Thursday, December 29, 2016

How does one design a video production class nowadays?--a correspondence with Morgan Honaker

I teach a 2 1/2 week long interim video production class in January, and every year, I wonder what's going on in the filmmaking world that could help with the course. To help answer this question, I ask two of my star alumni filmmakers--Morgan Honaker and O. K. Keyes for their insights, suggestions, and help with the class. Here's a copy of my recent correspondence with Morgan.

First, I learned that she would not be able to assist the class in person, so I wrote:
I appreciate your help with the video production class in recent years, even if this one doesn't work out.

This year, I'm still figuring out how to set up the proper exposure on the Canon T6 DSLR and whether or not I can find some last second lighting on Amazon that doesn't cost too much. Given all of the recent changes in technology, etc., video production class always leaves me wondering if I know what I'm doing.

At any rate, I hope your year has gone well.

Morgan responded:

Hi Dr.,

Sorry for the late reply - the holidays kept me a bit busy. I haven't worked with the Canon Ti6, but here are some articles I found about using it in different exposures . . .

For low light:
When to use manual mode:
General guide:

Also, in terms of lighting, I would highly recommend investing in a couple of light meters. They can teach students the importance of correct aperture and focal distance better than anything else, and you'll see a vast improvement in their lighting. You can find decent ones for a good price on Amazon ( There are also smartphone attachments that function as fairly reliable meters, which you can also buy on Amazon (

For lights, I would go with some white-lights that you can use gels to manipulate the color with. Fresnels are great lights to have (, but they do get very, very hot, so it would be a good idea to invest in some gaffer gloves ( You could also try out some LED lights (, but you will definitely need to get some gels to manipulate the color ( It's hard to find gels that are long enough, so you may want to check out B&H video/audio warehouse. If you're trying to get better lights, you may also want to invest in some c-stands, nets, and flags, also.

Hope this is helpful (and not too confusing)!


Thanks, Morgan. That's very helpful. I'll look further into Fresnels and LED lights.

Last year, the students in the different groups ended up stressed about completing their longer movies on time, so I plan on scaling back their length this year. I'm still not sure how much one should devote to teaching them technique in comparison to how much time to let them learn by filmmaking. We may have erred on leaning towards the former, so we created too much pressure on them to use fancier approaches after so many presentations on different subjects. Turning to the actual making of the movie proved tricky. At one point, a director balked at first because he didn't get to shoot his movie idea. Another group over-relied on "fixing it in post." At what point does the equipment become too complicated to be effective? One fellow, who proved a good cinematographer, will return and help me out in teaching the new class how to use the camera.

This year, my old assistant chose to go on a trip to Costa Rica, so a new French teacher will help out. We will see how that goes.

Cheers, and thanks again,



I also found a couple of other good lights. If you're going to use the LEDs, I would definitely recommend getting some tungsten lights and some lights with gels as well. Here are links to a couple of decent ones . . .

Tungsten lights:

Filtered Lights:

It's definitely a hard balance to find, especially with the limited time you guys have in the class. I think about 1.5 - 2 days of crash course basics in narrative, cinematography, lighting, sound, and editing (both sound and picture but with an emphasis on the latter) would be sufficient. However, I personally think that narrative is the most important part of filmmaking, so I would spend the most time on effective plot structure (3-act structure, character development, an ending that is both slightly surprising but also feels inevitable, etc.). It's very easy to make something look pretty, but it's much more difficult to convey a story effectively.

It wouldn't be a bad idea to consider making the final project no-dialogue. It's a great way to make your students hone in on their story visually and it forces them to think more creatively about what sorts of stories they can tell. And, in general, films should be shown and not told, especially considering that you guys won't have access to really good microphones and post-production sound mixers. Just something to think on.

If you are going to include dialogue, though, I think 5-7 minutes is a good length for a week and a half of planning, shooting, and post. And definitely don't let any of them say that they'll "fix it in post." Unless you're on some million-dollar Hollywood film where the crew can afford to do that, the film is going to be awful if too much is done in post-production. Trust me, I have seen it countless times.

Well, perhaps your assistant wanted to throw you into a fit of stress and angst that would trickle down to your students and make their filmmaking better. You'd be amazed what a good amount of stress can do to improve the quality of a film.

If you have anymore questions, feel free to let me know!



At this point, I asked her if she would mind sharing this correspondence on the film doctor blog. I also asked her to finish with what she's been working on lately:

I wouldn't mind at all.

Recently, I've been trying my hand at composing for film and video games. I took a class this past semester where we recreated the score and sound design from parts of Alien, Requiem for a Dream, The Grand Budapest Hotel, a few advertising logos, and for my final project, I chose to recreate a scene from the show Avatar: The Last Airbender. I have only done a little scoring before now, the majority of which was for an arena shooter video game. However, I am going to be doing sound design and score for a independent short film in the next few weeks, and I'm hoping to have a composing reel uploaded to Vimeo before the end of January.

As for film more specifically, I've been working on my skills as a mixer. I'm going to be mixing a feature-length independent horror film in the coming year that we're hoping to submit to Fantastic Fest. I've also started mixing for documentaries and am currently working on one about PTSD and the lives of current veterans in America. In addition, I'll be working as a freelance production sound recordist and post-production mixer for a Texas advertising company that is hoping to open a branch in Austin in the coming year.

I'm also going to be working on a media studies thesis in the spring semester. It will be styled as a video essay (as seen on the YouTube channel "Every Frame a Painting" and "The Directors Series" on Vimeo) in which I will be examining the ramifications of modern Hollywood from 2012 - present. In short, I'm arguing that the current trend of recycled stories - these include remakes of classic movies and video games (Ben Hur, Poltergeist, Mulan, The Lion King, Assassin's Creed, etc.), continuations of old series (Star Wars, BladeRunner, Jurassic Park/World, etc.), and the endless continuation of new series (pretty much any Marvel/DC movie) - will lead to a decrease in audiences' interest in theater-movies and could mark the beginning of the inevitable decline in the theater system as a whole. In addition, by using only those stories that have been proven to make money, Hollywood is leaving little to no room for audiences to discover and explore new ideas through movies. Furthermore, independent films that are telling new stories are finding it difficult, if not impossible, to get their films into theaters (Swiss Army Man, Captain Fantastic, Moonlight, etc.), giving those filmmakers little reason to continue practicing their art. I'll release this thesis on Vimeo by May 2017 (if all goes well).

