Shorts #2

Today’s Shorts: Atonement (2007), Dizzy Dishes (1930), Flying Padre (1951), O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Winsor McCay, The Famous Cartoonist Of The N.Y. Herald And His Moving Comics (1911), Sisters In Law (2005), The Theory Of Everything (2014)

A mesmerising film with a great sense of character and tone. Moreover, something of a rare film; a costume picture which isn’t stiff and boring.

Atonement is a wondrous orchestration of drama, comedy and tragedy, which sweeps you away immediately with an intricate plot that perfectly manages many perspectives. Imbued with rich subtext, Wright uses every element of cinema, from cinematography to mise en scène to sound design, masterfully to craft a powerful story of regret and longing. Doing this whilst retaining the personality and flow of a novel through script work ultimately makes Atonement truly special and a must-see.

The first film to feature one of the most famous cartoon characters ever conceived: Betty Boop.

Beyond being an intriguing look back through the history of animation, Dizzy Dishes is an ingenious meeting of music and creativity that manages to find an almost impossible amount of comedy and visual wit in the simplest of scenarios; a waiter being too distracted to serve a patron his meal. With both historical significance and a great entertainment factor, Dizzy Dishes is certainly something to check out.

An interesting early film of Stanley Kubrick, Flying Padre is (kind of) a documentary about a priest in New Mexico that has to use a plane to tend to and assist his commune. In this short documentary, we see key themes, motifs and techniques that are sprinkled throughout Kubrick’s filmography. The most stark of these would be the focus on technology, Kubrick’s framing and also his camera movement (both of which are a little rough). In this short, we also see some pretty unfamiliar themes too; those being a focus on religion and a warm-hearted hero – something you certainly will struggle to find in the likes of A Clockwork Orange, 2001, Full Metal Jacket or Eyes Wide Shut.

Ultimately, this is a very clearly staged narrative that doesn’t capture a genuine documentary feel, and so is just a nice bit of incite into a master’s career.

Enjoyable, amusing, immersive, O Brother, Where Art Though? is an easy watch, but certainly not the best Coen bros film. It taps into the ambiguous, wacky and arbitrary tone captured in Fargo, No Country For Old Men, Barton Fink and The Big Lebowski, but completely lacks a relative sense of verisimilitude. And in such, whilst you don’t watch The Big Lebowski like you do Saving Private Ryan or The Hurt Locker, it retains a sense of believability; all the ridiculous situations The Dude finds himself in make sense considering who his is. And this is the magic of a good Coen bros; they’re ludicrous but they still somehow rope you along with them.

O Brother, Where Art Though? lacks this above everything else and so is intermittently pretty weak.

The direction, cinematography and camera work are off-the-charts fucking phenomenal in this film. Without exaggeration, within The Texas Chainsaw Massacre you will find one of the greatest examples of direction in a horror film. The use of the sets, practical lighting, the ingenious shot types, extreme close-ups, zooms, the insane editing, all come together to produce one of the most visceral and powerful pieces of exploitation horror ever – and there’s no argument to be had on this point.

But, there are two things that drastically bring this movie down; parts of the writing and an awful lot of the acting. In fact, almost everything to do with character in this film is dog shit. Leather Face, when he isn’t wailing, is great, but beyond this, character is hugely detrimental to both the narrative and the technical/aesthetic design of this movie. But, a great watch and a terrific movie nonetheless.

A truly spectacular exhibition of early animation that, stylistically and in my view, far surpasses McCay’s much more famous Gertie The Dinosaur. Though this style of early animation has been completely lost for a long time, the imagination and creativity is still mindblowing to this day. And on top of this “Winsor McCay, The Famous Cartoonist” gives a minor, but very intriguing, incite into the process of early animation that solidifies it as a must see.

A powerful documentary that is formally simple, yet certainly effective, Sisters In Law takes us into Cameroonian court rooms and finds multiple poignant cases, plights, struggles and characters that are heavily resonant and touching. However, above anything, Sisters In Law is a joy to watch and thoroughly funny. Almost surreally so, every figure in this film finds light in and around even the most disturbing cases of abuse and injustice, perfectly balancing the weighted drama with great character and social exchanges you simply couldn’t script.

I remember deciding to skip this one 3 years ago. I think that was a good call.

The Theory of Everything starts out starkly boring and remains that way for a good 70 minutes. It then claws its way towards a relatively strong ending that is somewhat immersive.

Each and every character is tough work and it takes time to invest in them and start caring. As mentioned though, the last 40 minutes are somewhat redeeming as there is a build of dramatic weight that allows you to better engage with the characters and themes.

The worst aspect of this film is certainly the stylistic choices – especially in regard to exposure. I didn’t like the feel and look of this film one bit as the aesthetic and script come together to produce a cliched tone of dreamy airiness that results in a weightless mundanity.

If you’re interesting in Hawking, go for a space documentary – much more interesting. And if you’re looking for a similar narrative in terms of themes and characters go for Rust and Bone or A Beautiful Mind.

 

 

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Every Year In Film #2 – The Persistence Of Vision

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Every Year In Film #2 – The Persistence Of Vision

Thoughts On: Stroboscopes, Phenakistoscopes & Zoetropes

Having only touched on the conceptual origins of film and an incentive for cinema, we will attempt to delve deeper by taking a look at a few 19th century inventions.

    

Before getting into films and years, we should conclude the first post in Every Year In Film. In the previous post, we touched on the origins of cinema in a conceptual sense, ending on the idea that cinema essentially views movement as a language and so means to communicate through the manipulation of space and time. This all began the moment humans tried to communicate imagery through gestures and sound. A more satisfactory and tangible beginning of cinema, however, can certainly be found in ancient cave paintings – the oldest of which are at least 35,000 years old – that mean to imply movement:

This painting, once we consider how cinema functions, is certainly a form of ‘film’. And this is hopefully what we’ll end up understanding having concluded our perceptual preemptive to the Every Year In Film series.

