Saturday, January 31, 2009

More notes from a relatively new film blogger

"No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money."--Samuel Johnson

1) I can see how others find blogging addictive, but I tend to dislike what it does to me. It's a bad habit. The activity fills me with embarrassment, remorse, and dismay. When asked if he ever allowed anything unrevised to be published, Vladimir Nabokov replied "Why should I show off samples of my sputum?" I try to revise, but while the army has their Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), I have my SIPs, Stupid Impulsive Posts. Usually written at night after several glasses of wine, the SIPs prove very amusing at first, so I send them out. Then, the thought of my SIPs wakes me up just before dawn, leaving me appalled and ashamed. Anyone with a modem could be reading it! My wife will sometimes look over my work in exchange for a fee, but what I really need is a good editor, some tweed-wearing benevolent figure who looks at my SIPs and gently says, "Dr. Film, you look like you are under some strain these days. Why don't you take a month off. Relax. Take it easy," as he quietly throws the SIPs into the trash once I've left the room.

2) What's evil about blogging, of course, is the way the technology compels you to post frequently. When checking your stats, you notice that the amount of hits falls off of a cliff after you haven't posted for a few days. Your feed subscribers diminish daily like bored audience members leaving a theater. People lose interest. And so you become a monkey on a treadmill cranking out inferior product, obliged to work all that much more in inverse proportion to the money you don't earn. When I wrote for a newspaper (and got paid), I had a simple contract to e-mail the Arts editor a review every weekend. Now I may post 3-4 posts a week that are not quite as thorough, but more haphazard with fatigue and rushed writing.

3) I confess that I like to look through Darren Rowse's and Chris Garrett's book ProBlogger: Secrets to Blogging Your Way to a Six-Figure Income. They also have an excellent website full of good tips on how to monetize your blog (I also have a weakness for endlessly chipper pro-blogging books like The Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging). Still, I have two problems with trying to follow Rowse's and Garrett's tips. For some reason, I have the hardest time bringing myself to include ads on my blog. Second, ProBlogger recommends that you vary the kinds of posts that you write. I dutifully followed their directive and wrote sequential posts about video production, and that went well. I also tried my hand at writing the ever-popular "how-to" post. I composed a post full of tips about how to write movie reviews, and the post was well-received, just as Rowse and Garrett said it would be. But having written it, what other tips are there in relation to film blogging? How to watch a film? How to choose a good film to see on a given weekend? How to eat popcorn?

4) Sometimes, just as I wonder if it is cooler to be one of the 3-4 people who do not have a Facebook account, I also wonder if I should just stop blogging. Franz Kafka asked his friend Max Brod to burn his manuscripts after his death, and of course Brod ignored him, but that sense of never-satisfied high standards made Kafka's words more mysterious and impressive. Legend has it that sometime around the 6th century BC, Lao Tzu was all set to retire as the keeper of archives of the imperial court, but someone persuaded him at the last second to write up his teachings--the Te-Tao Ching. But his teachings are hardly there, because he preaches the wisdom and the benefit of taking no action. He wrote "Those who know don't talk about it; those who talk don't know it." Lao Tzu most definitely would not have blogged. In the same vein, I wonder if my reticence is ultimately preferable to more verbiage.

5) So how to I feel about my film blog? Vanity, stupidity, absurdity, a sense of the still-unrealized potential of cinema, the love of movies, and a hopeless crush on Pauline Kael. Also, the act of writing, the attempt to think clearly and exactly, can be its own reward. I also need to learn more about when to shut up.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Unimportance of Being Earnest: Frost/Nixon

Five Oscar nominations, including best film, best director (Ron Howard), and best actor (Frank Langella)? I had forgotten how Frost/Nixon had been adapted from a well-received play by Peter Morgan, but after watching Slumdog Millionaire and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon struck me as decidedly underwhelming.

Though I enjoyed Ron Howard's Call to Action video in which he dressed up as Opie in support of the Obama campaign, Frost/Nixon unfortunately feels like was directed by Opie in its blandness. As the film sedately cuts back and forth from the retired Nixon to David Frost as they prepare for their big 1977 television showdown, the whole Rocky-like fight hype seems overblown and, finally, anticlimactic. I imagine that the filmmakers meant for me to make all kinds of connections between Nixon and George W. Bush--both with misguided wars to account for, both with a tendency to think of the presidency as above the law, but aside from looking like this year's Good Night and Good Luck (2005), another Oscar-nominated and self-congratulatory Hollywood film about the media's treatment of corrupt politicians, why does Frost/Nixon deserve all of the Oscar nods? Because it is earnest? Because it wrestles with the issues? Because Americans still need closure concerning Watergate? Because Frost almost lost his TV show in Australia?

Ultimately, I prefer the treatment of Nixon in Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, because there at least tricky Dick seems worthy of all the scorn poured onto him. In Frost/Nixon, Nixon is treated with such ginger respect, with Frank Langella hunching his shoulders and speaking through his not-quite-large-enough nose, I developed a sneaking sympathy for the [spoiler alert] politician's last-ditch machinations. When he finally semi-gives in to Frost's appeal to acknowledge his guilt, he just seems tired of the whole pseudo-drama. In the end, Frost/Nixon just made me want to watch the last segment of the original interview, the one devoted to Watergate. The film itself spoke to me more about the value judgments of today's Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences than of any political wrongdoings back in the 1970s.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Vampire-werewolf love: notes on Underworld: Rise of the Lycans

1) In case you were wondering, in Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, the Lycans do rise.

2) I have seen, and sort of liked, the other two Underworld films. Here's my summary of the first one:

In the war between the aristocratic Death Dealer vampires and the crude Lycan werewolves, Kate Beckinsale as Selena liked to perch like a gargoyle high up on the ledge of buildings and jump down five stories when it suited her, one leg bent slightly as she fell, to land with ease and walk away. The fact that she was a beautiful vampire warrior in a black leather dominatrix outfit never hurt, and even though the film built up to a ridiculous action climax involving the chief honcho vampire’s (Bill Nighy’s) head getting chopped in half diagonally, it still was a pleasantly campy exercise in Gothic excess.

3) Now that the original director, Len Wiseman, and his wife, Kate, have wisely decided not to participate in the third film (Kate appears briefly to reinforce one's negative reaction to her bland replacement, Rhona Mitra), the producers of Underworld: Rise of the Lycans inexplicably hired the creature designer, creature fabricator, and creature supervisor of the two previous films, Patrick Tatopoulis, to direct this lame prequel.

4) I don't know if it was me, or whether I was lulled by a dull rainy Saturday afternoon, or my preoccupations with Slumdog Millionaire, but I really don't remember Underworld: Rise of the Lycans all that well. I do remember when an audience member said "Yada yada yada" during one of Mitra's portentous speeches late in the film. So, these notes constitute what little remains of a deservedly forgotten experience.

5) Sadly, perhaps due to budgetary restrictions, Rise of the Lycans mostly limits itself to some dull indeterminate castle in the Middle Ages where the vampire king Viktor carries on a tidy Freudian psychodrama by almost killing at birth a fancy newfangled intelligent Lycan named Lucian, as played by, of all people, Michael Sheen). Michael Sheen plays David Frost in Frost/Nixon He also starred as a convincing Tony Blair in The Queen. What on earth is he doing playing a Lycan?!? For that matter, why is Bill Nighy tromping around as the vampire king with creepy bright blue animalistic contact lenses? Why are these good British actors pandering to D&D-playing Goth adolescents? Do they need the money?