I'll still be working quite a bit as a freelance sound designer and mixer, but I am trying to broaden my skill set to composing and back to media studies critique in the coming year.

Hope this is what you were looking for!


Saturday, December 10, 2016

dystopian links

---"Images detached from every aspect of life merge into a common stream, and the former unity of life is lost forever. Apprehended in a partial way, reality unfolds in a new generality as a pseudo-world apart, solely as an object of contemplation." --Guy Debord

---Harlan Ellison on why writers should get paid

---J.G. Ballard "predicted YouTube nearly 30 years ago, in an interview with Vogue, a medium 'in which each of us will be both star and supporting player. Every one of our actions during the day, across the entire spectrum of domestic life, will be instantly recorded on videotape. In the evening we will sit back to scan the rushes, selected by a computer trained to pick out only our best profiles, our wittiest dialogue, our most affecting expressions filmed through the kindest filters, and then stitch these together into a heightened re-enactment of the day.'"

---Understanding the Cinematography of Raoul Coutard

---David Lynch on Creativity

---A Filmmaker's Journey/ Part 2: Pre-production

---"The 25 Blu-rays Every Movie Lover Must Own" by Noel Murray

---Tim Burton: A German Expressionism Influence

---trailers for Brimstone, Kong: Skull Island, Nocturnal AnimalsGuardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2A Boy and His Dog, Beauty and the Beast, PassengersGhost in the Shell, and The Circle

---Hitchcock and DePalma: Splitscreen Bloodbath

---"I assume (perhaps incorrectly) that the future is all too liable to have its way with today’s most sophisticated encryption technology. I imagine that the world’s best-kept secrets — those of both private citizens and state institutions — will one day sit in plain sight on whatever it is that our descendants display data on.

Privy to that information while looking back at us, our ancestors will know us differently than we currently know ourselves, just as we now know the Victorians quite differently from how they knew themselves. The past, our own past, which our descendants will see us as having emerged from, will not be the past from which we now see ourselves emerging, but a reinterpretation of it, based on subsequently available information, greater transparency and fewer secrets." --William Gibson

---"It's Happening Here" by Anthony Kaufman

---"The next new media will perhaps be some form of virtual reality. (This was prophesied by the cartoonist Walt Kelly during the 1960 presidential campaign when Pogo tells his turtle friend that American elections seem to be pretty backward: 'What we ought to do is elect first a ghost writer an’ then find a candidate what fits the style.') Of course, Trump did practice that as well. Trump’s true innovation was the combination of TV entertainment and social media—something that any number of television shows, like the sitcom How I Met Your Mom, attempted by giving their fictional characters a social media presence. Trump began tweeting six or seven years ago, around the time that The Apprentice mutated into The Celebrity Apprentice. To use a film studies term, this form of direct address served to suture the audience into the show.

I’m not a determinist. Trump’s avant-garde use of media did not insure his election. Like all winners he was lucky—amazingly so. James Comey did him an enormous favor, as did the arrogant Clinton campaign gurus who decided Michigan was safely blue. But as Trump also benefited from fake news, chatbots, and internet trolls, it would be foolish to underestimate the way in which his facility with the media enabled him to shape the election’s terms and basic reality.

Using the principles of reality TV and the power of Twitter, Trump was able to create the spectacle and almost immediately annotate it to an audience of fans, just as Lady Gaga might address her 'monsters.' This powerful double spin offered a sense of community. No wonder people bought the illusion of straight talk and authenticity. Whether conscious strategy or megalomaniacal intuition it was enough to win this election–and astound the hard right Republicans who will be directing the show." --J. Hoberman

---Alien: H. R. Giger's Beautiful Monster

---Film Essay: Frances Ha

Sunday, November 13, 2016

new normal links

---"Rule #2: Do not be taken in by small signs of normality." --Masha Gessen

---"All around were the unmistakable signs of normalization in progress. So many were falling into line without being pushed. It was happening at tremendous speed, like a contagion." --Teju Cole

---"Don’t normalize the dark spirits that have been unleashed. Don’t.

But this is what the mainstream media does." --Matt Zoller Seitz

---Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, and election night

---"For many years, the U.S. — like the U.K. and other Western nations — has embarked on a course that virtually guaranteed a collapse of elite authority and internal implosion. From the invasion of Iraq to the 2008 financial crisis to the all-consuming framework of prisons and endless wars, societal benefits have been directed almost exclusively to the very elite institutions most responsible for failure at the expense of everyone else.

It was only a matter of time before instability, backlash, and disruption resulted." --Glenn Greenwald

---"Americanness is a sponge, not an ethnicity; normalization is a key part of how it works. It resides in the way that we speak, in the ideas that get refined and reworked and encoded in ordinary words until they seem harmless enough. It’s the ability to fit things into a narrative that flatters our ability to reason. Normalization is the process through which wisdom becomes conventional and utopian ideals slam against questions of feasibility." --Hua Hsu

---"Are You Lost in the World Like Me?"

