Tarantino, 1992)
97. Blue Velvet (Lynch, 1986)
98. On the Waterfront (Kazan, 1954)
99. Cinema Paradiso (Tornatore, 1988)
100. Nosferatu (Murnau, 1922)

I am in full support of people sharing their opinions and sticking to their guns. But I am skeptical to take some of these opinions seriously, however; especially when they lack the knowledge of cinema history and scholarship. I'm not trying to be an elitist here, and I am in no form the authority on film history (especially international cinema, of which I have seen relatively little), but I openly acknowledge this and constantly challenge myself and my views with different kinds of films so that I may advance my knowledge and call myself informed. Yes, I make bold choices in my list of top movies and I acknowledge that my list consists of a large number of safe choices. But if I were to compile a list of a Top 100 films most important works of cinema, in which my opinions were backed up by my growing knowledge of film history and scholarship, it would look nothing like the AFI list, the Online Film Community List, or my own Favorite(st) 149 movies list.

I point this out because I am always trying to find my place in the blogging world. I'm not sure that I have one, really. Certainly, if I were writing for a newspaper, magazine, or scholarly publication, I would not be able to write in the varying styles that I do or write about a variety of topic on the film world. The Blog enables an individual to write however short or long they like, about any topic or issue, satirically, academically, journalistically... the list goes on forever. How could this medium not be worthwhile? It embodies the cultural democracy we so often desire, right? Certainly, some film bloggers take advantage of these freedoms. But perhaps these are only true "freedoms" to those versed in the world of publishing (scholarly or journalistic). Plain and simple, the digital does not exist without acknowledging the analog. Without the basis in knowledge and information, most of which can be honestly and responsibly acquired via analogic means, then digital information is pointless.

These issues interest me for a number of reasons. As someone straddling many world (film blogging, medical journalism, and scholarly writing), I have been exposed to and participating in a number of writing styles and topics. Therefore, I try to meld styles and experiment with how I write and what I write about. But I would undoubtedly benefit from peer review. All of these long entries I wrote, however good or bad, organizationally sound or not, amount to little more than rough sketches of ideas that would require more research, review, and drafting in order to make a solid contribution to the greater spectrum of film writing. I fully believe that established film writers and theorists who have taken to the blogging realm are engaging in a discourse that is important in the digital age of information, consumption, and reproduction. But with the rising number of film blogs out there, it's tough to draw lines on what's important, what's worthwhile, and what's pointless. We all need to ask ourselves sometimes (those of us who blog, that is) why we do what we do and whether we are contributing to it or perpetuating the overall inconsequentiality of online discourse and so-called information.

These issues are central to film criticism and media studies, and I am happy to report that I will have the opportunity to contribute something small to this larger dialogue. I was recently approached by Scott Balcerzak and Jason Sperb of Dr. Mabuse's Kaleidoscope to fill a seat on their workshop panel on cinephilia and digital reproduction for the Society of Cinema and Media Studies' Annual Conference, held next year in Philadelphia, my home town. I graciously accepted the invitation and, now that I'm finished my summer course, will be knee deep in research over the next three weeks as I prepare to put together an abstract by August 15. My portion of the workshop, of course, will focus on the issues I voiced in this post. My observations here in this post represent the beginning of a larger research project which will consider the implications of online discourse and convergence in digital media.

I think I'd like to come at it from a number of perspectives, though, particularly the interactional and immediate nature of posting on a blog and the implications of its use on the institutional frameworks mostly informed by the practices of peer-review and publishing. How the medium of blogging functions with respect to sustaining a "worthy" dialogue about cinema and its possible contribution to the overall spectrum of film criticism are things I would like to consider.

One last point I'd like to mention is that in light of all this conjecture questioning the legitimacy of blogging, I should note that I will be presenting in an academic setting because I started a blog seven months ago. This fact alone is in oddly reflexive entry point into this inquiry I'll be launching, even if there are a considerable number of other factors which have led me here. Nevertheless, the fact remains that I would not be doing pursuing this scholarly task had it not been because I started this experiment of mine back in January. It's quite ironic, really, and it provides me with equal shares of encouragement and discouragement as I move ahead with this. As a blogger and a (hopeful) scholar, I take on this endeavor.