’We will see… landscapes,’ they announced, ‘in which the trees bow to the whims of the wind, the leaves ripple and glitter in the rays of the sun.’ Along with the familiar photographic leitmotif of the leaves, such kindred subjects as undulating waves, moving clouds, and changing facial expressions ranked high in early prophesies. All of them conveyed the longing for an instrument which would capture the slightest incidents of the world about us.
Film theorist Siegfried Kracauer writing about the dreams of photography pioneers Henry Cook and Gaetano Bonnelli, who in the 1860s invented a device called a photobioscope that combined stereoscope + zoetrope effects to show primitive short “3D” “movie” loops. It’s interesting to think about the decades in which photography was new and exploding in use, but it couldn’t capture the essence of normal day-to-day movement due to the long exposure times.
In 1983, immediately after screening his new film Out of the Blue at Rice University, Dennis Hopper invited the attendees out to a racetrack outside city limits by way of school bus where they could watch the actor sit in a chair ringed by dynamite and witness him explode — or hopefully not, if the trick he called the “Russian Dynamite Death Chair Act” is pulled off successfully…
In attendance for the explosive, not-entirely-sober stunt: Wim Wenders (presumably in the vicinity while filming Paris, Texas?), Terry Southern (screenwriter: Dr. Strangelove, Casino Royale, Easy Rider), and a 22-year-old Sam Houston State student named Richard Linklater (!).
Box office success is wonderful, and that’s what everyone wants,” says Landis. “But as we all know, lots of shitty movies are huge hits, and lots of great movies fail. You know, Peter Bogdanovich famously said, ‘The only true test of a movie is time.’ That’s the best thing about movies — they still exist.
I’ve had the nagging feeling that I’d seen the Adobe Creative Cloud logo before, and I just remembered where: it’s very similar to the linked-rings logo of the facility seen in one of my favorite movies, Wandâfuru Raifu, which takes place in a sort-of way station on the road to the afterlife (heaven not specified). The female lead wears a necklace with the same symbol, but apart from that the film is entirely vague about the organization (?) that the logo belongs to. Hopefully the hereafter’s movie-making division hasn’t been acquired by Adobe!
(Screen grab from the Criterion Forums, which made me hopeful that this film was coming out on Criterion…)
Some comedy for your Saturday: Shaw and Lee, AKA The Beau Brummels. We saw this Vitaphone short on TCM last week, and were mesmerized by the duo’s Andy Kaufman-esque deadpan delivery of bad jokes and Vaudeville songs (stick with it for at least a couple of minutes!). Strangely modern, or in any case I gather from digging around that this was considered a bizarre, unique act at the time.
Always eat when you are hungry.
Always drink when you are dry.
Go to bed when you’re sleepy.
But don’t forget to breathe or else you’ll die.
I’ve been telling people for years that the Total Recall DVD commentary track is one of the most entertaining bits of meta-entertainment out there, with Paul Verhoeven waxing nostalgic about his directorial artistry while Arnold chuckles through literal recaps of his favorite violent scenes. Now you can enjoy Arnold’s rambling half of the conversation, condensed into a tidy YouTube package!
Animation and comics are false siblings. They resemble one another but they’re two completely different things. The relationship a reader has with a comic is nothing like the one a viewer has with a film. When you read a comic, you’re always active, because you have to imagine all the movements that happen between the frames. In a film, you are passive: all the information is there. And when you make a comic it never happens that you have 500 or 1,000 people reading it in the same place at the same time, all reacting.
Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon, an enjoyably bleak con artist road movie comedy set in the Great Depression. I’ll agree with Roger Ebert’s assessment that 9-year-old Tatum O’Neal “somehow resembles Huckleberry Finn more than any little boy I can imagine.”
Frank Zappa as the mystery guest on What’s My Line. Pretty dry, to be honest, although some might find interest in hearing him go into surprising detail about the video-to-film process used in filming 200 Motels(it was shot and edited in PAL video then upconverted to 35mm, a novel process at the time).
Paris Qui Dort (Paris Which Sleeps, aka At 3:25), an early short film by René Clair: a mad scientist uses a time-freezing ray on Paris, pausing everyone in their day-to-day life throughout the city. Everyone except for a random handful of people who happen to be up in the air at the time, who decide to take advantage of the perfectly still city. Proto-surrealist sci-fi with a dash of percolating social commentary.
I learned about this one from The Invention of Hugo Cabret, an excellent children’s historical fiction novel about early cinema, magic, automata, and Georges Méliès. Worth reading if you’re into any of those things.