---"Facebook has become a sewer of misinformation. Some of it is driven by ideology, but a lot is driven purely by the economic incentive structure Facebook has created: The fake stuff, when it connects with a Facebook user’s preconceived notions or sense of identity, spreads like wildfire. (And it’s a lot cheaper to make than real news.)" --Joshua Benton

---Children of Men: Comments by Slavoj Zizek Grym

---"Those of us whose ancestors were owned and bred like animals know that future all too well, because it is, in part, our past. And we know that by fighting, against all odds, we who had nothing, not even our real names, transformed the universe." --Junot Diaz

---"In the coming days, commentators will attempt to normalize this event." --David Remnick

---Our "political climate right now is conducive to this normalization of torture due to two facts: the current strength of our presidency and the current stance of U.S. public opinion on torture. One of the enabling factors for the abuses committed in the early years of the George W. Bush administration was the conviction among the administration’s lawyers that in a time of war, there were few—if any—constraints on the power of the executive." --Elizabeth Grimm Arsenault

---trailers for Do Not Resist and HyperNormalisation

Sunday, October 30, 2016

"A Dream Is Just a Dream": the Elegiac Pleasures of Cafe Society

Woody Allen's Cafe Society has a wistful elegiac charm evoked by the golden sunset light of 1930s Hollywood, a fondness for glamorizing Kristen Stewart, a storyline that kept reminding me of Billy Wilder's The Apartment (1960), and an LA/New York dynamic that one finds in Allen's Annie Hall (1977). I wasn't thrilled to see the over-exposed Jesse Eisenberg lead the movie as Bobby, the innocent and nervous New Yorker thrown into Los Angeles movie star society, but he has an easy rapport with Stewart given their work together in Adventureland (2009) and last year's American Ultra.

Whereas so many recent movies leave one feeling sorry for the actors, Cafe Society keeps displaying good taste in showcasing actresses like Parker Posey (who plays Rad, a helpful socialite who befriends Bobby) and Blake Lively (who looks gorgeous as Bobby's eventual WASP wife, Veronica). While another filmmaker might've made some point about the miseries of the depression era, Allen scarcely acknowledges it, instead focusing on the gangster-infused high life of upper class New York that sometimes reminded me of the oblique social observations in Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence. When Bobby runs into some romantic disappointment, Allen also scarcely dwells on that either, as if he doesn't have time for any moping about. We can hear Allen's voiceover as the movie builds to a romantic triangle between Bobby, Vonnie, and Bobby's uncle Phil Stern, the high-powered Hollywood agent again agreeably played by Steve Carell. After seeing Carell's work in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012), showcasing an ersatz blend of soft humor and sickly apocalyptic sentimentality, I didn't have much hope for him, but he's well-suited as a surprisingly sympathetic variation of the scumbag Sheldrake in The Apartment. Given Stern's many connections to everyone in the film industry, one can see why Vonnie could like him.

Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro understands Allen's affection for the era and his characters by keeping them beautifully lit while clad in funky 1930s fashions, listening to lots of late-night New York jazz, and watching the occasional Barbara Stanwyck snippet while making a meta reference to Billy Wilder. One gets a sense of Allen already saying goodbye to filmmaking as his characters consider their mortality. Leonard, Bobby's brother-in-law points out: "Socrates said, 'The unexamined life is not worth living.' But the examined one is no bargain." Still, Vonnie and Bobby have wistful moments of reflection of a romance that long since disappeared or transformed into married compromise that still may resonate during a New Year's Eve celebration. When Cafe Society pauses to consider what might have been, one can sense Allen positing the value of his entire oeuvre as easily comparable to Bobby's youthful moment of bliss walking along the beach with Kristen Stewart's character. When speaking of his former love, Bobby says, "A dream is just a dream," but given Cafe Society's golden-embossed sense of loss, it may matter more than anything else.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

virtual links

---The Godfather Explained: Cinematography of Shadows

---"Here’s how it ought to go: critics should work in the service of art, and so should editors, while also working in their writers’ best interests. This chain of relationships was never, ever the norm, but today it’s regularly perverted. Editors assign (and hacks pitch) from a script written by quantifiable User Interest or studio marketing—take a look at the e-mails between CEO Michael Lynton and New York Times reporter Brooks Barnes revealed in the Sony hack if you want proof—and movies are either picked to the bone or, if they don’t render down into the right kind of copy, quickly forgotten. Try to envisage even the contemporary equivalent of, say, James Agee’s three-week stand for Monsieur Verdoux before the niche readership of The Nation. There is still good and great film art being made, but how can any of it register as epochal before the torrential onrush of content? Nobody can stop traffic, and the cultural landscape is a passing blur. There’s a sense—don’t you feel it?—that nothing is major, and that’s major."  --Nick Pinkerton

---filmmaking tips from Terrence Malick

---"By rapidly substituting virtual reality for reality, we are diminishing the scope of this interaction even as we multiply the number of people with whom we interact. We remove or drastically filter all the information we might get by being with another person. We reduce them to some outlines — a Facebook 'friend,' an Instagram photo, a text message — in a controlled and sequestered world that exists largely free of the sudden eruptions or encumbrances of actual human interaction. We become each other’s 'contacts,' efficient shadows of ourselves." --Andrew Sullivan

---Moonrise Kingdom--Where Story Meets Style

---Every Commercial Ever

---"The office is as much a star of the film as Redford and Hoffman who are elbow to elbow with landslides of paper, stacks of well-thumbed reference books, clusters of coffee cups and overburdened ashtrays. Some of this can surely be chalked up to artistic license, but the newsroom was a careful recreation that included actual garbage transported from the Post offices.

Art director George Jenkins obsessively reproduced the Post office’s at Warner Bro’s Studio in Burbank. According to a 1975 Post story about the making of the film (and invasion of the office by Hollywood types) the newsroom was recreated for $200,000 and spread out over two sound stages. “Nearly 200 desks at $500 apiece were purchased from the same firm that sold desks to The Post four years ago,” the story continued. “And to color them just right, the same precise shades of paint—be they '6 ½ PA Blue' or '22 PE Green'—are being mixed on special order.” --Andy Wright

---trailers for Black Mirror Season Three, Jackie, Rats20th Century Women, Before the FloodDivines, Gimme DangerRules Don't Apply, The 13thPaterson, and Personal Shopper

---"And that’s the real problem with a culture that has an overreliance on franchises: the rulebooks and conventions of the franchise are often simply too strict to allow for innovation. When a movie is the latest within a well-known franchise or larger property, audiences and studio executives bring a laundry list of expectations to the table: they need specific story beats to be hit, certain tones to be met, iconic catchphrases to be repeated, the requisite awkward Dan Aykroyd cameo to be make everyone feel bad and sad." --Dan Schoenbrun