6) Anyway, as befits a tidy Freudian psychodrama, Viktor's vampire daughter Sonja (Mitra) has been carrying on an illicit affair with Lucian, meeting on the edge of some underground cliff, and people are starting to catch on. For one thing, Viktor can always bite into his daughter's neck to get a rapid streaming flashback of her life, and when that uncovers her treacherous lust, Viktor jumps back, blood dripping down his chin, shocked and appalled, so he locks her in her room. The Lycans are enslaved animalistic brutes exploited by vampires. They are the lower than the lockstep working class yobs in Metropolis. How dare Sonja sleep with such scum?

7) Meanwhile, Lucian still must spur on the Rise of the Lycans. Much of the visual wit, flair, and fun of watching Beckinsale gracefully fall has vanished from the series. Instead, you get a lot of prison scenes with Michael Sheen roaring and rolling his eyes as the other prisoners grunt their approval. Lucian makes one escape attempt that involves a lot of large javelins skewering prisoners left and right, one right through one guy's head. Humans repeatedly metamorphose into werewolves. Nighy bugs out his eyes and proclaims "I am your father!" and "You defiled my daughter!" as he worries over the union of the bloodlines.

8) I used to like all of the campy blood-stained, blue-filtered, moon-lit, Death Dealer aristocratic hauteur of the Underworld series, but not anymore. Instead of following the plot, I found myself idly considering the design elements of the film such as the streamlined armor designs and the wailing Edward Munch-esque figures buttressing Viktor's throne. At one point, Lucian yells "We are not animals! Is this want you want? We can be slaves, or we can be... LYCANS!" Yeah, Lucian. Yada, yada, yada.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

"Tell Me How You Cheated" : questions about the cultural discrepancies of Slumdog Millionaire


“Jamal Malik is one question away from winning 20 million rupees. How did he do it? A) He cheated. B) He’s lucky. C) He’s a genius. D) It is written.”

"MUMBAI, India —Slumdog Millionaire was made about the people of Mumbai's teeming slums, but it was not made for them.

In the squalid shantytowns of Nehru Nagar, where parts of the Oscar-nominated film were shot, there was little of the excitement that has swept India since the low budget film emerged from obscurity to win four Golden Globes and 10 Oscar nominations. --- from an AP article by Erika Kinetz

"really, was there a worse-directed movie than "Slumdog Millionaire" this year? . . . the opening sequence . . . intercuts an interrogation on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" with the eye-candy torture (beating, high-voltage toe-shocking) of a kid who's tied up and suspended from the ceiling -- all with thudding music (just like the TV game show!) and Dutch angles galore. "
---from Jim Emerson's "Oscars: No comment (almost)"

1) I confess that I largely enjoyed Slumdog Millionaire as I have enjoyed most of Danny Boyle's movies extending back to Shallow Grave (1995). Trainspotting still strikes me as his best film, in part due to its edginess, its critique of middle class consumerist values, and its cheerful punk nihilism. Slumdog Millionaire makes some nods towards Trainspotting, specifically in the way both movies feature a character who will brave immersion in fecal matter to arrive at some badly needed goal, but I found myself suspicious of Slumdog's uplift as soon as I left the theater. The film has many pleasures, but it is also very manipulative, as Jim Emerson pointed out, leaving me wondering how much Boyle might have "cheated" to gain to its critics' "mad love," as Peter Travers puts it in his Rolling Stone review.

2) Why do we need Boyle (who comes from Manchester, England) to direct this story taken from the Indian novel Q and A by Vikas Swarup? He hired Indian co-director, Loveleen Tanda, to help him, but I still wonder, given all of the Oscar hoopla, how much Western filmgoers seem to prefer Western directors' interpretations of India.

3) For example, there's the mixed reaction to Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited. I enjoyed that film too, mostly because of its brilliant art direction, but it remains a movie compromised by three Western brothers obtaining Beatles-esque enlightenment from Indian mise en scene more than anything else, leaving the Indian characters as little more than window dressing.

4) Critic Jim Emerson suggests that the characters in SM are one-dimensionally good or evil, but I found Irrfan Khan's role and performance as the police inspector more subtly indicative of the film's shift in emphasis. Khan initially appears sadistic, certainly a "bad guy." Khan, however, has a history of playing more likable roles, such as the dad whose son dies in The Darjeeling Limited, and the father in the film version of Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake. As a result, I think the audience is primed to not hate the police inspector. He also becomes more sympathetic as the film progresses, ultimately "believing" Jamal's stories about his life.

5) What about Jalim's torture at the beginning of SM? Is it really necessary in terms of the story, or does Boyle ramp up the atrocities in the first half of the film to help create a better sense of uplift in the end? Boyle films so many of the film's harsher scenes from the two brothers' perspectives--the assault on their mother, the beatings, the electrocution of Jamal's toes, and especially the blinding of a child (which caused one woman behind me to walk out of the cinema)--the viewer is left pummeled, and therefore all the more primed to enjoy the big switch to a much happier conclusion. The sweet end of the film reminded me of nothing so much as The Graduate. As Owen Glieberman writes for Entertainment Weekly: "with Boyle working at full boil, it [the film] is also an unabashed concoction — a movie that turns the horror of broken Indian childhoods into a whooshingly blithe, in-your-face picaresque. Not since Les Miz have you felt this gooey-good about kids whose lives were this bad."

6) For all of the film's beauty, its redemptive sense of Mumbai rising out of its poverty by sheer street smart hustle, and its dream of extreme class mobility, I still wonder about how much Danny Boyle deliberately packaged this story for Western consumption (and by extension, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences). Even Jamal caters to the Western tourists' preconceptions by lying about how "lazy, good for nothing, Indian beggars" wrote the Taj Mahal guide books. In turn, how much does Slumdog Millionaire play on our guilt, fears, and dreams of Indian enlightenment?

Postscript: further discussion from Mark Magnier of the LA Times.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Kidnapped Blondes in Love: A Life Less Ordinary (1997)

Note: In honor of Danny Boyle's superb direction of Slumdog Millionaire, here's an unchanged 1997 review of Boyle's A Life Less Ordinary from my preblogging days.

How does one characterize A Life Less Ordinary? Imagine Trainspotting meets It's a Wonderful Life meets Excess Baggage, with a healthy dose of gun-toting violence thrown in for good measure. In the recent tradition of carbon copy screenplays hitting the multiplexes of America in waves, A Life Less Ordinary takes as its basic plot structure a near perfect replica of the one used in the much inferior Alicia Silverstone film, in which a bored heiress manufactures her kidnapping to get back at her greedy corporate CEO dad.

In this film, Ewan McGregor plays a fired janitor who incidentally steals away Cameron Diaz after futilely trying to threaten her father and his boss (Ian Holm) into rehiring him. McGregor has made a career of playing likable geeks. In Trainspotting he's a mostly unemployed heroin addict with a skinhead buzzcut. In another upcoming film he acts as a night watchman. Here he plays his working-class-schmuck-with-a-heart-of-gold so well, I felt sorry for him much of the time.

Cameron has to talk him through the kidnapping process ("Have you asked for a ransom next?"), brings up the idea of sex, and basically shunts him along as she runs circles around him mentally. It struck me as awkward putting McGregor together with Diaz, much like pairing Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny Devito in Twins. Seeming to realize this, the filmmakers of Trainspotting (who made this film) came up with a frame narrative involving two angels played by strikingly blond Holly Hunter and pugnacious Delroy Lindo dressed in 1930s gumshoe clothes, perhaps in reference to Frank Capra's It Happened One Night, the granddaddy of all cross-country hijinks romantic comedies.

