CineMathematics or CinemaThematics. Your choice

Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Power of a Shot

Yesterday I ventured out to see my first film in a British theater, and I felt compelled to blog about it. After all, I have significantly less time to trek to a theater, and the costs are significantly more. A trip to the theater becomes an event for me, as I will be doing it so rarely. But I digress. The film in question was Apichatpong Weerasethakul's beautiful Syndromes and a Century. I'm glad I picked this, as it is well worth my time, and yours as well. As it slowly makes its rounds, I would highly recommend you give it a go. It is a true art film, yet its sense of humor manages to make it bearable to those who aren't swept up by its beauty.

Syndromes actually made me recall American Beauty, strangely enough. There is a shot at the end of Syndromes, that of smoke being sucked into a ventilation shaft, which struck me with the force of a hurricane. In fact, I may go so far as to say that the shot made me believe in the presence of the divine. Here's where American Beauty comes in. We all remember this scene:

I felt some inkling of that as I watched that shot. My feelings were not nearly so intense, but I thought that it's hard to imagine something so beautiful could just happen without something higher up. I didn't feel great comfort, that somehow God is here and everything will be alright. No. I just felt the presence. Upon further reflection, it felt stupid to feel this way.

After all, this shot wasn't something natural. Even if you dismiss the scene from American Beauty as pretentious, it can work within its context. He saw something that was natural within his world. That bag's movement is not natural for us. There were probably fans blowing at it from just off screen to create that movement. And so we cannot feel the same feelings as he does because it's not real. In the same way, that shot in Syndromes and a Century was probably carefully crafted with fans and a smoke machine. There can't be a divine presence here. This was man-made beauty.

And yet, if this doesn't prove the presence of God, then it at least exemplifies the power of film. The director, through a slow build up and the persistence of a certain tone throughout the film, can take us places we've never been before. It can make us feel things that should be embarrassing, yet I don't feel embarrassed about it. This was a moment that reminded me why I love film, and why I write about it. It's the feeling I hope for every time I step into a theater or pop in a DVD. If only for a few minutes, I can feel something this powerful.

What moments in film transport you? What movies remind you why you love movies? What shots strike you as especially profound?

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Thursday, September 27, 2007

In Defense of Halloween(2007)

The title is a bit of an exaggeration, as I haven't seen Halloween. I think this was a film doomed to the critics because of its very existence and place in history. This sort of group-think, especially when it comes to a remake like this, can be dangerous and limiting in our views on cinema.

First of all, we must properly define a remake. Recent talk about the "remake" of Halloween has got me thinking. Does the new version of Hairspray count as a remake, or is it a film adaptation of the stage adaptation of a film? If half the contents of the "remake" did not exist in the original, does it still count as a remake? If Batman Begins can count as a series reboot, then shouldn't Halloween? And wouldn't we rather have Rob Zombie's version, background story and all, than merely another generic slasher movie starring Michael Myers? Wouldn't that be the greater disservice to John Carpenter? Zombie at least tried to push the series in a new direction, something most directors wouldn't have done.

Speaking of Batman Begins and Halloween, I'd like to explore the idea of the backstory as plot device. In this piece over at Lazy Eye Theatre, Piper chides audiences who went to see Halloween, partly because of the presence of a backstory to attempt to explain Michael Myers' homocidal ways. Then shouldn't we chide all the people who went to see Batman Begins or Spiderman or even Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? All of them begin with backstories for their characters which help to properly explain the origins and psychology of their main characters. In fact, it is standard protocol for modern superhero movies to include a backstory for both the superpowers and the emotional character.

This is best exemplified by Batman Begins and Hulk, whose use of fear and father issues, respectively, became the main core themes of the films. I cannot speak personally of either Halloween, but I would be inclined to believe that Zombie would use something prevalent in Michael Myers' home life as an underlying theme. Feel free to tell me if I'm nowhere near the truth. However, I will probably need to see the evidence and draw my own conclusions.

As for the notion of Carpenter's Halloween being an "untouchable," a film that has attained classic status and should never be touched with a remake, I point the the 50s. Ninotchka and The Philadelphia Story were both remade as high profile musicals in the 50s, Silk Stockings and High Society, respectively. Both Ninotchka and The Philadelphia Story are film adaptations of a book and a play, but it hardly seems credible that the studios decided to return to the source material for the new films. Likewise with Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Though Burton did adapt from the source material rather than update Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the project probably was developed in the studio system as a straight remake which got retooled once Burton signed on.

