---journalists arrested: "The United States (47th) also owed its fall of 27 places to the many arrests of journalist covering Occupy Wall Street protests."
---"It's bad enough that Google can build up a massive and—if we're honest, slightly scary—profile of my activities, but it will be a lot worse when Google and Facebook and Procter & Gamble all get together to merge these profiles into a single uber-database and then sell it off for a fee to anyone with a product to hawk. Or any government agency that thinks this kind of information might be pretty handy."
---"It's almost like we're treating people like luggage."
---“What happens,” [Viola] Davis says, “is you destroy the artist.”
---"It’s not just that everything we once committed to memory we now store externally on devices that crash or become obsolete or are rendered temporarily inaccessible due to lack of coverage. And it’s not that we spend a lot of time storing, organizing, pruning and maintaining our access to it all. It’s that we’re collectively engaged in a mass conversion of what we used to call, variously, records, accounts, entries, archives, registers, collections, keepsakes, catalogs, testimonies and memories into, simply, data."
---"But now movies aren’t making money. That’s no secret. They’re not making money. So now we can go back to being more experimental, and maybe we can have conversations about it again, be more authentic. I think the whole Occupy Wall Street message is really about the individual. About not being judged by how much money you make. Hopefully there is more to this. Because you know what? I really like movies about human beings, I’m tired of laughing at people pooping and throwing up, and being gross, and I want to hear a new voice. I want to see something more human and charming, and I don’t want to see people try to shock or provoke me." ---ParkerPosey
---"Our growth is generally dependent upon our ability to obtain new contracts to develop and manage new correctional and detention facilities. . . . The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws. For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them."
---As anger rises, riots on the streets of American cities are inevitable. “Yes, yes, yes,” he says, almost gleefully. The response to the unrest could be more damaging than the violence itself. “It will be an excuse for cracking down and using strong-arm tactics to maintain law and order, which, carried to an extreme, could bring about a repressive political system, a society where individual liberty is much more constrained, which would be a break with the tradition of the United States.” ---the history and future of web protest
The Artist left me wondering exactly how it has earned its considerable praise. Is it because the dog is so cute? The similar talking dog Arthur (with subtitles) in Beginners ruined that film for me. I don't think that I will be able to appreciate any cinematic canines for a long while. The director of that film, Mike Mills, seemed so neurotically concerned with offsetting the sad (and possibly box office poisonous) effects of the cancer and eventual death of Christopher Plummer's character, everyone in the movie has to maintain a sickly compensatory sweetness. I've seen so many cats in films like The Future and Tiny Furniture, they leave me wondering: are cute pets signs of studio anxiety? These telegenic animals come across as Pavlovian in their intended effect, as if to say "Trigger the need-to-nurture emotion now."
So, yes, The Artist is full of charm, excellent performances, and the cinematography by Guillaume Schiffman evokes the era well, but George (Jean Dujardin) and Peppy (?) (Berenice Bejo) compete with the dog in their drive to be appealing. I guess all of this winsomeness may be designed to offset the negativity of Valentin's self-destructive pride, but I had trouble believing in his arrogance. Why couldn't he try the new sound technology out, as the silent stars actually did back in the 1920s, and as the characters do in the much more plausible Singing in the Rain (1952)? Once Greta Garbo successfully made the awkward transition to sound with Anna Christie (1930), her boyfriend, the MGM silent star John Gilbert, tried and failed because his voice was too high (also his silent-movie era enhanced acting style didn't help matters). Later, Garbo attempted to save Gilbert's career much as Peppy does for George by insisting that he costar in Queen Christina (1933). (In case anyone was left wondering about this correspondence, Peppy at one point uncharacteristically says "I want to be alone.") Still, usually, when seeing depictions of people making the transition to the sound era, one finds them pragmatically acknowledging technological change.
In The Artist, George never even considers it. Instead of fully explaining why he would do such a perverse thing as throw his highly remunerative career away, the filmmakers keep finding other visual ways to make his decision appear a fait accompli. At the beginning of The Artist (in a film within the film), he says "I won't talk!" on an intertitle while being tortured, so we are primed to know what to expect. George is not only proud, he's increasingly bewilderingly stupid. Instead of giving us an adequate reason why he so stubbornly refuses to make the switch, the filmmakers show us a scene where George is clearly going down the stairs as Peppy rises up, or we see George sink into the quicksand in his self-financed flop, Tears of Love. Why is the film called The Artist? At one point, George says, "I'm not a puppet. I'm an artist!" But he's clearly a silent film star, so I guess the title was meant to be ironic.
Writer and director Hazanavicius seems content to conjure up some under-explained moody friction before turning to wish-fulfillment and George's (spoiler alert) glorious return to the limelight. Aside from the canisters of old silent films that George burns in a fit of despondency, George ultimately loses nothing. Peppy has all of his former auctioned off possessions waiting for him in a beautiful new Gatsbyish mansion. His possessions, fame, everything just waits for its retrieval at the end. He even gets his "That'll do, pig" chauffeur (James Cromwell) back.