When John Lasseter and his colleagues at Pixar set about making their first animated feature, they struck the exact same trouble that had beleaguered old Walt: two years into production, whilst presenting an early draft to Disney’s producers, they came to the realisation that their central character, Woody the Sheriff, was a sarcastic and unlovable brat. ‘A thundering arsehole’ were co-screenwriter Joss Whedon’s actual words. And so again the work of animation was halted, the production team regrouped and a major rewrite ensued, to ensure that Woody would be warmed to and therefore that the film could succeed. And in this case too I have little doubt that it was the smart thing to do; besides, there was no fidelity to be compromised in the process, no book to betray, unless one were somehow inclined to regard Pinocchio as an implicit ur-source, the ghost of puppets past haunting Woody from beyond the grave.
Of course the toys aren’t really toys, they are allegorical figurines that we are supposed to read human meanings into, but I want to try to be literal for a moment. There is one irrefutable truth that we learn through the films about the toys’ psychology, one trait that all of them except a pair of scarred deviants – Stinky Pete and Lotso – have in common: what they like best is to be played with by children. But it so happens that at those times they are limp and inanimate; as is the case whenever they are in the presence of people, their spark abandons them, their eyes become vacant – a point that is further underscored in Toy Story 3 by the otherwise extraordinary capacity for expression of those eyes. So what the toys derive the most pleasure from is also what flicks their off switch, reverting them to the base status of mass produced consumer objects: every Sheriff Woody, every Buzz Lightyear totally identical to any other, therefore totally interchangeable, Andy’s marker-pen branding notwithstanding.
That is curious, from a philosophical point of view. More unhappy/unheimlich psychoanalysis of the Toy Story fiction over at Frieze Magazine.
Solaris (1972). Something of a lyrical Russian follow-up to 2001: A Space Odyssey, a story of personal grief and longing set aboard a space station hovering over an abyssal alien ocean. Great use of understated sets and on-Earth scenery with allusions to the style of the Old Masters. Between Solaris, Alphaville, and Children of Men, I’m discovering that my favorite cinematic dystopian futures are the ones that make little or no effort to appear futuristic.
From Hirokazu Kore-eda’s ワンダフルライフ (Wandâfuru raifu), released in the U.S. in 1998 as Afterlife. This is likely my favorite movie of all time. Dig up a copy at your neighborhood indie video store when you get a chance, it’s good. It’s a simple, quiet parable about life, death, loss, memory, love, and cinema, somewhere between Kurosawa’s Ikiruand Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine.
After whining for years about someone borrowing my out-of-print DVD copy without returning it, I finally looked around and discovered the vastly superior Japanese NTSC Region 2 copy of the movie. ¥3,990 later, I’m now able to enjoy it again as I saw it at the theater in anamorphic widescreen, optional subtitles, and none of the horrible digital low-pass smoothing that someone thought would “fix” the grainy 16mm film’s appearance. Time for a movie screening, I think…
Hitchcock’s Notorious. Ingrid Bergman hired to spy on former Nazis in Rio largely on the grounds of her notable promiscuity, with nuclear age intrigue so current for 1945 that the FBI had Hitchcock under surveillance. Tense stuff once the plot gets rolling, and a great unraveling ending.
Also worth watching for its top-notch use of rear projection special effects: if you think that modern movies and tv shows use a surprising amount of green screen for inserting fake backgrounds, it’s worth remembering that it’s an old idea. All of the foreground action for Notorious was filmed on set in California, with background footage shot by a 2nd production crew in Rio and Miami, beautifully worked in behind the actors so that it’s really hard to tell sometimes.
Waiting for Guffman. A lot of folks don’t seem to know that this one was filmed in Austin and Lockhart, TX, so there’s that bit of trivia for you. There are also some very quick cameos by David Cross, Brian Doyle-Murray (Bill Murray’s older brother), and in a very obscure part as the guy mouth-juggling ping pong balls, Turk Pipkin.
Parker Posey grilling a single chicken wing is one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen committed to film.
Slowly working my way through all of Hitchcock’s oeuvre, moving on to some of his films that haven’t fully entered our pop culture lexicon. Shadow of a Doubt was one of his better early American movies, with some nifty subtext, a minor tinge of telepathy, and possible vampiric overtones. Definitely a 1942 pre-war Americana kind of movie, but with the signature Hitchcock dark humor and psychological uneasiness that turns the Norman Rockwell small town on its head.
Mark Mayerson writes a pretty good rebuttal to the idea that the animators that worked on James Cameron’s Avatar were shortchanged by the film’s placement as a live-action feature:
“I’ve written extensively on how fragmented the process of making an animated film is and how so many of the acting decisions are made before the animator starts work. The character designs, the storyboard and the voice performance all make acting decisions that constrain the animator’s interpretation. There is no question that motion capture is yet another constraint, probably larger than all the others. To insist that Avatar is an animated film is to marginalize animators even more than they are in what are generally considered animated films. Is this the direction we want things to go? Better to agree with James Cameron and focus our attention on films where animators create, not enhance, performances.”
