Sunday, January 24, 2016

Heteronormative dread and rain-streaked glass: a discussion about Carol

In freezing cold Charleston recently, I woke up early, taking notes on various articles and posts on Carol (we saw it at the Terrace Theater). Later, B (my wife) and I discussed it after breakfast.

FD: I was blown away by Todd Haynes' Carol, especially in the way that it depicts a horror of 1950s heteronormative society, the way that men keep interfering with the love affair between Carol and Therese. Your thoughts?

B: I don't think you should be so hard on the male behavior. Haynes depicts the males fairly typically, but we notice the jarring quality because we've become privy to the female point of view of the two main characters. In most movies, the viewer doesn't know how many women dislike male attention or think that it's buffoonish. We see females going along with that level of male attention without a second thought.  In Carol we know that neither of the women wants men around at all. Yet, all the husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) wants is his wife back. All that Therese's boyfriend Dannie (John Magaro) wants is to marry the woman that he loves. We might see these behaviors differently if we weren't so trained on the perspectives of the women.

FD: Yes, but the film makes all of the men appear relentlessly intrusive, always presuming that they are in the right. There's an Invasion of the Body Snatchers feel to their sense of privilege.  For instance, Harge hires a private detective who is literally invasive.

B: Right. That's the way it is. Annoyingly, Harge and Dannie both presume that the woman's attraction to another woman is fleeting, arbitrary, and should not interfere with the way the world's supposed to be. They keep wanting to trivialize Carol's and Therese's relationship. To them, it's just a momentary urge that can be overcome. It can't be anything as important as a love a man has for a woman. If Carol had fallen in love with a man, there would have been a lot more testosterone tossed about. The male characters assume that the women may, in a sense, temporarily become vegan but they will return to the meat soon enough.

Meanwhile, Carol and Abby (Sarah Paulson) have a friendship that was once a lesbian affair. The film has lots of nuances in its portrayal of women's relationships.

FD: What did you think of Haynes' painterly visual strategy of depicting Carol and Therese' point of view through rain-streaked glass, such as in the windshield of cars.

B: One of my favorite examples of that is Therese's first car ride where Haynes dims the sound of Carol's voice and we see the green light in a tunnel as if in an acid kaleidoscope. The color scheme reflects Therese's sexual awakening. Carol's colors are always sleek and bright, with a lot of bright red. Therese's colors tend to be more somber, so that's why Carol admires Therese's red Santa hat. In comparison to Carol, Therese lives in a more somber world, at least at first. The rain, of course, is part of that. Therese often spends New Years Eve alone.

FD: Therese says that she feels obliged to take an interest in people as a subject for photography.

B: Yes, Carol becomes the first person that Therese has met that is worthy of being photographed. Part of that is when you fall in love for the first time, people can seem more interesting.

FD: Carol encourages Therese as an artist.

B: She also encourages Therese to open up to people emotionally and intellectually. In some ways, Therese is the hard nut to crack. Carol is coded, but her emotions are more on the surface. There's always a tension in any story about same sex attraction because the seduction is different. Carol is the aggressor, in a way. She's on the look out for likely relationships.

FD: Yes.

B: Is Therese going to allow Carol to seduce her? Or is Carol in love with Therese because Therese is ostensibly straight? The will-they/won't-they uncertainty wouldn't appear in a heteronormative relationship in the same way.

FD: You get something of the same story structure in a romantic comedy where there's a gulf between the two principle figures, only in that case they tend to dislike each other at first.

B: Or there's some reason why they can't be together.

FD: In the Eisenhower 1952 era of Carol, everything about society at that the time (legal, class-related, psychological) forbids Carol and Therese's relationship to the point where the husband Harge evokes a morality clause against Carol in their divorce proceedings. Why do you suppose that Haynes' evocation of that era works so well today?

