CineMathematics or CinemaThematics. Your choice

Monday, October 29, 2007

Sundae Monday and the Beatdown of the Colorado Rockies

I was going to use this pre-Halloween post to talk about all those things that scared me as a child, but that can wait for another week. This week featured the ascent of the Boston Red Sox to the top of the World Series for the second time in four years. Sometimes I get scared thinking about the fact that this guy is our closer, though:

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Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Forgotten Auteur

At the end of the year, everyone will look back on what filmmakers are no longer with us. People will mourn Bergman and Antonioni, and some will mourn Adrienne Shelly. Few people will remember that this year we lost Ousmane Sembene, one of the great unrecognized directors. When his death was announced, I had no idea who he was. A little research gave me a basic introduction, and in the months since, I have seen Xala and Black Girl. This is hardly a comprehensive look at his feature films, but it is more than most people get, and his films deserve to be seen much more.

Sembene's films are surprisingly even-handed. His main characters are fully developed and three-dimensional, and Sembene is not afraid to show the negative sides of his protagonists. Though this comes naturally with the story of Xala, Sembene easily could have made the titular Black Girl into a martyr for Africa. He didn't, and the film benefits greatly from the character's negative aspects. Xala tells the story of a despicable man, yet we align ourselves with him and his plight. This kind of complication adds to the film's depth, and it tells of Sembene's storytelling abilities.

Sembene is also a strongly feminist director. His female characters are relatable, and his stories often involve women struggling against their positions in society. Black Girl is about an under-appreciated maid trying to prove her worth to herself. Xala involves a man and his third marriage. Occasionally, Sembene diverts from the main story to show the man's daughter reacting to her mother's position. This conflict is just as compelling as the man's attempt to undo the curse placed on him, because it is rooted in real characters facing real conflicts. It's also not metaphorical, unlike most of Sembene's stories.

This isn't meant to say that his metaphors are overbearing in any way. They're not. In fact, if I hadn't been told about it beforehand, I probably wouldn't have recognized the metaphor behind the powerlessness in Xala. It's there for the deeper interpretation, but it coexists with the surface plot in a way that allows a strong interaction without either one dominating. This sort of storytelling stands out in an age when subtlety may be the rarest narrative device that filmmakers use. Sembene was one of a kind, and his films should be seen much more widely than they are.

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Monday, October 22, 2007

Sundae Monday and the Close-Up (Part II)

One last time before I move on to something else, I'll throw in another entry for the Close-Up Blog-A-Thon over at The House Next Door. This one is a music video for The Strokes' "Reptilia." I don't have anything to add this time, so enjoy

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Thursday, October 18, 2007

Damn Dirty Apes

This is another entry in the Close-Up Blog-A-Thon over at The House Next Door. Be sure to check out the hub for some great writing. Also, I would like to apologize for my computer refusing to take an adequate screenshot. Unfortunately, there will be no pictures to supplement my arguments. Sorry about that.

The first close-up of 2001: A Space Odyssey seems out of place. On the African plains, night is falling. We see a leopard, and its roars dominate the soundtrack for the rest of the scene. We watch a group of apes huddling for safety among a group of rocks. We see Moonwatcher, the leader of this group, watching over the others alone. Two apes hold each other closely, the first real sign of affection among the apes. And then the close-up.

An ape's face dominates the screen, its eyes wide and constantly moving. This is the first time we have seen an ape's eyes up close, and we see the fear the leopard inspires. This sort of emotion is something we've yet to see so far, and it's something we won't see again until we're introduced to HAL. This is an ape that has human qualities, and it turns out to be more human than David Bowman or Frank Poole. This sort of revelation can be shocking.

In fact, David doesn't truly show emotion until he has already gone to Jupiter and through the monolith. HAL, often described as killing the crew members with ruthless efficiency, acts out of fear. In the infamous scene where HAL reads David and Frank's lips as they talk about shutting him down, most people see HAL as uncaring and calculating. I see it as a creature learning about a threat. Is HAL really supposed to just sit idly while Frank and David turn off all his mental capabilities? No, like any sentient being, HAL needs to fight back. His actions are motivated by the fear of being shut down, and his protest to Dave explicitly tells the audience that this is a being capable of emotion. Dave has never shown fear. He reacts to every situation with pure logic, yet we align ourselves with him because he has become a representative of our species. But the humans here are less human than HAL, and they are less human than the apes we saw before. Dave needs something extraordinary to happen for him to become human.

That something happens when he passes through the monolith. First he is literally transported, but then he is mentally transported. Once we see the first extreme close-up of Dave's eyeball, I believe we see things shown in his mind. By passing through the monolith, his mind is being altered just as the apes' minds were altered. Dave is learning about the origins of the universe, and so are we. This, I think, explains his state when his ship finally comes to rest in the bedroom. His mind simply isn't ready to process the information that has been given to him. Then we return to a normal close-up of Dave. He is finally frightened. He must become human to surpass humanity. It is only at the end of his body's life that his mind is truly ready to move to the next level. Once he is beyond the state of being human, he does not need to have fear. This is reflected by the close-up of the Starchild. The Starchild is calm, for he is beyond a human state.

The close-up is used in 2001: A Space Odyssey to show the emotion that is so rare in this film. Apes are scared. HAL is scared. Dave is not until his mind is altered. The Starchild is peaceful, maybe even happy. The first glimpse of happiness in the film comes from a being that is beyond human. What does that say about us?