The Artist is so eager to please, it licks the viewer's face wildly, just like a dog would do, but there's something too self-congratulatory about its crowds wildly applauding, its premiere fans jockeying into position, its naked appeals to our emotions, its clumsy sampling of the music from Vertigo, and the way it keeps telegraphing its techniques. Hazanavicius makes a fun reference to the famous marital montage of Citizen Kane when George's relationship with his wife dissolves, but we get to know Charles Foster Kane and his first wife well enough to understand why she gets sick of him. In contrast, the marriage in The Artist is never sufficiently explained. There's also a hint of the Citizen Kane projection scene when George first sees Doris (Penelope Miller) talk into a microphone, but again the homage just hangs there as one wonders why George is so quick to say "If that's the future, you can have it."
To recreate the silent film era, Hazanavicius fills the movie with types--the sweet ingenue, the cigar-chomping head of the studio, the fat policeman. Even Malcolm McDowell looks oddly like the wizard of Oz (Frank Morgan) in his brief cameo. Towards the end, the cheesy ministrations of a devoted canine leads the policeman to say of George "He owes his life to that dog!" with gee whiz enthusiasm. I still can't fathom why so many give in to this giddy, slack-jawed wonder.
---"The Divide" wastes no time before launching into an exasperating tale of anarchic dread. The descent into hell begins with a horde of frantic residents dashing to the cellar in the wake of a nuclear attack and grows increasingly morbid from there: Rape, disfigurement and cannibalism figure into the ensuing drama, but it's the accumulation of these incidents, rather than their specific shock value, that gives "The Divide" a lasting effect.
When the doors close and the dust settles, the resulting group enters into a power play that starts with confused attempts to ration supplies and mobilize the remaining resources. Their stability only lasts as long as it takes for masked gunmen to burst through the doors and unload a few rounds before sealing the remaining survivors into their self-made tomb. (Why? "The Divide" cleverly wastes no time with distracting context.)
---"The recession we’re in has intensified a bunch of trends that were already gathering force, and already pushing people into accordion families. Those trends included a real downdraft in the capacity of young workers to find their way. That has really spread as downsizing has gathered force, as jobs have been outsourced. It’s become a much more competitive labor market, and an employer can be incredibly choosy. That leaves young workers at a disadvantage. And as much as they have a hard time qualifying for those jobs, the jobs themselves have increasingly become short-term, part-time or unpaid altogether. Now, to become a qualified professional, many middle-class American kids are going to have to spend many years in completely unpaid internships. So they finish college, or in the course of going to college, they spend years upon years working in jobs that used to pay money and don’t anymore because this market is so crowded. Well, if you’re going to spend years interning somewhere so that you get the kind of experience that will cause an employer to look at you seriously when there’s a paid position, how in the world are you going to manage if you have no income? You’ve got to live someplace. So, in households that can afford it, parents are making it possible for their kids to gather those credentials that will allow them someday – they hope – to launch at the level they’re expecting."
---"How do you develop attentional literacy, the ability to be working on the right stuff at the right time and not necessarily frittering your time away, looking at Facebook and whatever else it is you do?"
Today, the video production class finished the DVD containing the movie Entrapment. The class will show the movie to the entire school tomorrow during the Interim presentations. So far, the buzz has been good. My significant other just now flinched at a jump scare while watching the movie, and the film has a delightfully bleak, surprising, and abrupt ending that leaves the viewer with a pleasant sense of hopelessness and Poe-esque entombment.
My notes from the past few days:
"There's so much blood!" --Jude
1) Now, on the morning of the 9th day of the production, the class is busy editing the "Making of" video, the final movie entitled Entrapment, and the blooper reel, so I can pause for a moment. We've been shooting at the manor all week, but it feels like one long day.
2) A cold mansion on a wet dark morning. The crew is in the small dining room filming a scene where Fiona hops out of a cabinet by the back door. I'm sitting in a decidedly chilly gun room that could use a fire in its fireplace. We keep the heat off to cut down on noise in the room tone. I keep recording random comments from the crew in the Moleskine:
"You still need to turn around faster," says the director.
"He turned around before she said Boo!"
"Go back in your hidey hole, Fiona."
"Are we getting enough reaction from Jude?"
"I am not a chipmunk."
"Don't use the mic as a weapon." They shoot another take. Jude grimaces afterwards.
"He wouldn't have calmed down that quickly."
I point out that the "The goal is to end up with a better movie than the blooper reel."[Later, we realize that we will have to reshoot this scene. Any shot that involves Jude and Fiona talking to each other for any length of time requires at least 15 takes, and the director wishes that she had taken more.]
