Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Notable film and media links--January 27, 2010--iPad media frenzy edition

---Bust magazine examines the male bias of the new iPad promo video. Also, 5 ways the iPad will change magazine design

---Chris Clarke's meta-incendiary blog post

---Serena Bramble's eloquent tribute to Film Noir

---revolutionizing independent film

---Scott Cooper discusses Crazy Heart as the Duplass brothers talk of Cyrus as Andrea Arnold speaks of Fish Tank

---Public Enemys' "By the Time I Get to Arizona"

---advertising on Google Maps street view

---Hitchcock's first film:

"Firsts are fascinating. Records broken. Movements initiated. The first words of a novel or poem. The first film of a major director. "By our ends do we know our beginnings." The child is father to the man. Much is contained in that first movie, be it the extravagance of Welles's Citizen Kane, or the proximal energy of Fuller's I Shot Jesse James. Alfred Hitchcock's first completed feature film, The Pleasure Garden, contains the roots, the vestigial ideas, images, contrasts, and antinomianism of his later films. And the comparison with Joyce is not entirely unorthodox. Hitchcock was in his way a Symbolist, from the beginning inserting into his commercial projects images and ideas influenced by German expressionism and other "experimental" film movements, and he brought human consciousness – the way we think and see – into the cinematic surface."

---future Disney princesses

---the impossible hamster

---Avatar and genocide:

"Avatar, James Cameron’s blockbusting 3-D film, is both profoundly silly and profound. It’s profound because, like most films about aliens, it is a metaphor for contact between different human cultures. But in this case the metaphor is conscious and precise: this is the story of European engagement with the native peoples of the Americas. It’s profoundly silly because engineering a happy ending demands a plot so stupid and predictable that it rips the heart out of the film. The fate of the native Americans is much closer to the story told in another new film, The Road, in which a remnant population flees in terror as it is hunted to extinction.

But this is a story no one wants to hear, because of the challenge it presents to the way we choose to see ourselves. Europe was massively enriched by the genocides in the Americas; the American nations were founded on them. This is a history we cannot accept."

---best online videos of 2009

---Jake reconsiders Public Enemies

---rare photos of the famous (with thanks to MetaFilter)

---the coolest sound ever

---Jonathan Rosenbaum's "Myths of the New Narrative"

---the title sequence of Sherlock Holmes

---Spike Jonze's robot love

---how to disappear from Facebook and Twitter

---Burton's Alice in Wonderland concept art

---young and online:

"The average young American now spends practically every waking minute — except for the time in school — using a smart phone, computer, television or other electronic device, according to a new study from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Those ages 8 to 18 spend more than seven and a half hours a day with such devices, compared with less than six and a half hours five years ago, when the study was last conducted. And that does not count the hour and a half that youths spend texting, or the half-hour they talk on their cellphones.

And because so many of them are multitasking — say, surfing the Internet while listening to music — they pack on average nearly 11 hours of media content into that seven and a half hours."

---blogging the upcoming John Sayles movie

---lastly, A. O. Scott celebrates The Player

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Trouble in Paradise Falls: the Biblical zombie attack of Legion

"And Jesus asked him, saying, `What is thy name?' And he said, `Legion': because many devils were entered into him."--Luke 8:30

If you approach Legion as a demented mashup between a self-conscious B-movie like Slither and John Milton's Paradise Lost, you could maybe enjoy this film until it gets really ludicrous in its last half-hour. For starters, I like Paul Bettany, especially in Wimbledon, and why not have him play a macho angel intent upon saving the very important unborn child of Charlie (Adrienne Palicki) who works as a waitress in a miserable isolated desert diner in Paradise Falls? Much like Schwarzenegger's entrance in the first Terminator, archangel Michael (Bettany) arrives zap in the night city, cuts off his wings with a knife, and then grabs a bunch of AK-47 rifles and machine guns because, as he says, "There's not much time." Then we see a policeman telling his partner about the "goddamn animals" of the night streets who should just "burn," and I was struck by how his little judgmental harangue sounded like something Travis Bickle would say in Taxi Driver.

Legion proposes a world of divine judgment where an Old Testament angry God plans on burning everyone because he's "tired of all the bullshit," but meanwhile, in Miltonic fashion, Michael has decided to defy God (as Satan does in Paradise Lost). Michael chooses to do what he can to keep Charlie's baby alive even though God has already whimsically sent a bunch of zombie-like humans possessed by angels to Paradise Falls (get it?) to kill that baby as fast as possible. Charlie, meanwhile, has a Joseph-like male friend named Jeep (Lucas Black) who wants to raise the child with her even though it is not his, and (small spoiler alert), the baby gets born on approximately Dec. 25. Another more obedient archangel Gabriel (Kevin Durand) calls Michael God's son, so this film appears to contain at least two Christ figures.

After dealing with the cops efficiently, Michael joins the unlucky group in the diner which includes a sulky rebellious teenage daughter and her snotty parents; Kyle Williams (who is lost); Dennis Quaid as the sullen divorcee owner of the diner; and his loyal fry cook (Charles S. Dutton). Everyone in the diner gets grumpy because they can't call anyone on the phone, the TV doesn't convey anything but a test pattern, and there seems to be a large Biblical swarm of CGI flies or angels or something in the distance. A sweet granny shows up and cheerfully tells Charlie that "her baby is gonna burn!" After the old woman bites a man on the neck, Dutton throws a pan at her head, but she proves impervious as she then climbs rapidly up on the ceiling until finally Kyle Williams' character shoots her dead.

By this point, I still liked this movie. I liked the creepy Tastee Freez van that shows up later in the evening as Michael and the guys stand guard the diner's roof, awaiting the apocalypse with a bunch of guns. I like the metaphysical discussions they have. At one point, someone says he doesn't believe in God, and Michael retorts "He doesn't believe in you either." Indeed, the God of Legion seems curiously skeptical, at least when it comes to his inability to believe in humans (who can blame Him?). For awhile He shows a wicked sense of fun when he dangles one character with large boils on his skin upside down on a cross, or arranges for a small demonic (I mean angel-possessed) boy to infiltrate the diner saying "I just want to play with the baby!" When people debate theology with Michael, he looks at them in a bored angelic way and says "I simply don't care what you believe. Something much worse is on the way. God gave an order I didn't believe in. He lost faith and I didn't."