The least abstract place to start talking about film would be the early 1830s. In 1830 Michael Faraday, a British scientist who conducted pivotal experiments in electromagnetism, presented a paper called On a Peculiar Class of Optical Deceptions. This paper overlapped with the research of Joseph Plateau, a Belgian Physicist, who had also written about optical illusions in rotating wheels (all of which are expansions and deeper explorations of work by Peter Mark Roget – a man most famous for compiling the first modern thesaurus). All of this research, and with some communication between Faraday and Plateau, led to the invention of the phenakistoscope.

Otherwise known as a spindle viewer, the phenakistoscope is two spinning disks attached to a stick. One disk has slits along its inner or outer circumference, and when you look through these slits at the other disc, you will see the image on it move…

Plateau, who perfected this invention, published it in 1833. However, simultaneously in Austria, Simon von Stampfer invents a very similar device that functions in the same manner as the phenakistoscope – Stampfer called these Stampfer Discs or Stroboscopes.

He, like Plateau, knew the work of Faraday, but published his work in 1831. His variation of the phenakistoscope, which you would look into a mirror to see function, was made independently and would have worked just like Plateau’s…

As apart of his work, Stampfer mentioned a cylindrical version of his stroboscope. And having seen Plateu’s phenakistoscope this was independently invented by William George Horner, a British mathematician. Horner called this cylindrical stroboscope a Daedaleum.

This functions just like the stroboscope and phenakistoscope in that you’d look through the slits to see the image laced on the inside move…

However, Horner never published his Daedaleum, he only invented it in 1934. It wasn’t until William Ensign Lincoln invented and published the Zoetrope in 1865 that we had the official cylindrical stroboscope – which was essentially just a Daedaleum.

These three devices – a phenakistoscope, stroboscope and zoetrope – all function in around about the same way. To understand them you then only have to consider an image such as this:

There are two ways to produce an image like this. The first would be to take continuous pictures of this snowboarder as he flies through the air and then composite them into one image using Photoshop. Similarly, you may use a device called a stroboscope (not the one we’ve been talking about so far – an electric stroboscope)…

… which rapidly flashes light, allowing you to take a picture of blurred movement in one frame with a low shutter speed.

Side note, if you want more of an explanation on these electronic stroboscopes and how they’re used, there are two videos here: video 1 & video 2.

What we are seeing in a Zoetrope or a machine alike is a mechanical version of a strobe effect; of that snowboarder flying through the air.

In such, instead of photographing and cutting all the images of a snowboarder into one image, within a Zoetrope, you may place all of your images on a strip and produce what we may basically call a flip book effect:

You do this by taking that strip of images, spinning them rapidly and looking at them with dark intervals (which separate and distinguish them). This is why the slits are so important in all of these devices.

Without slits, you’d just be seeing a blur of images as you would only be watching a disc spin, hence seeing the white spaces between images instead of many snapshots of a disc spinning – all of those snapshots, by design, matching up with the rotation of the image so you may see, for example, a figure skipping. The slits then smooth out the spinning by, in the simplest terms, only showing a brief shot of the disc, confusing the eye and allowing it to think that an image moves. So, whether you look to the flip book, the stroboscope or even a film, you will always see something interrupting each frame – the turning of a page, the dark space between slots or a shutter. Spun at the right speed, for film, as we all know, this is 24 frames per second, and this carries over to devices like the stroboscope (over 15 slot passings a second), you have the illusion of movement. The reason for this number, 24 frames, comes down to your visual cortex.

The visual cortex is the region of your brain that is linked to your eye. These two elements communicate with chemical reactions; the eye gaining information from light hitting the retina…

… and passing it along to the brain through nerves. The eye gathers this information and passes it along to visual cortex where it is held it for approximately 1/15th (one fifteenth) of a second. And this is where we start to understand where 24 frames a second comes from. The brain can essentially take 15 snapshots of the world in 1 second and can understand that they are individual and unmoving entities. So, if you show someone a film, flip book or even a Zoetrope at a slow rate so that they only see 12 pictures in a second, they will see that it’s just single photos being shown one after another like a slide show. However, if you spin the zoetrope faster, play the film quicker, flip the book at a greater rate, and show the eye more than 15 individual images per second, the brain will start seeing continuous motion. This comes back to the visual cortex holding information for one fifteenth of a second; the brain simply can’t keep up with 17, certainly not 24, images being show in one second and so interprets the transitions as fluid movement.

This is generally known as The Persistence Of Vision. However, this terminology and theory is incorrect. The theory of The Persistence Of Vision assumes that the eye itself holds onto information for a fraction of a second and so allows images to blur into one another. This was disproved in 1912 by Max Wertheimer yet you will still hear about this theory to this day. The reason why the theory is incorrect is multifaceted. Firstly, and as we discussed, the brain, not the eye, retains information. Secondly, the eye is not a camera and so must be described in more complex terms. Even though we used words like ‘snapshot’ to discuss a packet of information (light; photons) hitting the eye, this is a poor description of the physiological process as there is a continuous stream of information hitting the eye that doesn’t just get caught in a photo and handed to the visual cortex. Moreover, and as we said, images can’t just blur into one another and be perceived as fluid motion. For example, pay attention to the beginning of the gif:

Before we look through the slots, the birds are incoherent images – this is what images blurred together looks like. These three ideas all directly contradict the theory of Persistence Of Vision, hence disproving it. There are other, much better explanations of this to be found, but this is the gist of things from someone who is not a neurologist – as with most things in this post.

So, if The Persistence Of Vision is the wrong term, how do we describe this process of seeing many fluttering images with dark intervals in between them as moving? There are two terms: phi phenomenon and beta movement. Phi phenomenon describes this image:

You probably know how this functions: those yellow lights are just turning on and off in sequence. However, when you look at it, it seems like the light itself is jumping from point to point – as if it’s moving. This is your brain being tricked by, or making sense of, this light pattern; it makes you believe that independent lights flashing are in fact one light moving through space.