B: Haynes portrays a relationship between two women as the main point of the film, which is still unusual. Often, in films like Allen's Manhattan (1979), that kind of affair is seen as a comic side note, whereas in Carol, the opposite is true--the men and the family connections are often extraneous. The totality of Carol's and Therese's point of view implicitly refutes the society of the time. Rindy (Carol's daughter) of course is important to Carol, but women have been struggling with how much of their lives they owe to their children since Kate Chopin's The Awakening (in 1902) and before. As Edna says, I would die for my child, but I will not give up my life.

FD: What did you think of the age and class gulf between Carol and Therese?

B: The two have their differences, but Carol ultimately proves a mentor and guide for Therese. There's also a Pygmalion quality to their relationship.

FD: Perhaps that's why Therese's Audrey Hepburn-esque jumper looks so appropriate, because of her work in My Fair Lady.

B: Right. I love all of the close ups on Therese' and Carol's faces. The details are so significant. Blanchett's eyes are almond shaped and dark. Her nails are red and glossy during the car trip, but later, afterwards, the nails become uncolored and bitten, reflecting her subsequent anxiety. You could say Carol's gloss, her tendency to wear attention-seeking colors, reflects her adaptation to her upper crust world. In contrast, Therese is often associated with a troubled blue coloring, which reflects her relative misery, taking pictures instead of living.

FD: Good points. As Blanchett said in an interview, "There are so many secrets, codes, and forbidden topics and taboos that exist between the women of Carol." The movie is both ravishing and endlessly intellectually provocative even as it conveys a dread of society's heteronormative assumptions.

B: Maybe the movie resonates because it hints at how much of our lives are under the ice, how much of a person's individual world is left unstated and unknown. Haynes' movie shows us how we miss so much of it. Carol illustrates a love that dare not speak its name (given the time period), but that can be true for any relationship, if we just bother to look.

Some related links:

---"All too often, the central dramas or compulsions of female characters depend on men"--Phyllis Nagy

---"To convey the emotional state of the characters, Lachman added that he also 'shot through windows, elements of weather, through reflections, to defuse the image and obstruct the frame. You see Rooney Mara in the taxi through the window or Carol in a diner through a window, kind of a way of visualizing what is happening to the characters. You understand that the character is seeing through the obstacles, expressing something about their emotion that’s being hidden but also visible. Their affection toward each other and consummating their relationship would have been a great taboo in that time period.'"

---"And we see all these shots through glass and reflections, windows, and where almost the lens itself, the act of looking is foregrounded because it’s all about desire and who is on what side of that looking.”  --Todd Haynes

---"Too many filmmakers (and definitely too many TV show runners) dilute the impact of their stories by indulging them, treading in their waters rather than controlling their currents. Carol has the kind of concentrated pacing and tight crystallization of character arcs through images that you only get in cinema when the creative team is keeping it tight and understands that they are not making visual epic novels or comic books but visual short stories. You only have these series of shots alone to tell a full satisfying story. And they're going to tell it in such a way that you give the audience abundant room to build their own extensions -- miniseries, prequels or endless franchise installments -- in their imagination from how rich the images and implications are and how deeply the characters resonate." --Nathaniel R

---"I do love that strange sort of linking of the homoerotic and the criminal in her work. Almost always male homosexuals are the subjects of that kind of alliance, and I do find that to be really fascinating. It doesn’t paint this positivist portrait of homosexuality, at least among men. There’s an unmistakable sort of fixation on it, and a way in which covert desire has to be transformed into something else. The two themes are always running in parallel with each other and unspoken about — or almost nearly unspoken, because it’s so prevalent in the work. It bristles through the Ripley stories and, obviously, Strangers on a Train and many [others] I’ve read. That desire, that instinct to tell a story about desire always having to be disguised, a desire that at some level is antisocial — I think, in that way, even The Price of Salt has to be included in that taste or tradition of hers."  --Todd Haynes

---Therese and Carol and Alec and Laura: A Close Enounter

Friday, January 22, 2016

invisible links

---"I can't and I don't want to talk about Bugs Bunny."

