Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Workings of Time and Space in the Paintings of Archibald Motley

I found some short essays I wrote for a graduate Jazz course I took at University of Vermont - taught by jazz scholar John Gennari.  Since I have not posted anything to my blog in a while, I thought this would be fun.

Archibald F. Motley’s painting After Fiesta, Remorse, Siesta, is a beautiful visualization of jazz.  



  
It is a painting that reflects jazz culture while speaking to the lonely figure.  At first glance, the blue tones empower the entire painting, creating a feeling of melancholy.  But the eye then notices pink/reddish tones, such as the naked woman’s reddish colored jacket resting on a chair, and her red shoes on the floor. 

Motley uses dichotomies within this painting to create a feeling of ethereality.  For example, he contrasts the woman at the piano with a portrait on the wall of a matador fighting a bull—suggesting a masculine/feminine dichotomy. In the background, a couple is embracing by a street lamp. In the far corners of the lamp post are the dangerous cactus and the soothing palm tree, adding to the abstract and surreal feeling of the image. 

The crowding of images in the foreground while leaving open space in the background is another motif of Motley’s work   Motley positions the patrons who are having a good time in the foreground, very close to one another. The lonely or aloof figures are positioned in the background.  


For example, in the painting Barbecue, the patrons are having a good time at the tables in the foreground.  In the background, the space is more open and only a few patrons dance.  Also framed near the fence in the far distance is a man, alone, looking down with his hands in his pocket.  

Motley positions the aloof characters so it takes time for the eye to recognize them in the painting's space. Because the eye is not quickly drawn to the lonely man in Barbecue, the painting suggests that the patrons do not recognize this man.  The man is not only absent from their enjoyment, but seems to be unstuck from the painting's time and space.

Similarly, in After Fiesta, Remorse, Siesta unexpectedly to the right center is a man asleep with his head in his hands. Once the eye catches this man, one has to rethink the time and space of the painting. Did this mysterious man’s attempt to meet a woman prove futile? Or are what we are seeing in the painting is his actual dream?

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Movie Posters Better Than The Actual Movie

How many times have we said.... "I wish the movie was as good as the poster?"

 


A View To A Kill (1985). A common complaint was that Roger Moore (57 at the time) was too old to play the character of James Bond.  Did his age really make a difference in Octopussy, which came out two years earlier?


 

Detroit Rock City.  I did not have to pay to see this in 1998 because I was an employee at the movie theater.  Still wish I did not see it.





Bride of the Monster (1955).  I love Ed Wood films.   But this poster is way too good for an Ed Wood movie!
n.


 

Star Trek V:  The Final Frontier (1989).  "What does God need with a space ship?"  Probably the best and worse line of scripted dialogue of the 20th century. 


And finally.....

 

 
The film that laid the groundwork on what NOT to do when re-imaging a film franchise. 




Thursday, August 26, 2010

Ronald D. Moore - The Bonding

I recently watched a Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) episode called The Bonding, which was penned by Battlestar Galactica (2004 series) creator Ronald D. Moore.  The Bonding was Moore's spec script he wrote in 1988.  The history behind the script is that Moore was on tour of the Paramount studio where they filmed Star Trek.  Moore showed the script to the show's creator Gene Roddenbery's assistant, who liked it and was able to get Moore an agent. The Bonding eventually made its way to Michael Piller (who had been promoted to lead writer of the third season).  Piller purchased the script and the episode aired during the show's third season on October 23, 1989.  I believe that Moore's introduction into Star Trek not only helped the show's transformation, but is an example of fandom writing that finds its way into prime time TV.  Moreover, The Bonding is an early example of what is now commonly referred to as the re-imagining of a previous TV show or movie.



Before Piller was promoted to lead writer, the original ST and the first two seasons of TNG were primarily "alien of the week" situations. Though many of the "alien of the week" scenarios were great episodes, TNG, arguably, had no clear identity.  During the third season, however, the themes of the episodes gradually turned inward, developing deeper characterization to reflect the inner-selves of the crew of the Enterprise.  During the third season would begin to form TNG's identity.  The Bonding would play an important role in the series transformation. 

The Bonding centers on the story of a young boy named Jeremy Aster, who's mother (Lt. Marsah Aster) is unexpectedly killed on a scientific mission.  Worf, who was apart of the mission, is upset about Marsha's death because it reminds him of the passing of his own parents.  Jeremy and Worf come together through a Klingon ritual called the R'uustai - a bonding where the two become brothers. 



In certain ways, The Bonding contains the ethos of fandom writing that media theorist Henry Jenkins describes (borrowing from Michel de Certeau) as textual poaching.  Jenkins' study on fandom explores how fans are able to re-create and re-imagine their favorite story world.  For example, fans can appropriate uncharted character traits by creating their own stories and filling in missing gaps. 