For a kick-ass military angels-with-razor-sharp-wings action flick, Legion does get surprisingly chatty in between attacks. The characters confide things to each other like "Mother thought I was crazy" and "being bad is not good anymore." The teenage girl acknowledges responsibility for her family moving. Charlie confesses to wanting to abort the baby. Dennis Quaid's character cheerfully starts smoking again. Dutton's fry cook character wonders "If today was the last day on earth, would you be proud?" It is as if screenwriter and director Scott Stewart wanted to cram as much characterization as he could between zombified angel attacks.

By the end of the movie, any hope of narrative coherence falls off a cliff, but we do get to see Michael and Gabriel's celestial locker room up in heaven, and there's a bunch more angelic fighting action. I don't see why the other critics are so harsh on the spiritual kick-ass illogic of Legion.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The bibliography of Eli: 10 other books that Eli could carry around

While watching The Book of Eli, I was dismayed to learn that the mysterious book that Eli carries around is kind of obvious--a Bible. It is the MacGuffin of the movie, the chief thing that everyone is interested in. Why not some other piece of writing instead? Here are 10 books that (who knows?) might have worked better:

1) Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul: 101 Stories of Life, Love and Learning by Jack Canfield and others.

Always a good book for cheering up anyone in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

2) The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

Kind of an obvious choice, but Eli might have liked noting the subtle inaccuracies in McCarthy's gloomy prediction of his world. He also might have found it a bit redundant.

3) Fiasco: A History of Hollywood's Iconic Flops by James Robert Parish.

Eli might be especially interested in the public reception of Kevin Costner's The Postman.

4) The Amazon kindle

It holds up to 1500 books and it is lightweight. With most books going for only about 10$ or less on, how could Eli go wrong with that?

5) How to Be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood by William J. Mann

Who better embodied movie stardom than Elizabeth Taylor? One can easily picture Eli chuckling over Mann's account of the worldwide furor caused by Taylor scandalously frolicking around Italy with Richard Burton (even though she was married to Eddie Fisher) as he (Eli) eats rancid cat meat in an abandoned, derelict house with some dead punk who had hanged himself in the closet nearby.

6) Origami from the Heart by Florence Temko

As it says on the back of this book, "Handmade note cards are the perfect way to show the important people in your life how much they matter to you. Whether sent to friends or family, classmates or colleagues, your origami from the heart won't soon be forgotten." Admittedly, Eli doesn't seem to have many friends or family members after a cataclysmic war reduced the earth to a desert wasteland, but who knows? Eli could have sent Carnegie (Gary Oldman) an origami love card, and the sentiment might have prevented untold gunfights between the two. At any rate, if Eli carried Origami from the Heart around in his backpack, Carnegie might have been less inclined to chase after him with his hoodlum posse.

7) Happiness Is a Warm Puppy by Charles Schulz

Charles Schulz's first book. 'Nuff said.

8) The Apocalypse Reader edited by Justin Taylor

Eli would doubtless enjoy stories like "The Last Man" by Adam Nemett and "Earth's Holocaust" by Nathaniel

9) The Dude Abides by Cathleen Fasani

The Book of the Dude, in case Eli wants to learn of the Coen brothers' version of a slacker/religious figure.

10) The Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley

A reminder of Denzel Washington's earlier, better, and less ponderously mythic choice for a starring role.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Germany's Bonnie and Clyde: notes on the terrorist chic of The Baader Meinhof Complex

"Just write about it afterwards. That's all you're good for, anyway."
---Gudrun Ensslin rebuking journalist Ulrike Meinhof

"Despite murdering 34 people, Baader-Meinhof garnered a degree of support from about one-quarter of the West German population. Accepted if not always admired by guilt-ridden liberals, who saw its panache as a countercultural critique of West Germany’s boring bourgeois life and its association with the American war in Vietnam, Baader-Meinhof carefully cultivated an outlaw image. It wholesaled the ideal of authenticity—of acting out one’s impulses, even when murderous—in order to break through the fascism of convention, just as its heroes abroad, such as Che Guevara, broke through the iron wall of America imperialism. Drawing on its New Left counterparts in the United States, it borrowed such phrases as “burn baby burn,” “right on,” and “off the pigs.”
---from Fred Siegel's "The Romance of Evil" in City Journal

1) Chronicling the 10 year (1967-1977) exploits of the West German militant group Rote Armee Fraktion (Red Army Faction), The Baader Meinhof Complex reminded me a little of Scorsese's Goodfellas with its fidelity to a lengthy, over-crammed violent story based on real life (or in this case Stephen Aust's biography of the group). It also struck me as very much working in the same ambivalent vein as Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Both works invite the viewer to identify with young, good-looking, free-wheeling protagonists in revolt against the system, and then each film's mood darkens as their criminality catches up with them. The Baader-Meinhof group mostly consists of the sociopathic but charismatic Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu, who I last saw in Run, Lola Run), journalist Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck), who might've joined the group because her husband fooled around on her, and lastly Gudrun Ennslin (Johanna Wokalek). After initially blowing up part of a department store in protest of the German establishment's support of the Vietnam war, the RAF become increasingly radicalized as they rob banks, assassinate their enemies, and suffer the cat-and-mouse persecution of the head of the German police force, Horst Herold (played by a sympathetic Bruno Ganz).

2) How does the movie resemble Bonnie and Clyde? At one point, Andreas gets fed up with training in an extremist Palestinian camp and yells out "We are urban guerrillas! We want to rob banks!" In another scene, while joy-riding around on the highway, Andreas hands a gun to a younger cohort and encourages him to shoot wildly out the window as they laugh. I kept being reminded of Pauline Kael's review of Godard's Breathless when she wrote: "The characters of Breathless are casual, carefree moral idiots. . . . And that's what's frightening about Breathless: not only are the characters familiar in an exciting revealing way, they are terribly attractive." Dressed in go-go boots and miniskirts, Gudrun and Ulrike revel in their audacity, their ability to act, even if their ideology leads them quickly to murder and imprisonment. At one point, Gudrun points out that in America all one can do is shop and eat, but her group can do more. There's a romantic ferocity in their belief in armed struggle.

3) And, as in Bonnie and Clyde, the film does a good job of exploring the downside of violent revolt. Just as Clyde's brother Buck gets shot in the head and suffers for hours before dying, so do we see Communist student leader Rudi Dutschke shot twice in the face before he takes off his shoes, talks of needing a haircut, and walks around before passing out. After some subtly ironic moments of payback (in Italy, Andreas rages against his car getting stolen after he persuades another man to steal a woman's wallet), the leaders of the RAF end up in solitary confinement in jail rather quickly. Much of the latter half of the film consists of younger members of the RAF committing crimes as the frustrated and bewildered original trio listen about it on the radio in prison. Another member dies from a hunger strike. Intriguingly, as time goes on, the basic allure of the organization does not die down. There were always younger members willing to carry on the radical agenda.