We find Hunter and Lindo in a humorously harassed police precinct-like heaven where everyone wears white designer clothes. They learn they must bring McGregor and Diaz together or they'll never return to heaven. Much like Clarence does in It's a Wonderful Life, Hunter and Lindo show up on earth and try to dictate fate, in this case by supplying the "jeopardy" or conflict that they hope will bring the lovers together.

In this mixed bag of a movie that takes awhile to find its tone, the women stand out the most. Holly Hunter plays an astonishing pistol-packing moll in calf-length boots, a split between Emma Peel and Bonnie Parker of Bonnie and Clyde. My friend Robert noticed that she keeps using different accents throughout the film as she chases after McGregor and Diaz, but to me she just looked erotically intense, as if in jealous competition with the beauty of Diaz. We see Hunter cling on to the hoods of speeding cars, play dead on the roadside, and fall off of cliffs. It's her best comedic performance since she played the baby-obsessed wife in Raising Arizona.

Cameron Diaz is still looking for her best role, but she acquits herself well here, walking a fine line between simply conveying her gorgeous looks and summoning some emotion (She has yet to meet her male equivalent in any of her films). Still, the moviemakers deliver their proven moneymaking formula with as much perversity and playfulness as the genre will allow. I noticed in Trainspotting that these Scotts can smell a rotten convention in any twist of a storyline, and they reply with in-your-face shock tactics, self-aware ironic dialogue, punk music, and odd camera angles.

A Life Less Ordinary doesn't risk as much as Trainspotting. It's more a hit-and-miss affair veering between cartoonish violence, comedy, and tough '90s style love, but where else can one find pistol-packing sadistic angels?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Notable film and media links--January 21, 2009

---T. S. of Screen Savour continues his excellent series on Hitchcock's films with a consideration of The Wrong Man (1956):

"Jonathan Rosenbaum has called The Wrong Man "the closest Alfred Hitchcock ever came to making an art film," and indeed, so much of the pleasure here comes from the execution of technique. It is not neorealism in the strictest sense of course, but Hitchcock challenged himself to bring a specific documentary-style to the film that was undoubtedly influenced by the post-war Italian directors. (He frequently screened films from all over the globe, and from Italy he was particularly interested in Roberto Rossellini, who had romanced Ingrid Bergman.)"

---James Hansen appreciates Mulholland Drive as part of Out1's Lynch Week:

"With an expansive visual sense placed in the classical Hollywood schemata and with story threads that imbed a collective sense of narrative moment and emotional connection, Mulholland Drive embeds itself within two different worlds of cinema. Its rhythms and movements often shift from classical editing into an elongated style for certain scenes that require something unexpected, a la Betty’s audition scene with the older man – one of my favorite scenes of all time. Watch how the scene gradually changes its tone – not just in the wonderful performances, but in the camera movements, the editing, the sound. It’s a perfectly simple scene right in the middle of the most “normal” part of the film, but it illustrates the significance of every aspect of the cinematic process."

---In the ever-fruitful quest to find the evil in Disney Corporation, Sociological Images considers an illustrated 1938 Disney rejection letter: "Women do not do any of the creative work in preparing the cartoons for the screen, as that work is performed entirely by young men." Further evidence can be found in this clip from Mickey Mouse Monopoly: Disney, Childhood and Corporate Power.

---
Alexander Coleman outdoes himself with his slicing analysis of Revolutionary Road:

"American Beauty could at least be laughed off, for the silliness with which it so often waltzed, as though winking at the audience, knowing it was a socio-political platitude, a capricious fun-house mirror aimed at the culture it lampooned. Mendes' Revolutionary Road peddles pain, and damns an entire society for not being as enlightened as it should have been. Deakins' fine cinematography and Zea's cogently palpable production design manage to make a point independent from Mendes' latest assault: if the Wheelers represent any form of enlightenment, then enlightenment leads straight to the madhouse."

---Ed Howard's Early Howard Hawks Blog-a-Thon for Only the Cinema has been a smashing success. I especially enjoyed his take on Only Angels Have Wings.

--Allan Fish wrote an exemplary review of Out of the Past for Wonders in the Dark:

"It is easy to see this film as the coming together of the typical morally ambiguous characters of the likes of Double Indemnity and the visual style of Val Lewton’s horror films for RKO. Indeed, Tourneur and photographer Nick Musuraca had collaborated on Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie, and Musuraca had also worked with the dark in The Spiral Staircase for Robert Siodmak. The gorgeous lighting of the sunsets and lakes somehow makes it more real than say The Maltese Falcon - which was entirely studio shot - so that Jeff and Kathie have their romance in a real world of darkness and light. There are shots here that haunt you for life, such as Greer’s first entrance into the cantina and the Steve Brodie death scene. However, it’s in the characters that Past really comes into it own as the greatest film noir of them all."

---Tad Friend of The New Yorker shows how Tim Palen markets movies:

"Many film marketers grow disillusioned with their jobs, with the lying and the cheating. But when I asked Palen whether the job had affected his understanding of our primary levers—of the human eagerness to give way to laughter, fear, sorrow, and passion—he looked at me sharply and said, `I hope not. Because owning the secrets of cattle mentality is not aspirational. I love my job, I love being a part of all this, of staying fresh and young.'”

---For those interested in the drastic changes in the media, several good posts about the plight of newspapers and blogs have appeared recently. For The Atlantic, Michael Hirschorn meditates on the "End Times" of newspapers, specifically the possibility that The New York Times may cease to exist. Arts and Letters Daily points out this New Yorker essay by Jill Lepore that looks at today's crisis in terms of the history of newspapers. Lastly, in "The Politics of Me, Me, Me," Keith Kahn-Harris explores the solipsistic nature of blogging in relation to political discourse.

---I liked this pleasantly honest mock-trailer for The Spirit.

---Lastly, a couple Obama-related videos to help celebrate his inauguration. For The Root, Henry Louis Gates explains the history of African American use of the White House. Also, it's pleasant to see Obama's first encounter with Air Force One. As Obama says to the pilot with film scholar acumen, "You look like Sam Shepherd of The Right Stuff."

Monday, January 19, 2009

Resisting the myth: Daniel Craig and the pleasures of Defiance


It took me a long time to appreciate Defiance and its story of two Jewish brothers who rebel against the 1941 Nazi invasion of Poland by hiding out in the woods. The trailer made the film look cheesy, ponderous, redundant, and self-important. The first five minutes of the film are both emotionally manipulative (Nazis tearing children from their mothers) and annoyingly like Schindler's List. I found myself meditating on why would Daniel Craig choose this role of Tuvia Bielski now-- Moses in the midst of all of the Bond hoopla? Liev Shrieber also looks too recognizably American in his role as Tuvia's brother, Zus, no matter what Polish accent he affects. Also, I wondered how Defiance would handle the basic problem of conveying Hollywood action and uplift amidst Nazi atrocities without falsifying the latter. Valkyrie took care of that by having Tom Cruise's character mention his outrage at the concentration camps in the beginning of the film. Defiance is old-fashioned in the way it treats Nazis as convenient villains, and it risks compromising its based-on-true-events story with commercial slickness throughout.