---the treatment for True Detective Season One 

---"The abundance of faked CGI images dilutes the meaning of the images we see to the extent that our world is becoming little more than a sequence of abstract pixel sheets. The meaning of what we see in theaters is fading constantly." --Riccardo Manzotti

---Reversal Revisited

---"When you purchase an ebook you must agree to the Terms of Service (TOS) that tell you what you can do with it. TOS are essentially very one-sided contracts written by the company selling the digital goods. Often they include provisions that shield the business from liability and even prevent the consumer from going to court if they feel ripped off. Typically a consumer’s only choice is to accept them as they are, or to decline to use the service entirely. An overwhelming majority of internet users agree to them without reading them. In one experiment 98% of users failed to notice a clause requiring them to give up their first-born as payment." --Christopher Groskopf

---The Rise of the Zombie Movie

---"The gangster film, a genre that often overlaps with noir, has an innately classical, even conservative bent. It belongs to a world of rules, of honor and betrayal. While the seminal American gangster films of the early thirties followed young men of raw ambition as they clawed their way to the top—and to the spectacular death that always met them at the pinnacle—the French cycle of the fifties and sixties has an elegiac tone, full of older men ruefully surveying a changing world or the waste and futility of their careers in crime. But many of these films also have a wry undertone of amusement; their heroes have reached an age where they can look on fate’s insults with some equanimity. In Touchez pas au grisbi, there is no more outcry against the universe, just shrugging acceptance that things don’t work out, and a sensible focus on simple pleasures: a drink, a snack, a jukebox tune." --Imogen Sara Smith

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Freon Gremlin: a one act play

Why are filmmakers so harsh on LA? Is the city as venal, predatory, soulless, and vicious as Mulholland Drive, Maps to the Stars, Sunset Boulevard, and The Neon Demon make it appear? As someone who lives in the sweet home-spun middle-of-nowhere rolling cotton fields and gentle hurricane and Cracker Barrel-ridden flatlands of provincial South Carolina, the film doctor often wonders about the cutthroat sunny land of movie stars and swimming pools:

The curtain opens to find Jena Malone getting a massage while lying supine by her pool. The famous Los Angeles sun illuminates the scene brilliantly. A helicopter flies by, stirring palm fronds overhead. Anyone can see the famous chin of Gretchen, Donnie Darko's immortal girlfriend, still prominent under Jena's Wayfarers. A strong smell of burned flesh lingers in the air along with that of Chanel No. 5. Suddenly, Jena's Samsung Galaxy in black onyx rings. With one lacquered hand, Jena waves her masseuse away and answers:

Jena: H'llo.

Her agent: Ms. Malone! Guess what! Refn wants you in The Neon Demon!

Jena: Really! (she pauses) Did you see what Mr. Nicolas Winding Refn did to Kristin Scott Thomas in Only God Forgives? What kind of role does he have in mind for me?

Agent: He wants you to play Ruby, a helpful make up artist who befriends Elle Fanning's character Jesse, a young beautiful waif freshly arrived in LA from the innocent and provincial American heartland.

Jena begins to pace back and forth, the LA skyline blinking magnificently behind her as she waves one hand in the air to dry her nails. Her sunglasses glitter in the reflected sunlight bouncing off the pool: Yes?

Agent: There's one other thing. (spoiler alert) Your character turns out to be a, uh, murderous lesbian necrophiliac cannibal.

Jena: Really? Will I have many scenes amidst lots of stuffed cougars, owls, and paintings of other wild predatory animals evoking Hitchcock's use of mise en scene in Psycho?

Agent: Yes!

Jena: I trust that Winding will include the requisite amount of dead bodies in this movie? He usually averages around 14-20. Will I get to decorate corpses in a morgue while wearing a stylish skirt?

Agent: Of course!

Jena: Will the movie involve a long scene in which Elle Fanning's character Jesse communes with a green neon triangle for no apparent reason?

Agent: That goes without saying.

Jena: Does Refn figure that today's viewer is jaded and bored enough for this highly unlikely Grand Guignol of vicious weirdness to seem plausible, and not, say, a bit silly?

Agent: You said it. I didn't. Cannes will go for it.

Abruptly, the searing sound of clashing metal and distant screams interrupts their conversation. Jena pauses to look down 10 floors below where a 17 lane highway abuts her apartment complex. Traffic has backed up for miles, leaving smog drifting over the sun-bleached horizon. To one side, Jena notices a semi crashed into a Maserati on an overpass. Several coyotes from central casting already approach the bloodied and contorted bodies lying in a very David Lynchian way across the asphalt. Jena sighs and wonders--can she really work with that unholy overbearing Elle Fanning with her coyingly sweet public persona? Just then, one of Jena's lackeys brings out a silver tray with some indeterminate baked meat skewered on Saltines next to some olives and cocktails. Jena considers the abysmal badness of Only God Forgives, but then again, Refn's Drive is a contemporary classic. Blow sinuous winding woolly wind . . . 

Jena: Ovitz, did you say Refn wants me to play a murderous cannibal?

Agent: (pause) Yes.

Jena: How did he know?


Thursday, September 15, 2016

post-fact links

---"Even those diehards are watching movies as part of a larger audio-visual diet that is in serious technological and cultural flux. I could easily say that Lemonade was the best movie I saw this spring and Stranger Things was the best movie I saw this summer, and if you reply that they’re not movies because they didn’t play in theaters or conform to a two-hour run time, I’d say you’re living in the past. The Hollywood studios still feel comfortable in that paradigm but they’re starting to look like the only ones. Maybe they’re the suicide squad." --Ty Burr

---“It’s just a clear indication of the marketplace where those high-end, niche art films just aren’t working globally,” said Marcus Hu, co-founder of independent distributor Strand Releasing. “Territories aren’t buying those kinds of movies anymore.”