4) The Baader Meinhof Complex retains its ambiguities not in terms of the sickly attractiveness of gangsters, but also in its love/hate relationship with American culture. Just as in Godard's Masculin, feminin, the characters drink Coca-Cola and dance to rock and roll as they denounce American imperialism. When one watches the preview for Complex, one finds that the RAF's brand of hyper-violence fits right in with today's jaded viewing audience, who won't understand the politics involved, but will like the gunfire, the sunglasses, the fist-pumps in the air, and all of the rest of the coded gestures of youthful revolt. In the trailer, the words "Villains, victims, icons?" flash on the screen. One thing's for sure: the RAF looks good in a movie.

Some links:

"Tragedy, Terrorism, and Glamor: A Review of The Baader-Meinhof Complex"
Christopher Hitchens' review in Vanity Fair
Fionnuala Halligan's article in Screen
Manohla Dargis' review in The New York Times
David Cox writing for The Guardian

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Notable film and media links--January 17, 2010

---Paul Morley's interview with Brian Eno

---the weaknesses of the vampire genre

---the new world of D.I.Y. film distribution (with thanks to Chuck Tryon):

"If the D.I.Y. drumbeat has grown louder in recent years, it’s not only because the major studios have backed away from the independent sector. That’s a factor, but there are other issues involved, among them that the economic barriers to filmmaking have never been lower. Martin Scorsese once said that John Cassavetes’s first feature, “Shadows,” shot in the late 1950s with a 16-millimeter camera, proved to filmmakers that there were “no more excuses,” adding, “If he could do it, so could we!” Still, even in the glory years of the new American cinema movement, from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, when the major studios appeared more open to original voices, Cassavetes had to self-distribute his 1974 masterpiece “A Woman Under the Influence,” which he did successfully, pulling in $6 million domestically.

Inexpensive digital cameras and editing software have lowered the barrier for filmmakers even further. Yet even as the means of production have entered into more hands, companies — large and small — continue to dominate distribution. Hollywood’s historical hold on resources and the terms of the conversation have made it difficult for an authentic alternative system to take root in America. The festival circuit has emerged as a de facto distribution stream for many filmmakers, yet the ad hoc world of festivals is not a substitute for real distribution. And then there’s the simple fact that there are independent filmmakers who do not fit inside the Hollywood (and Hollywood-style) distribution model and do not want to. For some stubborn independents D.I.Y. distribution has at times been either the best or only option.

In 1992, the year before Disney bought Miramax Films, thereby initiating the indie gold rush, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky became a model for true independence when they distributed their own documentary “Brother’s Keeper” (1992) to substantial critical and commercial success. In the years since, those entering self-distribution have included emerging talent like Andrew Bujalski (who initially sold DVDs of his 2005 film “Mutual Appreciation” online) and established filmmakers like David Lynch (who released his 2006 movie “Inland Empire” in theaters himself). As self-distributed movies have found levels of critical or commercial success or even both, others have followed, including “The Talent Given Us,” “Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037,” “Ballast,” “Helvetica” and“Good Dick.”

---on filtering as the most important skill on the internet

---Lemonade and stories of those who have been laid-off

---historians and Google

---scamming the Ivy League

---This Is Where We Live: a video in celebration of books

---Gary King supplies tips for guerrilla filmmakers. Also, guerrilla marketing

---Flintstones smoking

---Jeff Keen's experimental films:

"Gazwrx surveys the 50-year – that’s right, 50-year – career of British artist and filmmaker Jeff Keen, and is essential viewing for anyone with even a passing interest in the history of experimental film and video. Keen’s films – from his first 8mm work Wail, made in 1960, to recent films such as Joy Thru Film (c. 2000) andOmozap Terribelis + Afterblatz 2 (2002) – are high-voltage visual shocks, eruptions of pulp imagery, eroticism, violence, language games, uncensored imagination and sheer giddy exuberance. His early films are love-letters to cinema history: to silent film and B-movies, to slapstick, thrillers, exploitation flicks and sci-fi apocalypses, his later works disquieting parades of video news imagery and documentation of his own creative processes. Frankenstein and Godzilla share the screen with Keen’s own cast of heroes and villains such Motler the Word Killer, Dr Gaz, Silverhead, Omozap and Mothman (often played by friends and family). Edited into machine-gun sprays of imagery, Keen’s pedal-to-the-metal, high-speed films are like animated collages – action painting with the stress very much on action. (‘If words fail use your teeth’, as an inter-title in one of his films declares.) In an interview from 1983 included on Gazwrx …, Keen argues how his fast cutting technique emphasizes the brutal way in which film works – the claw of the projector dragging the film through the gate, 24 frames per second, rapidly devouring and spewing images – although, as he also wryly puts it, ‘speed is relative, you know?’"

---Wes Anderson's acceptance speech in stop motion

---behind the scenes of the sinister Facebook command center

---the upcoming changes of corporate websites

---digital dissidents in China

---intriguing film of the moment: Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank (a related interview with Michael Fassbender)

---the right to link

---Film Studies for Free's tribute to Eric Rohmer

---lastly, the upcoming changes in augmented reality

Saturday, January 16, 2010

2010 video production class weblog--10 lessons learned

"What part of the film production did you like the most?"

"The part when you died."
--from a video interview for the making-of featurette

1) The number one sin of any video production: impatience, especially during the shoot.

2) When you sit down to edit, there never seems to be enough coverage.

3) Beware of trying to make any major decisions (such as choosing music for scenes) democratically in groups.

4) Beware of updating your editing software right before the production begins. We were plagued with problems with the Pinnacle 12 software when the 11 probably would've worked fine.

5) It is more fun to market a film than to edit it. One student found this website and made a decent movie poster in less than an hour. Another student edited two trailers for the unfinished movie and quickly distributed them on YouTube. Given all of the hype, it seems almost a shame to show the actual finished video. One wonders how often the studio executives behind major releases have the same tendencies.

6) Once editing began, I found it difficult to distribute labor fairly in a class. One student knew how to use Final Cut Pro on his MacBook, and so he ended up doing most of the work editing the big project while others edited a blooper reel, a making-of featurette, trailers, a video promoting the class, etc. We will owe that one MacBook student much for the success of the class.

7) Sometimes it is better to not be filmed. The Native American Crazy Horse, for example, never allowed himself to be photographed because of beliefs that the photographer steals one's soul with the taking of the picture. One thinks of Barzini and Sonny Corleone rejecting photographers during the wedding scene of The Godfather. Perhaps that is part of The Godfather's greatness: power manifesting itself as the refusal to be photographed.

