Chaos Cinema

I posted this for my Humber College students on their blog. I posted this on Facebook and Twitter. As such, I should probably post it here.

If you are a film lover who feels increasingly unable to understand or orientate yourself watching action movies made in the last decade, I implore you to watch this video essay about what the author calls chaos cinema.

Bad Boys 2It describes quite succinctly what has frustrated me as a film viewer: action sequences (or entire films) are becoming little more than jagged-edged stimulation devices and not the shared experiences that they should be (see: chase scene in Batman: The Dark Knight)

Essential viewing.

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The Skinny on Stereoscopic Films, or, What’s Up With 3D?

This is one of those moments where I find myself on the inside of a phenomena which (increasingly) arouses strong opinions from members of the public. In this case, stereoscopic filmmaking – or 3D, for short (even though it’s not really 3D and tramples on a term which is used in animation for both stereoscopic and non-stereoscopic work).

I’m currently working on a 3D film in an age (or, more precisely, over the course of a year, starting with James Cameron’s Avatar) where 3D technology is being pushed as the next in-thing. And yet there are many detractors, some of whom have some good ammunition for their opinions.

As someone who has been intimately involved with a 3D production, from beginning to end (well, almost – we’ll be in theatres in October) I find myself more and more a spokesperson for the technology, if not for the studios who currently are trying to cram every release into a 3D format, whether or not they were meant to be that way.

Let me begin by saying that I enjoy the notoriety of being the resident expert on 3D technology at parties and barbecues whenever the subject arises. Now that I have that out of the way, allow me to bitch…

Everyone keeps asking me: is 3D here to stay? The answer is a conditional “yes”. The condition being that film studios understand two things: First, that you can’t take a 2D movie and make it 3D using brain-dead rotoscoping software and expect it to be a success; second, that you can’t continue charging more for 3D films and not deliver a product that is both a good example of 3D and a relatively good film to boot.

To elaborate:

1)  Since the release of Avatar, there seem to be just as many films released in theatres boasting 3D which were never shot in 3D, nor even envisioned in 3D prior to production. Some examples would be Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender. These films were taken by the studios after completion and put through a 2D-to-3D conversion process, using software to rotoscope the 3D effect, frame-by-frame, a process unsupervised by the director.

This process, while handy for converting short bits from 2D to 3D for films which originate in 3D, ignores a very large consideration for those producers and filmmakers who shoot in 3D from the outset: you have to plan to shoot in 3D from the start. You cannot take a script or a shot list for a 2D film and superimpose it onto a 3D film: your set design, your camera lenses, your blocking, your picture editing…so many things change as a result of switching from 2D to 3D. When you simply take a 2D show and auto-render it in faked-out 3D you get something which most viewers – critics and plebes alike – will say isn’t necessary. At worst, you get Clash Of The Titans – the current poster child for anyone with an axe to grind about 3D in general and post-converted 3D specifically. Not only was it a weak remake of the original (from what I hear), but the 3D post-conversion was done in two weeks. Two weeks. From what I hear, the subsequent “3D” is ridiculous to view.

2)  Considering that theatres charge a premium for 3D films (about $3 more than usual depending upon where you go – sometimes more), when a poorly rendered post-converted 3D film is released it damages the viability of an already vulnerable new technology. It’s one thing if a film is bad, but when it’s bad in two dimensions, bad in a crappily-rendered pseudo-third dimension, followed by the sucker punch of having to pay MORE to see it…you get my point. I hope. Movie audiences can be forgiving, but there comes a point of revolt which I can see happening if there aren’t enough 3D films released which originate on 3D. Furthermore, the studios do no service to themselves if they don’t make a point of clarifying this to audiences: why can’t they say when a film is originally shot in 3D? Isn’t that a selling point? Likewise, why not be honest and say when a film has been post-converted? If it’s a case that no one wants it to be known that their film was post-converted…then why post-convert to 3D in the first place? There’s certainly no audience I know that is clamouring for blocky cut-out shapes which look like they were poorly separated from the background using Photoshop. To summarize this point, content is king: the quality of content, not the volume of illegitimate content.