Every time the crew changes places, the cinematographer grabs the camera and says "Moving!" She claims that she has some shots that she hates (but has to use anyway), and others that she loves. The class has a chronic tendency to start filming a scene without remembering to turn on the microphone.
3) In the afternoon, the sky darkens considerably as we prepare Fiona for the haunting moment when she realizes that she and Jude are now in the old photograph. It's not easy getting her to look properly freaked out, so she jabs her fingers in her eyes to make herself cry, and says "This is why I haven't cried in front of anyone since the fifth grade." I think of Kubrick tormenting Shelley Duvall for weeks and months in the midst of making The Shining. Is directing inherently sadistic?
"Later, we're going to add in a loud bang," says the director. "Look up," she says to Fiona. "Turn your body forward. Yell `Jude' and run out of the room."
The director bangs on the wall. "Do you know what to do?"
"Look bewildered and on the edge of mental breakdown?"
"Right." Meanwhile, I take pleasure in shooting footage from the bird's eye point of view from the landing over the stairs.
4) Still later in the day. The crew works very hard to finish scene 2. Bored, I doze briefly in the parlor (oddly decorated with elephants and Santa Claus figurines), but not for long, because sleepers tend to end up on film. At one point, Jude fell asleep for 3 hours, so we placed some reflecting foil on his head.
5) I keep opting for a student to lie face down in a small empty fountain (except for some rank cold dirty water) at the side of the house to help create atmosphere in an early point-of-view shot, but no one seems inclined to do it. We all agree that a catering service would be nice. Some hot chocolate?
6) "I'm not a character. I'm a scaractor," says Jude in the midst of a "Making of" interview. A football player, Jude chiefly acts with his eyebrows and his forehead with lots of squinting and rubbing his eyes. He has been working hard, but he distinctly does not enjoy the tender reunion scene that includes this dialogue:
Fiona: "Jude, you can't leave me like that again. I don't want my closest friend getting hurt."
Jude: "I won't leave you, but we have to get out of this house."
I get the impression that he would prefer to not to have to look meaningfully into her eyes. We end up having to shoot this take over and over, more than ten times, with Jude getting more exasperated throughout. I tell him this is the reason why major movie stars earn 12 million dollars a picture. Jude replies, "I would cut off my leg for 12 million, and buy myself a new one." He also says he's going to "Tebow after this." Whenever I say anything critical about Scooby Doo, Fiona says she loves the show. She finds the The Black Knight museum episode was especially scary.
7) By yesterday afternoon, the crew shot a nice action scene in which the two stars ran the length of a house (with two crew members following close behind, and the "Making of" director behind them) before a door slams and Fiona screams. The movie contains several moments where ghosts (?) bang on or slam doors (using fishing line). At one point, I slammed the front door so hard, plaster fell from around the windows. The owner (standing right next to me) was saintly nice about it, but if it had been my house, I would've kicked everyone out, especially since we were supposed to be finished the day before.
At one point, a door slowly shut by itself right after a take. We figured the Captain, the original owner of the house, wanted to be included in the shot.
8) This afternoon, I read Portis' True Grit in the parlor as Fiona repeatedly gasps hysterically, twirls around, drops the photograph, and falls on the floor in the main hallway as the cinematographer lies on the floor with the camera and the two ghosts (with lighting equipment) contemplatively chew on some brownies as they look on. Everyone is eager to finish. Jude even points out in an interview that "The promise of getting done is a good motivator," although I have heard some talk that perhaps he has been intentionally been a difficult in a diva-esque way today. Jude claims that "Acting is very hard, and people don't know how hard it is."
When asked how she gets herself to look scared, Fiona confesses that she thinks of "horrible things, like heights and terrorists." Both actors have much respect for the director, whom they call "Mein Fuhrer."
Late on the last afternoon of principal photography, we reshoot the first scene when Fiona and Jude walk into the house for the first time. Then, we keep waiting for the director to say "That's a wrap," but first she and the cinematographer have to shoot another scene of the front of the house, and then get some more outdoor room tone (nature tone?) out back. So, when she finally says the phrase in the bus, the moment ends up being a bit anticlimactic.
9) Over the weekend, the students found that mixing the sound, especially music, proved trickier and more time-consuming that editing the video. They worked until 11 every night in the classroom. Today, they just needed for Fiona to scream into the mic and then loop the scream for the last scene. As they edit, we spend part of the time studying the symmetrical composition of each shot in the new trailer for Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom. By this afternoon, the students were done and making copies. For whatever reason, (lack of competition between groups? a perfectionist director? a detail-oriented cinematographer?) the class went especially well this year. I feel fortunate to have been involved.
What does the Old Grey Lady have in common with a kidnapping blonde? Andrew Rossi's excellent documentary Page One and Errol Morris' less successful Tabloid both explore the struggle to control increasingly fragmented narratives.