Studios love to remake films. And most of the time, the result is uninspired, if not plain bad. Halloween was going to be remade, whether Rob Zombie directed it or not. It wasn't his idea to remake it, but he did the work. And he created something different. For those genre purists, the film must automatically be bad. After all, it is a remake of an established classic, and nobody should ever make one of those. But Rob Zombie's Halloween doesn't look like a straight remake. It looks like a reinvention. The difference is subtle, but it is there. It is an attempt to create something different, except it uses names we've heard before. Much like Michael Mann's Miami Vice, this reads as a movie that would be much better received if it only had a different title and different character names. I am personally of the belief that both films were going to be made, and both men thought that a straight remake or adaptation would be absolutely terrible. They sacrificed some credibility to prevent worse films from being made, and I think both made the right decision.

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Monday, September 24, 2007

Peter Bart Hates Sundae Monday

It seems Peter Bart hates you for contributing to the astonishing anomaly of blogging. With his newest blanket attack on all things that feature the word "blog", he ponders bloggers' obsession with the traffic that visits their sites. Consider me Exhibit A for the defense. I don't care about traffic so much as comments. I believe that the invention of blogging has created the ability for discussion that was sorely lacking from film criticism, and I would only be happier with my blog if it got more comments. But Bart only seems to be interested in Perez Hilton as the archetype for bloggers everywhere, so I decided to dedicate this Sundae Monday to someone who couldn't be bothered to even look for this blog.

This week's clip provides what I assume is both variations on the characters Bart thinks we all are. On one hand is the complete moron, a product of the internet who has no attention span and no intelligence. The other half is the Fanboy, the obsessive statistic counter who prevents Bart from properly spinning the films he wants, so we must all be geeks, of course.

Peter Bart, we are neither of these characters, and I hope someday that you will come to realize that we have brains beyond mere statistics. But until then, just keep thinking what you do. Someday we might fit your exaggerations.

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Sunday, September 23, 2007

Announcing the It's A Wonderful Life Blog-A-Thon, December 16

There are some films that everyone is supposed to love. They are the ones that appear on those lists, announcing to the world that if you don't like this film, there must be something wrong with me. I guess there's something wrong with me. I've never particularly liked It's a Wonderful Life. In fact, I don't understand how so many people like it. I don't mean this to be mean spirited, but I just don't get it. I would like to, though. I want to see what everyone else sees, even if I choose to continue disliking it. And so, in this effort of greater understanding, I propose a Blog-A-Thon.

This will be a simple affair. One day, one film. Write anything you want, as long as it has to deal with James Stewart's final collaboration with Frank Capra. If you feel the same way as I do, please contribute. If you think I'm dead wrong, explain. The key here is discussion. Too often we let films sit on lists without a proper defense. This is your chance to defend a film you think is great, or it could be your chance to take an overrated film down a peg or two. Whatever you want to say, I will take it. I can assure you that I will have my attack planned out. I think I will go for the left flank first...

If you wish to participate, you can leave a comment here, or you can send me an email. I will leave reminders as the day gets closer, so feel free to let me know whenever you want. Even if you don't participate, please tell everyone you know about this. This is my first Blog-A-Thon, and I hope it will be a success, but that all depends on you.

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Monday, September 17, 2007

Sundae Monday Learns the Alphabet

Two days in England and I still don't have an internet connection. Fortunately the internet cafe near where I live now is only 1£ per hour, but this one will be quick. As soon as I get the internet in my room, I'll be up with my look back at this past summer. A sidenote to all the Jews out there: Shanah Tovah. But I digress. Today brings news that in October I will be able to see Patrick Stewart in Macbeth. Of course, the first thing I thought was this outtake from Season One of "Star Trek: The Next Generation":

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Monday, September 10, 2007

And Now For Something Completely Sundae Monday

Things will be changing around here. I'm not sure if the change is for the better or worse, but it's a-coming. I am going to England on Saturday, not to return until June. So at least for a little bit things will be slowing down as I go over and make myself comfortable. In honor of this, and a conveniently timed screening of And Now For Something Completely Different this past weekend, I present a comparison. One clip is from Monty Python's Flying Circus and the other is from And Now For Something Completely Different. I shouldn't have to tell you which is TV and which is film.

The most noticeable difference here, outside of the acting, is the camera movement. The TV version, done in one shot, never moves until the punchline is delivered. The film version features a constantly moving camera. The camera slowly moves from right to left while panning the other way to keep the characters in frame. We feel like we are going in circles, an accurate representation of the conversation we watch. The TV version, on the other hand, only moves to emphasize the punchline. This movement is justified as the punchline is the only reason the scene exists. Unlike the Dirty Fork sketch (see below), the scene could not exist without the punchline, and so it feels right that it is emphasized.