Up until Avatar (and god knows how I long for the day when another film takes its place as the “gold standard”), the greatest accomplishment in 3D technology was the few seconds of the guy in House of Wax, standing outside a theatre with a ping-pong mallet, knocking the ball directly toward the camera. You could imagine people ducking for cover at the time. That was 1953. From that point onward, 3D technology didn’t change, largely due to the format never winning over audiences: the films were oft-times gimmicky and there were never enough 3D films at any given time to make it feel as if the aesthetic was going anywhere. With the recent advent of digital cinematography, 3D is much easier (logistically and technically) to achieve. And while I would love someone to make “art” (are you reading this, Wong Kar Wai?), I’m happy if, for the time being, the format stakes its territory in the ghetto where its strengths have always been: action/sci-fi/fantasy – hey, if it works, why not? I don’t hear anyone clamouring for a 3D Terms of Endearment

Technicians and filmmakers are doing their part: they are taking a risk and trying to push forward innovatively with something daunting and new. Is 3D here to stay? Again, a conditional “yes”. What we need are studios and theatre chains to be honest with the audience and not do irreparable damage to the very thing they are hoping to profit from.

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The Dark Side

I was flipping through the NYT last Sunday and came across a short collection of riffs from filmmakers about their favourite “Holiday Movies”. The following, submitted by screenwriter David Benioff, was regarding Planes Trains and Automobiles by the late John Hughes:

Hughes once wrote: “I understood that the dark side of my middle-class, middle-American suburban life was not drugs, paganism or perversion. It was disappointment. There were no gnawing insects beneath the grass. Only dirt. I also knew that trapped inside every defeat is a small victory, and inside that small victory is the Great Defeat.”


I immediately caught the reference Benioff (via Hughes) was making and it struck a chord. You see, when we (in filmic terms) discuss the “dark side” of the middle-class in America, who else is this synonymous with? Correct: David Lynch. And was it not Lynch’s seminal dark-side-of-middle-class-America, Blue Velvet, which features – literally – gnawing insects beneath the grass at the beginning? Oh, and the drugs and sexual perversion? Still don’t believe me? Try this: Blue Velvet came out in ’86. Planes Trains and Automobiles? That was 1987.

When I read Hughes’ quote, I knew he had more to say about it. I could tell that he thought Hughes’ film (and perspective on America) got short shrift.

In any case, what I’m saying is Hughes was picking on Lynch, perhaps more so picking on all of the cineastes and self-styled torch holders of American Surrealism. Look, he’s saying (or I’m paraphrasing), why does any intelligent discussion of the “dark side” have to fast-forward to the DevilWhy are we in such a rush to point to the murkiest common denominator?

I think Hughes’ perspective is more realistic. Perhaps even more frightening because it is anything but abstract. If there’s anything which immobilizes the positivism of American  can-do – an adult Boogeyman if you will – it is the spectre of defeat. It is, after all, failure. There is nothing which cuts to the heart of our civilized fears with more power than failure, pure and simple. We do not want it infecting us. We do not want it living beside us, dying slowly.

I like the drama (nee opera) of Lynch’s perspective. But it is only that: one perspective. I feel we cheat ourselves by claiming that one perspective as definitive before we’ve truly allowed ourselves to look at the whole landscape of the human psyche.

I also think John Hughes had a good soul.

