Saturday, February 03, 2007

The Mystery of the Missing Moviemakers

This is an interesting article by Sharon Waxman of the New York Times that discusses the disturbing absence and idleness of some of the 90's most promising directors. It asserts that Hollywood's tendancy to indulge talent early without providing any real support has left many formidable filmmakers out of the loop, citing David O. Russel, Spike Jonze, David Fincher and Kimberly Pierce as examples.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Music for One Apartment & Six Drummers

This great little short was made by the guys over at Kostrfilm. They were responsible for some cool car commercials that showcased each part of the car making noise to create a song. This is a similar deal. The sound design here is pretty impressive; from what I've gathered, they miked each object individually and recorded the beats, then layered them together. Check it out.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Revisit: His Girl Friday

A Columbia Pictures release 1940
Directed by Howard Hawks
Writing credits
Ben Hecht (play The Front Page)
Charles MacArthur (play The Front Page)
Charles Lederer (screenplay)

A newspaper editor (Cary Grant) uses every trick in the book to keep his ace reporter ex-wife (Rosalind Russel) from remarrying.

Hawks takes the pacing and pratfalls of the screwball comedy and plants them in a new narrative context with his film His Girl Friday. A classic in every sense of the word, the film is a great example of Hawk's use of quick edits and overlapping dialogue to create comedic gold. Cary Grant is enigmatic as always; one of the best parts about this film is that he plays a nasty, no good newspaper man who still gets the girl. To the untrained eye it might seem like a typical hackneyed Hollywood ending, but it works in context. I guess the moral here is 'be true to yourself'. The film went on to inspire the Cohen Brother's Hudsucker Proxy.

Quick Analysis: A History of Violence

A History of Violence was my favorite film of 2005. The following is a quick analysis of some of the film's essential characteristics.

A History of Violence may be the greatest American movie ever made by a Canadian. Its director, David Cronenberg, is a native of Toronto, and much of the film was shot in our great neighbor to the north. However, with its small-town setting and everyman hero, the film exudes Americana like a Norman Rockwell painting. It explores America’s fascination with violence and reinvention of the self with more depth and clarity than any film released in the past five years.

Released in September of 2005 and starring Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello, A History of Violence tells the story of Tom Stall, family man and owner of a diner in the fictional town of Millbrook, Indiana. Essentially, Tom has achieved the American dream: a beautiful wife and two children, a large farmhouse complete with white picket fence, and a successful business. When two thugs threaten his life, Tom unleashes a fury of violence that renders him a national hero. However, when more thugs show up claiming to be Tom’s former associates, trust disintegrates into violence as it becomes less and less clear who Tom actually is. The film centers on the Stall family’s reaction to the violence and new questions of their father’s identity.

In any other hands, this film might have been cheap stock for shock value and gore effects. However, Cronenberg’s master touch allows the film to rise beyond its violent face value. It becomes a brooding expose on the American concept of self-made identity, as well as our country’s obsession with violence. The films country setting and average man set up root the film in the tradition of the American dream. The unraveling of the lead’s identity and punctuated portrayals of violence act to dismantle that dream, examining it from the very core. The end result is not only unsettling, but also uproarious – we are given the full range view of Americana, from its beauty to its blemishes.

The film plays heavily on the idea of deception and identity. Shot almost exclusively in 27mm (wide angle lens), Cronenberg uses wide compositions to visualize the idea of deception and fragmented viewpoints. In many shots, we are given a wide viewpoint of a door, a hallway, or scene, yet something within that space remains hidden. It might be physical, a character cropped by the lens, or metaphorical, the connecting bond between family members. For example, in the final scene in which the Stalls reunite for dinner, Cronenberg’s camera shifts along a jagged edge, showing each family members reaction, but rarely allowing any two to cross, let alone the family be shown united as a whole. Plot wise, the film explores the idea of the self-made man; namely, that a man can escape his past and become someone new in America. The idea of self-development is crucial to the American dream, and though the film doesn’t quite debunk it, it certainly raises questions as to whether a man can effectively escape his former past, especially one stooped in violence.