---"Where are all our great romantic comedies?" by Liz Meriwether

---The Coen Brothers and Noah Baumbach discuss filmmaking

---"Wow" by Beck

---"the ultimate motivation of these performances is not to find communion or community, not with the other actors and not with the film audience, either. If there is a message to the audience in these performances, it’s best captured by one of Lawrence-as-Katniss’s final lines in the series as she describes her trauma nightmares: 'I’ll tell you how I survive it.'" --Shonni Enelow

---The Dark Knight: Creating the Ultimate Antagonist

---Roger Corman's filmmaking tips

---"Don't Wait. Write. Make a short film. Go to an open mike. Take an improv class. There’s no substitute for actually doing something. Don’t talk about it anymore. Maybe don’t even finish reading this essay." --Mike Birbiglia

---Kenzo World

---All the Slender Ladies: Body Diversity in Video Games

---"These movies didn’t just fail; they almost seemed to never exist in the first place, having been dismissed or disposed of almost immediately upon impact. And even if they did do OK for a weekend or two, they never reached beyond their predictable (and increasingly stratified) core audiences. Instead, they were dumbo-dropped into our ever-expanding cauldron of content, where they played to their bases, while everyone else turned to the newest videogame, or the latest Drake video, or some random 'Damn, Daniel' parody." --Brian Raftery

---On Set: Kristen Stewart

---Cinephilia and Beyond considers They Live

---trailers for Nocturnal Animals, Miss Sloane, Westworld, Too Late, and Guardians

---"How Snowden Escaped" by Teresa Tedesco

---"Instead of ushering a new era of truth-telling, the information age allows lies to spread in what techies call ‘digital wildfires’. By the time a fact-checker has caught a lie, thousands more have been created, and the sheer volume of ‘disinformation cascades’ make unreality unstoppable. All that matters is that the lie is clickable, and what determines that is how it feeds into people’s existing prejudices." --Peter Pomerantsev

---Richard Brody considers Hitchcock's Marnie and Marie Antoinette

---Dennis Cozzalio considers Elevator to the Gallows

---Dick Van Dyke sings "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" at a Denny's

---The References of Wes Anderson

---"Truffaut, in his interviewing, showed that a theory of composition could be lucently explained through process, that invention was not a happy accident but a habit of the mind. Hitchcock, in his replies, proved that the illusion of mainstream effortlessness rose from tiny choices made with intention and care. The legacy of their inquiry rests in today’s pop-cultural hermeneutics, self-reflexive television, probing podcast interviews. Hitchcock/Truffaut helped shape current creative life. But it reminds us, too, that art still holds mysteries beyond even the most vertiginous achievements of craft." --Nathan Heller

Saturday, September 10, 2016

4 notes on Ethan Hawkes' haircut in Maggie's Plan

1) After a dull start, Rebecca Miller's Maggie's Plan proved engaging enough with the combined talents of Greta Gerwig and Julianne Moore playing characters competing for the attention of a ficto-critical anthrolopologist named John Harding (Ethan Hawke). The movie develops wry momentum once Maggie (Gerwig) allows their combined interest in his drafting of a novel to become a romance. Once John suddenly kneels down before Maggie (dressed in a nightgown) to proclaim his love for her in a manner that reminded me of Gene Wilder doing something similar in The World's Greatest Lover (1977), I kept finding myself fixating on his deliberately ersatz haircut.

2) Perhaps, by this point, after so many Sunset movies, and the epic time expansion of Boyhood, Hawke could not just simply appear in a decent short haircut. Perhaps such conservatism didn't square with Rebecca Miller's vision of his slightly pretentious intellectual character, but did his hair have to be so misshapen and deliberately badly cut with its chicken comb top and its uneven strands going every which way? Is he supposed to look boyish? In Hamlet 2000 Hawke sported a respectable 90's pageboy cut that he would sometimes cover with a ski cap. In most of his movies, Hawke's do has looked fine, so why does he look like such a dork here?

3) Perhaps I'm just a guy with a guy's limitations watching a movie that patiently explores various ways in which women self-actualize as mothers or academics or lovers. I can see why Greta Gerwig picked the role. She gets to wear lots of prim outfits with knee-length socks as her character wrestles with her tendency to ignore men altogether as she prefers being a mother figure. Julianne Moore plays Georgette, a writer and a leading academic with an exotic Brazilian(?) accent who still harbors a weakness for John (Lord knows why). Maggie finds, after a certain point, that she rather likes Georgette, even though Maggie stole her husband away from her.

4) So, as Maggie's plan of getting John to reunite with his former wife reaches its many complications, I just kept staring at Hawkes' shag updo and feeling bad for him. At one point, John curses out Maggie for manipulating him, and I could understand. Anyone who has to spend so much time onscreen under that pile of postmodern pick-up sticks/going-every-which-way coiffure really should be annoyed.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

scream room links

---The Evolution of the Comic Book Film

---"I get a middle-of-the-Venn-diagram thrill when I encounter either literariness in film writing or film as the subject or setting of literary writing. Granted most specialists probably feel similarly, but for me there's something uniquely difficult, and also potentially alchemic, in witing about movies. The writer is tasked not only with verbally transmitting image and movement, but also capturing something of the mood or fantasy evoked on screen, and grappling with medium-specific gestures so minor they're almost implied; here, the challenge is to convey but not overwork such moments, keeping both effect and subtlety intact, as if handing over a moth without dissolving its wings." --Veronica Fitzpatrick

---hathor / room

---"In the 1990s and early 2000s, I used to hear horror stories all the time. One well-known agent once threw his phone at an assistant, only he threw it so hard it went clean out the window. A top studio executive intimidated his staff so terribly that a lower-level executive kept a voodoo doll of him and would stab it on choice occasions. A media exec smashed two women’s heads together because he wanted to watch them kiss." --Stephen Galloway