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Niagara Falls

From the Wikipedia entry “Slowly I Turned“:

The routine has two performers pretending to meet for the first time, with one of them becoming highly agitated over the utterance of particular words. Names and cities (such as Niagara Falls) have been used as the trigger, which then send the unbalanced person into a state of mania; the implication is that the words have an unpleasant association in the character’s past. While the other performer merely acts bewildered, the crazed actor relives the incident, uttering the words, “Slowly I turned…step by step…inch by inch…,” as he approaches the stunned onlooker. Reacting as if this stranger is the object of his rage, the angry actor begins hitting or strangling him, until the screams of the victim shake him out of his delusion. The actor then apologizes, admitting his irrational reaction to the mention of those certain words. This follows with the victim innocently repeating the words, sparking the insane reaction all over again. This pattern is repeated in various forms, sometimes with the entrance of a third actor, uninformed as to the situation. This third person predictably ends up mentioning the words and setting off the manic performer, but with the twist that the second actor, not this new third person, is still the recipient of the violence.

I spent about five years, between my late-teens and early twenties, working in photo labs. It was the easiest thing for me to do, seeing as I had a natural disposition toward photography. I spent many hundreds and hundreds (I suppose I could just write “thousands”, but then that seems like such an exaggeration) of hours printing other people’s photographs, correcting the colour, correcting the density – even occasionally eliminating hairs or scratches on the negatives. All said, it was a thankless job, but not a job one does in the first place if one is seeking thanks.

It was while I held this position that I read (or heard – I am convinced the toxic chemicals eroded my memories from those days) that the most photographed place on the earth was not the pyramids of Egypt, not the Great Wall of China, nor was it the Grand Canyon.

It was Niagara Falls, Canada.

And you know what? That person was absolutely right, from my perspective at least. I have seen so many photographs of Niagara Falls, from so many angles, from so many different types of cameras, lenses, and film stocks that when Ingrid and I went there during the summer, it felt as if I were entering some sort of nightmare/dream world. I hadn’t seen the Falls since I was a kid (with the exception of seeing them from the American side once – not impressive at all) and yet I was intimately familiar with every inch of it. It is the closest thing to recreating deja vu that one can do, I suppose.

Needless to say, I took photos. What else are you going to do? It’s a giant, massively awe-inspiring natural waterfall. And when I got my slides back, I looked at them and groaned – it didn’t matter how good they were, how picture-postcard they were. I’d seen them all before. From every angle, every camera, every lens, and every film stock.

I eventually found one photo which wasn’t so eerily pre-reminiscent: a stranger on an observation deck, staring out (not down) philosophically, as if Camus were alive and in Niagara Falls no less. It is through this photo that I found it possible to combat the madness of my previous occupation: to find the angle no one else has bothered to capture. I do not consider it an exceptional photograph from a technical point of view, but for personal reasons it is a healthy way to re-pave my perception of a subject so totally saturated by the second-hand experience of first-hand observation.

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Film Informing The Word

Reading Shelly Lowenkopf’s blog – which he should consider titling Opium for Fiction Writers – one does not need to look too closely to see he likes the TV program The Wire; he often references the show to demonstrate whatever aspect of story-crafting he has chosen as his subject that day. I’ve never watched The Wire, but I’m sure some day I will, if only because it seems to genuinely merit the attention.

Being more of a film person, it got me thinking what films have influenced me as a writer, or which – should I ever find myself in a situation to dispense wisdom – I would choose, if only because they demonstrate some part or element of writing very well. What follows are a few films which, for lack of a better term, have writerly aesthetics. Coincidentally, most of what I’ve picked ended up being based on novels.

Off the top of my head, I would begin with Cutter’s Way (1981), a little-known/little-shown film with Jeff Bridges and John Heard. On the one hand, it’s about a drifter in San Francisco who thinks he witnessed a murder one night, who’s suspicions are heightened by his best friend, a self-destructive Vietnam veteran. Yet, the more ornate (and by the ending, spectacular) elements of its drama serve as a background, a nuisance to the drifter protagonist, and it ultimately becomes a story about someone who discovers they’ve spent their life dodging the responsibility of making tough choices. Based on Newton Thornburg’s novel Cutter and Bone.