8) It is hard to keep the finished film in mind when you are wrapped up in the minutiae of the production. Every small creative decision involved in the writing, storyboarding, acting, costuming, set designing, shooting, reshooting, and editing matters in determining the quality of the finished product.

9) Google will answer any question one has during the production.

10) Given the technology available both for video production and distribution, there's less reason than ever for talented young movie makers to not make an impression in the industry.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Video production class--day seven and eight--high definition roadkill

"That's not blood. It's just red."
---Jean-Luc Godard

1) How does one shoot a scene where a young man stumbles out of a house at night and gets run over by a van? After a long day of shooting tracking shots of soccer players running (using my car) and a chase scene through the hallways of the school, we loaded up the cast and crew in a van and drove across town to the house of a student whose family was kind enough to let us use the premises. I learned en route that a millionaire lived across the street who might call the cops on us if he sees a body lying on the street. Once there, at about five pm, with the light of the cold overcast day dimming fast, we videotaped Kyle in his pajamas repeatedly stumbling out the front door and gradually working his way towards the street.

Then we parked the van past the "accident" and asked Kyle to lie on the asphalt face down with one arm twisted sideways and not move. Over and over again, the driver stepped out of the van in horror, leaving the door open with the beeping warning sound supplying the only sound, and he would check for Kyle's pulse and step back, aghast, before finding the mysterious photo underfoot. As the director and the cameraman positioned the camera from various angles around the body, a car would appear down the street, and hesitate. Perhaps the driver wondered about this body lying there in the middle of the road with a bunch of cold students standing around it grinning. We had several self-conscious awkward moments like that until we could persuade the drivers to drive on by, with us shielding Kyle's body in the process. At one point, the millionaire did appear when we needed to shoot a take from the front of his lawn, but he proved nice enough and didn't mind. Afterwards, the family of the student graciously invited us in from the cold to eat some rice krispy cakes and peanut butter clusters in their home. After shooting one last take of Kyle stumbling down a hallway in his sleep-walking delirium, we finished for the day.

2) Today, the class began the switch into editing mode. I shared with them the scene in Donnie Darko where Darko's girlfriend Gretchen gets run over, just by way of example, then we discussed different basic editing concepts like classical cutting, master shot, sequence shot, cutting to continuity, matching on action, and such. Given that one student has much of the main footage on his MacBook, I was concerned about him having to do the lion's share of the editing once the principal photography ended, so we divided up the class into groups--one will help the editor, the others will fashion a trailer for the film, a making-of featurette, a short music video promoting the class, and a blooper reel. We also spent some time listening to various possible songs for the soundtrack off of one of the computers (mostly using YouTube), and it proved very difficult for the class to agree on a song. For the chase scene, for instance, we tried out "On the Run" by Pink Floyd (too psychedelic), the music for the parkour chase scene in Luc Besson's District 13 (too techno, a frequent complaint), Def Leppard's "Photograph" (bleh), and the theme song from The Exorcist (too well-known). I confessed to the class that any song by Coldplay makes me break out in hives. We may end up using songs by Radiohead and Muse. The director also decided to wait for a rough cut before matching more songs to certain scenes.

3) By the afternoon, we shot a brief classroom scene that kept being interrupted by piano and trumpet playing nearby. Then we watched of the raw footage of the past few days, and while much of it was fine, I was dismayed by the little mistakes that kept sneaking into takes (the corpse blinking, people looking at the camera, shaky pseudo-steadicam shots, awkward compositions, etc.). Given the set-up of the class, the limited amount of time to shoot, and the aleatory conditions around us at any given moment, it is very hard to not get impatient, to not rush the next shot, and we pay every time there's a small mistake magnified in the camera lens. It's frustrating to see all of the imperfections in spite of all of everyone's best efforts to avoid them. Then again, we have time to reshoot, edit, and polish for the next few days.

4) Lastly, we worked on a title. I've heard that Woody Allen comes up with his titles last in the process of making his films, but we need one sooner so we can incorporate it into all of the extensive DVD extras and featurettes. Students came up with Their Eyes Were Watching Kyle, Collision, The Lady and the Laughter, End of the Night, A Lesson in Obsession, Ms. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Obsessing and Love the Laughter (a popular favorite to be used for the blooper reel), Fixation, Fetish, The Most Dangerous Photo, Mania, The Sound and the Photo, To Love a Picture, Citizen Kyle, Kyle's Road Trip, There Will Be Roadkill, Avatar 2, and Follow the Laughter. We finally settled on Third Night for now.

Tomorrow, the class will begin to piece all of this fragmented footage together.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Video production class--day six--the long day's shoot

1) Today we spent much of the day shooting, and, frankly, I don't have any idea if the shots we took are any good. First, I demonstrated to the class the principle of not violating the 180 degree line. Then we glanced at some roughly sketched storyboards of the scenes we planned on shooting. The sloppiness of the drawings called attention to a weakness in my method, perhaps, because I could have insisted on highly polished storyboards before we started. I also could have further micromanaged every scene that we shot, but instead I let the director set the tone for the morning's shoot, and he proved relatively easy-going and willing to improvise instead of obsessively mapping everything out in advance. (Note: this post makes more sense if you read the story idea posted on day four).

2) Soon enough, we were out in the freezing cold morning at the front of the school building, watching as the lead "Kyle" ran past repeatedly as the cameraman tried his best to keep him within the frame while panning. I noticed that while all of the girls wore hats and gloves and thick coats, the guys tended to not do so. Kyle mentioned that he had developed a cough recently, but he couldn't be bothered to wear anything more than a thin jacket. After a few entrances through the front door, the receptionist kindly told us to stop letting in so much cold air into her work area, and we apologized.

3) Later, we shot one of the climactic scenes in a lounge area. Here's the script for the scene:

"Scene begins in the area between Bill and Hendrick’s offices. Kyle and Alison are sitting in adjacent chairs. Kyle is tired, attempting to sleep with arms crossed. Alison is texting, she finishes her message and puts her phone down. Looking for something to do, she reaches for a magazine in front of them. Kyle stirs awake and notices her hand near the photo in his binder. He springs up and grabs her arm.

Alison: *doesn’t know what to do, pushes his arm away*: What’s wrong with you?

Kyle: Don’t. Touch it.

Alison: Touch what? That stupid picture? Pause. You don’t talk to me, your teammates, or your parents. You spend all day looking for her.

Alison: *sighs* Get over it. It’s just a picture

Kyle: looks up at Alison in the eye No. I just need time to find her; I just need some more time.