---mistakes to avoid when shooting an independent film

---"The Video Essay as Art: How to Make a Great Supercut" by Conor Bateman

---"I've always been someone that's really fascinated by identity and really aware that it's a creation." --Tessa Thompson

---trailers for Doctor Strange, Justice League, Kong: Skull Island, La La LandWonder Woman, Blair Witch, A Tale of Love and Darkness, Nerve, Rules Don't ApplyThe Edge of SeventeenTrain to Busan, and The Magnificent Seven

---"The immediacy of media, the expectation that we can be anywhere now, is changing how we experience crisis and even our own mortality." --Emily Bell

---Spatial Bodies

---Matt Zoller Seitz studies the film pop culture references of Mr. Robot

---Alexander Payne: The Science of Failure

---"The most widely accepted definition of a troll is a provocateur—someone who says outrageous, extreme or abusive things to elicit a reaction in an imagined audience. For them, the reaction itself is the win. That doesn’t cover the various sub-species of troll in this well-catered goblin market. 

The key distinction, at this convention and among the petty demagogues here assembled, is between the attention hustlers—the pure troll howlers who play this grotesque game for its own sake and their own—and the true believers. Roosh is a true believer, and that puts him at a disadvantage. Roosh means what he’s saying, but he’s still aware that he’s playing a game — the same game almost everyone in this crucible of A-list internet con-men is playing. It’s the game of turning raw rage into political currency, the unscrupulous whorebaggery of the troll gone pro. These are people who cashed in their limited principles to cheat at poker. Milo is the best player here. Like Trump, and like a lot of successful politicians in this postmodern circus, they channel their own narcissism to give voice to the wordless, formless rage of the people neoliberalism left behind. They offer new win conditions for the humiliated masses. Welcome to the scream room. There’s a cheese plate." --Laurie Penny

---Star Trek: Rules of War

Saturday, June 25, 2016

"No one cares about reality anymore": 9 notes on Terrence Malick's Knight of Cups

Terrence Malick won't/has contempt for/dislikes shooting a scene, and that's what I found myself brooding on while watching Knight of Cups on Blu-ray. On one level, this omission makes for a more gnomic movie in which voiceovers sound like oracles, but there are clear problems with the practice. Apparently, Malick did not write a screenplay for Knight of Cups, so much of the time, the actors did not know what would happen in the next non-scene. I took pleasure earlier in the year in piecing together links that explored the extreme filmmaking legend/emperor with no clothes dichotomy of Malick's critical reception, so I felt unusually ready to appreciate the movie, which sometimes resembles an ad for its own profundity. Some notes:

1) I did enjoy the film more than I expected to, in part because individual sections, such as a montage of Los Angeles billboards, are stunning on their own, with much credit due to Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography.

2) So how does a Malickian non-scene work? For much of the film, Christian Bale (screenwriter Rick) strolls about LA or Las Vegas looking pained as he encounters groupies, parties, the occasional homeless person, the gorgeous interior decoration of apartments, top notch ocean-view hotel rooms, skyscrapers, etc., all seemingly designed, perhaps, as A. O. Scott pointed out, to make us jealous. Occasionally, women like Cate Blanchett (playing a former wife, Nancy) and Natalie Portman (Elizabeth) join him, but then we usually don't get to hear much of what they might be saying. Since these stars have nothing exactly to work with except for a major filmmaker egging them on, they often come across as uncertain about what to do. Perhaps Malick likes for them to be spontaneous, but it also leads to overacting. Portman no sooner arrives than her character starts to weep because she (as we learn in the voiceover) has become pregnant, and she doesn't know whether Rick or her husband is the father. I imagine that Malick ultimately cuts out the sound of much of the film's improv dialogue because it turned out to be banal and repetitive.

3) Also, whenever Malick returns to erstwhile major characters later in the movie (such as he does with Rick's dad played by Brian Dennehy), whatever significance Malick may want us to feel doesn't work at all. Here's where coherent earlier scenes would have really helped keep the film from drifting into self-important abstraction.

4) Malick loves to film the ocean crashing on the shore. After awhile, we know that the stars of the movie, as much as they avoid the waves initially, will eventually get their Giorgio Armani designer clothes wet, because what else is there to do? One can then think of how the water meets the sand, and all of its metaphorical and cosmological significance.

5) What of the tarot cards? As each section of the movie divides up under titles like "Death," "the Moon,"and "the Hanged Man," etc., I kept thinking of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, which is also a collection of metaphorical fragments that hints at further metaphysical depth.

6) Due to the lack of real scenes, characters end up being vaguely dramatized ideas. Antonio Banderas appears in one party scene as a fun-loving hedonist who samples women like ice cream flavors. He dances on the edge of the pool, and, of course, ends up romping around in the water fully dressed as all of the beautiful people look on. I had difficulty believing that we were ever really meant to accept Cate Blanchett or Natalie Portman as characters at all. They are, instead, stars, like Freida Pinto, happy to not have been cut from the movie altogether. In this regard, their beauty operates more like a brand--they heighten the movie with their star power regardless of whatever vague motivation that each non-scene may have. Having Portman show up late in the movie makes sense--she's worthy of a later entrance given her comparative star wattage.

7) Actors do twirl less than they do in To the Wonder (2012), but there is one blonde stripper/actress named Karen (Teresa Palmer) who dances around in every scene much like Sarah Jessica Parker did in L.A. Story (1991). 

8) Occasionally, Malick juxtaposes the human-made spectacle with a natural one, cutting from a massive state of the art multi-screen concert to a desert mountain landscape so that we can compare and contrast the beauty of each.  At times, the grand long shot visual style of the movie (always happy to turn up and focus on a helicopter or a jet flying overhead) reminded me of Antonioni's L'Avventura (1960), where the composition of the shot keeps commenting obliquely on the scene and the characters (when it isn't overwhelming them).