I would then travel back in time to The Third Man (1949), with Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles, a film-noir set in post-WWII Vienna (then occupied, as wonderfully described in the film’s opening narration, by the American, British, and Russian armies, and of course, the black market). An American novelist discovers on his arrival to the city that the only person there he knows – his old friend, Harvey Lime – was recently killed in an accident. Yet, the longer he stays, the more splintered are of the accounts of Lime’s passing, and the more strange are the cast of characters who claim to be his deceased friend’s associates. Add love interest and stir. Strangely, though written by Graham Greene, it wasn’t based on one of his published stories; he wrote a novella as a means of creating a template on which to base the screenplay, later published in book form after the film’s release.

Fast-forward to 1980 and The Ninth Configuration, with Stacy Keach and Scott Wilson. It is the story of a shadowy military psychologist assigned to a remote castle in the Pacific Northwest, used as an asylum for those temporarily discharged from service in the Vietnam War. However, as the colonel is inspired by his discussions with the asylum’s star patient, an astronaut who abruptly terminated his mission to the Moon just prior to take-off, the staff discover the colonel’s methodry is more unorthodox than expected. This is the one film I knew was based on a novel, seeing as I read both the first incarnation (Twinkle, Twinkle “Killer” Kane) and its subsequently re-titled revision prior to the film being released. Written, produced, and directed by none other than William Peter Blatty (author of “The Exorcist”, and a damn good director in his own right).

So, what is it? What is it about these random picks which touch upon fiction writing, aside from their literary pedigrees? Well, they all instill in the viewer a wider, more long-range idea of the story being told – much in the way that a good novel is capable, with the inclusion of just a few words inserted into the right spot, of suggesting dimensions which exist beyond the edge of the book pages. All three films include characters who stand out; characters who you can imagine living beyond the breadth of the films’ respective duration times, if not from the beginning then surely afterwards. In all three films, we have protagonists who are thrust into a gnawing responsibility they did not request to be part of, a responsibility which in The Ninth Configuration is karmic, in The Third Man is seductive, and in Cutter’s Way a question of conscience over desire. However, like all good stories, these responsibilities are seminal for the characters, and for the viewer with literary influences, perhaps inspirational.

[Post-script: it is not lost on me that all three of these stories are essentially mysteries, influenced by the remnants of armed conflict, namely WWII and Vietnam. I’m tempted to delve into why this is, but again, this is a blog and not a doctoral thesis. Perhaps another day. In the meantime, I’ve got a film mix to supervise…]

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The Steppenwolf Effect, pt.2: Books, Covers, and Judgement

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Achtung: it seems Comments were disabled on this and another post recently. This was not intentional. I will try to be more diligent in making sure that visitors can respond (when Blogger will allow).

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One thing I wanted to mention, way back when I was in Steppenwolf mode (see here), was that book covers have come a long way since I was a kid.

Let me put it this way, if you have a faint interest in reading, let’s say, Pride and Prejudice (figuring that you hadn’t seen any of the filmed adaptations, but simply heard good things), what would go through your head when you saw this:

Let me guess: the most boring book in the world? Tedium personified? 300 pages about drollness?

Of course that’s not true. Most people who’ve read P&P consider it a classic. People get into arguments about its film/TV adaptations, which is a good sign that the book rules over them all. But the cover! The cover stinks! Let’s face it, this is not a cover intended to sell a book, it’s a cover intended to put you to sleep (unless you are a Victorian fetishist).

Now, you say, look here chap – don’t you know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover? Yes. I agree. But why bother having an illustration on the cover, or some semblance of design if it does nothing for what it represents? The only reason Jane Austen allows that cover on her book is that she’s dead and there’s nothing she can do about it.

Quite frankly, I prefer this as an alternative, if I had the choice:

Why?

Because it doesn’t fill me with preconceived notions about the subject matter.

If I wanted to read P&P, the above cover wouldn’t stop me from doing so. I’d be forced to read it in order to find out if I liked it or not, without the mediation of what is often for “classic literature” terrible book design.