---"It will seem more and more subversive to be a writer, a real writer, in an age of vast managed systems. And whatever happens within those systems, I don’t think they can quite eradicate the thing that happens inside when a person hears what she recognizes as the truth. We have many layers, do many things, wear many guises, but I think underneath it all we crave what a system disperses and a writer works toward: connection and coherence." --Sven Birkerts

---Top 10 Best Opening Shots of All Time

---Directors Who Cameo in Their Own Films

---Idris Elba: Speech on Diversity in the Media and Films

---"The Long Shadow of Gilda" by Sheila O'Malley

---"He led a pretty normal-seeming life. He shopped for groceries once a week at Dean and DeLuca. He loved the chicken sandwich with watercress and tomatoes at Olive’s on Prince Street. He liked to rise at 6 a.m. and get his 'buzz' by walking the still-empty streets of Chinatown.

He read a lot. He collected art. He painted. He and Iman socialized with the parents of their daughter’s friends at school. He spent his remaining time meaningfully and productively, and largely here." --Steven Kurutz

---making The Revenant

---"Hitching rides from New York to Chicago; keeping enough change in your pocket to make calls from pay phones; making the rounds of friends and acquaintances living in tenement walk-ups, all with the same makeshift end table next to the same beat-up sofa by the same window looking out on the same fire escape—Inside Llewyn Davis is a story whose every particular is firmly rooted in the early sixties in general, and in the West Village in particular. The Coens have always been zealous excavators of the unheralded or bypassed corners of American life, from late-forties Northern California suburbia to the folkways of the modern American Midwest. They are connoisseurs of the spaces between and the moments before and after or just on the edges of historical milestones. And as storytellers, they seem to begin, gleefully, with a self-imposed challenge: Who is the least likely hero-on-a-quest on whose shoulders we can park an entire movie?" --Kent Jones

---La Meninas: Best Painting in History?

---"Notes on The Hateful Eight" by Glenn Kenny

---The Hollywood Reporter's Actor and Actress Roundtable

---"We’ve come a long way, but I still have a hard time gaining anyone’s trust as woman director. I’ve been on a lot of panels lately leading up to the Globes and the Oscars with my fellow male directors. I adore them, but they are very male, with dominant body language: legs spread, hands behind their heads. I don’t have that. I have a soft voice, clothes with flowers. It gives this idea of fragility that is not true. I’m strong, but you might not imagine that at face value." --Deniz Gamze Erguven

---"Hollywood's Turn Against Digital Effects" by Bryan Curtis

---"To combat this trend, Feig’s characters employ body language as a means to express frustration, desire, and protest. While most filmmakers would play these situations simply for laughs, Feig and his core collaborators - McCarthy, Rose Byrne, and Kristin Wiig – deny such simplicity, contemplating the power of gesture as a way to signify a range of emotions and reclaim their identity. These conflicted heroines rely on exaggerated performance to confront the absurd and sexist assumptions made by their male (and sometimes female) counterparts" --Glenn Heath Jr.

---Who Deserves to Win the 2015 Oscar for Lead Actor?

---Fear Is Just the Beginning

---filmmaking tips from Sam Mendes

---Editing as Punctuation in Film

---Let Me In: The Films of Noah Baumbach

---"It’s not that De Niro’s exploded his legacy, then, so much as that the options for a man of his age and stature are collapsing around him, especially as studios have gradually ceased to nurture the small and medium-sized pictures that used to make up a solid portion of their release schedule. Indeed, the bulk of the films that compose his so-called legacy (Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter, Raging Bull) would’ve struggled to get made, gone straight to VOD, or done poorly — as Raging Bull did back in 1980, grossing just $23 million as the realities of the blockbuster market began to truly take hold." --Anne Helen Petersen

---trailers for Suicide Squad, KeanuThe Seasons in Quincy, Elle, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Money Monster, Colonia, Lo and Beholdand Hail Caesar!

---The Problem with Trailers

---The Hitchcock Kiss

---London Bus Tour

Monday, January 18, 2016

"Everyone, deep in their hearts, is waiting for the end of the world to come": 12 notes on Adam McKay's The Big Short

1) "You well heeled big wheel, ha ha charade you are." --"Pigs (Three Different Ones)" from the album Animals by Pink Floyd

2) “if you treat the audience like poets and geniuses that’s what they’ll become”, says McKay. “Audiences are smarter than people think. Here we treat them like economists, and so far they seem to be going with it."