From a good piece in this month’s Vanity Fair, “Coloring the Kingdom”, about the often-unsung Ink and Paint “girls” that cranked out most of the hand painting for Disney’s early feature days:
The end of the assembly line usually inherits all the problems. Preparing the animators’ vision for camera required the inking and painting of thousands of fragile, combustible cels with perfect refinement. During Snow White, it was not at all unusual to see the “girls”—as Walt paternalistically referred to them—thin and exhausted, collapsed on the lawn, in the ladies’ lounge, or even under their desks. “I’ll be so thankful when Snow White is finished and I can live like a human once again,” Rae wrote after she recorded 85 hours in a week. “We would work like little slaves and everybody would go to sleep wherever they were,” said inker Jeanne Lee Keil, one of two left-handers in the department who had to learn everything backward. “I saw the moon rise, sun rise, moon rise, sun rise.” Painter Grace Godino, who would go on to become Rita Hayworth’s studio double, also remembered the long days merging into nights: “When I’d take my clothes off, I’d be in the closet, and I couldn’t figure it out: am I going to sleep or am I getting up?”
This presents an interesting problem. Caricature has never been taken as seriously as realism. The history of Western art, with the exception of the dark ages and the 20th century, has always been derived from realism, and the art of the dark ages probably had more to do with the loss of knowledge and craft than with a conscious artistic choice. Caricature might be seen as clever, but except for artists, nobody values caricature as more than a lightweight diversion. Disney moved more towards illustration when he went into features. The all-cgi features have pushed their visuals towards greater complexity (which sometimes clashes with their character designs). Video games have also gravitated towards realism. I believe that this has been motivated by a desire to be taken more seriously by getting closer to what Western eyes value in art.
In place of the conventional, reductive versions of morality and psychology shown in Pixar’s films, Miyazaki gives us something closer to actual experience, treating good and evil not as a binary equation but as a sliding scale and presenting people (and characters) that often don’t know why they do what they do and latch on to reductive explanations at their peril. Characters can be scary and then friendly, threatening and then reassuring, honest and then misleading; they can shift identities and change shape, succumb to spells and then break out of them. […]
Parents will testify that a child who sees his or her first Miyazaki film after a steady diet of Pixar and Disney is apt to experience a perhaps troubled reaction, much deeper than “That was fun” or “I liked it.” Miyazaki challenges every preconceived notion about family entertainment that Pixar and its ilk conditions children (and adults) to have. Pixar’s very best work this decade — “The Incredibles,” “Wall-E” and “Up,” and moments of “Monsters, Inc.” and “Finding Nemo” — is wonderful; it gives children lots to see and a fair amount to feel. But Miyazaki’s work does more than that. His art is engrossing and beautiful but also challenging. He urges children to understand themselves and the world, and then shows them how. The Babysitter mesmerizes children. Grandfather changes their lives.
From Salon’s “Directors of the Decade” countdown (Pixar and Miyazaki share the #2 slot). I think it’s a bit reductive to count “Pixar” as a director (why not specifically highlight Brad Bird or Andrew Stanton’s work?), but I know what they’re getting at. Pixar represents the best storytelling in American animation and both approaches have their valid points, but it’s interesting how much stronger of a moral stamp Miyazaki has on Studio Ghibli’s output.
Like the hero of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” also based on one of his books, the creatures of Dahl’s valley seem to know more than they’re letting on; perhaps even secrets we don’t much want to know. Children, especially, will find things they don’t understand, and things that scare them. Excellent. A good story for children should suggest a hidden dimension, and that dimension of course is the lifetime still ahead of them. Six is a little early for a movie to suggest to kids that the case is closed. Oh, what if the kids start crying about words they don’t know? – Mommy, Mommy! What’s creme brulee?“ Show them, for goodness sake. They’ll thank you for it. Take my word on this.
The poor image is a copy in motion. Its quality is bad, its resolution substandard. As it accelerates, it deteriorates. It is a ghost of an image, a preview, a thumbnail, an errant idea, an itinerant image distributed for free, squeezed through slow digital connections, compressed, reproduced, ripped, remixed, as well as copied and pasted into other channels of distribution.