This is why Steppenwolf figures into this story. Check out the cover that I grew up looking at:

While yes, technically it incorporates many of the elements of the book, it’s such a literal and terribly dated approach, it’s always turned me off. It’s a James Bond poster by way of Aldous Huxley. *Blech* – no thank you.

Now, when I finally picked up a copy last year, this is what I saw on the shelf:

It’s a book! It’s a book! Not a movie, not an illustrated story, but a book, with an author! I like this approach because it’s direct yet cryptic at the same time – it’s telling me nothing about the novel, yet ties in the title of the book with a visual artifact. That’s it. Nothing more. Aside from the synopsis on the back cover, you’re on your own.

To me – and I should tread carefully here because my wife happens to design books – this is what book design is about. Forget about “don’t judge a book by its cover” – that’s a nice aphorism as it applies to people, but to books – considering there are so many vying for our attention, the covers should support the material they…um…cover.

If you’ve got a moment, check out this f-a-n-t-a-s-t-i-c site which shows all of the major cover designs of HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds. That is, from 1898 to the present, from different countries and featuring a vast array of designs and interpretations. It gives you a fascinating look at how book design has evolved over the decades.

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Comment: About My Photography

I would like to thank everyone for their feedback on the photographs I’ve intermittently posted. I have neither the time nor resources to pursue photography professionally (or even semi-professionally), but in a strange way this grants me the freedom to do things at a pace I can manage and maintain. Your comments are always appreciated.

A little (brief) history – my first camera was a Nikon 401-s. Great Nikkor 50mm lens, good auto/manual camera, especially for a beginner (I was all of 19 when I purchased it). It still looks sleek to this day:

However, the longer I used it, the more I realised that it was, contrary to its claim, more auto than manual. Whenever I tried to experiment with exposures it simply wouldn’t let me. Which sucked. However, again, for an amateur it was a sweet camera to have.

Last year I decided that I wanted to take control – full control. No auto focus, auto metering, auto exposure, auto anything. I wanted no handicaps, figuring that if I was truly going to learn more I needed to start from absolute basics. At first I thought about a Pentax K1000, which is rightfully heralded as a brilliant manual camera. However, upon further searching, I came across former-Soviet Union (or “FSU”) cameras. I’ve long known that FSU optics are particularly good, seeing as they raided the Zeiss laboratories during the Allied siege of Berlin in WWII – essentially, the Soviets took the equipment and some of the technicians back home with them. Soon after, they started churning out replicas of Leica cameras. Among them was the Zorki series. They’re good, they’re cheap, they’re ugly, they’re heavy (really, it’s like having a brick in your bag), but the optics are great and they’re generally reliable (in proportion to the person you’re buying from in any case).

So, I bought a 1966 Zorki-4 on eBay:

Um…pretty, eh? The lens is a 50mm Jupiter-8 (again, modelled on a similar Leica design). It’s a rangefinder camera, which means that it does not offer TTL (through-the-lens) focusing – basically you adjust the focus against a reflected image from the lens via an internal viewfinder. How’s thatfor manual. Simultaneously, I started shooting almost exclusively on positive (slide) film, particularly AGFA-brand.

The long-and-short is that I enjoy photography much more than I used to, and managed to do so in a way that recycled an existing good camera without buying something new (and managed to roll back time to an age where batteries aren’t necessary). More importantly, when I produce a good photograph now, I take greater pride due to the lack of auto-assistance.

All of the photographs you see on this blog (the ones tagged as “Photo: … “) are taken with the “Russian brick”.

A last note: I hate ‘gear’ sites, and I promise that this will not be a repeating theme – I’m not a prolific consumer. The reason I posted this is that the current market is flooded with a growing stream of plastic/electronic junk, and it’s enlightening to find something built 40 years ago that still manages to meet the task.

(btw – if you run a gallery, I’m all ears)

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