3) "So there you have it: I was wrong, and apologize to Wall Street for drawing too stark a distinction between them and regular counterfeiters." --Jon Schwarz

4) The Big Short reminded me of Goodfellas (1990) with Steve Carell taking Joe Pesci's role as Tommy DeVito.

5) "Typically when they [the young men of Cornwall Capital] entered a new market--because they'd found some potential accident waiting to happen that seemed worth betting on--they found an expert to serve as a jungle guide. This market was so removed from their experience that it took them longer than usual to find help. 'I had a vague idea what an ABS [asset-backed security] was," said Charlie. 'But I had no idea what a CDO was." Eventually, they figured out that language served a different purpose inside the bond market than it did in the outside world. Bond market terminology was designed less to convey meaning than to bewilder outsiders [italics mine] (from Michael Lewis' book The Big Short 126).

6) SCARLETT JOHANSSON in a white T shirt and cut off jeans let’s the waterfall run over her while explaining mortgage backed securities.

SCARLETT JOHANSSON--"Basically Lewis Ranieri’s Mortgage bonds were amazingly profitable for the big banks. They made billions and billions off of their 2% fee on each of these bonds they sold. But then they started running out of mortgages to put in them. After all, there’s only so many homes and so many people with good enough jobs to buy them. So the banks starting doing something different. Instead of creating mortgage bonds that were guaranteed by the US government, they started creating their own private mortgage bonds. No government, no pesky standards like good credit or minimum income. And then the big banks were able to fill the bonds with riskier and riskier mortgages and keep the profit machine churning. By the way, the risky mortgages are called “subprime.” Anytime you hear subprime, think shit. Michael Burry found out these mortgage bonds that we supposedly 65% AAA were actually mostly full of shit, so now he’s going to “short” the bonds, which means to 'bet against.' Got it? Good."  --[from The Big Short's screenplay--the scene that morphed into Margot Robbie's lesson in a bubble bath]

7) "Mortgages are safe." --from John Tamny's "Adam McKay's 'The Big Short' Misleads In Entertaining Fashion" as published in Forbes magazine

8) "I realize Adam McKay, a disciple of Bernie Sanders and the movie’s director, would be eager to pin blame upon Wall Street (whose investment bankers are certainly not entirely innocent)" --from Philip DeVoe's 'The Big Short' Falls Short On Explaining The Housing Collapse" also published in Forbes

9) "I am shocked that executives at some of the worst lenders were not punished for what they did. But this is the nature of these things. The ones running the machine did not get punished after the dot-com bubble either — all those VCs and dot-com executives still live in their mansions lining the 280 corridor on the San Francisco peninsula. The little guy will pay for it — the small investor, the borrower. Which is why the little guy needs to be warned to be more diligent and to be more suspicious of society’s sanctioned suits offering free money. It will always be seductive, but that’s the devil that wants your soul." --Michael Burry

10) "The people in a position to resolve the financial crisis were, of course, the very same people who had failed to foresee it: Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, future Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, Morgan Stanley CEO John Mack, Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit, and so on. A few Wall Street CEOS had been fired for their roles in the subprime mortgage catastrophe, but most remained in their jobs, and they, all of people, became important characters operating behind the closed doors, trying to figure out what to do next. With them were a handful of government officials--the same government officials who should have known a lot more about what Wall Street firms were doing, back when they were doing it. All shared a distinction: They had proven far less capable of grasping basic truths in the heart of the U.S. financial system than [Michael Burry]" (Lewis 260).

11) "Everyone, deep in their hearts, is waiting for the end of the world to come."  --from Haruki Murakami's novel IQ84 quoted in The Big Short

12) "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain." --The Wizard of Oz

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Compression Wars, Dynamic Range, and the Importance of Sound: An Interview with Filmmaker Morgan Honaker

Two Fridays ago, my colleague Joe and I sat down with Morgan Honaker to discuss her recent career in filmmaking. An alumna of my video production class, Morgan had just given the current class an excellent tutorial on the importance of sound in movies, mentioning sound cliches like the Wilhelm scream and the Eagle sound effect. She also pointed out some egregious examples of weak sound work in major movies, such as in this clip in The Great Gatsby. Here is a transcript of our discussion:

FD:What are the newest interactions between the Internet, social media, apps, and filmmaking techniques?