One can think of textual poaching as readers who rent spaces, but never fixed in one location. But whereas de Certau sees poaching as a tacit and lone process of appropriation, Jenkins extends the concept of textual poaching into the world of fandom, where fans' expression is outwardly projected such as attending conferences or sharing information on the web.





The story of The Bonding retains the integrity and history of the Star Trek series as well as re-imagining new ideas within that world.   That is, Moore expands and renews the traits and identities of characters already established by previous ST writers while giving them more depth and complexity.  For example, Moore creates a character arc for Worf by introducing the backstory of Worf''s father's honor who had been rejected by the Klingon's.  A story that would further develop in the 4th and 5th season.  Moreover, The Bonding contains themes that  Moore would full explore in Battlestar Galatica such as honor, loyalty and solidarity. 





Battlestar Galactica is arguably one of the best re-imaging of a prior show of this past decade I believe Battlestar Galatica laid groundwork in terms of re-imagining a story world that both respects the intellect of the viewer as well as the story's origin.  The new Star Trek movie and Batman series have already proved this to be.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

My Odyssey in The World of Digital Media




"My Odyssey In The World of Digital Media" tells my digtal story as a DIY filmmaker and about the website I created to promote my films and bands I had played for in the past. It is a project I made for a graduate course on Visual Research Methodologies at Claremont Graduate University.

The main point I wanted to stress in my story was how the new digital medium of cinema that occurred at the beginning of the millennium encouraged me to shoot a feature film. In fact, in June of 2004, a few weeks before I began shooting Strangers In The Night, I attended the Lake Placid Film Festival to see Jon Favreau interview Martin Scorsese for an episode of Dinner With Five to be aired on IFC. I remember Favreau talking about digital cinema and how it was ready to explode.   

I believe that the increase in digital filmmaking has to do with accessibly, affordability and image quality, which brings up the issue of scalability and spectacle, which I talk about in the video.  

For me, one of the components of digital cinema has to do with better image quality in the three chip digital camcorders.  An important component of the three CCD is it provides better screen resolution than the older analogue video cameras.  However, depth of field is still limited, which I quickly learned when I projected my film on a large movie screen.  Deep focus photography, for instance, shot on 16mm and 35mm film, will have higher resolution than a three CCD. 

Spectacle was also a concern shooting Strangers In The Night.  When writing the screenplay, I was conscious of my limited resources, which I worked into the story.  I knew I could not shoot something "larger than life," so I placed a tremendous amount of emphasis on dialogue and character development. This is one element that my professor John Koshel at CW Post taught me when making No Deposit, No Return - be aware of your resources in relation to your story.  The other element Koshel stressed to me was to write a story that is personal and reflects an aspect of your own life.

Another issued raised in my digital story is the notion of the expert in regards to my website.  I believe the unexpected response I received from friends when I created a web page for all of the Hudson Valley bands I played for, put me in the position of an authority figure or expert - whether I knew it or not.  As I point out in the video, All Out War, the band I helped to form and play drums for, put the Hudson Valley on the map in terms of the underground music scene. When I started receiving emails from friends about the web site, I was taken back by how happy they were to read my stories.  In fact, some friends provided additional information that I missed or forgotten which I was then able to add back into the narrative.  


Having the skills to create a web page/Myspace page and owning the raw materials from the bands I played for (such as videos, flyers and photos) gave me the authority to document and frame my bands' history, providing information that would be hard to find in mainstream magazines.  Back in the early 1990s , fanzines were the main source of learning about hardcore bands.  Thus, the technology of the Internet has now helped to visualize the underground scene and enable bands to quickly circulate information on shows and recording updates.  And I believe it is important that I keep my website as an archive available for those who seek to know about the Hudson Valley hardcore scene in the late 1980s and 1990s.  

Initially, when I began my digital storytelling project, I wrote a very lengthy narrative of my experience as a filmmaker.  Within my story, I talked about mumblecore cinema, new digital technologies, and debates on what constituted professional versus amateur filmmaking. 

But out of nowhere, I decided to scrap my project and digitally record my story.  What was hard for me, at first, was getting the nerve to openly speak about myself.  But I am glad I did. After completing the film version of my digital narrative, I felt I was able to visually convey more information than simply displaying texts and pictures on my blog.

Monday, May 3, 2010

American Movie: The Odyssey of Mark Borchardt

In 1999, the Sundance film festival premiered The Blair Witch Project, a fake documentary, independent horror film shot on digital video and 16mm for a supposed budget of $20,000 to $25,000. The Blair Witch Project is widely recognized as the first film to use the Internet as a vehicle for promoting and marketing the film’s release that following summer.  The film would go on to make over $248 million dollars world wide box office sales.  The Blair Witch Project clearly marked itself as one of the first films to popularize the do-it-yourself  (DIY) method of filmmaking in the emerging age of the Internet.