And yet, even though Stephen Spielberg should write a strongly worded letter to Paramount about stealing story points from Oskar Schindler, Defiance has its good points:

1) Like Robin Hood and his band of merry men, Tuvia and Zus are at ease in the forest, engaging in guerrilla raids, taking nips from a bottle of vodka. The woods doubly suit the film's blue-filtered cinematography and the nonchalant boy scout ability of the Bielski brothers. The movie takes on the loose ambience of a camping trip, and the absence of walls frees up the action, giving it a pastoral cheerfulness usually lacking in other Nazi films.

2) It also helps that neither neither Zus nor Tuvia know entirely what they are doing. Early on, they ask each other "Do you have a plan?" "No, do you?" Unlike Colonel von Stauffenberg, Tuvia makes mistakes. The brothers go on a vengeful Nazi hunting spree that almost gets their younger brother Asael (Jamie Bell) killed. Even later in the film, when the Moses references get oppressive, Tuvia and Zus punch each other out in front of a bunch of mystified refugees. In opposition to the screenplay's slick machinations, Tuvia and Zus improvise as they go along, and it's fun to see Daniel Craig stumble over the ethical dilemmas that arise from his character's attempt to save others. When one of the refugees tells him "If you save a life, you must take responsibility for it," Tuvia replies like the errant schoolboy he is: "I have no idea what you are talking about."

3) Lastly, in an age of Paul Blart: Mall Cop, it's pleasant to see old-fashioned masculine (practically Hemingwayesque) virtues on display. As the younger brother, Asael gradually moves from being a weepy mess to the leader of the camp when Tuvia loses his bearings after getting bombed by fighter planes. Even as Zus meditates on the Jews being victims (he sardonically says to himself "What we are good at--dying,"), he constitutionally can't see himself except as a rebel and a fighter. Even Tuvia resists the Biblical parallels just as Craig may have chosen the part to distance himself from Bond cliches. Tuvia's and Zus's scrappy reluctance to play the role of the hero, in stark contrast to Tom Cruise in Valkyrie, ultimately makes Defiance more compelling than one might think.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Interview with a student filmmaker--Patrick Nugent

A Media Arts major at USC-Columbia, Patrick Nugent has been assisting me with my video production class for the past three years. This time he showed up in the midst of directing his ambitious senior project, a HD-Rotoscoped Pseudo-Science-Fiction Animated film entitled Alone Time. You can learn more about his work on his Demented Eccentric website.

Even though he's busy, Patrick kindly agreed to answer some questions concerning filmmaking:

1) What suggestions would you have for someone just beginning to make movies today?

Watch movies. Really watch movies. Figure out why good movies work and others don't. For someone like myself who loves animated films and films that are visually very strong, I often like to go back and study films shot by shot or frame-by-frame in the case of animations. If you love strong narratives and writing, then read as many screenplays as you can. Whatever your particular interest is, study as much of it as you can. If you can, find other people who are making movies and offer to work with them and learn from them.

2) Who are your three favorite directors at work today and why?

I love Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze, Don Hertzfeldt (animated shorts), and I'm fascinated by a greatly respect the hit-or-miss Terry Gilliam. Directors that are willing to take themes and stories that we can all relate to and package them in visually stunning, unique, and genuinely imaginative films are what I live for. Escapist cinema that deals with reality, if you will.

3) What are the classic traps that novice filmmakers fall into?

The alarm clock that starts a film. Pretentiousness. Wordiness. Poor shot variety. Copycatting other stylish directors. Poor attention to detail. Bad sound. Just look up "student film cliches" on Google for a much better list. But hey, if you have fun doing it, then it doesn't really matter.

4) What do you think of film school classes ? Are they really needed?

Film school isn't needed. If you know what you're doing you can go out and make a great film. Maybe. The thing about film school, if you do it correctly, is not the assignments or the grades or any of the academic stuff. Instead, it's the community of talented people passionate about making films that come together to network and help each other out in their spare time on each other's projects. That is the real value of a good film school.

5) What are some of the best places you like to visit on the web that relates to filmmaking?

Since I'm much more of a technical/special effects oriented filmmaker, a lot of the places I like to visit are technical resources. Creativecow.net is your best bet for most technical stuff, I also like provideocoalition.com. On the creative end I often visit slashfilm & cinematical (hollywood talk), indiewire (indies only), vimeo (imagine if youtube actually had good videos), and motionographer (beautiful motion graphics and animation).

6) Describe a typical day at work on your current film project.

A typical day on this project is hard to pin down. Lately it's been all about script revisions (I'm working on the 5th major draft right now, as a matter of fact). With each revision I let one or two more people read it. I take their feedback and sit on it a few days before I dive in to more revisions. We just held open auditions for the project which went much better than I had anticipated and I look forward to working with the cast. I'm currently scheduling different meetings with my sound designer, camera operator, and an associate producer to discuss sound, camera choreograpy, storyboards, scheduling, shooting locations, and the latest revisions. In a few weeks, it'll be all about a very lengthy post-production process. It's a lot of work and people wrangling but it's really rewarding to see this project that I started brainstorming about 9 months ago begin to come to life. Hopefully in another 9 months I'll be anxiously waiting on acceptance letters from some major film festivals!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Video production class weblog--day 10--editing

1) Today, we wrapped things up. I began the class with a brief discussion about continuity editing and matching action before showing them the montage from The Graduate when Benjamin floats in the family pool to the sound of not one but two Simon and Garfunkle songs. The montage is full of matching action cuts that mislead the viewer into thinking Benjamin is at home when he's at the hotel and vice versa. Later a student pointed out that I could have used the fashion montage from The Devil Wears Prada as another example.

2) Otherwise, the students sat around their computers and edited for much of the day. We had a couple computer failures for old time's sake--a software glitch and some drives on another computer lost--but the ever-helpful IT administrator fixed them quickly. As they fastforwarded and rewound scenes back and forth, the students reminded me of DJs scratching with turntables. In some cases, a tricky scene with conversation outside obscured by wind noises could easily take an hour to finesse. In other cases, students plunked down scenes artlessly. One would roll his eyes when I asked him to expand a scene for better comic effect or add on a sound bridge to make the cut less clumsy. Editing is a subtle, intuitive process, but the class benefits from the fact that students have seen countless well-edited films, so they can usually tell when a jump cut isn't working. In one case, a student was enormously picky about the video's title. I kept making suggestions, but none were good enough. From what I hear, Woody Allen works in the same way, taking forever to settle on a film title after editing it.

3) So, aside from further editing over the weekend, the class is finished, and they largely did excellent work. What have we learned?

a) Pinnacle is far superior to Premiere editing software for this class.
b) We still need to get external microphones and a boom, but in the meantime we can always dangle a second tripod and camcorder over the actors for better sound.
c) If you ask nicely, it's astonishing how just about everyone in the greater community will happily help make a movie. The only people to turn us down? The Dollar Store.
d) Usually problems with lighting cause students to have to reshoot whole scenes.
e) The video production class basically grades itself because the viewer can immediately see the 15 different ways a shot can be messed up.
f) The best directors combine patience, concentration, hard work, and imagination. They shoot the most scenes from the most angles, stick to the storyboards, and yet continually experiment with new techniques.
g) When the sound doesn't work, you can always fall back on another music montage.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Video production class weblog--day 9--liveblogging the apocalypse

“A film is like a battleground; It has love, hate, action, violence and death. In one word, emotion.”
--Samuel Fuller in Godard's Pierrot le Fou.