Alison: What if you can’t ever find her?. You are wasting your life being in love with her…Is this even love? It’s a one-sided obsession.

Kyle: stands up and kicks his chair away This is none of your business. Begins to gather stuff.

Alison: stands up too takes off and storms to the door, before she leaves I’m just looking out for you. If that’s too much, I’m done. She leaves.

Kyle: stands alone as scene fades to black."

Both the director and the cameraman/cinematographer wanted to shoot this scene in bits and pieces and edit it altogether, but I insisted that they try to make a master shot in case something went wrong. As the morning went on, and Kyle repeatedly threw a pile of magazines on the floor (a substitute for the kicked chair), I could sense that the crew was gradually developing some teamwork and flexibility. I especially liked the last shot, when Kyle stared blankly and uncertainly at Alison as she walks away. We darkened the shot by having the light dim on him gradually (moving the reflector away from the work lamp), and everyone was impressed by Kyle's acting, although he insisted that he was trying to look as blank as possible.

4) By the afternoon, we were lucky in that the art teacher loaned out her class to us as extras, so we shot a bunch of takes of the mysterious girl walking away in a crowd of students as Kyle chases after her, just to lose her as she turns down the physics hallway. I enjoy helping a class boss around a docile bunch of extras. When one student asked me what they should talk about, I said "Rutabaga, rutabaga." Later, she asked what a rutabaga was, I said "a vegetable," and she said "I knew it!" Later, I overheard her speaking of "salted rutabagas," and "rutabagas boiled in cream" as she moved with her group in formation. Eventually, we shot Kyle forcing his way through the crowd, with Alison more politely following after him. I suggested that we let the chase go on throughout the school, and the director was against the idea, so tomorrow I will try to persuade them to by showing the class a scene in Cocteau's Orphee when the Princess Death (the delightful Maria Casares) keeps evading Orphee by disappearing around a corner.

5) Lastly, we looked a the dailies over the cameraman's shoulder on his Mac laptop. They looked alright, but we'll know more when we project them on the big screen. Tomorrow, we will shoot the opening soccer sequence, a scene in a classroom, and a night scene in which our hero Kyle sleepwalks out into the night and gets run over by a van in his pajamas. If anyone reading this has any tips for effectively running someone over cinematically, please let me know. I will bring ketchup.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Notable film and media links--January 10, 2010

---The fine art of Google Street View

---What is the effect of the internet on the way we think? Madeleine Bunting questions the increasingly commercialized "telemediation" of our attention. Also, Jaron Lanier is skeptical of the internet "hive mind."

---At least YouTube can assist skeptics

---Tamper: one possible future of film editing

---How not to write about Africa

---Mark Zuckerberg rationalizes why Facebook took away its users' privacy

---Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard converse about Crash

---For Wired, Alan Moore celebrates the underground aesthetic of Dodgem Logic:

"Moore: I would like to think that in our present time, not just in comics but in almost every form of the arts, I think that creative expression is within the reach of more people that it ever has been. Now, that is not to say that there are more people with something to say than there ever have been before. But I would like to see a situation where people finally got fed up with celebrity culture. Where people started this great democratic process in the arts where more and more people were just producing individually according to their own wants or needs.

It is possible in this day and age to make very low-budget films, using technology that the pioneers of cinema would have killed for that is relatively cheaply available down at your local electronics store. The means of making music or art are more in the hands of the people than they ever have been before. I think it would be great to see an end to the big entertainment companies in whatever industry, whether it be music, cinema or comic books.

I’d like to see people actually get angry about the quality of the material that they are having shoved down their throats. It can’t be good for us. And I would like to see people responding to that by basically following the old maxim that if you want a job done right you do it yourself.

And this could not apply only to the arts but also politics. In the 21st century, if you see some situation you are not happy with, it’s probably not the best idea to vote for somebody who tells you that they are going to do something about that situation if elected, because frankly they’re not. Historically, they never do. If there is something that genuinely upsets you, don’t vote for somebody who tells you that they are going to fix it. Try and fix it yourself; that’s the only way it is going to get fixed.

And it doesn’t matter if it’s on the other side of the world. This, I think, is the face of politics in the 21st century. And the face of art, and probably of spirituality and everything: It is down to the individual. If individuals do not like the world that we happen to be living in — and who could blame them? — then I suggest it is up to them to change it."


---Patricia Highsmith's thoughts on art. I also recommend The Talented Miss Highsmith by Joan Schenkar.

---the bibliography for our digital decade

---3-D's quest to move beyond gimmicks

---Movieman0283's massive tribute to last year's film blogging

---Lastly, the dangers of a high school Peter Pan production.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Video production class weblog--day five--losing focus

1) After determining that no one had vanished last night, I started off the morning showing the class the making-of documentary of Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation, noting her problems with starring in Godfather 3 after Winona Ryder backed out at the last second. I then used the Elmo to project various pages from Barry Braverman's Video Shooter: Storytelling with DV, HD, and HDV Cameras on to the screen. He points out that you must exclude, exclude, exclude when composing a shot, cutting out all visual irrelevancies. He recommends using lots of close-ups, which leaves me wondering if perhaps we've become too influenced by television. I mentioned that in the course of film's history, editing has picked up speed as audiences have become more visually used to it. Also, directors in the 1930s and 40s would sometimes take a long time to get around to a close-up, and then only for emotional emphasis (as in Bringing Up Baby). We also talked about triangular composition for shots, the problem with the automatic exposure setting, the need to give the actor adequate headroom, and Braverman's recommendation that we strive to not rely on medium eye-level shots. Instead we should shoot from very low (getting our knees dirty), or very high to mix things up.

2) In my classroom, I go back and forth between an Elmo, a computer, and a DVD player all connected to an overhead projector. Once the class finished a draft of their movie treatment, the director e-mailed it to me, and we projected it on a large screen and the entire group workshopped the draft scene by scene (see the story idea in the last post) as the director revised it on the computer. I was struck by how much more complicated the treatment was than the original idea, with lots of extra scenes that we immediately starting cutting. Also, much of the dialogue was very pedestrian and relentlessly focused on the plot, so I recommended that we try to make the dialogue a little more natural by asking the students what would they use as an ice-breaker for conversation? Someone recommended that the character say "How about them blue smurf-dudes in Avatar?" I explained to the class how to shoot a chase scene, and how to create a dominant in a group scene by having one character move as the others don't. Eventually, we agreed upon a improved draft and took a break for lunch.