Concurrently, there was also another film at the festival that was gaining attention for its unique subject matter.  Similar to The Blair Witch Project, the film was also about DIY low budget horror filmmaking.  The film, directed by Chris Smith and produced by Sarah Price was called American Movie, and it had won the Grand Jury prize documentary at Sundance that year. 




American Movie focuses on independent filmmaker and horror film buff Mark Borchardt, a working class man from Milwaukee. It tells the story of Mark’s trials and errors as he attempts to finish a short horror film entitled Coven. Mark’s motivation for completing Coven is to raise enough money from sales of that film to produce a feature film called Northwestern. The film captures Mark over a two-year journey as viewers learn about his life, his coterie of friends, and the struggles he faced growing up as a working-class youth in Milwaukee. Moreover, the documentary provides a close up view of the process of filmmaking from the lens of a working-class artist.

This essay examines American Movie and complex ways in which Chris Smith works with the observational and participatory modes of documentary filmmaking.   Smith’s employment of the observational method allows Mark to speak in his own words, capturing the emotional and financial situations that he battles in his odyssey to complete Coven. And at the same time, Smith enters into the film through the participatory mode in order to engage with Mark’s friends and family.  The participatory method creates another line of narrative that provides Smith access into Mark’s life from the perspective of his friends and family.  I argue that these two modes are in dialogue with each other throughout the film, which then merges into a harmonious ending with Mark’s screening of Coven for his friends, family and the community.


The origins of American Movie came when Smith had a chance encounter with Mark at the University of Wisconsin.  In 1995, Smith was in Iowa completing a film called American Job, which would later premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in 1996.  Smith had just graduated college, and was still using the University’s equipment to complete the film. When summer rolled around, the university shut down the film department, leaving Smith with no place to finish his film.  A friend informed him that Milwaukee was a great place to work and that he should come for a visit.  Smith left Iowa and headed to the University of Wisconsin where he would later complete his film.  While editing American Job, he came across Mark, who at the time was editing Coven.  Smith met Mark on the steps of the University’s building, and the two struck up a conversation about Mark’s feature film project called Northwestern.  Smith states that "He [Mark] had this passion and enthusiasm for the film that just seemed so rare. You see people with a passion to become independent filmmakers, but the way he articulated his vision for what Northwestern would be was just completely intriguing to me." Mark planned to attend the Toronto Film Festival to raise money for Northwestern and hopefully meet film critic Roger Ebert. Their discussion of the film intrigued Smith so intensely that he decided to make a short documentary about Mark’s weekend in Toronto.  The weekend project of a short film turned into a feature length documentary, which consisted over two years of filming Mark as he pursed his dream to make Northwestern

The narrative of American Movie begins in the fall of 1995 with Mark starting pre-production on Northwestern, but quickly realizing he does not have enough funding to produce the project nor enough time to organize the project to start filming.   Mark comes up with an alternative plan and decides to complete Coven (a short film he had started in 1994) with the intention to sell 3000 copies at $14.95, which will provide him with enough funds to produce Northwestern, and to pay back his Uncle Bill, who has loaned him $3000.



The various representations of Mark on his journey to obtain the American dream raises questions of visuality and ways in which culture learns to see the world.  W.J.T. Mitchell notes, "[V]ision is never a one way street, but a multiple intersection teeming with dialectic images….(97)"  It is easy, as Mitchell notes, to fall into the naturalism category when consuming images on television or cinema.  Naturalism or mythmaking is a process in which the producers of visuality attempt to veil the construction of the image.  Roland Barthes makes a similar point in Mythologies, which describes the process of masking the connotative code as a way to create a naturalistic illusion.  Barthes notes, "Myth hides nothing and flaunts nothing: it distorts; myth is neither a lie nor a confession: it’s an inflexion…. [The] very principle of myth [is] to transform history into nature" (129).  We can see myth making, for example, in many traditional Hollywood films where the producers of the film attempts to place the viewer in the middle of the action without being conscious of how the image is being produced.

Questions of visuality and representation are important concepts for ethnographic and documentary filmmakers.  In Colin Young’s article "Observational Cinema," he points out how visual representations of culture began to move away from telling audiences what they are seeing and towards a showing mechanism—or what is called "direct cinema."  That is, the traditional "voice of God" is removed from describing the events within in the documentary, which in turn lets the images and subjects speak for themselves.  Early examples of direct cinema can be seen in the Maysles brothers’ documentaries Salesman (1968) and Grey Gardens (1975).  In both films, the subjects talks directly to the filmmakers off-screen, but viewers never see the Maysles brothers.