1) In what other job do you get to spend the morning in the scummy basement of a museum trying to adequately light some black-clad hooded figures trying to kill each other over a backpack full of jewels? One student places a gun to the back of the head of the other. She spins around, knocking the gun out of his hand. He grabs a broom as she snatches up a rapier. They duel their way into the next room where they both manage to lose their weapons. He grabs a large wrench as she procures a planing tool. They continue to cross tools until again they lose both weapons and find themselves wrestling on the dusty concrete. Finally, when she kicks him in the leg, he says "Ow, crap!"
"Is that you?" They raise up their hoods to discover that they know each other. In fact, they are a couple in a relationship and each independently decided to rob the museum for his/her own purposes: she needed the money for her education. He needed it to fix a keyboard. "What are we doing here?" she asks, and they cheerfully run out of the building together.

2) That scene took over an hour to shoot. We kept having to adjust the work lights, the white boards, the extension cords underfoot. I noticed some rat poison in one corner. At one point, a student got her hand smacked with the wrench. Both actors got dust all over their black clothes. After the prop gun got knocked out of her hand five times, it started to fall apart (and I wonder why I go through several a year). Afterwards, we managed to cram all of the equipment into the car before the students returned to the museum to thank the people for letting us use the place.

3) In the afternoon, another group continued shooting a chase scene in a pine grove near a lake. I mentioned that the pursued student should fall at some point to create suspense, so she ended up falling about four times on purpose before accidentally falling several more times over branches, ripping her jeans. We also figured out that there are several ways to run while holding a gun. Trying to point a gun while running looks silly, so it's better to just keep chugging one's arms up and down like a train (to paraphrase a track coach). At one point, the director climbed a tree to shoot the chase scene overhead, and I promised them all that by 2012, I will find a crane for future video production classes. I said "Why don't you shoot the POV of someone falling out of a tree?"
"No."
"If you fall out of the tree, I could deny that this class had anything to do with it."
Someone else chimed in: "If I help you deny it, can we work out an arrangement with my spring grade?"
"No."
By the end of the afternoon, the director made a steadicam by ducktaping a free weight to the tripod. She then held that arrangement under one arm like a football as she walked off to shoot a POV shot of the entire chase. After that, we were done.

4) Right now, after six pm, students are still shooting a dinner scene and a murder. Tomorrow they will mostly edit. On Monday, the major videos come due at 4, along with blooper reels, for the final judging contest. On Tuesday, the best one will be shown to the student body during the closing two-week class festivities. At this point, I have no idea which video will win.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Video production class weblog--day 8--outdoor location shooting

1) Today the video production class continued with location shoots much like yesterday (see the last post), only there was more sunlight, so the three groups worked outside even though it was colder. Each shot raised concerns about lighting, sound, camera placement, acting, and sometimes technical failure. At this point last year in the class, batteries ran out of juice and memory cards got corrupted with depressing frequency. Today I watched as the camcorders died on all three groups at one time or another, but usually they found replacement batteries quickly or stretched a extension cord far out into someone's yard to keep the cameras functional.

2) In the morning, I drove Group B over to the local college campus to shoot a scene where their drug dealer protagonist has to cover up for a student obviously high on cocaine during a chance meeting with administrator. I'm not sure that cocaine-users display much in the way of being high, but the guy sniffed, rubbed his nose, and acted strange enough. As long as the shot didn't involve sound, the videotaping went smoothly, but as soon as dialogue was needed, I was surprised at the level of difficulty they had in arranging for three guys to meet on the street, in part because the camera had to face away from the sun. I had told them to wear coats, and only some of them listened, but at least no one wore flipflops. It was cold, so eventually I took off.

3) Group C needed my help with my Hyundai Accent (practically a character in their video), so I found myself driving round and round one block downtown as they filmed the car from the front of the museum. As I backed out of a driveway to circle the block again, I meditated on the absurdity of all of the repeated motion. Much of video production involves standing around, cracking jokes, and watching as someone repeats doing something until you move equipment to the next set-up. When the two jewel thieves meet on the front steps of the museum, they exchange a few words, so we placed the camcorder close by and waited for a break in the traffic to allow a little quiet. The sound pollution of a given street or even a front yard is astonishing. Similarly, you never notice how noisy a room can be until you listen for the room tone. Later, Group A had to contend with the grinding of a neighbor's circular saw, cars driving by, and the crunching of pine needles underfoot. I was thankful when the cacophony would die down and arbitrarily stay quiet for a key scene's discussion.

4) Group A managed to procure a policemen for their afternoon murder scene. The local police chief even let them choose between a male or a female cop, an undercover or a "cop cop." They opted for the cop cop, so the guy had a pleasantly tough look--scarred cheeks, sallow skin, and close-cropped black hair. Fresh from investigating an actual hit and run, the policeman positioned his car on someone's front yard, turned on the blinking lights when needed, and was all around an ideal extra (he has even had some experience in acting). Holding a small pad and pencil, he politely interrogated the lady of the house about the murder, walked over to the murderess and crouched down to listen to her account of what happened. He obediently said his lines over and over until the 17 year old director was happy with each close-up, long shot, and even an insert shot on the murderess's hands as she sat on a stump and sputtered out her (false) story. Then he shook everyone's hand and drove away. It helps that everyone wants to be in pictures.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Video production class weblog--day 7--location shooting


1) Now, at 7:12 pm, after a long day of driving the students to and fro, I am tired. As if in punishment for visiting all of those fluorescent interiors, I have developed blurred vision, and my thoughts keep drifting to the wise words of filmbrain:

"Thoughts of putting the blog to rest filled my head, and for a while it seemed like the wise thing to do. I kept starting posts that I'd never finish -- mostly on awful Hollywood films. I came to realize the futility in those exercises -- other than catharsis, what purpose does it serve to rail against the screenwriting crimes of Eric Roth, or Sam Mendes' homicidal act on Richard Yates masterwork? These films will continue to get made, and seen by millions. Do I really need, or want, to be just another voice amongst the throng -- writing about crap films that hundreds have already weighed in on?"

2) At any rate, what happened today? We started off watching the opening scene of Robert Altman's The Player, in part just to admire a really long but still funny expository shot. Then, after admonishing the students for sleeping in late, I sent them off in various directions. Group A would spend much of the day in someone's house. Group B would shoot a mailbox scene involving the delivery of powdered sugar masquerading as cocaine in manila envelopes. Group C spent the day in the town museum shooting a sword fight and a jewel heist.

3) I meant to spend time with Group A even though they need the least assistance, given that their director has ambitions of pursuing a career in filmmaking some day, and she usually does excellent work. But as soon as I showed up at the house and found myself ensconced in a doily-covered chair in their small side living room, I found it very irksome. What was I doing there? Some patriarch of the family was chiding his grandchild for being a "TV-aholic" in the kitchen. I felt like an intruder, so I left quickly as the director set up her first shoot in the bathroom.

4) I then stopped by the museum to visit with Group C, who has just finished shooting a scene that morning with a whole class full of student extras. I am amazed at how students love to be extras, how docile they are, how well they take direction even though they have no idea of what the film is about or whether it will be any good. Group C was just then working their way down to the spooky dark old basement. Later, I will learn that though they spent hours shooting a sword fight down there, they failed to light the place enough, so they will have to reshoot it all over again tomorrow.

5) Meanwhile, Group B slowly got around to shooting in the mailroom. They kept forgetting equipment or props, and no one wanted to go get them. At first, everyone seemed a little testy, but the shoot improved once they found some extras to lift the packages out of the mailboxes. Focusing directly inside a mailbox made for a good image when it was opened on the other side, and the director enjoyed yelling "Take 400,542, Action!" so that the extras could hear them on the other side of the wall.