Beta movement is a very similar paradigm, but, instead of describing lights jumping through space, this function describes the perception of moving bodies. So, as you could infer, there aren’t 3 dots moving like a snake around this image. There’s 12 dots and their lights just turn on and off in sequence. However, you perceive that there is on singular body; that a shape is retained through space when there isn’t a shape at all. This is beta movement.

Both of these theories are the scientific and true explanation of why flashing frames, when moving above (this will work, though not very well, when the frame rate is lower, but close to) 15 frames a second. This then begs the question, how has ‘The Persistence Of Vision’ remained relevant after a century of being debunked? In short, it’s a simpler explanation and is a much better term. So, every time you say or hear “The Persistence Of Vision”, just know you basically mean phi phenomenon and beta movement when you are describing why you don’t see black frames between each frame of a film, instead, moving images.

Having covered the general history and science of pictures in motion, we have come ever closer to cinema itself. However, it could be argued that we are already talking about cinema when we mention zoetropes, stroboscopes and so on. This is simply because cinema is a trick of perception – as we now understand. And as we concluded in the previous post, cinema is movement as a language, is communicating through the manipulation of space and time. If we were to retain this definition and understand that motion perception, when it is to be controlled and manipulated by a person or artist, is just an illusion, then any implied movement is cinema. After all, to quantify cinema as just a frame rate is redundant and a truly lacking definition. To imply that cinema is the illusion of movement at 24 frames a second not only ignores the substance and play with its form, but also says that slow motion doesn’t count, that neither do silent films (which often came in at varying rates – between 12 and 40 fps) and that neither do Scorsese’s or Truffaut’s iconic freeze frames. And so this is why cave paintings such as this…

… can and should be considered a form of cinema. Cinema is just communication through motion, and so, though the material and means of viewing the cave art is different, seeing all motion as some kind of cinema allows you to grip both where cinema comes from, what it is and why it came to be as best as you can.

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Train To Busan – The Problem With Zombies

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Train To Busan – The Problem With Zombies

Thoughts On: Train To Busan (2016)

A zombie outbreak tears through South Korea as a father and his slightly estranged daughter board a train to Busan.

Train To Busan

Train To Busan is a pretty good film. It has a few problems, but has very many strong elements. The main problems with this movie are the editing, sound design, parts of the script and the direction. Starting with the editing, to me, this film was simply trying so hard to be tense that it stopped making sense at certain points. The whole way through the film I was almost shouting “Just fucking move!”. This can be a good thing and a bad thing. If you’re invested in characters and can’t bear to see them hurt and you want to scream this, the screenwriter and editor needs a pat on the back. If you don’t care about the characters and can clearly see that these sequences are being drawn out too much, it’s a little infuriating. This is what you see in the first half of Train To Busan and before the characters grow on you. By the end, the building of tension is a little bit more forgivable, but, there are certainly too many high-concept Hollywood action beats to this film in contrast to its moments of character-centricity. In such, the film devolves into a bad melodrama when the action isn’t balanced well with the drama and quieter moments. And this isn’t helped at all by the soundtrack – which is pretty cheap. The worst part of Train To Busan is probably the direction and script work around action sequences though. Without delving into spoilers, the zombies’ weakness is pretty dumb and horribly implemented into the film through cinematography. Moreover, I never felt much of a strain or dire struggle in these sequences. Whilst some moments are complete nonsense and others are humbly realistic, there simply isn’t a sustained sense of realism nor verisimilitude throughout the action sequences – especially when things are getting punched, kicked and hit.

However, moving into the positives, the script is quite creative in its application of the constant conflict, and manages its characters surprisingly well. The best part of the script is certainly its subtext though. In short, Train To Busan does very well in exploring what makes groups of people dysfunctional and functional. And in doing this it demonstrates, quite poignantly, the virtues of self-sacrifice, honour and dedication. These are elements that you don’t often see put into films very well as they can come off as incredibly cheesy, but Train To Busan genuinely explores its themes of self-sacrifice and honour without vapid quips, huge speeches and other cliches. This made the moments of high drama very palatable and pretty effective. Beyond this, there is more going on below the surface of this film; a critique of society in general that uses zombies, as they have been used previously, to critique consumerism and mindless, selfish people. And it reinforces this very well with the dynamics of the group, adding complexity to the nice guys and even sympathetic shades to the bad guys. All of this results in a condemnation of those throughout society that cannot see the sense in not always being completely selfish.

With the overview complete, what had me thinking when watching this movie was the use of zombies. It has to be said that Train to Busan does a good job of confronting the zombie genre – which I’ve never seen much worth in; 28 Days Later, Night Of The Living Dead, Dawn Of The Dead… all ok. Whilst the zombies aren’t anything special in this film, they fit into the narrative very well. Nonetheless, the main problem with all zombie films is that they’re pretty dumb. And this rings true of many elements of Train To Busan. Slow zombies, fast zombies, can’t smell you if you’re covered in blood zombies, can’t see you in the dark zombies, can’t come out in the day zombies – the variations are out there, but it’s just a dumb idea for a monster. This all comes down to how banal they become after 10 minutes; it’s an ugly human with blood all over it that makes a lot of noise. It’s not threatening, it’s not menacing and they only hold power on the screen when there’s dozens (sometimes hundreds or thousands) of them. One of the most sensible ways of approaching this creature was seen in Maggie, the mediocre Schwarzenegger film.

This is because Maggie takes a personal approach to the zombie and attempts to show what it means to see a human devolve into something else. One of the best scenes in another zombie movie that captures this is the dog scene in I Am Legend – you know which.