3) After lunch, the director wrote down on the white board various times from Monday through Friday of next week, and we all figured out a shooting schedule and locations--a soccer field, a school hallway, a classroom, a bedroom for the night scenes, someone's house for another hallway scene, and the exterior morning footage of the hero Kyle getting killed by a van. We left in an entire day (Wed.) for reshooting scenes that didn't work. We also learned that the Pinnacle 12 software on the class computers stopped burning DVDs correctly, so I walked over and asked the extremely busy IT people if they could look at them (they said they would, later). In the meantime, the students felt inclined to do all of their editing on iMovie using one of the student's Mac laptop, since that's the only one that fully works thus far.

4) Lastly, I explained the basic principles of three-point lighting, and we shot a practice scene in a lounge nearby. We quickly discovered that a) most of the brand new lights didn't work, and it took me awhile to find the directions on how to fix them in various packing materials under a desk, b) other students kept walking by, making noise and disrupting things, or a professor started talking on the phone in his office, c) the choreography of the scene was difficult to figure out, since Kyle was supposed to grab Alison's arm when she touched the photo when he was sort of asleep in a chair, and d) Alison kept forgetting her lines. In all, there seemed to be millions of ways of mucking up this scene. For instance, how does one position the camera when Alison stands up in exasperation. Do we use a matching action cut, or tilt the camera, or leave way too much headroom to give her space to stand in the shot? Truly, we have our work cut out for us next week.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Video production class weblog--day four--disappearing act

1) Out of a class of ten students, one disappeared last week due to a sudden case of appendicitis, and then today two more guys vanished today due to some mysterious, regrettable incident that I'm not at liberty to talk about (it did involve some activity they were engaged in at midnight last night). Suddenly, one of the two groups had shrunk to 3 students--not really enough for a cast and crew, so we decided to have both groups merge together.

2) So now this video production class seems a bit doomed, but the remaining 7 students regrouped quickly and came up with a whole new movie idea:

a) Sitting, bored, during physics class, a young man notices a photograph blowing around on the parking lot outside the window. After class, he takes the photo which depicts a pretty woman smiling and holding two fingers in the air. He keeps it, and later that night he hears a tapping on the window by his bed, and for some odd reason he wonders if it is her. Then, the next night, he again hears the tapping, this time coupled with the sound of light female laughter. Gradually, he becomes obsessed with the girl in the photo, and sometimes he thinks he sees her in the distance amongst crowds during school, but she always vanishes when he tries to follow her. His friend grows concerned about him as he gets more obsessed, but he ignores her. He starts to ignore everyone, his studies, hobbies, sports, etc., in his growing monomania. Finally, one night, he hears the tapping on the window, and then the sound of the laughter out in the hallway. He sleepily follows the laughter outside to the front of the yard, and then on to the road. A large truck runs him over, killing him instantly. The driver of the truck gets out and examines his body, but then notices a photo on the road. He picks up the photo, and sees a young woman smiling and holding up three fingers of one hand.

3) The student who came up with this narrative said that he found it somewhere on the internet. Perhaps it is an urban legend? At any rate, that's the last big film project we will work on. The students will write up a treatment tonight, and we will revise, story-board, and perhaps start shooting it tomorrow. They will also work on another action scene for fun--perhaps a shoot-out using prop guns and fire crackers, aside from editing the zombie and promotional videos. We will see if all 7 students appear at 8:30 tomorrow morning.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The 2010 video production class weblog--day three--the zombie insurgency

"Unmanipulated reality is filled with irrelevancies."
--Alfred Hitchcock

"I also have always liked the monster within idea. I like the zombies being us. Zombies are the blue-collar monsters."
--George A. Romero

1) Compared to yesterday, today's class went relatively serenely. I asked the students to take inventory of all of the equipment in the class as they continued to edit yesterday's videos and brainstorm ideas for their big 10 minute projects. The class now has two distinct groups named Sad Kitten Studios (a name which resembles last year's Kitty Wagon Studios, a reference to Kill Bill), and Afterglow Productions. The Afterglow gang finished their Cereal Boy opus, showed off the DVD version to generally good reviews, and then retired to a small classroom near my office.

2) For much of the morning, I walked back and forth between the two groups and tried to give constructive advice for their story ideas. After yesterday's practice videos either failed to show the heads of the female characters or used them as props to fight over, I recommended that both groups try to incorporate more women in the lead roles. One writer insisted that he had a compelling vision of a story about a popular guy who failed to ever learn to tie his shoes. The Afterglowers considered throwing a zombie attack into a scene involving a mugging of a couple making out on the edge of a lake, but they never fleshed out the zombie idea.

3) Finally, by 11:15, each group pitched three story ideas to the rest of the class. We tentatively settled on these:

a) a story that involves a woman infiltrating an illegal gang of technology-dealers with an unreliable sidekick. After a chase scene involving gunplay, she eventually kills the leader of the organization and takes over. Her transformation into gang leader should resemble the changeover Michael Corleone experiences in The Godfather (all in 10 minutes). Much of that movie will perhaps take place in alleys, abandoned buildings, and a furniture warehouse.

b) another narrative in which a woman gets placed in jail/insane asylum for vandalizing a car. In an attempt to save the said woman, her friend arranges to get arrested to try to get into the jail/asylum and set her friend free. So she shoplifts and commits various other crimes, but nothing works. Finally, in despair, she tries jaywalking, and immediately gets arrested. Her plan does not succeed, because her friend gets freed just when she enters the jail/asylum. The movie ends ironically with both passing each other in the hallway.

4) After lunch, we shot some practice footage in a new wing of the school building. One student kindly agreed to wear a coat and tie and sit still as two of the girls placed dark eye shadow around his eyes with glitter, and black and red lipstick all around his mouth, chin, and neck to make him look properly zombie-like (although they said his chin looked like a watermelon). I showed him how to walk like a zombie, and he picked it up without much trouble. Then, as we toured the classrooms and hallways of the wing, two students took promotional footage of the rooms (mostly panning shots on a tripod), as the other crew filmed a dingbat reporter raving over all of the wonders of the building local-news-style ("Look at this beautiful wooden cabinet that killed off so many trees!") before being attacked by the zombie. At one time, he followed her in circles around a large room with a microphone pulling the cameraman on a wheelchair (for a dolly shot, and me and the crew dodging to stay out of the shot). Eventually, in the last scene, we set up one camera to videotape the videotaping of the scene for meta-cinematic purposes. Then we arranged for the reporter to brag about her success on a cell phone before being attacked and finally killed by the zombie. The zombie then turns on the cameraman, kills him, and then grabs the camera, groaning wildly, and then films himself as he attacks several other guys who happen to be in the women's bathroom.