6) The workday ended with me visiting a Hobby Lobby, of all places, to pick up white board for Group C's basement shoot tomorrow. In the midst of a video production class, I find myself increasingly sensitive to crappy lighting, and, much like the Super Wal-Mart, the Hobby Lobby submerges the customer in a grey doomed atmosphere of craft knickknacks, decorated leatherex boxes, and placards that display kitschy messages like "A soccer mom is just like a pit bull, minus the lipstick." True words, indeed.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Video production class weblog--day 6--principal photography begins

"Beatty and Penn's discussions often concerned aspects of the script as small as which word in a line should be emphasized or as unquantifiable as the tone of a particular moment. A flourish, a camera angle, a reaction, a grace note--no issue was too trivial to stop both men in their tracks. `What else is making a movie,' Beatty said, `except attention to detail?'"
--from Mark Harris' account of the making of Bonnie and Clyde in Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood.

1) I wish I was deeply involved in arguing with Warren Beatty and Arthur Penn over the making of Bonnie and Clyde back in 1963 in Texas, with Faye Dunaway looking on. Instead, I'm trying to persuade a bunch of easily distracted teenagers to make halfway decent 10 minute videos. I try to tell them that their impatience with a shot will show in fifteen different ways later on the big screen. The camera is remorseless in this respect, and everyone who watches the video will know. At one point, I started to praise the more perfectionist director for her careful storyboarding of her action scene, and one guy replied, "But they were much more stressed than we were!" I said it doesn't matter a hundred years from now how stressed the crew is. What matters is the quality of the footage. When the students weren't horsing around, popping the bottom out of a bottle of soda into a trash can, lying half asleep on the classroom floor, or pausing to watch a Bee Gees video on their laptops when I had safely left the room, they sometimes composed a decent shot.

2) Today we started off looking at the storyboards for Hitchcock's North by Northwest before watching the famous airplane attack on Cary Grant in the Illinois cornfields. I then approved of two of the three screenplays, their accompanying storyboards, and some rough shooting schedules. So while one group finessed their script, the other two headed out into town to make a movie.

3) First stop, Belk department store. I was surprised by how long it took to set up an establishing shot of the exterior, how often one waits around as the camera man tinkers with the tripod. When the sun wasn't over-exposing the edge of one shot, the students had to shoot a simple walking scene over and over to keep the subject centered as the camcorder panned to the right. Eventually, the preppy character selected some panty hose for her evening jewelry robbery, after which we shot a shoplifting scene at a nearby gas station. As one student repeatedly left the store with his "stolen" Cheeto's bag, one bystander asked if we wanted him to tackle the thief, and we politely said no.

4) Tomorrow, the really heavy shooting begins in the museum, neighboring houses, some woods, and some restaurants downtown. Wish us luck, or better yet, attention to detail.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Fighting at the altar: the fetishes of Bride Wars


It's too easy to mock Bride Wars as the reductio ad absurdem of Bridezilla wedding movies that began with Four Weddings and a Funeral, continued with the multiple wedding carpet-bombing of 27 Dresses, and reached a syrupy-sickly apotheosis this summer when Meryl Streep's character stole the wedding from her daughter in Mamma Mia!, not to mention Carrie Bradshaw appearing in Vogue in her Vera Wang wedding dress before Mr. Big jilts her at the altar in Sex and the City. Now producer/star Kate Hudson has paired up with Anne Hathaway to duke it out over who will get to have her June 6th wedding in the Plaza Hotel, since the rest of the month is booked up. As much as I tried to obey Dennis Cozzalio's New Year's Resolution to not see Kate Hudson in bridal gear in 2009, I regret to admit I saw the movie on a Saturday night with a reasonably enthusiastic crowd.

I don't pretend to understand why women fetishize weddings. I always thought the larger the wedding, the more pressure on the couple, hence the greater likelihood of a quick divorce. Is it the impression of virginal purity in the white gown (As Susan Sarandon says in Bull Durham, "Honey, we all deserve to wear white"), the opportunity to spend huge amounts of someone else's money, dress up one's bridesmaids as one pleases, or is it the happily ever after Cinderella fairy tale quality of the ritual? I wouldn't know, but Bride Wars begins with two girls determined to get that June wedding in the Plaza some day, nevermind other concerns like their careers.

As a form of entertainment, Bride Wars has the nutritional value of a Diet Pepsi. It goes down kind of smoothly, but leaves little impression beyond a bitter aftertaste. Kate Hudson's character, Liv, is supposed to be an aggressive litigator, so she must learn to not be such a control freak. Hathaway's character, Emma, works as a beleaguered teacher of something in a middle school (although we never see her teach), so she needs to learn to stand up for herself. That's really as deep as the characterization gets. When the two begin to fight over the precious June 6th wedding date, I kept thinking of other better movies. When Liv begins to over-eat due to Emma's sneaky candy and cookie presents, thereby preventing her from fitting in her Vera Wang gown, I was reminded of Mean Girls when Rachel McAdams was obliged to do much the same thing. The pranks they play on each other are more adult variations of Lindsay Lohan's summer camp pranks on her twin (and vice versa) in The Parent Trap. Meanwhile, the two grooms are utterly indistinguishable from each other as the rest of the cast tends to disappear into a prosperous WASPy whiteout.

Mostly, I found myself wondering about Kate Hudson's hairdo and what happened to her since Almost Famous. She is known for "lighting up a room," but in this film, her bangs hang over her eyeliner-enhanced eyes. Only 29, she looks prematurely aged by fame, especially in comparison to Hathaway, who has only begun to mess with her Disney Princess image in vehicles such as Rachel Getting Married. In the acting competition between the two, Hathaway appears more natural even when she's obliged to wear an orange fake tan. Perhaps Kate has been working too hard. Churning out two or more mediocre romantic comedies a year is bound to take its toll on anyone.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Video production class weblog--Day 5--the writer's dilemma

"the artist rarely has a specific goal in mind when he begins work, so that the process of visualization is actually the search for a goal rather than the attainment of one."
---from Steven D. Katz's Film Directing Shot by Shot: Visualizing from Concept to Screen

1) By the end of today's class, the students had shot, edited, and burned 5 short videos, and one student wanted to stay on after class to further edit the 6th. After only 5 days, the class has accomplished a remarkable amount, and I increasingly found myself obliged to stay out of the way as each group found its working rhythm in the course of the day. As they huddled around their computers, I idly practiced spinning around on the dolly/wheelchair.

2) Each group's quest to write up a working screenplay for a 8-10 minute film did present challenges. One student wrote up an early draft full of scenes the film "might" have. I told her to make them more specific and exact. Another group showed me a story with highly truncated scenes and brief pedestrian dialogue frequently punctuated by gunfire. I recommended that they include some more "natural" conversation about something unrelated to the story mechanics at hand, and they didn't know what to do. Talk about apple strudel, or Madonna as the gangsters do in Reservoir Dogs? As I walked in to find them checking their Facebook account or tinkering with the handmade steadicam, it occurred to me that they are far more comfortable either shooting or editing. Writing takes too much focus. I was bothered by the way they would just toss off the screenplay instead of realizing it was key to the eventual success of the film, and told them so.