9) Knight of Cups may one day serve as a grand and magisterially detached portrait of our era, one in which the movie's hints of depravity and existential despair may not prove as lasting as its vivid depiction of Los Angeles design and its semi-satirical portrait of the rich at play. Even with the film's Delphic voiceovers and Christian Bale's pained expressions, human characterization ultimately does not appear to matter all that much. As Karen points out, "No one cares about reality anymore" anyway.

summer links

---"Summer has officially arrived, along with the mounting pressure to enjoy it before it passes. The filmmaker who most deeply investigated the contradictions of the sweaty months is Eric Rohmer, whose summer films contain placid surfaces rippled by violent speech. His characters are surrounded by beauty and inevitably beset by anxieties of how their time there is being wasted, ticking away." --R Emmet Sweeney

---You Are Awake

---"The trouble with the movies is that they so seldom get below the surface of a story and its characters, that their whole is rarely as good as the parts, and the characters of their players—Gary Cooper or Margaret Sullavan, for instance—are usually more powerful than the characters they play." --Manny Farber

---a four part analysis of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf by Nathaniel R, Kyle Stevens, and others on the Film Experience 

---"Streep made one small, but important, tweak at the table read. She changed Miranda’s last line, where she’s sitting in a chauffeured car with Andy, from 'Everybody wants to be me' to 'Everybody wants to be us.' On the press tour for Prada, Streep insisted that Miranda the movie character wasn’t based on Wintour. She said her performance was inspired by men, but kept their identities a closely guarded secret until now. 'The voice I got from Clint Eastwood,' Streep says. 'He never, ever, ever raises his voice and everyone has to lean in to listen, and he is automatically the most powerful person in the room. But he is not funny. That I stole from Mike Nichols. The way the cruelest cutting remark, if it is delivered with a tiny self-amused curlicue of irony, is the most effective instruction, the most memorable correction, because everyone laughs, even the target. The walk, I’m afraid, is mine.'"

---Matthew McConaughey Talks True Detective

---"De Palma went on, 'The studios gave us the keys to the kingdom, and we all made a lot of extraordinary movies before they discovered sequels.' He made the word sound repellent. 'But it’s a corrosive system. When I was working on The Fury, Frank Yablans”—who produced the 1978 film—'said, ‘Dino will pay you a million dollars to do Hurricane. Go see him right now.’ Dino De Laurentiis was an impresario of gaudy schlock. 'So I go to Dino’s office, and he holds up this picture of an island and says, ‘ Hurricane! You will live in my hotel and shoot it all!’ After I read this terrible script and was embarrassed that I’d been lured, I told myself, ‘You can’t stay here any longer.’" --Tad Friend

---Dave Adder of Typeset in the Future considers Blade Runner

---"Simply the Best: Blood Simple and the Fabulous Coen Brothers" by Danny Bowes

---trailers for The Birth of a Nation, American Honey, Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, I, Daniel Blake, Train to Busan, The Legend of TarzanThe Girl With All the Gifts, Keeping Up with Jonesesand American Pastoral

---"Whether the film’s influence extended beyond the movies and into reality is another question, but when the World Trade Center was attacked in 2001, it was often said that footage of the crumpling Twin Towers could have come from a Hollywood movie – and one Hollywood movie in particular. Joe Viskocil, the pyrotechnics expert who designed The White House explosion in Independence Day, went so far as to say that he felt partially responsible. 'I felt guilty about making my work look so good,' he says. 'I started thinking maybe I did my job too well, and it might have been the nucleus of an idea for someone to say: ‘Hey, let’s crash a plane into the White House.’" But no one else in Hollywood showed much remorse. Directors, Emmerich included, kept on knocking down New York landmarks as if nothing had happened." --Nicholas Barber

---David Fincher: From a Distance

---Whit Stillman's 10 favorite films

---Famous Actors as Famous Authors

---Dissecting Dialogue in Film

---"The Dawn of 'Just Me": Zack Snyder's Neoliberal Superheroes" by William Bradley

--“I say the same thing over and over again. If I can create a sequence where you’re gazing at a woman or following a woman, it seems to me like a basic building block of cinema." --Brian De Palma

---Happy and Townie by Mitski

---All Along the Watchtower, Explored

---Thought Leader Talk

---"I think when something is exciting to you, a picture or a piece of music, what’s exciting is that you’re hearing the latest sentence in a conversation you’ve been having all your life. When you look at a painting, you don’t just see that painting, you see every other picture you’ve ever seen. That painting is in the context of every picture you’ve ever seen." --Brian Eno

Thursday, June 9, 2016

"Be gone, or I will have you whipped": the pleasures of Whit Stillman's Love and Friendship

Adapted from an early story by Jane Austen, Whit Stillman's Love and Friendship is delightful, with Kate Beckinsale as Lady Susan Vernon dominating most every scene she's in, but I was confused by certain aspects of it. To whit,

a) no superheroes battle each other.

b) the movie, which is weirdly not a sequel, does not end with a large explosion and a chase scene.

c) Kate Beckinsale does not wear black leather, jump out of high buildings (landing on her feet), nor does she kill a single Lycan as she tends to do in her various Underworld movies.

Instead, Stillman relies upon Lady Susan Vernon's wit and satirical bite to drive a Regency era comedy that moves fast with lots of horse-drawn carriages rushing back and forth between estates. Stillman prefaces scenes with flagrantly artificial introductions of characters where the actors stand before the camera while we read something written on them in fancy Austen-esque font like:

The Divinely Handsome
Lord Manwaring

Also, curiously, Stillman often leaves key characters, such as Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O'Mearain) out of the movie almost altogether, never bothering to waste a scene on a figure who serves the plot but may not be needed otherwise.

As a typical consumer of recent cinema, I am used to moviemakers spoonfeeding information to my distracted brain, but Whit Stillman makes Love and Friendship tricky, subtle, and occasionally hard to follow. I went to see it with two lady friends, and we have gotten into various arguments about it since. When I claim that I like the machinations of Lady Susan, they assure me that I should not, that she's evil and manipulative. As a man, I, too, am susceptible to her charms. Once one learns to look beyond the conventions of mostly upper class early 19th century society, one realizes that Lady Susan takes what she wants, and justifies her behavior smoothly afterwards. When she runs into a man she doesn't want to see, she says "Be gone, or I will have you whipped." Likewise, when she has an affair with Lord Manwaring and his wife Lady Lucy (Jenn Murray) understandably objects, Lady Susan points out that "If she was going to be jealous, she should not have married such a charming man."