These approaches to the idea of a zombie are often so powerful because it’s painful – scary even – to see the sense and life be taken from a human. And this is what zombies largely represent; this is why they’re scary. Look for instance to the scene from I Am Legend where Robert has to kill his dog. He loved this dog, we grew to know Sam as personified friend to Robert with human traits and sensibilities. Seeing him turn is painful because that something special, that personification and character, is taken away from Sam. The same, in theory, should go for a horde of humans. We think society functions one way; we trust, to a certain extent, all of those around us. To see that entirely reversed is a scary idea. Films are not very good at capturing this, however. Why? They’re too sensationalist and the zombies are too dumb. This is why I kind of liked the zombies from I Am Legend. Not only were they powerful, fast, such and so on, but they were smart. Most people just hated the CGI and were done with it, but I think I Am Legend was almost really good for the simple element of character they gave the main zombie thing.

Again, the CGI is pretty horrific, but the hatred in the main zombie’s eyes made him formidable at certain points, which captured the scary idea of devolution that a zombie can represent. To expand, take a moment to look at this image:

If you’re going “Awwww…” you’re a bit of a dumbass. What I see in this image is awe-inspiring and a pure spectacle of nature. But, it’s also horrifying. What scares me about this bear is that I can instantaneously recognise that he does not give a single fuck about me – and that’s what’s petrifying about all of nature, it simply doesn’t care. The bear is further frightening because, if it wished, it could more than easily destroy me. But, the reason I bring this up is that this is what zombies should do. In concept, they devolve into mindless animals to show us the disconnect that can develop between ourselves and something seemingly so close. I’ve never felt this way when watching a zombie movie though.

Whilst Train To Busan doesn’t overuse CGI for the zombies (it doesn’t handle it well with landscape shots), the zombies are played over-enthusiastically and with too much fuckery with shutter speed and/or frame rate. Moreover, the growls, screeches, hisses and roars are painfully cliched. This left the most poignant moments of social critique, a critique that explores mindlessness, centred on the humans – never the zombies. So, when we look back to this face…

… what we are seeing is, in my opinion, a better use of the zombie. He’s not drooling and moaning “BRAAIIIIIINZZZ”. He’s smart, he has emotions, but, no empathy and certainly no love for humans. We see this too in the Planet Of The Apes movies.

This guy is so formidable because we’ve grow to see some apes as very similar to us and even almost our friends – both in the movie and in real life. When this sense of familiarity is betrayed, we’re left with our emotional pants around our ankles, realising “Oh, shit, this guy is of an entirely different species that doesn’t give a fuck and has its own agenda”. Again, this is what zombies should do. They should stop being human and scare the shit out of us as they stare blankly from their uncanny valley of cannibalistic want.

So, how do we fix zombies? How do we capture this uncanniness without drool, moans and stupid rules? How do we tinker with the bettering approach to zombie movies that Train To Busan represents? I think I have the answer, so all you high concept screenwriters better get ready to take notes.

Neanderthals. The Eurasian genome is estimated to have 1-4% of Neanderthal-derived DNA. By exposing and emphasising this, scientists in a lab are synthesising ova (eggs) and spermatozoa which are coming closer and closer to pure Neanderthals. In fact, they are so close that the government is granting them the funding to begin testing with insemination – all with interests in pushing bounds in the field of human genetics. But, hold on, North Korea are making quite a bit of noise in their part of the world and southern European countries, some of which are floating near dictatorship, are starting to support them. Geopolitical tensions are straining, the news cycle lets this Neanderthal programme fall into obscurity, and before we know it… world war.

Hard cut to 7 years later in the timeline. The world is a stable, but truly shitty place – the population is 4 billion (India and China have 1.75 billion of these folks). The war is only recently been laid to rest, governments are starting to rebuild economies and assess their infrastructure. Some anonymous department are popping up on a lot of radars and they’re taking disproportionately huge chunks of the military budget. Investigations into the department is shielded and suppressed by a cock-eyed and crazy military governor; the war is over, but he thinks its due to be reignited, and he has the perfect soldiers, pumped with chemicals and hormones, made to sprout into mature adults like chickens, that are more than capable of fighting in a war. But, peace treaties are suddenly solidified, radical plans for a global government are on the horizons, nuclear bombs have been cast into the solar system, military budgets have universally dropped drastically, ammunition stocks have been decimated, all drugs are legalised.

Meanwhile, the head scientist of the Neanderthal lab can barely keep the electric fences on; the Neanderthals are eating insects and horse meat once every 2 days and so have to be shot full of synthetic (untested) nutrients and hormones to stay alive. Nonetheless, these Neanderthal guys and gals… j-j-j-j-j-j-J-J-J-JACKED!! Each just under 7 feet tall, their quads alone as thick as The Rock himself.

The uptight new management has come to inspect the facilities, enquiring about the pleas to reinstate budget privileges, palming away our crazy military-supporter-in-office and barging their way in. They never knew these experiments where still ongoing, that they be at such a stage; they think the way these ‘people’ are treated is inhumane, they want to put these scientists on trial and give these ‘people’ their own village.

Smash cut. The gavel hits the wood. Prison bars clunk shut. The Neanderthals are in a psychological assessment centre. They like the look of these soft humans. They like their warm smiles. They like the feel of particleboard doors without heavy, electric locks. They like the 7 feet tall chain linked fences encircling their open facilities. However, where has training gone? Why do they feel so weak? What’s in the food they’re being given? Why do these new pills make them feel like such shit? Why are we just laying about; we have freedom but not the strength to take it?

Now, that sounds a bit too much like Planet Of The Apes. Let’s say we push a few human families into this picture to contrast; all of them hardened and brittle because of the war, but worlds apart from one another. Let’s say the Neanderthals escape and start fucking shit up – with a taste for Homosapien flesh. Let’s say they breed like crazy and force humans to reopen their lab and refresh their supply of hormones and nutrients – eternal drug dealing slaves in concentration camps. Let’s say everyone lives in hiding, filled with pure fear of these unsympathetic gorilla people who break us like twigs. Let’s say the human numbers dwindle and the Indo-Chinese front are fighting these monsters off with arrows, clubs and horses – Mongolian style. Let’s say our small town, our few families, start coming under the pressure of these Neanderthals, thousands of miles away from the Indo-Chinese border.