5) All in all, a satisfactory day. Tomorrow, the two groups will edit today's footage. They will also write, revise, and begin drawing the story-boards for the larger videos.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The 2010 video production class weblog--day two--the derangement kicks in

1) That didn't take long. Already, on day two of this interim class, I'm already strung out from 7 1/2 hours of beginning video production (with breaks). The classroom is already a technological mess sprawling with extension cords, filmmaking books, batteries, memory cards, cameras, monitors, computers, carrying cases, and DVDs. For some bizarre reason, plantar fasciitis has kicked in my left heel, so I've been limping around the local Hobby Lobby and Lowes for last second supplies, but anyway...

2) This morning I tried to get my assistant to put together an inventory of all of the equipment, but that never got anywhere because we spent much of the time watching more sample student videos from previous years (this is my fourth). I especially like the one called The Happening in which the entire school body suddenly passes out for no reason, and only one nerdy female student wanders around the Twilight Zone scene in a daze, with Mozart's Requiem emphasizing the massive Jonestown suicide-feel of the scene, until everyone just as inexplicably wakes up and suddenly starts treating her like the most popular girl in school. She accepts the new boyfriend, friends, everything, because the point of the movie is that students will do anything, even not question the massive derangement of the entire school, just to be socially accepted. Once again, I freeze-framed shots that had problems with exposure, automatic focus, awkward editing, etc., and discussed them. Two alumnae from last year's class showed up and gave guided tours through their videos, and talked of the importance of story-boarding, for instance, to help with knowing how to shoot videos out of sequence, the need to not place people in the shot so that it cuts across their joints (elbows, necks, knees) because that causes the audience to wince subconsciously. I talked about how you need to keep in mind the symbolic properties of where you place people in the shot. If their heads are way low, then they seem to be about to disappear into nothingness. If they appear on the edges of the shot, then they appear insignificant, and so on.

3) One student showed off this video entitled White Red Panic as a model short.

4) The class perked up when I handed out the cameras and told each group to go shoot a short practice scene around campus. One group made a "tough" duel between two guys over a pool game, set to a rap beat. The other gang of four students shot a brief vignette entitled "Cereal Boy" in the cafeteria. Beginning with a grim munching sound over the opening credits, Cereal Boy can only eat Cocoa Krispies in a stupor as various people try to snap him out of it--pushing books, an apple, a soccer ball, or themselves in his face--but he just keeps on eating more and more cereal. The movie is a kind of grim statement about addictive consumerism, I think. Then, both groups returned to the classroom to start editing their shots into a scene. The two alumnae and I tried to give everyone tips about editing, but they didn't seem to be listening much. They have Pinnacle 12 software to play with, after all.

5) Other highlights of the day include: rummaging through my storage closet to find three-year-old dried miso soup in plastic bowls, fake plastic ice (for drama class), bamboo decorations for fund-raising events, but not a battery-charging device that got lost a some point last year (hence the need for an inventory). Much of the lighting equipment lay in bits and pieces, scattered around, so I bought two new work lamps at Lowes, and another white board for lighting at my favorite place--Hobby Lobby!!--where one can look at posters of green floral bricks and such-like bric-a-brac. Two guys who were inexplicably wearing rubber-band earrings as they shopped for all of their arts and crafts needs. I always get creeped out by the whole idea of Hobby Lobby.

6) Tomorrow, the students will pitch story ideas for longer videos, and they will film the interiors of some new classroom buildings and a gym for the first time. They would like to incorporate a zombie, somehow, into a local news report format.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The new 2010 two week video production class weblog--day one

1) For the second year, I will try to keep up a daily account of my trials and torments while teaching a two-week video production class.

2) This year's class has ten students. We met this afternoon to look at several finished 10 minute videos from previous years' classes, videos that ranged from the sad story of a young man who drops his yoyo at a talent show to the romantic entanglements of two jewel thieves at a local museum. I also showed the class a YouTube clip of Fede Alvarez's Panic Attack, a $300 short film that quickly garnered him an offer to direct a $30 million Hollywood movie. We discussed how DIY films like Paranormal Activity have reshaped the filmmaking landscape recently, how, thanks to cheap new distribution methods (like YouTube), students have more capability than ever to get their short films watched, and thereby get a possible toehold in the movie industry.

3) In the midst of showing the previous student movies, I talked of all of the classic problems with shooting and crafting a 5 to 10 minute video. I still don't have the greatest sound system, because I've never bought one and the school has never shown much interest in financing one in today's penny-pinching academic climate. We have four cameras for two groups, so the students may use one camera to record sound in the distance while filming with another. But this does raise a question:

Can anyone reading this blog recommend a good sound-recording system for a video production class? One that is relatively cheap? One than can work with Pinnacle 12 editing software? A good boom microphone and such?

4) I also talked about problems previous students encountered with wind, fluorescent lighting, crappy shot composition, distracting things in the distance of a shot interfering with the dominant, automatic exposure issues, poorly written stories, bad acting, mistakes in the mise-en-scene such as accidentally leaving a tripod in the background, jump cuts (although I did extol the cheap virtues of French new wave techniques), automatic focus problems, and on and on. The students sat there politely and listened, trying not to yawn. For homework, they need to think of the groups they will form by first thing tomorrow morning, each group including a director, several actors, a camera person, an editor, a writer, and someone to draw the story-boards.

5) On the plus side, last year the class ended up shooting scenes in a local Belks, a gas station, a coffee shop, a local museum's basement, and a private residence by a lake. One student asked the police if she could borrow an officer for a scene, and the police said sure. What kind of officer would she like? So, the opportunities for more cool locations await us now. A church? The police station? A graveyard? Perhaps a hospital for some Shutter Island-type scenes?

5) Otherwise, things seem suspiciously easy thus far this year, although I've already annoyed the IT staff by asking them to move and prepare the editing computers at the last second. The weather thus far has been sunny but very cold.

6) I also mentioned that years now I've been interested in one group seriously making a zombie film, and they showed interest. Perhaps this year will be the ONE?!?