Violence is the key word in this film. It is what jump starts the chain of events and is effectively what the main protagonist is trying to escape. However, Cronenberg’s reading of violence within the film is multilayered, and functions as a mirror to our own culture’s understanding and acceptance of violence. Acts of violence are scattered throughout the film, punctuated to a distinct rhythm. They come and go as scenes of violence often do in real life, occurring quickly and without warning, then dissipating with only the bloody aftermath remaining. Violence functions as a comedic element (the scene in which Tom kills his brother), as action-entertainment (the scene in the diner), and as horror (the scene in front of the Stall home). Violence is lauded and praised, such as Tom’s ‘heroic’ actions in the diner, and well as condemned and rejected, such as Tom’s ‘negative’ actions in front of the Stall home. Most importantly, violence is passed from generation to generation, with Tom’s eldest son continuing the tradition by using a shotgun to save his father. Later, when Tom throw’s his gun into a lake to wash himself clean, it’s hard not picture that lake as a cesspool teeming with life, and that gun simply laying there, waiting for some other life-form to pick it up and continue where it left off.

What Cronenberg is doing in this film is exploring violence from multiple angles the same way our society accepts violence in multiple ways. He allows room for each and every possible reaction to the violence; perhaps most effectively when the grotesque leads to humor, which feels most unsettling. More interestingly, he never allows his audience a full view of the violent act, choosing to cut away, or rely on close ups or distance shots to portray the action. Rather, he lingers on the consequences of the violence, in both metaphysical (the dissolution of the family) and physical (extreme after-the-fact gore shots, dead bodies pulsating, oozing blood) terms. The film passes no judgment on America’s fascination with violence and ultimately leaves it’s question – can the American dream remain, despite the horrors of bloodshed? – unanswered. However, Cronenberg calls for a better understanding of the effects of violence and the way our society reacts to violence. The final product is so unabashedly American, it’s hard to believe a Canadian was involved at all.

Review: Brothers of the Head

An IFC Films/Film Four release 2006

Directed by:
Keith Fulton
Louis Pepe

Writing credits:
Brian Aldiss (novel)
Tony Grisoni (screenplay)

In the 1970s a music promoter plucks Siamese twins from obscurity and grooms them into a freakish rock'n'roll act. A dark tale of sex, strangeness and rock music.

Some movies are made simply to look cool; I think Brothers of the Head is one of those films. Set up as a sort of emphatic mockumentary about a band fronted by Siamese twins, the film has a rich visual aesthetic, full of warped colors, gothic imagery, and slick editing. It's a well assembled piece of cinema, but it lacks one thing - purpose. At the end of the day, the Howe brothers story isn't one that is particularly too enlightening or original; the film follows the typical rocker rise and fall story we've seen and heard a hundred times before, sex/drugs included. Of course the narrative is complicated by the fact that we're watching conjoined twins, but it doesn't really explore that idea in a way that couldn't have been done with a single character. For example, one brother is presented as the quiet, artistic type while the other is aggressive, and in your face. If the brothers are supposed to represent a personality split in two, why not keep them a single character? In the end, their condition comes off more as a strange quirk than story tool, and the film suffers for it. The real question here is how much of the source text is accurately represented; I've never read Brian Aldiss's novel, so I can't really make a comparison.

Directors Fulton & Pepe's previous feature was Lost in La Mancha, an actual documentary following the trials and tribulations surrounding Terry Gilliam's failed production of Don Quixote. Likewise, screenwriter Grisoni drafted Gilliam's version of Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas. Gilliam's quirky influence and interest in the bizarre seems to have rubbed off on these filmmakers, but it takes more than strange imagery and sadistic humor to make a great movie. I have faith that they will one day make a great picture - they certainly have the visual editing chops - but Brothers of the Head is too innocuous to be the one.