But, as Young stresses, observational cinema cannot simply be a replacement for the anthropologist’s method of note takings.  Young notes, "[If] you distinguish between using the camera as a surveyor’s instrument and as a method of examining human behavior and human relationships in detail, you cannot afford in the latter case to stand back and get distant panoramas of human behavior—you have to be close to it and follow it intimately" (101).    Even though the filmmaker’s presence remains veiled, he or she must be close to its subject. The proximity of the filmmaker emerges in the ways the subject or culture is photographed such as situating the camera closer to the subject as opposed to zooming into the space where an event is occurring.  It is what ethnographer filmmaker Jean Rouch terms "cine-trance."  As Rouch notes, it [cine-trance] is where the filmmaker "adapts himself to the action as a function of space, to generate reality rather than leave it simply unfold before the viewer" (89) The filmmaker’s closeness can be felt in the process of editing and arrangement of the footage.  And, most importantly, the director of observational cinema does not pretend that he or she is objectively distanced from its subject(s), which is a key distinction from traditional anthropology filmmakers.

Smith breaks away from the traditional anthropological approach by allowing Mark to speak in his own words about his struggles as an independent filmmaker.  At the start of the film, Mark drives through the streets of Milwaukee at twilight as the acoustic song of "Mr. Bojangles" is heard.  In Mark’s voice over, he acknowledges that he has to confront his failures of the past in order to obtain the American dream in the future.  Mark tells us: "I was a failure, I was failure and I get sad and depressed about it and I can’t be that no more.  I really feel that I betrayed myself big time.  I know when I was growing up I had all the potential in the world.  Now I am being back to Mark who has a beer in his hand and is thinking of the great American script and the great American movie, and this time I cannot fail… I won’t fail… it’s not in me.  You don’t get second chances and mess them up… you’d be a fool to…."

Examining the scene closely, we can feel Smith’s presence close to Mark through the form of the film.  For example, the images of Mark traversing the city at twilight not only provide viewers with a sense of space, but it also captures him at a liminal point in his life.  That is, Mark has reached a crossroad in his existence, and he wants to push forward to complete his dream.  It is striking then that the first image viewers encounters in the film is blackness, continued by an upward shot of street lights in order to present an image of re-birth—that of a new beginning in Mark’s life. In Mark’s words, "This time I am not going to fail… this time it’s most important not to fail, not to drink and dream, but rather to create and to complete."  The use of "Mr. Bojangles," which tells the story of the street man in a jail cell that could dance, is a possible a reference to Mark’s social and economic situation.  Viewers learn throughout the film that Mark battles with bills, alcoholism, child support and the fear of living a life as a factory worker.  But even more so, the song "Mr. Bojangles" connects viewers to the cinema of the street.  Of course, this is one of Italian Neo-realism well-know tenet of film making, by photographing their subject in real locations. From the start of the documentary, Mark’s desire to fulfill his dream as a filmmaker is not going to contain the glamorous images of Hollywood.  The choice of filming Mark at the twilight hour and using "Mr. Bojangles" are examples of the observational mode where the filmmaker’s physical presence is absent, but is still in close proximity to its subject through form and technique.

Participatory mode of filmmaking, however, is where one does see and hear the filmmakers, where he or she enters into in the space of the subject’s world.  David MacDougall’s essay "Beyond Observational Cinema," argues that "The main achievement of observational cinema is that it has once again taught the camera how to watch.... Beyond observational cinema lies in the possibility of participatory cinema, bearing witness to the 'event' of the film and making its strengths of what most films are at pains to conceal" (125).   Unlike observational filmmaking, the filmmaker’s physical presence enters into the world he or she is documenting in order to amplify the quality of his or her materials.  As MacDougall puts it, "By entering actively in the world of his subjects, he can provoke a greater flow of information about them" (125).    But MacDougall points out in the 1994 postscript to his essay that the influence of postmodernism has greatly complicated the distinction between observational and participatory modes.  MacDougall writes, "The borderline of between observational and participatory cinema … now appears blurred" (128).  The recording of "Mr. Bojangles," for instance, is performed by Mark’s childhood friend Mike Schank, who is also featured in the documentary.  Smith also has Mike perform other songs for the film such as an acoustic version of Metallica’s "Fight Fire with Fire" and Randy Rhodes' classic "Dee."   Mike is not only as a subject that further explains Mark’s back story, but is also enhances the documentary by using his musical talents as participating force of the film.


