As I write this, a few weeks into an open-ended global self-quarantine that we hope might mitigate the worst effects of what data suggests will be a historic wave of illness and death, it’s easy to feel that the future has been stolen, or at least the luxury of feeling halfway certain what the future might hold on levels both micro and macro. It’s easy, as well, to feel that even the very recent past is suddenly unavailable, at least without the risk of tumbling into nostalgia for a time when we took mundane errands and gatherings for granted. As winter finally gives way to spring, each day offering my three-year-old daughter new flower buds to marvel at through the sliding glass door, I find myself living like a goldfish in a bowl, endlessly tracing the same few movements—bedroom to bathroom to kitchen to living room to kitchen to living room to bathroom to bedroom. I yearn for a return to normalcy while fearing the consequences that return might bring. I watch governments at home and abroad either fumble or sabotage their response to this disaster. For lack of a better option, I batten down the hatches and wait for death to roll through, hoping that by sheer luck myself and those I love might be passed by. And in the meantime, I focus as much of my attention as possible on my daughter’s shrieks of glee as she notes the day’s new purple and yellow buds. You’d think the kid had never seen a flower before.
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This is an excellent essay on Miyazaki’s / Studio Ghibli’s place in the canon of art cinema, the nature of “boredom” in the life of children, and how cinematic experiences can be so much more for children than our U.S. blockbusters lead us to believe.
When Roger Ebert asked Miyazaki about the “gratuitous motion” in his films—the bits of realist texture, like sighs and gestures—Miyazaki told Ebert that he was invoking the Japanese concept of “ma.” Miyazaki clapped three times, and then said, “The time in between my clapping is ma.” This calls to mind the concept of temps morts, or dead time, in the European art cinema of the 1960s. Temps morts is a pause, a beat, a breath, a moment that doesn’t advance the plot. But far from being dead, Miyazaki’s moments of “ma” are full of life—there is a simple joy in watching his worlds move. In “animating”—breathing life into—a world that looks like our own, Miyazaki carries forward a spirit from the very beginning of film history.
This is one of the greatest descriptions of the power of animation that I’ve read in a long time, and something that you can see in all of the small moments of Miyazaki’s films.
On children and boredom:
But I think some of the common thinking about children’s boredom and attention is inaccurate. Children are bored standing in line at the bank or the post office, certainly—they have no banking of their own to do, no mail of their own to send. But if you were to put a child and an adult in an empty room full of scattered objects, I suspect the adult would grow bored much faster. […] A child can never exhaust the possibilities of a park or a neighborhood or a forest. Totoro is travel and transit and exploration, set against lush, evocative landscapes that seem to extend far beyond the frame.
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.
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!
Archeology Magazine has a feature story about the “digital archeologists” behind Visual6502, the group “excavating” and fully remapping the inner workings of the classic 8-bit MOS Technology 6502 microprocessor. That might not sound interesting, but if you’ve been alive for more than 20 years you know the chip: it was the heart of early home computers ranging from the Apple I and Apple ][ to the Atari game consoles all the way up to the Nintendo NES.
Very cool and all, but in case you’re still not interested, here’s some excellent trivia slipped into the article:
In the 1984 film The Terminator, scenes shown from the perspective of the title character, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, include 6502 programming code on the left side of the screen.
Whaaat!? The SFX team working on The Terminator went so far as to copy actual assembly code into their shots? That’s pretty awesome! So where’d they get it? It was copied from Apple II code published in Nibble Magazine (even the T-800 enjoys emulators when its not busy hunting down humanity, I guess).
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.”
To grumble further would be, as the saying goes, akin to pointing my Water toward the Wind. I note that Mr. Black has, in other endeavors, proved himself a Mocker after my own heart, but I can hardly begrudge him the greater emolument that issues from cavorting in the mildly naughty manner of an overgrown tot. I can further suppose that a Child of average Wit or even moderate Dullness — a boy of Nine, let us say, who can be coaxed away from the Wii of a Christmas afternoon — might pass a pleasant interval chuckling at the absurd incongruities that arise when something very large is placed beside something very small.
From François Truffaut’s Jules and Jim, another turbulent French New Wave film to cross off of my list. Sort of charming and depressing at the same time, outlining the difficulties of juggling art, friendship and love in a turbulent era (its reportedly a near-biographical account of a love triangle between Marcel Duchamp, Henri-Pierre Roché, and Beatrice Wood). Very innovative cinematography and editing work for 1962. If nothing else, be sure to check out the famous tracking shot where the trio is riding bikes together downhill, evidently shot from the vantage of another bicycle, a scene made possible by the revolution in light-weight camera manufacturing.
P.S. for the Jean-Pierre Jeunet fans: this is the movie that Amelie’s watching in the theater, and I’m pretty sure that there are a lot of movies with voiceover narrators that took inspiration from this film…
Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (夢,Yume): a mostly quiet, artful film with eight short vignettes (five dreams and three nightmares) reflecting the remembered dreams of the director throughout his lifetime. Despite the segments being separate, discontinuous stories, I enjoyed their shared abstract sense of looking for something, a great dream motif. Unfortunately the quality of the pieces vary, but the ones that are good border on the sublime. In some ways they remind me of animated versions of Jeff Wall’s artifically-constructed photographs (but maybe I’m just conflating this film’s first nightmare with Wall’s Dead Troops Talk).
Like many of his other later movies, Kurosawa had difficulty getting this film financed by the Japanese studios, but a script sent to Steven Spielberg helped secure money from Warner Bros. Interestingly, the visual effects in the movie (including a walking-through-an-oil-painting sequence later echoed in What Dreams May Come) were supervised by Ken Ralston of Industrial Light and Magic (of Star Wars and Back to the Future fame), and there’s a cameo by Martin Scorsese as Vincent van Gogh, so despite the traditional Japanese cultural elements, there’s definitely a Western tinge to this one.
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.
A note from famed animation director Richard Williams to his crew working on Who Framed Roger Rabbit? about the importance of the gaze between the toons and the live actors in establishing the believability of the scene. In matters of animation composition, this guy knows what he’s talking about: his Animator’s Survival Guide is a compelling read for artists of any stripe working with visual storytelling, and he’s also the man responsible for the great-but-famously-troubled production of The Thief and the Cobbler (if you’ve never seen it, fire up your favorite torrent client and look for Thief and the Cobbler: the Recobbled Cut – it’s a must-watch).
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.
“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.