Amusingly and sometimes alarmingly, Rossi's portrait of The New York Times conveys just how insecure and embattled the prestige newspaper has become. In 2010, as Wikileaks releases to Youtube damning footage of American soldiers shooting innocent Iraqis from their helicopters, the editors at the Times wonder how to respond. They worry over the fact that Julian Assange and Wikileaks did not even consult with the major news outlets, and one senses a defensive posture in the prestigious newspaper. Weren't the The Times writers the original rowdy troublemakers back in the 70s when their story of the Pentagon Papers caused Nixon to want to persecute them? Isn't the Times supposed to be the one who shakes up the US government with its exposes, not bloggers and hackers? Even as Rossi acknowledges the need for old-fashioned journalistic skills for a functioning democracy, good war coverage, and so on, a portrait emerges in Page One of a newspaper angling to retain relevance amidst all of the abrupt changes in technology that allows people new ways to release information. The documentary moves from early scenes in which the Times is blindsided by Wikileaks, budget cuts, and layoffs to a later more conventionally flattering narrative in which David Carr, now in control, writes a brilliant expose about the sexual and financial corruption of the Tribune newspapers. In spite of all of the initial anxieties, the film ends with a comforting portrait of the journalist as hero.
Meanwhile, in Tabloid, Errol Morris tells the lurid 70's story of Joyce McKinney and her sort-of kidnapping and rape of her former Mormon boyfriend Kirk Anderson who has dumped her to become a missionary in England. In her 20's at the time, Joyce finds that her fiance has abruptly disappeared from her life due to--it appears--the machinations of the Mormon Church. She hires a private detective to figure out that he's in England. Then she arranges to steal him away to a cottage in Devon where she manacles him to a bed and repeatedly has sex with him to deprogram him from the church's clutches. Her strategy works for awhile, until she gets arrested for kidnapping. Joyce then leaks her point of view to the British Press (her story of innocent true love temporarily triumphing) which creates an international media sensation. She becomes an instant celebrity, hobnobbing with Keith Moon of TheWhoand overshadowing movie stars at film premieres.
So far, so juicy. Errol Morris perhaps overly relishes reconstructing this story's attendant tabloid frenzy, but there are fissures and problems. Instead of just letting Joyce and other related figures talk in interviews before the camera, Morris also inserts cheesy Michael Moore-ish footage of 1950s fantasy wives, crude cartoons of Mormons becoming Gods, and imprisoned women weeping in B-movies to illustrate Tabloid's increasingly competing versions of events. The ironic footage mocks what's being told, flattering the viewer who can now laugh at laugh at Joyce's romanticism and Mormon religious dogma. I was disappointed by Morris' tactic because the mockery makes the movie too easy for the viewer. His first brilliant 1978 documentary Gates of Heaven has every opportunity to make fun of the bizarre owners who mourn their lost pets, but he keeps any editorial angle muted. The film's lack of an attitude toward its material greatly complicates our responses to the pet owners. By doing this, the movie weirdly shifts from lampooning goofballs to considering universal questions about death and loss.
Ultimately in Tabloid, the British tabloids such as the Daily Mirror dig up a story of Joyce's former life as a kind of call girl in California who has posed for many cheap porn magazines and used ads in the newspapers to sell fantasies of domination. Morris is careful to never fully assert that these claims are true. Since Joyce is still trying to maintain her image as an innocent woman seeking to realize her dream of love for Kirk, this lurid call girl business does not suit her agenda at all, so she goes into seclusion, and even today she's suing Morris for portraying this scurrilous aspect of her story.
So, what one finds writ large in Page One also appears in micro in Tabloid: a struggle for control over the narration. Recently, Joyce has snuck into various premieres of the movie, waited until it ended, and then hopped out in front of the audience to cry out "I'm Joyce McKinney!" She then gives a speech denouncing the movie and once again attempts to impose her side of the story on the audience. Given her penchant for intrigue, Joyce actually has much in common with the newspapers she denounces. As a trickster figure, she likes to adopt different identities, perhaps to help generate better copy later? When running from English bail, she dressed up as a deaf mute and then later as an Indian in makeup. As a woman researching the Mormon church, she wore a wig. As a call girl, she catered to male fantasies as a former Miss America. As a woman investigated by Scotland Yard, she would try to pass as an innocent romantic just trying to get her true love. Also, she likes to use a hidden microphone to ferret out information about the Mormon Church. But she doesn't seem to realize that the media can exploit her far more than she can manipulate it, just as Errol Morris uses her story to create intriguing narrative gaps in his documentary.
Both movies leave behind lots of questions. Are we to believe Joyce or The Daily Mirror? How much is Morris' portrait of Joyce a product of her own deliberate media construction? And how much does Joyce's struggle to maintain her reputation parallel that of the editors doing the same for the beleaguered New York Times? The more they assert a sense of control, the more circumstances find ways to undermine them.
A Media Arts major at USC-Columbia, Olivia K. Keyes has been helping me with my video production class for several years. A devoted filmmaker, she just recently finished There Is No Silence, and she kindly agreed to answer some questions concerning the craft.