How’s the movie shaping up for you? If you don’t like it, go ahead and write a better zombie-Neathderthal movie – you can have the idea.

That aside, if we just consider this as an example of a differing approach, does it not seem like a line between ourselves and the monsters could be better explored in zombie films. And in such, if we saw a play with the zombie as a monster, understanding that it’s familiarity and a sudden…

… “Oh, shit that thing isn’t thinking, nor feeling – and certainly not about me…

… and I think it wants to kill me”, if we saw this type of play with a zombie as a monster and combined it with strong character work (and a bit of subtextual storytelling) does it not sound like we’d have more powerful movies that engaged an audience’s fears on a more visceral level? This is what I thought when watching Train To Busan as it does touch on ideas of humans being something above a zombie-like and senseless horde, but it never incorporates the actual zombies into this very well.

But, I turn this over to you. What did you think of Train To Busan if you’ve seen it? Do you think that zombie movies could be improved? If so, how?

 

 

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Every Year In Film #1 – Origins

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Every Year In Film #1 – Origins

Thoughts On: Cinema’s Origins

This is the beginning of a long journey in which we will pick one film from every year in cinematic history to discuss and pull apart. But, before we can begin this, we have to find our footing and the origins of cinema.

EveryYearInFilm

“Where to start?” is a question you’ll surely ask yourself when wanting to discuss the origins of anything. And the more you research into a beginning of something, the looser and looser the idea of an origin becomes. This is because very few things, technological or otherwise, ever just appear; they’re born, they develop, they grow or they evolve from something else. For instance, if you wanted to discuss the origins of modern aeroplanes, would you look back to the Wright Brothers? Would you look further back to the invention of hot air balloons? Maybe the invention of balloons themselves? Maybe kites? Maybe you should start by tracing all the way back to the first humans that saw a bird spread its wings and take off before looking down at their feet and then up to the skies? Or, should you look even further back into our evolutionary origins and consider that we came from single celled organisms floating in an ocean; a genetic singularity based on a 3-dimensional plane of movement free of land and gravity as we know it? Then again, why not consider the fact that we are made of particles; entities that exist because of the exchange and flow of energy? Maybe these particles have a physical inherency for free motion through space and time – what we may define to be flight?

Alas, these aren’t questions we have to consider, thankfully, because we are not interested in the origins of the modern aeroplane. Instead, we are interested in cinema; film; flicks; movies; motion pictures. But, with the conceptual idea of ‘cinema’ comes a history that cannot really be traced. This is because cinema, if we were to look at the etymology of the term, comes from the French word “cinéma” and means “cinema hall”, which is a shortened version of “cinématographe” meaning “motion picture projector and camera”. However, the French term “cinématographe” was coined by the Lumière brothers and was derived from the Greek words “kinema” and “graphein” which mean “movement” and “to write”. If we were to consider Jurassic Park, It’s A Wonderful Life, Fast And Furious as well as The Passion Of Joan Of Arc as ‘cinema’, then we have to accept that this term conceptually connotes the idea of movement as writing; movement as a language that can be both projected and captured. Thus, the origins of cinema become incredibly fuzzy. A baseline which we may dip below and above would consider that cinema comes from memory, as memory is both the reception of movement (spacetime) as well as the means through which we communicate. After all, if we didn’t retain anything then we would be trapped in the present, unable to communicate what happened 7 milliseconds ago. However, we could push towards even more fundamental, and entirely speculative, grounds to suggest that something evolved or shaped into a human form; a form that had memory and so the ability to perceptual write and read in spacetime. So, by discovering the origins of life, or even of the universe, scientists could maybe one day identify the reason why memory and conscious thought developed in the human mind. In such, we would find out that, for a purpose or by some mathematical and physical accident/probability, cinema was triggered and incentivised by the code of the matrix in which we exist. What wrote that code? A question we could eternally ask, pushing further and further back toward the unreachable infinite singularity of somethingness (if such a thing even exists).

So, pulling back a moment, we have to realise that “where does cinema come from?” is a really abstract question that probably can’t be answered without unlocking the most fundamental of mysteries of reality, the universe and all that may be beyond it. All we can then recognise to be the tangible birth of cinema (considered conceptually; movement as a language) is the act of storytelling. Because humans favour sight as their key perceptual way of engaging the world, most avenues of perception lead towards an image. For instance, if someone says to you “Stanley Kubrick”, you may think of this face…

… or maybe these movies…

Moreover, if you read the word “onion”, you probably think of something such as this:

And I assume that if you smelled an onion, a similar image would arise. The reason why this paradigm exists is because… it kind of doesn’t. Through linguistics, you will quickly find yourself at semiotics – which is the study of, the exploration or making of, meaning. A branch of semiotics, probably the most famous and relevant, would be that of Saussure. Through his work, you can come to see the world as an infinite set of symbols that connote perceptual signifiers. In other words, that onion is not an onion – it is a package of particles that your brain can perceive either through sight, sound, taste, touch or smell. And as a symbol, a perceptual signifier, an onion has to signify something; as a package of particles, it has to interact with your senses so that you can understand what the symbols means. Now, before moving on, this doesn’t suggest that there is a universal communication between particles. I’m simply using metaphors to suggest the manner in which the mind interprets reality. That said, with the onion being perceptually identified as such by the mind, we come to think of it as a concept before anything else. In such, that “onion” is an abstract amalgamation of every interaction you ever had with something linked to something someone once said was an onion; the first time your mother uttered the word as you wandered into the kitchen as she was cooking; the first time you cried when the house was flooded with its tear-jerking chemicals; the first and last time you ate some. This is why you can recognise that this too…

… is an onion. You can’t smell, touch, nor taste that drawing, just like you can’t smell, touch or taste this word “onion”, yet it all means the same thing because of your mind’s ability to associate many signifiers with one abstract, fluid and working concept.