At present, there are at least twenty torrents of Chris Marker’s film essays available online. If you want a retrospective, you can have it. But the economy of poor images is about more than just downloads: you can keep the files, watch them again, even reedit or improve them if you think it necessary. And the results circulate. Blurred AVI files of half-forgotten masterpieces are exchanged on semi-secret P2P platforms. Clandestine cell-phone videos smuggled out of museums are broadcast on YouTube. DVDs of artists’ viewing copies are bartered.3 Many works of avant-garde, essayistic, and non-commercial cinema have been resurrected as poor images. Whether they like it or not.
“In 1518, one of the strangest epidemics in recorded history struck the city of Strasbourg. Hundreds of people were seized by an irresistible urge to dance, hop and leap into the air. In houses, halls and public spaces, as fear paralyzed the city and the members of the elite despaired, the dancing continued with mindless intensity. Seldom pausing to eat, drink or rest, many of them danced for days or even weeks. And before long, the chronicles agree, dozens were dying from exhaustion. What was it that could have impelled as many as 400 people to dance, in some cases to death?”
“You see how the smoke trembles up in the roof holes? As if whimpering and afraid? Yet it’s only going out into the open air, where it has the whole sky to tumble about in. But it doesn’t know that. So it cowers and trembles under the sooty ridge of the roof. People are the same way. They worry and tremble like leaves in a storm because of what they know, and what they don’t know.” — from Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring
From recent research out of Japan: “The results suggest that humans share a mechanism for controlling the timing of blinks that searches for an implicit timing that is appropriate to minimize the chance of losing critical information while viewing a stream of visual events.” In simpler words, the researchers found that audiences watching movies with action sequences have a strong tendency to synchronize their blinking so that they don’t miss anything good.
I’m not sure that this is interesting in and of itself, but it’s, um, eye-opening to think that we have our eyes closed for nearly 10% of our waking life. That’s roughly 10 full minutes of every movie lost to blinking. I imagine that editors already take this phenomenon into account, at least to some extent?
Full text available available in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B – Biological Sciences. Thanks, Creative Commons!
The Three Stooges attempted pathos in Cash and Carry (1937). The Stooges arrive at their home, a dilapidated shack in the city dump, only to find a little boy they don’t know doing his homework at the kitchen table. The Stooges do not react with great sentiment to this child. Larry pipes up, “Come on, beat it.” But, then, they realize that the boy is wearing a leg brace and needs the support of a crutch to stand and walk. The boy tells the Stooges that his mom and dad are gone and he’s being raised by his big sister. Moe, normally gruff and scowling, smiles sympathetically and softens his voice. He has never acted more tenderly to another individual. But the other two Stooges do not show much concern. […] Seconds after meeting the crippled orphan boy, Curly accidentally hits Moe in the head with a pipe and it’s back to their usual comedy business. A pathos comedy was, in the end, no more significant to the Stooges than a haunted house comedy.
From Why You Want to Bring Me Down?, a great comparison of the use (and perhaps more often, misuse) of pathos in comedies, from Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd to Adam Sandler and Robin Williams.
A short clip from Double Take, a film by media artist Johan Grimonprez (there are a handful of other clips on YouTube). “They say that if you meet your double, you should kill him.” Hitchcock versus Hitchcock versus the Cold War, with cinematic history folding in on itself. There’s a worthwhile interview with Grimonprez over on the Cinema Scope website with more info.
Potemkin villages were a new mode of special effects as power, as the erasure of memory in the late eighteenth century. But the principle evolves beyond one’s wildest imagination. All movie sets are Potemkin villages before they are shot as film. And all wars since 1989 have become Potemkin villages when they appear on global media. And yet, Baroque special effects already pointed toward this problem by 1650, that Baroque illusion served uneasy alliances to cover up the decay and misery of the kingdom.
Comenius begins his story with a pilgrim who is given mystic spectacles. But the lenses are cursed, ground by Illusion, rims hammered by Custom. Optical gimmicks were pervasive in many churches and theaters by 1622. Perspective could be accelerated or decelerated by tilting floors, narrowing walls, adding a deep focal point. Special effects were featured on ceilings: trompe l'oeil, accelerated perspective, anamorphosis – to induce a moment of wonder – a “vertigo” when the lid of a building simply dissolved. To many, these phantasms were progress, practical advances. But to Comenius, they might be the serpent’s eye.
Indeed in Labyrinth of the World, the spectacles distort God’s nature. To quote Shakespeare, the are “almost the natural man … [but] Dishonour traffics with man’s nature.” They are a prosthesis upon the eye, as McLuhan would say. To Comenius, they are an evil, not a cheerful global village. They make true distances vanish; ugly turns beautiful; black becomes white. However, luckily for Comenius’s pilgrim, these demonic spectacles do not fit properly. He can sneak looks below the rim, see the human labyrinth as it really is. If this were film, I would call what the pilgrim finds beneath his spectaceds Baroque noir, the town with no soul.