As noted earlier, Smith employs the participatory mode to create a second narrative line that involves Mark’s friends and family as they describe their personal history growing up with Mark.  When interviewing his subjects, Smith’s voice can be heard off-screen as he asks them specific questions.  For example, the second scene of the documentary begins with Smith interviewing Tom Schimmels, one of the main actors in Coven.   Off screen, we hear Smith asking when, how and why he got involved with Mark.  Schimmels tells him that he first worked with Mark on a radio show, which begins the time line of the documentary.  The first segment of the narrative’s time line shows Mark working on the script for his Halloween radio show “The Creeps” as we hear Tom speaking about Mark.   The narrative quickly jumps ahead to Mark (now back in the observational mode) as he is driving in his car, delivering newspapers.  Mark tells us that he was drinking and smoking marijuana during the recording, and was not even directing his actors.   Mark admits that he has to corner his drinking problem in order to make Northwestern.   Thus, Smith’s employment of the participatory mode lets viewers hear his voice when interviewing his subjects, which in turn enhances the value of his material.  By allowing these two methods of filmmaking to co-exist with one another (the observational mode, which captures Mark’s journey towards completing Coven, and the participatory mode,  interviewing Mark’s friends and family member, Smith creates two narratives side by side, presenting viewers with a multi-facet portrait of Mark and his social conditions.  It lets Mark speak in his own words, while at the same time allows Smith and viewers learn about Mark’s upbringing through the eyes of his friends and family. 

Towards the end of the film, when Mark finally completes Coven and screens the film to the community, the dialect between the observational and participatory folds into a harmonious synthesis. It is a striking moment within the film because viewers are finally able to see scenes from Coven.  It is here where American Movie and Coven co-exist side by side.

During the ending credits of American Movie, a website is listed where viewers can purchase video copies of Coven.  I began this paper by addressing the financial success of The Blair Witch Project and its connection to the Internet and other new forms of media platforms.  The Blair Witch Project is typically recognized as the first film to utilize the notion of media convergence where viewers can pull information from a variety of media platforms to learn about their favorite films.  How does this connect to American Movie?  The Internet involvement in movie promotion was practically non-existent during the time Mark was making Coven.  And furthermore, the new technology of DVDs was not even on the market.  Mark’s source of generating capital for his feature film was through the sales of video cassettes.  But how would he advertise Coven to sell 3000 copies? As just noted, at the end of the credits of American Movie, a web site is provided where viewers can purchase Coven.  However, documentaries and independent films are not mass marked like commercially made cinema.  American Movie was released into the theaters on November 5, 1999 and ran until April 27, 2000, and its total domestic gross was $1,165,795.   The film only opened on 13 screens, ending its run on 29 screens.  But by the time American Movie was released on home video in 2000, DVDs and the Internet were popular media technologies, and then very influential in the publicity and sales of Coven.  In fact, one of the supplements on the DVD contains Coven in its entirety. In an interview with Mark, he stated that he already reached his quota of 3000 copies.  We can postulate that these new media technologies and digital platforms made a significant impact not only for promoting American Movie, but for generating publicity for Mark and his short film.

To conclude, American Movie provides a glimpse into the world of DIY filmmaking at the end of millennium.  American Movie reveals the complex problems that independent filmmakers face, as well as visually demonstrating how discourses and social conditions play a major role in the process of filmmaking outside of the Hollywood system.  More so, the film depicts the challenges of 16mm and 35mm filmmaker as digital cinema was slowly gaining attention.  Chris Smith’s methodological approach in American Movie is the blending of observational and participatory modes.  His research follows Mark as he struggles to overcome his past demons and existential crisis in order to finish Coven.  American Movie addresses the concern of visuality and questioning of the image production through its attempt to make visible Mark’s external and internal struggles is his odyssey to complete Coven.  Thus, Mark’s journey in making Coven takes what is invisible (or what has been mythologized) and visualizes it for viewers as a way to evoke a dialogue of what it means to be an independent filmmaker through the lens of a working-class artist.  Lastly, American Movie can be lyrically viewed as a visual extension of Smith and Mark continuing the conversation they began on the steps at the University of Wisconsin in the summer of 1995.

References:

Barthes, Roland.  Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers. New York:  Hill and Wang, 1979. 

MacDougall, David. "Beyond Observational Cinema." Principles of Visual Anthropology.  Ed. Paul Hockings. New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 2003.

Mitchell, W.J.T. "Showing Seeing: A Critique of Visual Culture." The Visual Culture Reader.  Ed. Nicholas Mirzoeff. New York: Routledge, 2002. 

Rouch, Jean. "The Camera and Man." Principles of Visual Anthropology.  Ed. Paul Hockings. New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 2003. 

Young, Colin. "Observational Cinema." Principles of Visual Anthropology.  Ed. Paul Hockings. New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 2003.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

American Movie Trailer

Per request from Dr. Juhasz's Visual Research Methodologies - the trailer for American Movie.  It is an incredible documentary. I highly recommend it.


Sunday, March 21, 2010

Werner Herzog - Dracula at The Eygptian in Los Angeles

This weekend at the Eygptian theatre in Los Angeles is featuring Herzog in person as well as screening some of his classic films such as Stroszek and Cobra Verde.  Last night, my wife and I saw the screening of Herzog's Nosferatu The Vampyre  - the brilliant re-make of F.W. Murnau's 1922 classic Nosferatu.