MH: The amount of people who see your movie is dependent upon your presence in social media. It's hard for people like me, because I don't have a great Twitter presence, but we funded our movie from Kickstarter, and we got the money we need in four days. And that was pretty cool, being able to fund a short film, that wasn't supposed to have a budget, really quickly. Still, usually, I have to get the producers to get the word out, because I just don't have . . .

FD: It's not your bent.

MH: Yeah, I don't spend a lot of time on social media.

FD: Are you noticing this amongst your peers, though?

MH: Oh yeah.

FD: Is there a social media form that is well-suited for filmmaking, especially for promotion?

MH: Kickstarter and GuFundMe are probably the two where a lot of filmmakers search for stuff, but Twitter is the easiest, the fastest, and the most accessible, and that is where a lot of people are linking their stuff for other people to see, especially because you can tweet @ a celebrity and be, like, go watch my movie, and they might do it. Others might have a bigger Twitter presence than you do, and hundreds of people may see it from their site.

FD: Just now, you came up with Drained. That was a class project, right?

MH: Yeah.

FD: How do you see a movie like that as a selling point for your work?

MH: I'm going to submit to as many festivals as I can afford. Usually, they have 10-20$ entry fees, so it's just a matter of what I can submit to under a $100. That always helps. People always thought of me as a sound person, so that they know that Morgan is good at more than one thing. I do like directing (I liked directing in your class), but I think my strengths are better in sound. It does help to show people that you can be diverse. I'm getting into color correction right now, too.

FD: Right. One of the things they say about modern day job market abilities--the more technical stuff you know, the more likely you are to be hired.

MH: Exactly. I'm getting a concentration [at the University of Texas] in computer science because I feel that pressure.

FD: This relates to the video game work that you've been doing?

MH: Yes, and also just being able to manipulate software to your needs. One of the guys I work with--he's supposed to only do audio, but he also works with After Effects. He programs stuff for us, because we need that. We need diverse people, so I should do the same. I'm really good with sound. I'm very specialized, but I can do other things.

FD: Now you're work for a studio in Austin, right?

MH: It's a studio that's paid by UT called the Liberal Arts Institute of Technology. We do a lot of live mixing, so I have those huge controller boards that I work with. We do a lot of in studio recording, film recording. The coolest thing we did recently was an interview with the director of the CIA.

J: Is this apart from the film work? A separate sound studio?

MH: Yeah, we do a lot of podcasts. We create everything there--sound effects, music, podcasts, dialogue editing. There's one podcast called Mere Rhetoric, and there's 15 Minute History that's really popular on iTunes right now.

FD: How did you find out about this job?

MH: I saw a posting over spring break when I was the only person on campus in the film building. I was the first person to apply. They had like 50 applicants and 2 of us were picked.

FD: Do you have some sort of demo reel for sound?

MH: Some people make reels for sound, but since demo reels work better for visuals, I keep an on-line portfolio, a log of all of my work. I'm working on a website that will include links to all of my work, my music, sound design in movies, foley work. I'm probably going to make a minute and a half reel eventually.

FD: Prospective employers seem to be very impatient, to see in one minute, all of your best work.

MH: Exactly.

FD: O. K. Keyes has developed hers quite a bit. I've noticed that directors' reels tend to have more suspense and drama on display that the beautiful shots of a cinematographer.

MH: It's more common for those who specialize in sound to have a website. Sound reels are usually for music or strictly sound effects, so they'll make a little animation to go along with it.

FD: I find it interesting that you look back on some of your earlier work with great horror and loathing. I'm proud that you did such good work in my class. How does that change over time? You become more sophisticated and sensitive to things?