The acting is more refined in the film version, which works to the benefit of Terry Jones, but not Eric Idle. Idle's work in the TV version places more emphasis on his vocal intonations, while the film version is much more physical. I prefer Idle's voice work in the TV sketch, but it's more of a personal preference. Jones' reactions in the film version are muted, letting Idle own the scene. In the TV version, Jones is more clearly agitated at points, taking away from the punchline. The more subtle reactions of the film version build up to the ending while also allowing Idle to dominate the scene completely.

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Sunday, September 09, 2007

The Sounds of Chaplin

This is my contribution to the Slapstick Blog-A-Thon over at Film of the Year. Make sure to check out the hub for some great writing.

Everyone knows about Charlie Chaplin. His Tramp is probably the most recognizable image from all of silent film. His films are required viewing for anyone who wants even the most basic understanding of silent film, and the history behind City Lights, Modern Times, and The Great Dictator are practically legend. He remained silent for 10 years after the rest of the world started talking. But his relationship with sound is much more complex and fascinating than most people think.

Take this scene from The Great Dictator (It lasts from about the 4 minute mark to the 5 minute mark):

This scene effectively combines comedy that doesn't need sound with comedy that comes entirely from sound. The line of officers is a gag that could only work in the sound world. Part of that stems from the evolution of the voices. What was originally a simple order gains a hint of sadism as the lower officers gain glee from not having to do this duty. Chaplin understands the key use of sound in comedy. A comedy in the sound era must be able to use sound as a punchline, not merely as an accompaniment to the visual. The comedy isn't in the dialogue but in the voices. Chaplin uses this again during Hynkel's first speech. The comedy is entirely in Chaplin's voice.

Next comes the silent comedy. The missile follows Chaplin's barber as he tries to examine it. Once the barber is given this job, there is no sound. No music, no footsteps, nothing. Chaplin knows what we expect coming into the movie. We paid money to see Chaplin running around without sound, so Chaplin gives us just that. It's well done, of course, but it almost feels obligatory. Chaplin doesn't have another moment like this in the rest of the film, which is unfortunate, especially considering Jack Oakie's screentime is a career low for Chaplin as a director. Nevertheless, this moment proves to us that Chaplin still knows how to work without sound.

This scene ends with the reintroduction of sound. As the missile begins firing sparks, we know that things have just become funnier. We don't need the sound to know what's going on, yet Chaplin gives it to us. The sound gives these new developments an immediacy that heightens the tension and hilarity. The sound, following the absolute silence as it does, is as shocking to us as it is the the barber. It would have lacked that if it were silent.

City Lights isn't completely silent, as many think. Whenever the millionaire's gun is fired, there is a bang to go with it. This seems to be Chaplin's main use of actual sound. A slip is accompanied by a slide whistle, and most bangs come with a loud drum, but the gun doesn't get an instrument. Watch between 8:30 and 9:30:

The explosion draws us back into some sort of reality. The film is, if nothing else, a fantasy. We never need to fear for the Tramp, because his falls aren't real. They're timed to drums, just as every appearance of the blind girl comes with violins. It is a world distinctly different from ours, except for the gun. The gun fires like a real one would, and it is the only connection between the Tramp's world and the real world. Sound is the connection, and it lies at the heart of the film. Of course, it is the sound of the car door closing that makes the blind girl mistake the Tramp for a millionaire. In this way, Chaplin points to sound as a way of deceit. The gun is the only thing that is real. Even at this point, Chaplin's opinions on violence shine through. We don't need to fear for the Tramp. We need to fear the gun. No matter what, that is real.

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Monday, September 03, 2007

Steamboat Sundae Monday

When exploring the depths of YouTube, it's easy to find a few videos that would make a great Sundae Monday, but which never get the chance to be exposed. Various things happen, including movie releases, DVD releases, or something important in my life which inspires a new, very timely, Sundae Monday. This leaves some good videos waiting in a queue which never seems to shorten. This week is one of those weeks when I finally get a chance to show what has always been pushed aside. Despite Labor Day, my job ending, and various other events, I present, for no particular reason, Mickey Mouse in all his glory.

First, Steamboat Willie, the eternal classic that put Mickey on the map.

It's interesting to see what a deplorable character Mickey is in this cartoon, using ducks and goats for his own enjoyment. It also introduces an early rivalry, and can serve for many viewers as an introduction to Black Pete, the cat. Pete is more known now for being a generic villain to Goofy and Donald, but his early bouts with Mickey helped establish him as the Disney villain to go to.

The Gallopin' Gaucho more directly displays Pete's villainous tendencies, and it also helps define Mickey's relationship with Minnie. The next was the first Mickey short I ever saw, and one that helped define my childhood. Notice Pete is back again, this time as a dog catcher.

And finally, I couldn't have Steamboat Willie here without the appropriate counterpart...

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