 After the screening, Herzog answered questions from the audience.   A couple of questions centered on the editing process where we learned that it takes Herzog a few weeks to put the cut of the film together.  He noted that Bad Lieutant took two weeks to edit after production of the film wrapped, demonstrating the power of desktop editing.  Herzog stated how much he loves digital editing because he can cut as fast as he thinks.  Herzog's comments on editing reminded me of what Jean Rouch wrote in his essay "The Camera and Man" on the future of filmmaking: "Tomorrow will be the day the self-regulating color videotape, of automatic video editing, of 'instant reply' of the recorded picture (immediate feedback)." It is striking that Rouch, who wrote this essay in 1973, was exactly right about the changes in technology for future filmmakers.

Another point that Herzog addressed is the rhythm or pacing of the film must be established in the production of the film.  Herzog noted how he would have Klaus Kinski, who played Count Dracula, to move his hands slowly like a spider and then quickly attack "like a cobra." 



One of the most striking moments in Nosferatu is when Jonathan (Bruno Ganz) travels to the "other world" of the Count's castle.  There is a beautiful moment where he sits on the mountain as the score of Wagner's "The Rheingold Prelude" is heard.   I wanted to ask Herzog how this moment came about, but the time for Q&A had expired.  My take is that this is the moment that Jonathan transfers from the everyday world into the ghostly setting of Count Dracula. To create this metamorphosis into the other world, Herzog uses images of nature and Wagner.   I wonder if this was a possible an allusion to the German mountain films of the 1920s? Slow and meditative cinema has always been one of my main points of interest and to see this moment on the big screen was something else.




Of course, Herzog had a ton of funny stories to tell such as working with Klaus Kiniski and the problem the rats had caused in Delft during the production.  One story I felt was the funniest is that Herzog just recently learned what "coverage" means when shooting a film.  Coverage is basically making sure you have filmed all the angles of the scene in case you run into any problems in editing.   Herzog thinks coverage is ridiculous - just as he thinks it is silly that actors need to know their motivation when filming a scene.  As Herzog told Nicholas Cage when shooting Bad Lieutenant (2009) - we are going for blissful evil - that's your motivation!  

Herzog has made many movies and documentaries and is an important figure in the New German Cinema of the 1970s along with Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Win Wenders.  He is one of the few directors, I believe, that he has always stayed true to his vision. Herzog informed us last night that being a director, first and foremost, is to be a leader. Herzog's Fitzcarraldo is a case in point how leadership and believing in your vision can produce beautiful art.



As Herzog stated last night... one of the biggest challenges he faced as a filmmaker was that no one believed that he could pull a boat over a mountain in Fitzcarraldo....

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Matrix's Simulation of Star Trek's "The Spectre of The Gun"

Although the third season of Star Trek will probably never match the greatness of the first and second season, there are some notable episodes worth mentioning. One particular episode that has always fascinated me is "The Spectre of the Gun" for its intriguing storyline and strange and surrealistic set design. 

Watching the episode recently, I could not help noticing that the ending sequence has a strong connection to the premise of the Wachowski Brothers' film, The Matrix (1999).   It is well known that part of The Matrix's origin is strongly linked to Jean Baudrillard's Simulacrum and Simulation.  But I would like to make the case that their may be another source overlooked by critics and fans of The Matrix....

The plot of "The Spectre of the Gun" involves the Enterprise coming in contact with a Melkotian buoy, an alien life form that warns them not to encroach upon their territory.   


Kirk ignores the warning as he, McCoy, Spock, Scotty and Chekov beam down to the planet to learn more about the Melkotians.  Upon arrival, they unexpectedly find themselves caught in fog-like conditions.  Out of the fog, they suddenly encounter the Melkotians who are angered that the Enterprise did not adhere to their request.  As a consequence, the Melkotians send Kirk and crew back into time, situating them into a psychological space of a Tombstone western-like town. 



Kirk and crew discover that they are to play the characters of the Claiborne gang and to re-enact the legendary showdown with Wyatt Earp and his posse at the OK Corrall in 1861.  The twist is that they are the cowboys to be shot.  Worse, the showdown will occur at 5pm that day, leaving Kirk and crew a short amount of time to plan an escape. 



When Kirk and crew try to exit the town, they quickly realize it is surrounded by a force field.  Things become even more troublesome when Chekov is unexpectedly shot by Morgan Earp for pursuing one of his girls.




McCoy, Spock and Scotty create a tranquillizer grenade to use as a weapon on Earp and his crew.  But when testing the grenade on Scotty, they discover it is ineffective.  



As 5pm nears, a storm begins to brew as Kirk and crew begin to realize the certainty of their fate.   

BUT.... Spock discovers that Chekov (who is suppose to be playing William Claiborne) survived the battle at OK Corrall.  So how can Chekov be dead when history states that he survived?  Spock figures out that the reason why they cannot escape their situation at hand is that they  believe they are existing in a true reality.  That is, Kirk and crew believe that the OK Corrall is real.