MH: Also, instruments have gotten way better now. Your sound equipment in your class today is way more sophisticated than what we had [about 5 years ago].

J: The introductory filmmaking class is a chance to make all of those mistakes. That's part of the point of it.

MH: Exactly. I'm really glad we got to do that.

FD: What would recommend for a filmmaking class now in terms of sound equipment?

MH: You definitely need a separate recorder, so you can practice syncing, which is really easy if you have a good slate. The Zooms are fine. They are not my favorite, but the Zoom H4n and the H6 are pretty good because they have 4 channels. It's small, just a little bigger than a cell phone. The best are Sound Devices, the 744, 788, and 702 lines. Those are amazing.

J: What makes them better?

MH: They have better noise canceling, so it's a cleaner recording. They have more channels, more features that allow you to manipulate the mix on the fly. You can name the track inside, so it's easier. You don't have to take a separate sound log to match the sound file with the video file later. You can just name the sound file shot 1-A, take 2.

J: In order to really exploit a piece of equipment like that, you'd have to have a crew with a dedicated sound person, it seems.

MH: Exactly. The Zoom is definitely better than recording through a camera, because you can do levels while you're there. I would say, a good recorder, 3 or 4 really long, 50 feet XLR cables, zip ties, a shot gun microphone, a dynamic microphone, a wind screen, a boom pole, and a blimp.

FD: Thanks. Do you think that perhaps someday you might work with Linklater or Wes Anderson?

MH: Terence Malick shot one of his films near Austin a little while ago and some people I know worked with him. Linklater is much more of a possibility than Wes Anderson just because Anderson has a very specific group of people he likes to work with. One develops a network of people what one tends to work with. If they do something, I'm going to be working on it, which is nice to have, because unless you really screw it up, you are going to have a job with them.

FD: What do you think of the fact that so often, people make movies that nobody watches?

MH: That's definitely true.

FD: What do you think about that? When we asked James [the Hollywood producer] about that, he mentioned that, increasingly, everyone's watching movies on his or her phones, which means a lot more close ups, more simplistic cinematography, because you can't see the detail of a good shot on such a small screen.

MH: Right. What's worse than listening to sound through earbuds on your phone?  That's why the compression wars are happening, because everyone is getting on smaller mediums. People are not going out to orchestras to listen to music.

FD: What do you mean by compression wars?

MH: This idea that in order to get music as loud as you can possibly get it, you compress it as much as possible, so they'll compress it a little bit, come back, compress it some more to get the music as loud as possible for consumers, which is ridiculous, because that also eliminates dynamic range. I particularly love classical music, because I was trained classically in piano. Part of the beauty of classical music involves crescendos and lulls. Modern music's losing that in the compression wars. Everything's kind of just one bar of sound.

J: I remember when CD's first came out, that was the big complaint. They didn't know how to work the CD technology, so they just compressed everything to hell. Eventually, they started learning how to use CD's well for classical music, but in pop music . . .

FD: So, there's this sense that modern technology tends to flatten everything out?

MH: It does.

FD: The image gets smaller, the sound cruder, which seems ironic given the greater sophistication of the technology and the possible technique.

MH: Definitely. [to be continued]

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Video production class weblog: day 9--vibing, ketchup, and the art of becoming an effective film crew

After the arrival of the third alumni (Morgan Honaker, hailing from the University of Texas at Austin) who spoke for the frequently neglected importance of sound in cinema, the video production class then had to turn to the week-long project of crafting the big 10 minute video. Some of the students seemed to dislike the switch from learning to making. They started vibing each other, undermining their efforts at screenwriting and preliminary shooting.

Doom, doom, doom. As I gave into despair, my colleague put together a nice mini-lecture the next morning about "vibing," and the dangers of not being professional:

"What is the most common way student films screw up?

According to James [one of our alumni], the key to making good movies is passion. The biggest mistakes in student films is lack of passion.

But is that the biggest mistake?