Saturday, January 2, 2010

"How much does your life weigh?": the vicious pleasures of Jason Reitman's Up in the Air, starring George Clooney

Up in the Air begins much like The Godfather, only instead of an undertaker pleading for justice before Marlon Brando, here a man pleads for his job. Fixed like an insect under the lens of the camera, he talks of his "30 years of service" and how get fired brings on a stress level equivalent to a death in the family, but it is no use. As corporate downsizing expert Ryan Bingham, George Clooney coolly tells the man to "review this packet," and sends him on his way. Ryan plays an agent of judgment of the recession, the man who gets paid to fire people so that the local management does not have to, and he has found a way to enjoy the world of airports and perpetual flight. Like a blend between Huckleberry Finn and Patrick Bateman, Ryan revels in a frictionless cold world of high-level credit cards, VIP passes, Hyatt suites, expertly packed carry-on luggage, and first class seats. His character reminded me of Michael Clayton in the way he uses his charm to do the dirty work for faceless firms, but whereas Michael Clayton remained ice cold in its depiction of the poisonous atmosphere of cut-throat corporate villainy ironically juxtaposed with the deceit of its public relations machinery, Up in the Air, as adapted to the screen by Jason Reitman from the 2001 novel by Walter Kirn, actually considers reforming Ryan Bingham. And that was my one major problem with this otherwise enjoyable film (aside from the increasingly grating jingly The Graduate-esque pop guitar soundtrack). Instead of staying a gleeful snake all of the way through, Ryan considers accepting the responsibility of a family life, of human connections.

Meanwhile, I read much of Walter Kirn's novel, and found its Thank You for Smoking-like satirical tone pleasurable, but it is also surprisingly different from the movie. While Reitman took the major character and his "Airworld" intact from the book, the movie adds on Natalie Keener (23 year old Anna Kendrick of Twilight fame), who plays an up-and-coming young corporate shark who threatens to undermine Ryan's travelling privileges by proposing that the company they work for simply set up i-chat video conferencing to fire people all over the world from one location. So, while there are a few similarities between the novel and the movie (both involve a sister who's getting married), the tone of the book is radically different. Kirn wrote it before 9/11, so even as a satire of corporate culture, the book has a sunny disposition that Reitman has turned rancid by alluding to recent history--the downsizing of corporations, the increasingly empty spaces where there were once cubicles, and all of that wasted corporate real estate that reminds me of ghost malls. In fact, the scenes that involve terminating people don't start until after page 200 in the novel, whereas Reitman persuaded non-actors who had really been sacked to recreate the experience on the camera. As Reitman said in an interview with Anne Thompson:

"We ended up putting 60 people on film, 22 of which are in this movie. So everyone besides the actors you recognize, everyone who gets fired in this movie, is someone who’s lost their job. They would come in, sit at a table, we would interview them for about 10 minutes, we would ask them questions about how they lost their job, who they told first, how this has affected their life, and as soon as they were comfortable on camera, we would say, ‘we’d like to actually fire you on camera now. And we’d like you to respond the way you did the day you lost your job, or if you prefer, how you wish you had responded.’ And this would begin an improv scene; unlike any improv scene I’ve ever seen in my life.

My job as a director is to get people to be honest on camera, that’s kind of it in a nutshell. It’s to get actors to be authentic. And I know how hard it is to sometimes get people to be authentic on camera. And yet here in this moment, 22 people who had never acted before, we would read them this boilerplate legal firing document that I found through an HR person, that is basically used coast to coast for firing. And the second they would hear this legal verbiage, and they would hear the kind of language they heard the day they lost their job, they would start to use sense-memory without knowing it. Their body language would change, their shoulders would fold, their eyes would turn, one girl broke into hives. I’m not sure if you noticed her, the hives broke out across her neck, right at that moment. And they’d begin asking questions of our interviewer, who knows nothing of their situation, they’d ask them about severance, and their medical benefits, and why they were chosen and why not somebody else. And if there was another job that they could get in the company, and these would go on for ten, sometimes 20 minutes. They were really emotional, and they would get angry and they would cry, and they would say the kind of things I could never think of as a writer, and it was said in a way that I would never think to direct them.

The most startling of which is in the movie, when the guy says, ‘What are you going to do this weekend? You got a tank full of gas, going to take your kid to Chuck-e-Cheese?’ I’ve never thought of Chuck-E-Cheese as a luxury, I think of Chuck-E-Cheese as a mediocre pizza place with a guy in a rag costume. I could never write that because I would have thought that was somehow insulting, and somehow me trying to be funny. But when he said it, that was the truth for him, and it was an incredible experience as a director. And it actually makes me want to try that more in the future – working with non-actors. We shot that on day four of a 50-day shoot and it set the tone for everything from there on."

Not only did these non-actors give the movie an intense slice of raw cinema-verite emotion that Reitman could not have gotten in any other way, they also serve as a nice contrast to Clooney's glib manner and Natalie Keener's frigid professionalism that reminded me at times of Tom Cruise's Jerry Maguire. The movie taps into something like tragedy (one critic described the film as "Death of a Salesman with Cary Grant"), but in a strange way, I found myself rooting for Ryan's emotional disengagement from humanity. He has found a way to coast over the world, and not deal with consequences. Ironically, even Ryan's major love interest Alex (Vera Farmiga) prefers a relationship with no strings attached. At one point, Natalie Keener asks Ryan if he ever follows up on his fired victims who threaten to kill themselves, and he says that "No good would come of that." The audience in the theater laughed. Ryan describes himself and his cronies as sharks who must cultivate carrying everything they own in a backpack because "moving is living," and "relationships are the heaviest components of your life." In a country founded on the idea of western expansion, Ryan has found a way to keep moving even if he jumps from Kansas City to St. Louis to Omaha to Las Vegas in an endless hopscotch around the country in his attempt to attain 10 million frequent flyer miles.

Even though Natalie says that Ryan has the maturity of a 12 year old, he's still obliged to grow up, and that's the major problem with the uneven latter third of the movie. Ryan flies out to Omaha to attend his sister's wedding. When the groom (Danny McBride) starts to get cold feet, Reitman places him inside a children's classroom where he reads The Velveteen Rabbit. Ironically, given his perpetually single lifestyle, Ryan gets the job of trying to talk the groom back into wanting to get married, but I was already bothered by the visual rhetoric implied by this scene. We see the groom sitting in a miniature chair because he's acting like a child, and that basically undermines all of Ryan's attempts to remain free. I was just noticing in the recent New Yorker that Anthony Lane describes Ryan as "a rootless soul who mistakes his emptiness for freedom," and he needs schooling. Perhaps so, but the movie's moralistic turn denies the fun and the black humor of Ryan's angel of death Airworld.

In the novel, one of Ryan's female friends says "Someone was going to see under your black hood and realize the Grim Reaper was just a kid," but that's the glory of being a child, since a kid needn't get caught up in the dreary tragedies of adult life. Instead, as Reitman includes some footage of the non-actors trying to come to terms with being fired, the movie moves perilously close to therapy. Call me crass, but I liked Up in the Air's frictionless world of empty freedom better, in part because it better suits Clooney's remorseless charm.