Kirk and crew have been pitted against the Cartesian cogito and the demon hypothesis.  Descartes’ conception of the cogito was to build a ground for the science of knowledge. Descartes argues that if I am deceived by what I think is real in the world (say this blog I am typing or my hands that touch the keypad), I can be certain of one thing—that fact that I think, I therefore must exist.  



For Descartes, even he is deceived by the demon who tells him 2+2=5, the fact that Descartes thinks, he must therefore exist—even if he doubts the demon who suggests a universal truth such as math to be false.

The demon hypothesis is exactly what Kirk, McCoy, Spock and Scotty must face - they must convince themselves that OK Corrall is not reality, therefore the bullets will not harm them.  As Spock plainly puts it: "Physical reality is consistent with universal laws. When the laws do not operate, there is no reality." They have to be certain in their thoughts to be beat Wyatt Earp and his crew.  But even the smallest doubt will kill them!

Of course this does not sit well with McCoy because as humans we are always faced with doubt.  As McCoy sharply tells Spock, "We're just human beings, Spock.  We don't have that clockwork ticker in our head like you do. We can't just turn it on and off!"  To avoid any trace of doubt, Spock performs the Vulcan mind meld to put them all in a state of oneness.





Now compare Spock's plan of certainty at the OK Corrall and the climax of The Matrix where Neo realizes that he is the one, and how he is able to control reality--to stop the bullets from impacting him.  Also, notice Neo's drop kicking Agent Smith is very similar to Kirk's drop kicking Wyatt Earp!




As I have mentioned, it is well documented that The Matrix is influenced by Baudrillard's concept of the simulacrum, which describes a world of signifiers divorced from their referent or origin -- that is, a copy of a copy.    But could it be possible that The Wachowski Brothers were influenced by "The Spectre of The Gun" when writing The Matrix?



  The bullets are not real....

Monday, March 1, 2010

A.I. - Kubrick and Speilberg

Like many who love cinema, I was devastated when Stanley Kubrick unexpectedly died in March of 1999.  



Kubrick is known for his  highly calculated approach to filmmaking - both in terms of narrative and aesthetics.  The preciseness of the Kubrick's approach to cinema present his movies as being cold and vapid, which is, for example, evident in his symmetrical photography.



A theme that repeats itself in Kubrick films are the dangers of systems such as war, computers or even the family.  And Kubrick likes to show the consequences when human emotions circulate within these systems.  For example, when a character expresses an emotion, it tends to feel strange or out of a place. A notable example is Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) over-acting or melodramatic conversation with Brady the bartender in The Shining.  Or, even better, the scene where Jack and Wendy (Shelley Duvall) debate over the state of their son Danny.




Or, probably the best example is the computer Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey, who seems to have more emotions than the humans that created him. 




These scenes suggests that when one goes against the system, whether it is a haunted hotel, the family or futuristic computers, it creates an abstract or surreal disruption within the narrative.


Another oddity of Kubrick is how he was able to meld his modernistic vision of cinema within the framework of pop culture.  Take for example how A Clockwork Orange and Dr. StrangeLove has been parodied in popular television show such as The Simpsons. Or, the famously quoted dialogue from Full Metal Jacket: "Let me see your war face" or "Here's Johnny!" from The Shining.




This brings me to Speilberg's A.I., which tells the story of a robot named David (Haley joel osment) who is programmed with real emotions. A.I. was suppose to be Kubrick's final film.  It had been reported that Kubrick decided to film Eyes Wide Shut first, so the digital technology would catch up to his futuristic vision of artificial intelligence.  Kubrick had been working with Speilberg on developing A.I. At one point, Kubrick and his brother-in-law/partner Jan Harlan were even considering Speilberg to direct.  But when Kubrick died in 1999, Jan Harlan reached out to Speilberg to make A.I. in honor of Kubrick.


My experience of seeing A.I. in the summer of 2001 was quite disappointing because I was expecting to see Kubrick's dystopic futuristic vision. I mean, I had been hearing about this film since the early 1990s!  I admit now that I did not like the film because it was too close to Kubrick's death.  But after speaking with a friend, he recommended I see the film again. And then hearing that A.O. Scott from the New York Times picked A.I. as one of the best films of the decade, I decided to revisit the film.  And glad I did.

A.I. is a frightening, yet beautiful film about a robot who goes on journey to to find the Blue Fairy who will transform him into a real boy.  The imagery and special effects are fascinating.  A notable sequence is when David and the other deformed robots escape from Lord Johnson-Johnson (Brendon Gleason) who runs the Flesh-Fair, a ceremony that destroys robots for public spectacle. Lord Johnson-Johnson's moon balloon hovercraft that seeks out the robot is a strange melding of E.T. and Orwell's 1984.