1) What suggestions would you have for someone just beginning to make movies today?
I think everyone stumbles into the film industry in their own way. I got really involved in online communities as a middle schooler, learning to use Windows Movie Maker to create little animated music videos (AMVs) for Teen Titans and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and then started making my own little videos that I posted to YouTube. But it wasn't really until I got into college and started making real-life contacts and started collaborating with others that I really started improving my craft and learning to do real networking. So it's great to make those little individual projects, but if you want to start improving then make films with your friends. Collaboration is not only a great opportunity to gain real work experience with and to network, but I've also found filmmaking is way more fun with a group of people who are just as passionate about it as you.
2) Who are your three favorite directors at work today and why?
I love Sofia Coppola, Akira Kurosawa and Christopher Nolan. As a female in the male-dominated film industry, women like Sofia really give me hope that I can also be success in my craft. I loved The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation, not only because of the masterful directing, but the fact that there's a definite feminine touch to her films and an intimacy with characters that I feel female directors are often advantaged to tap into. Basically any film by Kurosawa is a masterpiece in my book. However, if I had to pick a single film that stands out, I'd go with Rashomon for it's use of non-linearity, lights and darks and in particular its use of silence. Having studied Japanese for two and a half year now and traveled there twice, I am amazed by the influence of culture on film, and Kurosawa's use of silence is so effective because of its position of power in the Japanese language. And finally my mainstream film director crush, Christopher Nolan. From Memento to Batman to Inception, I am amazed at his films. However, his reinterpretation of the Batman series (my favorite comic book series since the age of 4) a film noir-action flick proves that he is able to translate any story to a modern audience, a skill that many of today's directors could really learn from. Originality is not always in the story but in how you tell it.
3) What are the classic traps that novice filmmakers fall into?
I think it's really important to get all the film cliches out of your system while you're still a student and not losing any money. However, there are things you might want to watch out for, such as, opening with an alarm clock, having a dream sequence or show every little movement of your character. Your audience knows that if you cut from a scene in a bathroom to a scene in a car that you walked out of your house, no need to show it. Give your audience more credit. And another useful piece of advice from my film professor at USC, "Don't show what you tell and don't tell what you show." One last note: Rehearse your films before your film them. Like a theatrical play needs a dress rehearsal, a film needs a run-through. Just go through the whole thing shot for shot with a little point and shot or camera phone, and it'll make the actual day of filming go so much smoother.
4) What do you think of film school classes ? Are they really needed?
I'd say film school is more about networking than learning the craft. Granted, I've always liked an academic setting and I like being challenged in my assignments. However, the way the internet is today, you can build your own online community and network and raise your own funds on something like Kickstarter. The other thing that film school gives you is free access to a variety of equipment that the average American would probably not be able to afford. I've learned to work about 5 different cameras and 3 different audio systems as well as 2 editing platforms while at USC, and my tuition fees are nowhere near the total of those programs and equipment.
5) What are some of the best places you like to visit on the web that relates to filmmaking?
I'm a huge fan of vimeo. Imagine a YouTube without Rebecca Black and dramatic chipmunks, and that's vimeo. It allows me to network with not only local filmmakers here in Columbia, but also other ones across the world. It's always exciting when some random guy from Germany likes one of your films! However, I do still visit YouTube frequently, since that's where most videos go viral from and publicity is a great way to network, as long as you go viral for something of good quality and not because it's junk, which sadly is what the kids these days like to tweet about. Speaking of Twitter, I do follow a lot of my film professors as well as other filmmakers on Twitter as a means of networking. However, my newest discovery is Tumblr, a twitter-meets-blogging social network site, and there a lot of talented and creative people who are starting to network there as well.
6) How do you network on vimeo?
Well, I'm just starting to get the hang of it, but what seems to work best is having every type of social media and then link them all together through one. I'm my case, I prefer Tumblr as a way of meeting new people who might be interested in my work, while some prefer Twitter or Facebook and others like Youtube. I think it really just really depends on your target audience. I'm looking for people to critique my work, so Tumblr and vimeo tend to have more in the way of constructive criticism whereas YouTube and Twitter often suffer from immature teenager comments. I've also started commenting on other people's works on vimeo and in return they'll give feedback on mine. And while it's nice to get complimented, there is nothing more valuable than a good critique.
7) You mention several social media websites where you visit for networking purposes. Are there any websites where you go for information?
I actually follow the SC Film Commission updates pretty regularly since they notify you of state competitions and potential grant money. It's also more localized. So if they mention a workshop, then it's going to be within driving distance. They also have a great registrar of people with equipment and talents that I didn't know you could find in SC. For example, there's a registered stuntman living in Charleston just waiting to be in your next action short.
8) Describe a typical day at work on your current film project.
