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.   
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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.