 

Most points of tension on A.I. center on its bizarre ending.  I am not going to say much about it, in case you have not seen it.  One can certainly add that the end tends to fit with Speilberg's sensibility and probably not Kubrick's.  Though, we will never truly know how Kubrick would have handled the materials for A.I.  But above all, it should not block one from seeing, arguably, one of Speilberg's best movies.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Pleasure of the Text - Video Essay





The purpose of this video essay is to apply Roland Barthes theory of text of pleasure and text of bliss to the realm of visual and performative arts.   A question I pose is what emotional effects do these sounds and images produce for the viewer?  And do they reflect the textual effects Barthes describes in The Pleasure of the Text?

The first part of the video examines Barthes distinguishing between the text of pleasure and the text of bliss (which is also referred to as the readerly and writerly text). Barthes argues that the text of pleasure is a closed text because it situates the reader in a comfortable and pleasurable position.   For example, a majority of Hollywood films would fall under the text of pleasure, because they aim to situate the viewer as if they are right in the middle of the action without drawing attention to the production of the image unfolding on screen.

The text of bliss disrupts one’s readership—revealing gaps, ruptures and disturbances within the text.  Barthes postulates that the text of bliss is jouissance (pure enjoyment) because it breaks down the unity of the signifying chain.   Another way to put it is that the text of bliss attempts to go beyond meaning.  As Barthes notes, “it unsettles the reader's historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values, memories, brings to a crisis his relation with language” (14).  The text of bliss finds itself in close association with the surrealism and avant-garde art. 

The last part of the video explores Barthes’ final concept in The Pleasure of Text, which he describes as the “grain the voice.” Barthes states that the “grain of the voice, which is an erotic mixture of timbre and language, can therefore also be, along with diction, the substance of art of guiding one's body…. [T]he language aligned with the flesh [is] a text where we can hear the grain of the throat” (66). For Barthes, the grain of the voice is not the language that speaks the body, but the body that speaks the language.

I found the grain of the voice concept breaking away from the binaries of the text of pleasure and text of bliss.  The grain of the voice demonstrates how text of pleasure can register moments of abstraction or bliss or even transcendence.  I believe the last clip on Ian Curtis from the post-punk new wave group Joy Division performing “Transmission” exemplifies how his passionate singing captures the grain of the voice—how Curtis’ body language attempts to go beyond meaning within the realm of pop culture.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Victor Turner - The Anthropology of Performance

In Victor Turner's essay "The Anthropology of Performance," he argues that change involves a re-adjustment, and that this re-adjustment is ceremonial and what he sees as being theatre or performance.   Turner breaks down four phases of public action:  Breach, Crisis, Redressive Action and Reintergration. For Turner, change within a culture occurs when a threshold has been crossed.  As Turner notes, "From the standpoint of relatively well-regulated, more or less accurately operational, methodical, orderly social life, social dramas have a 'Iiminal' or 'threshold' character. The latter term is derived from a Germanic base which means 'thrash'  'thresh,' place where grain is beaten out from its husk, where what has been hidden is thus manifested" (92). 

This passage from Turner is very similar to Roland Barthes' notion of the grain of the voice.  For Barthes, the grain of the voice, which he argues in "The Pleasure of the Text," (which happens to be the subject of my video essay) is when the voice aligns itself with the flesh or body.   It is at point where meaning is shifted to the energy of the performer.   It is when the body becomes the voice.   

 

Musicologist such as Simon Frith and Richard Middleton have tuned into Barthes' notion of the grain of the voice for its political implications in music.  For example,  Frith sees Elvis Presley's body and hip shakes in his early performance on television in the 1950s disturbing and disrupting the status quo.   And here is where Turner's conception of performance fits well with Barthes' grain of the voice - because we all know that Elvis' trangressive body language forever changed music ...

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Twin Peaks


I started watching the Twin Peaks television show - can't believe I never watched this when I was in High School. I've seen almost all of Lynch's work accept for this. Lynch is great at subtly interjecting the strange, surreal, and even the supernatural into the narrative while, at the same time, balancing the realm of everyday life. Like the mysterious ear Jeffrey Beaumont finds in Blue Velvet, the death of Laura Palmer has disrupted the safe and peaceful rural world of Twin Peaks. What we find in Twin Peaks is bizarre entities occupying the corporeal world. But this is not like the Star Trek episode "Return to Tomorrow" where Spock and Kirk find a planet of intellectual minds stored in sphere balls and are looking for bodies to temporally occupy in order to construct artifical bodies they will soon house. In Twin Peaks, the spirit of Bob, (the Frank Booth of the series) is to move from body to body in order to continue his serial killer like wrath. I guess that's all I can say...because I have not finish watching the series. Twin Peaks, in many ways, reminds me of how great of a TV show Mohulland Drive could have been.