Perhaps in part because the death of her husband has left her poor, Lady Susan comes across as more alive than her more moneyed hence complacent peers. Her former husband's brothers' wife Catherine DeCourcey Vernon (Emma Greenwell) becomes alarmed by Lady Susan's visit to her country estate due to her reputation as an effective coquette, i.e. her ability to do great mischief by getting most any man around to fall in love with her. Yet, Catherine also acts transfixed around Lady Susan, as if hypnotized by a snake. I enjoyed Kate Beckinsale's performance, in part because she proves that she does not need all of that tight-fitting black leather and slow-motion fight scenes in the gothic dark to hold one's attention. She can accomplish that well enough as a supremely self-interested player.

In an American movie, Lady Susan might've been a femme fatale along the lines of Matty Walker in Body Heat (1981) or Barbara Stanwyck's role in Double Indemnity (1944), but Lady Susan need not kill anyone either. She enjoys the chess-like strategizing of manipulating others for its own sake, much as the Marquise de Merteuil does in Dangerous Liaisons (1988). When Lady Manwaring manages to poke a hole in Lady Susan's deceptions by exposing one of her letters to Reginald DeCourcey, Lady Susan handily defuses the scandal by questioning Reginald's trust in her. If anything, she makes her ability to transfix everyone look too easy, to the detriment of Chloe Sevigny's role as Alicia Johnson, an American wife who mostly just listens to Lady Susan's confidences. In contrast to Chloe's previous work with Kate in Whitman's excellent Last Days of Disco (1988), her participation in this movie as Alicia is limited by her husband Mr. Johnson (Stephen Fry), who, as Lady Susan puts it, is "too old to be governable, too young to die."

Meanwhile, as everyone reels from "the most accomplished flirt in England," Tom Bennett as the upper-class twit James Martin proves hilarious every time he attempts to talk. I liked it when he brings up the 12 commandments and then tries to explain why he goofed. When he finds some peas on his plate during dinner, he says, "How jolly, tiny green balls. What are they called?" Stillman understands how Americans enjoy watching English nobility reduced by in-breeding, perhaps, to sheer fat-headed ludicrousness. Reginald DeCourcey proclaims James Martin to be insufferably "silly," but the man still has fun in his idiocy.

In the end, Love and Friendship works just as Lady Susan does, through its "captivating deceit," its "uncanny understanding of men's nature," and its insistent charm. Sometimes, even when we know better, we prefer the company of a knowing and beautiful fraud.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

anesthesia of the loudness links

---The American Dream in Film

---"Sequel after sequel has disappointed at the box office this year."

---Frank Zappa on fads

---the Strokes' "Drag Queen"

---a scene from American Psycho

---"X-Men, meanwhile, is iconography in reverse. No one — outside of their personal accountants — will associate Michael Fassbender with Magneto, or Jennifer Lawrence with Mystique, or James McAvoy with Professor X when they look back on their careers. These parts are IMDb filler; celebrity curios; walking, knowing smirks. If anything, equity-wise, X-Men roles carry a stigma: They’re pure paychecks." --Sam Donsky

---Beck's "Wow"

---"Our Brand Could Be Your Crisis" by Ayesha Siddiqi

---Notes on Pickpocket

---trailers for 11:55, Down by Love, Love and FriendshipThe Legend of TarzanRoadies, Carnage ParkThe Call Up, and Morgan

---"Ms. Eakin said spotlighting the range and diversity of female cinematographers underscored their strength. 'Everyone can stop questioning whether women can command a set and a crew and be creative and technical at the same time,' she said. 'We can and we do. We just need to get past it being this rarity.'" --Melena Ryzik

---a collection of Pauline Kael's reviews

---"The Video Essay as Art: Why Process Matters" by Conor Bateman

---"Rawness is fast emerging, in fact, as the central paradox of live streaming: The very intimacy and immediacy that make the medium attractive are also the things that make it almost impossible to keep clean." --Caitlin Dewey

---Brian De Palma's guilty pleasures

---Richard Hell's top 10 Criterion picks

---Cinephilia and Beyond considers Alien

---Stanley Kubrick: The Cinematic Experience

---"Such cruel paradoxes seem somehow built into Highsmith’s sapphic romance—written, as it were, into the fictional DNA. Highsmith, one might venture, was never able to rid herself of an ominous, dissipating sense of the pathological element in human life. Like a retribution, it was there in society’s repressive dictates and in her own psyche. These deep contradictions both undercut and intensify the nostalgic seduction supplied by the warm and glittery 1950s Manhattan setting. Carol and Therese seem to be forever swirling down Old-Fashioneds and double Gibsons, listening to Billie Holiday, and smiling a little too intently at one another. The Price of Salt, read straightforwardly, depicts the beginnings of the kind of relationship Highsmith herself could never enjoy. The novel is, I think, its author’s wish-fulfilment dream, but one in which anxiety-dream elements, the same stuff she transmuted elsewhere into bizarre suspense fiction, keep looming up like neurotic symptoms to invade the mise-en-scène. It’s a rarity—a love story lit by a weird, unwholesome, noirish glow." --Terry Castle

---"Sofia Coppola and the Female Coming of Age" by Allie Gemmill

---Intertextuality: Hollywood's New Currency

---"Watching Captain America: Civil War, in which positively nothing is at stake, I checked my watch 25 minutes into the film, sighing at the realization that there were nearly two hours remaining. How can audiences stand this? By submitting to the anesthesia of the loudness, I suspect, by comforting themselves with the knowledge that they are, at this moment, doing what culture expects of them. Seeing the “big” thing, the Super Bowl of yearly adventure epics." --Chuck Bowen

---What Makes a Movie Great?