Well, I'm still a student, so I don't get the leisure of focusing on one project, but am actually split between three, nearly constantly. However, I'll take the time to talk about my current production crew I'm working with called GoShinjuku!, which is a collaborative team of USC media arts (and film studies AND computer engineering) majors. Our team leader Matt Laborde earned a grant last year to fund five anime-style, live-action shorts. We shot one over the summer called The Welder and we're working on next one called The Way of the Broken Thumb (title inspired by this test shot here). I work mostly in pre- and actual production. I usually sit down and plan out the film shot-by-shot via storyboards and set up the shooting schedule. I also do all the camera work for our shorts. I do edit my own personal works, but I really prefer the actually filming part of production the best, although everyone tells me that my organizational skills and trouble-shooting on set would probably make me better suited for a production manager. But we'll see what happens. I'm young and still have a lot of films to make and thumbs to break!
9) Any favorite recent low-budget independent films?
If we're talking in terms of on vimeo, I really love this little film Moving Day by Jason Wingrove. But if we're talking about recent big picture releases, then it would have to be the recent 2011 Sundance Audience Award winning Circumstance that absolutely blew me away, and I highly recommend it. It gives you an inside look inside the rebellious youth scene in Iran through the window of two teenager girls dealing with all the confusion of falling in love. Also, Winter's Bone (2010) is one of my favorite all time low-budget independent films. I love everything about it from Jennifer Lawrence's portrayal of Ree to the gritty, handheld cinematography that manages to find a softness in the harshness of the film.
Anyone interested in keeping up with O. K. Keyes' work can follow her Tumblr blog or Twitter feed.
Now on the evening of the sixth day of the video production class, the students just finished their first long day of shooting at a very old manor that once presided over 5000 acres. Some notes from my Moleskine:
1) "My father did get some hog's guts and they will bring them Wednesday unless we need them sooner. I'm not sure of the amount or variety of the guts but if we aren't going to use them we need to let him know so he can dispose of them." --an email from Fiona, one of the stars of the film.
2) They may be in the midst of making a horror film that veers perilously close to Scoobie Doo, but the class does have a fashion sense. On the day devoted to the preproduction work of storyboarding and writing, we visited the local Salvation Army to purchase ghost outfits. Ava found a corpse bride-esque white dress, Jude purchased a suit for $11, students often used the word "sketch," and for a moment we considered including some ruby slippers in the film somewhere as a Wizard of Oz reference. The movie will have a running gag of references to the song lyrics of "Hey Jude" as well as the song's melody played on the piano in a lower key. We also worked on the legend of the manor that may serve as a hook:
3) During the Civil War a family of four called the Whitakers lived in this house. When Sherman’s men came through the area, the Whitakers knew they had to protect their children. They hid their daughter Ava and their son Jeremiah in a crawl space in the ceiling, and pushed a bookshelf underneath it to ensure their children wouldn’t be found. The parents had intended to return to the house and free their children, but they were killed during the soldiers’ raid. After about a month, Ava and Jeremiah were assumed to have starved to death. However their bodies were never found.
4) [From today] After reviewing the storyboards and watching the Arbogast murder scene of Psycho, we have arrived at the house. The weather is cold and wet, but not exactly raining. The crew has just moved from the main hallway to the parlor, and they're setting up lights. Two of the crew members wear ghoulish makeup, and one (the corpse sister) will carry a boom mic for much of the afternoon.
"What kind of speed are we going?" asks Fiona.
"We can see their shadows a little bit."
"We both have shadows. I do have a soul, still," replies Jude, who wishes to be called Broseph Chillson.
"This house does give me the creeps."
5) As the day goes on, I tend to wander off and read Will Hermes' Love Goes To Buildings on Fire in a foyer where the windows have reddish mold down by the oriental rugs. I keep waiting for Hermes' description of the Talking Heads playing their first gig at CBGBs in the 1970s New York music scene: "Chris Frantz, a young drummer, and his girlfriend Tina Weymouth, a painter, moved into a loft at 195 Chrystie Street with a friend from the Rhode Island School of Design, David Byrne. Their plans: uncertain."
6) For part of the afternoon, I vaguely lay on a sofa in the gun room and stare up at a painting of some labradors as the students endlessly shoot the opening scene on the front porch. It takes a long time in part because they keep having to wait for traffic to die down on Home Avenue (across the football field-sized front lawn) since this film is supposed to take place in rural isolation.
7) From the screenplay:
Jude: Okay, now I definitely don’t want to go in there.
Fiona: Don’t you want to see where they were hidden?
Jude: Do you really want to see two dead bodies?
Fiona: No, but you’re pathetic. A small helpless girl like me is willing to go in an empty house, but a tall brawny guy like you is too scared to even step onto the porch?
Jude: That about sums it up.