3) I liked one conference about the end of the drug dealer story. In it, a successful drug dealer distributes marijuana in manila envelopes in the school's mailboxes, but a college administrator accidentally happens upon one of the envelopes. He's in his office with the drug dealer just when he's about to open the envelope. What then? I proposed that the dealer's two henchmen and his femme fatale girlfriend would leap into the room and wrestle the envelope out of his hands. They didn't like that idea. How about ending the film with the admin just beginning to open it? No, too disappointing. How about the dealer knocking out the admin and then making a run for it? They acknowledged that that would make for a good chase scene, but no. How about having the administrator open the envelope to find a small teddy bear inside? We considered that idea for a long time. Perhaps, after getting the bear back from the administrator, the drug dealer would then take the bear inside a bathroom stall and open it to uncover a bag of marijuana? No, too obvious. I went off to join another group. When I returned, they had settled on a Beanie Baby solution. Instead of the drug dealer opening the Beanie Baby, however, the group figured that one of the henchmen would ask "Why are we dealing Beanie Babies?" And the dealer concludes the film with "Look inside."

4) Overall, the week was a success. Any tips for beginning screenwriters?

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Video production class weblog--day 4--purple haze

"A word about conflict. Conflicts permeate life. War, disease, lost love, threats from others, the temptation to despair, and, yes, death, are obvious sources of conflict. We may wish it otherwise, but such things are a part of human existence."
---from Richard Beck Peacock's The Art of Moviemaking: Script to Screen.

"We are losing the light."--a movie crew expression.

1) It is 6:45 pm. The sun set while I slept on a sofa. I wake to the sound of a neighborhood dog barking and the bitter taste of Apple Jacks coating my mouth. In the mirror, my eyes look bloodshot. I remember telling one of the students that I was ready to go at about 3, and she said "You are always ready to go!"

2) What happened today? We began by watching the making-of documentary on the Lost in Translation DVD. Sofia Coppola acts moony and lovestruck as she keeps saying "Bill is coming! I get to dress him as I please. It is the director's fantasy," as she walks around the streets of Tokyo. Then, in a white bathrobe, Bill Murray sings and dances to Elvis Costello's "My Aim is True" to Sofia's delight. This documentary and the similar one in The Virgin Suicides DVD convey a sense of her moviemaking style, and I like the way Coppola does not act at all like your stereotypical director. She speaks softly to a set filled with Japanese crew members as Bill looks on in a tuxedo and too much eye makeup.

3) Then, the three groups worked on their story ideas and then took turns pitching them to the rest of the class. The main narrative films consist of A) a drug dealer in a small college who eventually gets busted by a college administrator, B) a young woman who shoots to kill twice, once out of jealousy, and then other as a cover-up, and gets away with it both times, and C) an odd couple (the preppy woman and the slob guy) who both independently decide to rob a jewelry display in museum, only to bump into each other mid-crime. All of the stories have their possibilities, although I still wished that one group would make a zombie scene. After lunch, I said to the class, "You fools! You could have made something like this!" Then I showed them this Zombie Girl trailer from Cinematical.

4) In the afternoon, the three groups went their separate ways around campus to shoot action videos. One consisted of multiple scenes in which "Joe" gets killed, but he is always resurrected to die again (and he triumphs at the end). Joe gets run over, shot, stabbed with a sword, hit over the head with a hammer, suffocated with a pillow, choked on white bread, locked in a large freezer, and strangled, but he's very cheerful about the whole thing. Another group wandered off to shoot a stalker chasing a woman outdoors. Lastly, one of the more detail-oriented directors set up a studio in the TV area near the cafeteria where two men eventually fight it out with PVC pipes over the remote in the midst of watching V for Vendetta.

5) Tomorrow, students will revise their scripts, draw storyboards, and prepare for next week's shoot. We will try to have most of the principal photography done by Wednesday.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Video production class weblog--Day 3--order restored


1) Yesterday afternoon, one of the students and the technical assistant spent hours trying to get the Pinnacle software to work on the class computer. Somebody ended up bending a prong on one of the connectors, so I figured all was lost, but then he calmly walked down the hall to find a replacement connector. Then they took apart the computer to gingerly pull out a video card. After that, the software finally ran, so with a sense of a massive crisis averted, I could drive home.

2) Today, the class was mercifully free of technical problems, in part because I spent much of the time showing them scenes from movies to help prove my points. When I discussed Hitchcock's theory that reality is full of visual irrelevancies, I showed them the first scene of Rear Window to demonstrate how Alfred used the images of a leg cast, a smashed camera, photographs, and magazines to convey exposition for the rest of the film. The last shoot-out scene of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid demonstrates how one can constantly form compositions in light and color even in the midst of a gun fight. I also would freeze the shot and talk about compositional weights balanced on the wide screen.

3) We were lucky to have a film scholar visit from USC-Columbia, Patrick Nugent, who is in the midst of creating an ambitious 20 minute rotoscope film for his senior project. He showed the class samples from various film and media projects, and then he gave a power point presentation about the need to plan the shoot, write the script, storyboard each shot, arrange for permissions to use locations, get enough coverage, and so on. He used the light saber fighting scene from Stars Wars V to demonstrate the 180 degree rule, and we talked about creative solutions for typical lighting and sound problems in student productions. He said that in a way, the school has already supplied all of the white boards we need for lighting, since we can just reflect the light off of the walls.

4) After lunch, the three groups began brainstorming ideas for their 8-10 minute narrative films. We tried to get them to avoid the classic cliches of younger filmmakers--the alarm clock ring beginning, Pulp Fiction plagiarism, and moping emo adolescent lovelorn feel-sorry-for-me storylines. Then the students began to come up with excessively complicated story ideas that involved jewel thieves, drug dealers, obsessed murderers, stalkers, and zombies. (Contradicting myself, I talked of the need for plausibility, but I would also like one group to make a zombie attack scene.) Tomorrow, they will pitch three story ideas to the rest of the class. I will show them the 25 words or less Hollywood pitch technique from Robert Altman's The Player.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Video production class weblog--Day 2--A comedy of errors


"For the shooter, finding a unique perspective is not easy. It's painful. `You have to suffer!' Ralph bellowed, his voice shaking with passion. `Great photographers have to suffer! Running around with a camera can be fun once in a while, but mostly it's just a lot of suffering.'"

--photographer Ralph Steiner quoted in Barry Braverman's Video Shooter.

1) Day two. The madness continues. I can hear the sound of a man screaming repeatedly due to the students editing a horror scene in the next room.

2) Thus far, I have been showing the class lots of the student videos made last year and the year before. I like to freeze shot compositions on large screen and discuss the poor lighting, the distracting backround, the wrong dominant, problems with automatic focus and exposure on the camcorders, awkward editing, and mediocre music. Since students tend to use music to gloss the sound deficiencies in our equipment, much depends on the songs they choose to set a mood, and sometimes the videos end up looking like little more than glorified music videos. Plausibility and editorial polish often makes the better videos stand out.

3) Otherwise, I brought all of the shooting equipment into the classroom, placed them on several desks, and asked one of the experienced students to show everyone else how to use the JVC camcorders. She placed the camera under the Elmo so we could project her presentation on the class screen. The class also divided up into three groups, with four students in each one. One student works as the director, one the camera person, and another edits and/or acts. I learned that two mounts for tripods had disappeared since last year, so I found myself scrounging around in storage for an unpleasantly long period of time, without finding anything. Then I asked the students to type up an inventory of all of the equipment (even the wheelchair we use for dolly shots), and then e-mail it to me. This afternoon, I will have them all sign the inventory, preferably with blood, in the hopes that that will help them keep better track of equipment during the upcoming shoots.