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Sundae Monday's Ready for it's Close-Up

It's Tuesday, I know, but I think that alone can prove to you that my life has become extremely busy of late. My screen capture software isn't exactly doing it's job, so I may need to do my actual entry into the Close-Up Blog-A-Thon over at The House Next Door without the proper screen shot. But this is a start.

The function of a close-up often depends on the genre. If in a comedy, it is there for a punchline. In a horror film, it is there to scare us. But what about in a horror-comedy? Surely there is no better example to look at than Evil Dead II. This is a scene which consists almost entirely of close-ups, and its effect is immediate. We begin with a deer's head, a hunting trophy. Suddenly, it turns toward the camera with possessed eyes and laughs at us. The laughter is unsettling, and the look of the deer adds immensely to the sense of fear and unease. Most important is the fact that the angle is from Ash's position, and the deer ir practically looking into the camera as he laughs at us. The lamp laughs at us. If the bookshelves could look in a certain direction, they'd probably be laughing at us. All of this is cut with close-ups of Ash slowly losing his mind. Finally, we cut back to Ash.

He looks straight into the camera and laughs at us too. We are suddenly completely alone in a house full of what appears to be demonic beings, and they finally have control over our protagonist. The demented look is frightening, yet has hints of hilarity in them. As Ash moves away from the camera, his laughing becomes more goofy, and he interacts with the lamp. Comedy is restored once the close-ups have ended. But the scene isn't over.

We return to Ash in close-up one last time in the scene. As the camera moves closer, his hysterical laughs turn into screams of anguish. Our hero is back on our side, and he's scared. The humor has evaporated from the situation, and the horror is fully reinstated with the return of the close-up.

In this scene, the close-up is a scary thing. Everyone is laughing at us, and there is no escape from it. Enjoy.

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Monday, October 08, 2007

Sundae Monday's in the Crossfire

I've been spending the last week reacquainting myself with the music of Frank Zappa. His sense of humor is incredible, as is his skill in composing music. However, the first entry under "Frank Zappa" over at YouTube is not a performance, or a music video of any sort. It is an episode of Crossfire from 1986, and it's amazing to look at it in contrast with a more modern version. First is Zappa in '86, then comes Jon Stewart in 2004.

The first glaring difference is the production designs. The '86 version, with its sparse set and black background, forces the viewer to deal with the speakers and what they have to say. It is more confrontational, while the 2004 version adds colors and a sleek design that could easily distract.

I think the key here is the studio audience, or lack thereof. Frank Zappa wasn't playing to a crowd, while Jon Stewart barely did anything else. The popularization of the news has led to a decline in quality, as can be clearly seen in the comparison. It's almost enough to make one wish Robert Novak was still talking about the issues. Almost.

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Friday, October 05, 2007

I'm Lost

About a year ago, I wrote about my decidedly negative thoughts on Pan's Labyrinth. This week found me back with Guillermo Del Toro's "masterpiece", and though I found much more to appreciate, I didn't find much more to like. Maybe another viewing would fully win me over, but right now the film falls into the category of a film I respect much more than I like.

Since enough has been said in reviews about the film, I'm going to cheat and just put some things you should pay attention to next time you sit down with Ofelia.

- The not-so-subtle references to "Alice in Wonderland". The fancy dress Ofelia is given, along with plot points revolving around going down holes and forbidden foods, acknowledge the film's place within its genre's history while allowing the film to branch out in its own way. It's telling that Ofelia's "Alice in Wonderland" dress ends up with mud all over it.

- Repetitions of the opening shot. Of course, it's there in the end, but it's also referenced in other parts of the film. Most notable is the shot of Ofelia after completing her first task. As she walks out from under the tree, she leans against it and the camera zooms in. It recalls the opening shot and points to it as a victory of sorts. Depending on what you believe about the ending, it is a victory, and this shot in the middle of the film lends to certain interpretations of the ending.

- Del Toro's compositions. Early in the film, Del Toro gives us some wonderful deep focus shots. Their beauty adds to the luscious world he has created, and even if you don't like the film, you can appreciate the craft that goes into it.

- The lack of graphic violence. After watching this film, I recall hearing somebody discuss The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. They said that most people recall it as an extremely bloody film when very little is actually shown. In the same way, there is significantly less blood throughout Pan's Labyrinth than most people remember. The scene where a man is beaten to death with a rock is shown completely in shadow. We never actually see the Captain torture anyone, though it is strongly implied. Del Toro often lets us imagine the worst without us realizing. This stands in stark contrast to someone like Tarantino who constantly emphasizes the violence in his films, or lack thereof.

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Monday, October 01, 2007

It Came From Sundae Monday

A lot has been made of David Cronenberg's latest, Eastern Promises. Unfortunately, I left a day after it came out in the US, and it's not out yet in the UK. This is one of my most eagerly anticipated films of the year, after A History of Violence topped my 2005 list, and the reviews have me more excited than ever. And so, keeping Mr. Cronenberg in mind this week, I have found one of his earliest short films. From the Drain has inklings of the Cronenberg we would get to know later, but it still lacks the greatness of his features. A tight set bound piece effectively portrays the claustrophobia these men must be fearing, and the film has a very strong use of zooms and close-ups. There is a zoom towards the mouth of man who fears the tendrils in the drain. This echoes the early zoom towards the drain itself, as if to suggest that his vocal fear of the tendrils is just as responsible as the drain for the presence of the tendrils. It gives a wonderful look at the man who would make Videodrome and Naked Lunch. Enjoy.

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