That said, there are around 6,500 languages in use in the world right now. That means there are 6,500 different ways of saying, hearing, reading and writing the word “onion”. This in turn means that it’d be quite hard (in all likelihood) for a woman in Australia to communicate to a man in Cambodia what an onion is – that is, without some kind of visual aid. Whilst she could spray an onion scent to explain to him what she means, far less things have an olfactible (smellable) quality than they do a visible one. That is to say that the Australian woman can’t spray an iPhone scent and be understood. This is why the image is so important to human beings; it is an almost universal language. There are downfalls to this language, however. The obvious downfall is the ambiguity of certain images.

More pertinent than optical illusions and mind tricks would, however, be this:

This is not what an atom looks like – not nearly. This image comes closer:

But, it still does not explain, nor communicate what an atom really is. This is because the rings around an atom are a haze of probability that suggest where an electron could be. And we see many more examples of this when we consider the largest macro levels on which you could perceive the universe as well as the smallest quantum levels; these shades of reality cannot be fully understood through the language of imagery – rather, mathematics for the most part.

What this all says about cinema is that it is probably the most powerful, but not the absolute best, form of communication. The best way of communication would transcended the need for signifiers and is something you might want to define as telepathy, but let’s not dive into that. Instead, let us return to the idea that the origins of cinema lie in the act of storytelling.

If the image is the strongest form of communication and a visual understanding is the ultimate goal of most forms of communication, then cinema comes from grunts, nods, and the waving of hands which became the auditory telling of stories that eventually was abstracted from time with paintings of various sorts…

In such, cinema started as reality and a signifier for the image – as space that speaks a language; it was a grunt, a hand motion, the showing of an onion. Cinema soon became the recording of this communication in space alone that attempted to signify movement; notice the implied motion blur…

This is the height of cinema; an illusion that has only become a little more crafty. And this is what we’ll continue to explore next in Every Year In Film.

 

 

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Hercules – Zero To Hero

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Hercules – Zero To Hero

Thoughts On: Hercules (1997)

The son of Zeus fights through trials and tribulations to earn his way back to immortality and Mount Olympus.

Hercules

Hercules, much like Aladdin and Lion King, is a great example of Disney-fied source material. Whilst Aladdin is the Disney adaptation of Arabian Nights and Lion King is a re-working of Hamlet, Hercules takes the vast and sprawling tales told over the centuries of a demigod called Heracles and pulls them into a 90 minute long narrative. With the monumental difference between the magnitude of the source material and the time in which Disney must tell this story, there are obviously going to come downfalls. To some, one of these downfalls would be the complete reinvention of Greek mythology. We could spend all day listing the ways in which the tales of Hercules have been skewed, but the main difference would probably be that Hercules isn’t the son of Hera…

… who is Zeus’ older sister as well as the goddess of women and marriage. Disney glance over these facts, leaving you to believe that Hera isn’t Hercules’ step-mother, instead his birth mother, and that she isn’t Zeus’ sister. More significantly, they completely disregard the fact that she was supposed to have absolutely despised Hercules – so much so that she constantly tried to have him killed. And by constantly, I mean time and time and time and time again. This is all because, as mentioned, Hera is the goddess of women and marriage. Married to her younger brother Zeus, which made her queen of Olympus, she was cheated on (Zeus did this quite a lot – notoriously so) when he slept with Alcmene, a mortal and Hercules’ birth mother who is reduced to his foster mother by Disney. This, understandably so, infuriated Hera on many, many levels; hence the constant murderous ploys. Coming back to Alcmene, however….

Alcmene is not only supposed to have had other sons, Hercules’ brothers that we never see, but was a princess, granddaughter to Perseus – which makes her Zeus’ great granddaughter. And to top it all off she was said to have been as beautiful as Aphrodite.

We could go on, but there isn’t much of a point. All we need to ask is if this reinvention is justified and if it works. In my opinion, yes on both fronts. Greek mythology is astoundingly vast and the subject of a plethora of remakes and adaptations. Disney need not be faithful to the source material as there isn’t really one true and singular author nor source. Moreover, if you want access to more ‘accurate versions’ you have more than enough material out there to find. And so the most crucial observation in this regard links back to The Lion King and Aladdin. Whilst Disney aren’t providing us something entirely original, they are attempting to make something new – and that’s something I’m more than willing to embrace.

As implied, however, I do think there are downfalls to this approach that Disney has always taken from Snow White onward. The incredibly condensed run times of Disney features doesn’t allow the best of pacing in regard to pivotal character moments and emotional beats. That is to say that we’re never really given time to digest the nuances of a character’s arc. We arguably see this in every Disney film, and whilst it is handled well with montage at times, there are moments like the one in which Hercules finds out that Meg has (kind of) double crossed him…

… that just aren’t too satisfying as they’re jumped past far too quickly. Within Hercules this partly comes down to the direction and animation style; it’s simply not as powerful or expressive as that seen in something such as Dumbo.

The reason why Hercules isn’t as poignant as Dumbo comes down to the application of simplicity and pure cinema; Dumbo makes masterful transitions between dialogue heavy sequences and scenes in which you only rely on the image and music alone to understand the story whilst Hercules does not.

This is just a minor flaw that I see in Hercules however. For the most part, Hercules is a highly immersive and enjoyable film with some great songs and ingenious choices in regard to an approach to this classical narrative. The greatest of these choices has to be the disregard of Charlton Heston’s opening narration for that of the 5 Muses.