4) This afternoon, the students went off to shoot practice scenes. One involved a mugging, another a scary door, and the last shows a guy's up and down relationship with a teddy bear. Since then, I have watched one computer's editing software freeze up due to the fancy new camcorder. Also the Pinnacle 12 softwear doesn't work on the computer. In the course of trying to get that to function, someone bent a prong so now the monitor now no longer connects to the main computer. Not being much of a tech wizard, I have mostly looked on and tried to be supportive as people wrestle with cords and machines.

5) When I asked for help, the normally friendly IT administrator gave me a testy look. His assistant may no longer speak to me. Outside, the weather is grey and damp. We are not at all prepared technologically for our guest teacher tomorrow. Wish me luck for tomorrow's class.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Two week video production class weblog--Day 1


1) I mean for these notes to supply a running account of what it's like to teach a two week video production class for smart high school students.
2) Class begins this afternoon at 1:30. I have twelve students signed up, four of which have made movies with me before. I don't teach the class in the usual way because I was never formally trained in video production. The class is a workshop geared around producing two practice videos (one basic one to try out the equipment, the other an action video). And then students pitch ideas for a 8-10 minute short with a treatment, screenplay, and story boards needing approval before they can start shooting.
3) As usual, I don't have the greatest confidence in what I'm doing, in part because creative classes tend to have all kind of unforeseen problems arrive. Last year our Premier software for editing kept freezing up the computers until we switched off to Pinnacle, which worked better. Sometimes whole scenes had to be scrapped and reshot late at night in the cold. We don't have the best sound equipment because budget cuts prevented me from obtaining external microphones and booms. Also, the lighting equipment is mediocre at best--mostly work lamps bought at the local Lowe's. Otherwise, the cameras are decent, JVC digital media cameras with 3ccd lenses, and two students will bring better camcorders to the class.
4) I will spend today discussing the syllabus and acquainting the students with the the classic scene sequence and the principles behind mise en scene. We will also look at previous videos made in the class and discuss their strengths and weaknesses. For those who think the class will be easy, I discuss the ten different ways to mess up a shot.
5) We don't have a studio to work with. Instead, I talk about the benefits of the French New Wave techniques and exterior shots. The weather is currently cloudy and wet. I hope it dries up and gets sunny later this week.
6) Any suggestions?

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Notable film and media links--January 4, 2009


---In That Shakespeheriean Rag, Steven W. Beattie finds that "Reports of the blog's death has been greatly exaggerated":

"In the world of book chat and literary criticism, the avenues for serious discourse are dwindling. Newspapers are cutting back on their books coverage drastically, if not eliminating it outright. (The sole Canadian exception to this distressing trend seems to be the Winnipeg Free Press, which actually increased the volume of book coverage in its pages in 2008.) Long-form criticism does not fly in today’s anti-intellectual, anti-critical environment, but it is precisely this kind of criticism that the writers of literary blogs could potentially excel at. They are not beholden to advertisers or corporate interests, and therefore are freer to avoid the kinds of market-driven pieties that are the scourge of much of the literary mainstream."

---For The New York Times, David Carr notes the difficulty of seeing all of the Oscar contenders this year in "I'm Trying to See All of These Movies. You Want to Talk? Go home." Kudos to Nathaniel R. for getting his Film Experience blog mentioned in the article.

---I always enjoy Dave Thomas' brutally concise previews of coming attractions in FreeWilliamsburg. Here's a sample from his "January 2009 Movie Preview":

"UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS

WHAT'S THE PITCH?
Underworld: Backstory

WILL IT SUCK?
Even though Len Wiseman, who helmed the first two, has moved on to Die Hard and such, he still had a hand in the story and Undervet Danny McBride (not that one) had a hand in the screenplay, so we should see some consistency, for better or worse. One thing I can say is that they're finally focusing on what, for my money, are the series best assets: Bill Nighy and Michael Sheen.

HOW WELL WILL IT DO?
The introduction of Rhona Mitra is only going to make up so much for a lack of Kate Beckinsale. $44mil."

---Invisible Woman interviews director Pete Chatmon about his thoughts for younger filmmakers about whether or not they should go to film school:

"It's not about film school. It's not about talent. It's not about contacts. I have friends who's parents, in my eyes, are like kings and queens and titans of business. But the children don't necessarily achieve on the same level. Now, they may "fail upward", but the dedicated pursuit of a life's goal is not there despite the available contacts. I always say that I am far from the most talented filmmaker, yet there are people I graduated from NYU with who were more talented and still haven't made a feature film. Some may not even be on a directing track anymore.

Personally, I know that I will not allow myself to be out-hustled (from IW-i noticed!), and that doesn't just mean being up late and thinking. That doesn't impress anyone because one you hit 15 years old, staying up late ain't even hard anymore. It's about WHAT you are thinking about when you're up late. Out maneuvering the competition. Pushing yourself creatively."

---As a reader of The New Yorker, I just love posts like Bill Wyman's "Tina Reinvents the Web," which looks more closely at Tina Brown's success at Daily Beast.

---Leslie Bennetts of Vanity Fair profiles Cate Blanchett, and finds she can be quite different off-camera (or perhaps she just doesn't like being interviewed?):

"Most striking of all is an absence of the intense laser-focused charm that stars and politicians turn on and off as if flipping a switch; Blanchett seems to lack their reflexive need to make everyone love them. As an actress, her elastic face provides a blank canvas for a dazzling range of transformations that are facilitated by the egoless state she strives to achieve in the name of “fluidity.” In person, she is willing to sit and answer questions; she is cordial and cooperative; but you have the feeling she might actually be thinking about the weather, and perhaps she’d just as soon be folding laundry."

---Writing for The Dancing Image, Movieman0283 nicely summarized both his best work last year and the best of other bloggers.

---As Aaron Hillis takes over the venerable GreenCine Daily, I found his thoughts about the changes in film criticism interesting:

"I'm of the old chestnut about attracting more flies with honey than vinegar, and though my own tastes are perhaps eclectic, I'm too much of an old-school hippie (minus the smelly armpits) to want any of that inaccessible from the masses. Isn't the "death of film criticism" argument about nobody caring anymore? Perhaps that's because very few are trying to bridge the extremes of the cultural spectrum, and even the so-called gatekeepers and tastemakers are too busy feeling threatened about their words no longer carrying weight to try to remedy the situation. I personally believe The Dark Knight deserved to be as thoroughly dissected and written about as Profit motive and the whispering wind, even if the latter is a tiny little gem that needed the attention more. It's an oversaturated world, and it's impossible to keep up, but there's no reason to alienate those willing to learn, absorb and contribute to the conversation. What's sorely lacking from the film blogosphere is this attempt to expand our base."

---In the illuminating "Behind the Blog series in Film in Focus, Michael Guillen makes some good points about the benefits of blogging:

"The Evening Class has thoroughly enrichened my life and I can only wish for others what my site has done for me. It gave me purpose when I had lost all purpose. It gave me a fulcrum to focus the skills left to my disposal when disability took away so much of what I had known. It introduced me to a global community through not only the films themselves but through those who write on film. Each month my range increases exponentially, more and more opportunities arrive like unexpected gifts, I learn each and every day something new and important about the world, and—most of all—it has allowed me to maintain something I have always believed in: that you must dream in detail and that in the detailed manifestation of a dream, future dreams arise."

---I enjoyed Gus Van Sant's early short film entitled "The Discipline of DE," thanks to Cinematical.

---Lastly, A. O. Scott provided us with a skillful video review of Billy Wilder's immortal The Apartment, but isn't there at spoiler problem here?