The film was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best Cinematography.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

New Blog, New Posts, etc.

January 28, 2007 -- ONE of the biggest disappointments in director Steven Spielberg's life was Alfred Hitchcock's repeated refusal to meet him - but it turns out the Master of Suspense had a bizarre excuse. In his memoir, "Things I've Said, But Probably Shouldn't Have," due in May from Wiley, actor Bruce Dern writes that he tried and tried to convince the director of "Psycho" and "The Birds" to say hello to Spielberg, who had just triumphed with "Jaws." "I said, 'You're his idol. He just to sit at your feet for five minutes and chat with you' . . . He said, 'Isn't that the boy who made the fish movie? . . . I could never sit down and talk to him . . . because I look at him and feel like such a whore,' " Dern relates. Completely puzzled, Dern, who appeared in two Hitchcock flicks, finally pinned the director down: "I said, 'Why do you feel Spielberg makes you a whore?' Hitch said, 'Because I'm the voice of the 'Jaws' ride [at Universal Studios]. They paid me a mil lion dollars. And I took it and I did it. I'm such a whore. I can't sit down and talk to the boy who did the fish movie . . . I couldn't even touch his hand."

Why Hitch Shunned Speilberg

Lord knows this isn't real news (I mean, it's Page Six for crying out loud), but I think it's pretty funny. Little did Hitch know that the guy who made the fish movie would become one of the biggest Hollywood whores of all time! Well, at least Hitch had the ability to conceed he was a whore - Speilberg keeps trying to pass the same political thriller he unloads every other year or so off as 'art'. Munich my ass. Expect an academic post crossing the politics behind two generations of Speilberg movies, War of the Worlds and the one about the fish, pretty soon. Also, some more reviews and revisits, as well as a couple of interviews/Q&A's I've done with some filmmakers - all coming soon!

For now, I'm going to take this opportunity to plug my new blog Cartoonering. Think of it as a companion piece to Cinematikal, a sister blog focusing on that other passion of mine, cartoons! It's still under construction, of course, but check it out - there should be some good posts up there within the next twenty-four hours. Expect plenty of videos (including a couple by the Quay Brothers that are up there now), animation news, and academic commentary. I'm gonna try to show some of my own comics, as well as chronicle the progress of the cartoon I'm making on there as well. So check it out - tou'll be glad you did! (If you like cartoons, at least)

Tish-Tash: The Forgotten King of Comedy pt.5

Difficulties with Tashlin as the Auteur

The past few readings of Frank Tashlin’s body of work act merely as a template to determine the consistency of technique and theme throughout the director’s career. While they establish that Tashlin had a well-developed technical style and undercurrent of thematic motifs, there are still several issues that need to be addressed to solidify Tashlin’s status as auteur.

One would be Tashlin’s relationship with Jerry Lewis. The pair worked together on a total of eight films and though it seems clear that the Tashlin/Lewis films are more gag oriented than those directed by Lewis himself, a close comparison and separation of their individual careers is needed.5 Likewise, a thorough appendix on the history of slapstick would be useful in placing Tashlin’s style of topical humor into context.

Much of the readings also centered around connections drawn between Tashlin’s animation work and his feature films. While it is of this author’s opinion that animation is equally as valid as live action in terms of historical significance, the lack of critical attention to animation is quite pressing. Do Tashlin’s animations hold equal weight to his feature films? Can the auteur theory be applied to animated works? These are questions cinema scholars should address.

For those of you interested in reading more about Tashlin's work and his career, I suggest you check out Roger Garcia's anthology of Tashlin essays, simply titled Tashlin. There are a lot of great essays in there, many of which were quoted in these posts, that further expand on Tashlin's style and make a great case for his auteurship (without directly saying so).

And if you don't like to read, just check out his movies! Most are on DVD and readily available on netflix or at the local videostore.

Check out the Tashlin article from the beginning here!