And this marks the best aspect of Hercules. It measuredly brings a tale from antiquity toward the contemporary – and purposefully so. In such, the references to the future and pop culture within Hercules allows for a commentary on modern day consumerism and idealism that always has been, and still is, relevant. The best sequence in which to see this is certainly the montage of Hercules’ many labours…

From shoe deals to credit cards to action figures to stores to drinks, Hercules’ rise is used to comment on what ‘zero to hero’ actually means. To many, it means earning money, fame and notoriety, but ‘true heroism’ is a lot more abstract and harder to obtain. In such, this film means to ask its audience (young kids and teens) who their idols should be and what they should mean to them.

A nice parallel that is brought up with the reference to Air-Hercs is one to Michael Jordan.

From around 84 to 93 Jordan was in a league of his own in the NBA, gaining unimaginable fame and fortune. But, then came the whole gambling controversy and then his retirement from basketball so he could play baseball. Following this was his return to basketball and arguably his redemption. A child aspiring to be ‘like Mike’ could take many things away from his career up into the late 90s. One of the worst takeaways however would probably this symbol…

To want to be like Mike is fine. But, if you only want the shoes that are named after you, you’re probably doing it for the wrong reasons. To be like Mike should mean you aspire to one day reach or surpass his skill level; to be as dedicated and hardworking as him. In such, idols should be an intellectual and emotional symbol of heroism (of any sort) rather than a piece of fashion – and this is the simple point that is made throughout this narrative.

Hercules is not just about going from zero to hero, much rather, going the distance – a distance that transcends a simpler idea of getting rich and becoming famous. So, like Mike, Hercules, in the most cinematic of ways, learns of self-sacrifice and determination…

And so, whilst we may come away from this narrative with an image such as this…

… we have only got to this point by taking Hercules’ journey of endurance with him. In such, we are made to understand that this symbol of heroism isn’t one earned through punching things, but through a much more sustainable model of power and influence; empathy, self-sacrifice and love.

Without getting too soppy, this is a key change to the story of Hercules. In the mythological tales he wins Meg by defeating the Minyans (a group of people who inhabited an area around what we’ve come to call The Mediterranean Sea) at Orchomenos. He has 8 children with her before one day killing them all – this was all, as to be expected, Hera’s doing, who put him in a state of delusion. Hercules then later goes on to marry another woman called Deianeira, who inadvertently poisons him when she assumes he is pursuing another woman (Iole). She does this with the blood of a centaur Hercules killed with a poison arrow, thinking that it would act as a love potion. The burn of this poison, which Deianeira doused one of his tunics in, is so intense that Hercules eventually gets a friend to set him on fire and is allowed to die. And this is how he gains his way into Olympus as a God. Heroic, right?

To condense Hercules’ story into a Disney film like this would obviously produce the most confusing of messages; one that seems to conclude that you should conquer and kill a lot before being destroyed by your own ego and allowed to become a God. This is why Disney have opted for this differing path toward Olympus for Hercules – which he ultimately denies. And as morally simplistic and bland as that seems, this narrative design holds weight when we consider celebrities that fall into the class of someone such as Charlie Sheen…

Whilst Sheen didn’t gain his initial fame from this, ‘tiger blood’ will certainly go down as a major chapter in his book of legacy. And more and more, seemingly, we gravitate towards bombshell personalities; we look for the loud and explosive who somehow made it from zero to hero without assessing their true worth. To directly contradict myself, this has probably been the case throughout history; the idea of a zero to hero comes before questions of substance. And this is what the narrative of Hercules is attempting to combat. Instead of heroism being a quantifiable status earned arbitrarily and through lowly means of achieving fame, Disney’s story of Hercules takes a moment to define what it means to be a hero, to then say to its audience that, if you want to be remembered like this…

… you’ll not only need to go through hell many times over, but be willing to step out to just this:

Moreover, a symbol of your achievement, such as this…

… isn’t so much for you, but a testament to how you got to this final point and to those who helped you get there – and all for others to see and learn from.

This is why, though it is simple, Hercules is a triumphant Disney classic. It not only plays with form and reinvents an ancient tale to create something that is, under the guise of entertainment, new, but it uses this pop-centic approach to say something with some amount of weight about how we select and view our idols.

 

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TO Shorts #1

Today’s Shorts: Sister Act (1992), Mardi Gras Massacre (1978), Rear Window (1954), Koyaanisqatsi (1982), Louis C.K 2017 (2017), Decasia (2002), Bean (1997), The Three Tenors In Concert (1994)

Goddamn… I forgot how good this movie is.

It finds a perfect spot between cheesy and goose-bump-inducing joy with an incredibly tight script and crisp direction.

In my opinion, Whoopi Goldberg’s greatest film, and most definitely the best movie you could possibly make about a lounge singer finding refuge in a convent so her mobster boyfriend doesn’t kill her.

I’m developing a bad habit of watching terrible movies just because of an interesting poster.

Why is almost everything shot in a wide? Why are these wides so awkwardly framed?

A poor, not at all fun, ‘video nasty’.

Without a doubt, my favourite Hitchcock film – by far. I’d even go as far to say that this is his masterpiece. The rich characterisation, the quintessential pure cinematics, the dexterous cinematic language, the impeccable performances and the fantastic set-design all come together to produce something truly special. I don’t like the use of fast motion, nor parts of the logic with the climax, but this is entirely overshadowed by every other detail of the feature.

This film deserves a lot more words, especially when considering the depths of subtext to be found around Jeff’s relationship with Lisa in relation to the many residents of the courtyard, but, I need not say more right now than this is one of the undeniable all-time-greats that everyone needs to see.

Incredible. Powerful visual poetry. Koyaanisqatsi is utterly immersive and impossibly beautiful. I thought this would be an arduous watch, but everything flies by so fast, leaving you in awe.

It is immensely difficult to gain a satisfactory perspective on a bigger picture than yourself and your little life. Koyaanisqatsi allows something of an incite into a bigger picture of industrialisation and progress – and in a, in certain senses, long gone time. This is certainly the power of the film; its ability to convey the momentum of a society in such a captivating manner. And the purpose of all of this is to ask us what definition of “Koyaanisqatsi” makes sense in relation to what you’ve seen.