8) By the end of today's shoot, the cinematographer was reported to have danced on the driveway because she liked the spookiness of the tilting shot that moved from Jude and Fiona on the front porch up to pale Ava and Jeremiah framed in the upper window ("like an old photograph"). Tomorrow, we will return at 9 am, and once again shoot all day.
"It's not surprising that my reaction to The Descendants vacillates between admiration and annoyance; that's been my reaction to nearly every Payne film. I went into this conversation loving Election while harboring a lot of ambivalence about his oeuvre as a whole, and my opinion hasn't been changed by this latest work, nor by revisiting his filmography. He's an interesting and contradictory director, though, a curious blend of the humanist and the cynic; he often just mockingly eviscerates his characters, but he's also proven himself capable of much more nuanced portraits that reveal the beating, fallible human heart beneath the caricature. That's Payne at his best: when he sets up a character like Tracy Flick, or Sid in The Descendants, who seems to be little more than a target for his derision, until he peels away the layers and locates the humanity, the sadness, the unexpected complexity of these seemingly simple characters. The moments when he achieves this delicate balancing act are the bright spots in an uneven but undeniably intriguing career."
---"In a sense, Inglourious Basterds is a form of science fiction. Everything unfolds in and maps an alternate universe: The Movies. Even Shosanna's Parisian neighborhood bears a marked resemblance to a Cannes back alley, complete with a club named for a notorious local dive. Inflammable nitrate film is a secret weapon. Goebbels is an evil producer; the German war hero who pursues Shosanna has (like America's real-life Audie Murphy) become a movie star. Set to David Bowie's Cat People title-song, the scene in which Shosanna—who is, of course, also an actor—applies her war paint to become the glamorous "face of Jewish vengeance," is an interpolated music video. Actresses give autographs at their peril. The spectacular climax has the newly dead address those about to die from the silver screen." --A. J. Hoberman
Yesterday the video production class began preproduction for their larger short film with the working title Entrapment, and they have a little over a week to make it. In comparison to previous years when students obliged me to drive all over town to visit various locations, this class chose one: an antebellum mansion that once presided over 800 acres. The picturesque house sits on top of a hill that overlooks a large lake surrounded by old trees festooned with Spanish moss. The story for the film basically concerns two teenagers who visit the place on a dare at dusk, but then have trouble getting out.
On Friday morning, as one group finished editing the action short now entitled Indiana Joe, I worked with the rest in coming up with more ideas, images, and lines of dialogue for the horror film. We watched trailers for The Strangersand the upcoming Silent Housefor ideas. We also visited the mansion in the afternoon, and it should work well for our purposes. The house has its own legend which concerns a man hiding himself and his valuables in a secret ceiling hideaway up above a closet in the middle of the main floor when the Yankees came through. The house's owner also assured us that even though she didn't believe in ghosts, she didn't want our shoot to interfere with the Captain (of the Confederate Army) who has been seen spectrally walking around the place. She also pointed out his cane in a little nook of the main hallway. If she ever sells the place, the new owners would have to agree to keep the cane there as a kind of ancestral duty. She is being exceedingly nice to let us shoot there for 2 to 3 days next week. Perhaps, on the side, the students should shoot a found-footage video about a film class that suddenly vanishes in the midst of setting up the lighting in the attic on the last night of the shoot. Five years later, someone finds a memory card in the rubble of the abandoned garage . . . .
Will Entrapment end up being any good? I don't honestly know. The class has produced careful work thus far.
Today's class went very well in part because a former student named O. K. Keyes shared much of her filmmaking expertise and experience with making documentaries (I plan on posting an interview with her later). She included in her presentation a list of student filmmaking cliches:
1) alarm clocks
2) bad dialogue
4) tortured artists
5) dream sequences (ironically, our class was working on a dream sequence today)
6) time lapses (better to use a montage)
9) one joke films
10) transition effects (solid cuts, even smash cuts are better)
OK stressed the importance of drawing storyboards for brainstorming, structuring her films, and checking off completed scenes during the shoot. She also uses her iPhone both for framing shots (using the phone's regular camera feature) and shooting rehearsal footage a day before the real shoot. Our class should invest in a Zoom Handy Digital Recorder and a V-MODA headphones to improve our use of sound.
What's the best camera? A more affordable T3i Canon Digital SLR.
Where can one find good legal music on the internet? From Kevin MacLeod's free music archive.
In the afternoon, the class collaborated on a story idea involving two teenagers who dare each other to enter an old house. We jotted down possible bits of dialogue, props (a rocking chair, taser?), and ideas for scenes and characterization on the whiteboard. The narrative may include a Civil War legend, staring spectral children, and a young man's inability to make a noise when he screams. We will continue to develop the story tomorrow.
Other suggestions for class equipment? Ways to use the iPhone for filmmaking? (Scott Johnson of @irregulara just recommended "focus remote, slate, logging, sun position/location, storage and depth of field calculations, and shutter remote." Britt Parrott of @brittp uses it for "location scouting, continuity, fill light, and audio.") Internet resources? More student video production cliches?