I personally have to go for ‘crazy life’ as I didn’t really feel much negativity to be drawn from this hectic depiction of humanity. So, ultimately, if the aliens show up, maybe this would be an interesting thing to show them?

Another great hour from Louis C.K. I particularly love the approach of many of his bits that ensures he never, not really, kinda, almost, definitely, always… may… have something of an opinion on a subject. I think this speak volumes about his kind of comedy; the commentary is complex, is sometimes dark, is sometimes absurd, but always, and before anything else, comedic.

And need I say more than “CHRIST!”. Pure gold. Make sure you see it if you haven’t already.

An interesting film. Sometimes beautiful. Sometimes quite unsettling. Ultimately, it drags on far too long with painful pacing. The worst element of this Decasia, however, is certainly the soundtrack. I don’t understand the choice to play constantly disturbing music – even over imagery that seems joyful or placid. It’s starts out confusing, becomes jarring and is eventually monotonous and banal.

If you want to see a film that uses decayed, fractured and destroyed footage, check out Tscherkassky’s work; with this approach he creates narratives with a unique cinematic language (that don’t last too long).

Not as good as the old T.V show, but, for some reason, I’ve always enjoyed this movie. It’s pretty stupid and the supporting cast are quite bad. The script is very shoddy too. But, Atkinson has quite a few great moments that are supported well by the surprisingly good score and direction – look for instance to the poster replacement sequence.

I laughed like an idiot all throughout the final act, and… yeah, a dumb movie that I always end up watching whenever it’s on T.V

I don’t really know how or why I stumbled onto this, but, Jesus…

I know almost nothing about opera, classical singing, orchestras and so on, but this film/concert is beyond many preconceptions you may bring to it. There is just such immense emotional power exuding from almost every moment of each performance that this wholly transcends artistic forms and simply speaks to any and everyone. In other words, no matter what you like, what you don’t like, or what you think about classical music and opera, I bet this concert will astound you.

And beyond that, I think I’ve been left speechless.

 

 

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The Double Life Of Veronique – Beauty As A Narrative Device

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Hercules – Zero To Hero

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The Double Life Of Veronique – Beauty As A Narrative Device

Quick Thoughts: The Double Life Of Veronique (1991)

We follow two identical, but unrelated, women as they attempt to make strides in the music careers as well as their personal lives.

The Double Life of Veronique

The Double Life of Veronique is a highly immersive and intricately masterful film by Krzysztof Kieślowski, who is known for the Three Colours films. Its ambiguous exploration of reality and personage is what draws you into the ever unfolding subtext as we follow Veronique on a journey of self loss (if those are the right words) and self discovery. And all of this culminates in an intriguing climax that’s imbued with melancholy and, in some senses, resolve, but also a dark spot that left me in suspension.

I will definitely have to re-watch this film to get a better grip on its narrative before I can confidently discuss it, but I have to say that this is a cinematic experience that isn’t really dependent on understanding. As with many of Tarkovsky’s works (I know I mention him far too often), you simply have to feel your way through the narrative and allow it to absorb you. And Kieślowski makes this no task at all. With his cinematographer, Sławomir Idziak, Kieślowski conjures some of the most sumptuous and atmospheric imagery ever put to film. The use of greens, reds and yellows throughout this film is hypnotically poignant, creating textures and tones that defy description. In fact, the aesthetic side of The Double Life Of Veronique is so integral to the experience of the film that it becomes apart of the narrative. And by this, I don’t mean to suggest that Kieślowski’s use of colour composition, mise en scène, framing and lighting provide subtext and meaning. The simple beauty of the shots in this film are so powerful that they, at face value, become a narrative device; one that sets mood and atmosphere, supporting the channel by which the story is fed to us.

You may argue that beauty, or aesthetic, is actually a narrative device of all films. However, how many films actually make this idea obvious, or showcase an understanding of this? In my opinion, very few. A good point of comparison to be made right now is to the recent Kong: Skull Island. When we discussed this film, we delved into digital aesthetics. And in dipping our toe into this subject from a purely observational viewpoint, we explored the idea that many blockbusters nowadays are pretty ugly. This is a truly nonsensical paradigm when we consider the fact that most blockbusters are supposed to be a form of spectacle. Of all films, we would expect blockbusters to understand this idea that beauty can be a narrative device. This seems to not be the case, however, when we look to things such as Kong and the plethora of superhero movies.

In thinking about this after watching The Double Life Of Veronique, I can’t help but ask how and why this has come to be. Why are the most spectacular of films with the biggest budgets, relatively (to their budget and crew), some of the ugliest?

I’m sure there is no actual answer to this question, but, it seems very apparent that there’s a stereotypically distinguishing term we may use when we looking at film: art/arthouse. ‘Art’, in respect to cinema, often connotes the low budget, the experimental, the independent and, sometimes, the pretentious. And with the better of the arthouse films, we also come to see/expect the most unique and playful of aesthetics that are often incredibly beautiful – that in fact try to be just so. However, we usually don’t think of blockbusters when the term ‘art’ is uttered in a conversation on film. The paradigm then seems to be, under the guise of aesthetics, that art films try to stun you with the fundamentals (lighting, framing, colour composition), whilst big blockbusters attempt to dazzle you with everything low budget movies can’t: CGI, flashy camera movement, huge sets and high-end kit. The problem with the latter is obvious, and the solution seems to be that the directors of these huge blockbusters need concentrate on the fundamentals and get a bit artsy-fartsy once in a while – or maybe just watch The Double Life Of Veronique.

I’ll end by turning this over to you. Do you think that beauty is a narrative device in films? How do you think this is managed by blockbusters? Do a lot more directors need to sit down and pay attention to a film like The Double Life Of Veronique?

 

 

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