After a morning discussing screenplay writing techniques, shooting brief screen tests of the students with something like 3 point lighting, taking inventory of the equipment, and coming up with a studio name ("December 21 productions"), we broke for lunch. I had to go to a meeting in the early afternoon, leaving the class to start shooting an action video in my absence.
When I returned, I found a photo of Indiana Jones on the screen, a student wearing a red cape standing on the edge of the class window, and everyone else huddled out on the lawn around the camera. They had already shot some footage of my assistant W acting like a teacher. He stands before a photo of Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer from Scorsese's The Age of Innocence and, using a pointer, intones about how his nose is staring at her lips, but she's not concerned. Also there appears to be a dead chihuahua on her head distracting from the composition. He's basically mocking my image analysis of compositional weights, the dominant, the secondary contrasts, etc. from the day before.
Meanwhile, in the movie, our hero, a student, falls asleep at his desk. When he awakes into a dream, the classroom has strangely changed since Taylor Lautner appears in the back wearing a fedora (actually a life-sized cut-out photo of him found in the girl's dorm. I was thinking that Taylor should show up in every shot in the dream, but no one liked that idea). For some reason, our hero runs out of the classroom, escaping out of the window, dashing across the lawn, and jumping up on a six foot concrete post along a Gothic pointed metallic fence outside. Then, the "teacher" runs out after him, snarls, points his pointer at him in frustration, before pulling out a gun, and then follows our hero. Standing high on the post, our hero whips a leather whip out from his carrying bag, cracks the whip over his head majestically, and then dodges a bullet from the "teacher" by leaning back in a Matrix-like way.
While the students shot all of this, they forgot to turn on the external microphone after telling a guy on a tractor across the street to stop making so much noise (a good example, I said, of aleatory conditions, and why Hitchcock preferred to shoot in the studio). So, after they realized that there was a lack of sound in the playback, they shot the whipping scene again, this time with the whip pulling the gun out of the teacher's hand. A neighborhood woman drove up and asked if we were engaged in some hazing incident. The whipper on the post said no. Then, we had to stop, but the students plan on finishing the scene with a car running over the hero tomorrow morning.
It seems to me that the class has been indulging in a bit too much easy irony thus far, but that could perhaps be my fault. Could they write and shoot something serious? Should we have unacknowledged zombies as part of the mise en scene in the major 10 minute film? Perhaps we'll watch some of Children of Men to give them ideas tomorrow.
Still tired from a supremely unrestful Christmas-family-visiting driving tour of the midwest, I began teaching yet another two week video production class today with six students, a nice Sony Alpha camera with two external microphones, two new iMacs for editing, and cold sunny weather.
I am lucky to have two alumnae (who went on to major in film) assisting me this year at first. The guy (who I will name W) cautioned my students at one point to not always trust my advice because I was clearly wrong about my recommendation for him to specify what exactly was his contraband substance smuggled in stuffed animals in his longer film. We showed off one of his shorter pieces entitled "A Boy and his Bear, an existensial [sic] tale" which concerns a young man who grows excessively emotionally involved with a stuffed bear. In order to prep the class for camera techniques, we watched Curtis Brownjohn's clever summary video. We also viewed "Amy" from last year's class, a short about a woman who makes her imaginary friend jealous before killing her new boyfriend in an abandoned caboose. After some screams in the dark, we later see her strangling the imaginary friend (in other words, air) at dusk with bloody hands in the movie's Fight Club-esque climax.
So, I don't know. Much of video production seems to me a matter of wrangling some semblance of pseudo-plausible acting as the editor wrestles with weird gaps and switches in the room tone. Can we get enough coverage? Can we avoid another dull medium shot at eye level? Will the lighting equipment (bought at Lowe's and Hobby Lobby) work at all? Will the script's cliches overwhelm us next year? Students have taken me inside of an igloo, to back alleys with melting snow and fake blood, to the basement of the town museum where black-robed figures fight with metal pipes, and to the woods around the lake where a real policeman kindly volunteered his time to interrogate a fictional murderer. All too often, I have stood in strange people's living rooms and wondered about our peculiarly passive protagonist as he ate popcorn and stared at the TV. The local townspeople are amazingly nice and supportive even when we stage a gunfight after a botched robbery in a jewelry store for hours as dusk falls. At one time, during exams, students made a movie where a jealous stalker killed a boyfriend with a baseball bat in front of the very same feed store where a real murder, a beating with an axe handle, took place in a couple years. Could they sense something in the air?
Regardless, we are having oddly cold weather in this otherwise balmy winter. In order to practice shooting something, my new class jumped out of a fire window of the classroom to make "Escape of the Swaggernauts," a sketch which involved Star Wars credits at the beginning and the music from Mission Impossible. Tomorrow they plan on shooting an action film with a whip. Who knows? This class may work out.