Thinking of my own former life as a student and then a professional free-lance musician. Where does a gig go wrong?
  • didn’t show up
  • showed up late 
  • didn’t practice their parts (played the wrong notes, slowed down rehearsal—assuming we had the luxury of a rehearsal)
  • screwed up the “vibe”: rolling eyes, arguing, making it clear they’d rather be somewhere else
  • only last on my list would be “lack of passion”
A lot of stuff gets in the way of passion in the real world
  • I’ve played my share of weddings, Christmas gigs, and corporate jobs
What happens when you find yourself on the shoot, and for whatever reason you’re not passionate about it?
  • you don’t like the story
  • you want to be cinematographer but are stuck holding the boom
  • you wanted to make a sci-fi movie but the group decided to go with a documentary
  • you don’t get along with other group members
(This isn’t just about making a student film. This is life.) 

  • show up, do quality work, have a good attitude, keep the project moving, get hired for the next job
  • eventually you’ll make more contacts, get to choose which projects to work on, get better funding, and yes, make stuff you’re passionate about (and even then there will be days you don’t want to go to work)

1st: what not to do, Today and throughout the rest of location shooting
  • don’t accept crappy acting performances, crappy lighting, etc
  • don’t whine, complain, shoot down others’ ideas, or be a nay-sayer
  • it’s fine to have legitimate differences, and to come up with new ideas on set, but avoid making a habit of second-guessing 
What to do:
  • be prepared with shot lists, story boards, props, etc
  • set up the shots well with good lighting, thoughtful mis-en-scene, solid blocking
  • keep working at the shot until you get it right, with good performances
  • keep doing it until you have three quality takes
  • then, move on and set up the next shot
How to think like a working pro:

  • show up, create a quality shot, move on
  • build it up the project one step at a time
  • contribute productively
  • think before second-guessing!"
Joe's presentation ended with a link to David Bowie's 1969 "Space Oddity" video as a pioneering effort in early music video work, and then the two class groups got going on their individual shoots. I assisted one crew with a dolly shot of actors walking forth and finding that they have no internet access anymore (before the supernatural shifts in lighting, darkness, and the wicked scratching sounds would drive them, frightened, some soon to die, into my office).

Today, I'm pleased to report that, aside from the nasty smell of the Squirrels leaving ketchup (as fake blood) on my office door (after one brave soul has the evil supernatural force bash her head against the small glass window), the student directors have taken command, and their crews function like highly focused creative teams. Perhaps I overreacted earlier in the week. Today, I watched today as one young woman made herself cry now that her character's coming to accept the serious possibility of one in their party of three will die within ten minutes no matter how much they mock-sword fight, try to escape from the theater, or scorn the demonic man who routinely yells out "5 minutes left," "4," "only 3 to go," as they search for some solution in order to survive. 

Will the two student production teams finish their films in time? Will they ever learn to stop saying "We'll fix it in post"? Why didn't the Academy include Carol as one of the best picture nominations? What were they thinking? Why didn't I win the Power-Ball lottery? I may answer some of these questions later.   

Saturday, January 9, 2016

"All Romance and Failure": a Review of Noah Baumbach's and Greta Gerwig's Mistress America

I just rewatched Noah Baumbach's Mistress America again on Blu-ray, confirming once again that along with It Follows, The Clouds of Sils Maria, and The Big Short, Mistress is (in my opinion) one of the best films of 2015. As the co-writers of the movie, Baumbach and Greta Gerwig hide their influences well, but they have admitted to drawing upon the techniques of 1930s screwball comedies, and Mistress America has several surprising correlations to Howard Hawk's Bringing Up Baby (1938). Gerwig's Brooke speaks quickly and spontaneously, and, like Katherine Hepburn's Susan, greatly enlivens the life of a duller companion, in this case Tracy, her potential stepsister (Lola Kirke), a freshman at Barnard in New York City. As Brooke and Tracy take off to Connecticut to visit one of Brooke's old beaus, Dylan (Michael Chernus) and his wife Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind), one can see the ghostly outline of Cary Grant's and Katherine Hepburn's characters traveling up to Connecticut to try to get rid of a leopard (and gain enough money to support Grant's work in dinosaur research) in Bringing Up Baby. In the latter film, the principle characters run into a big game hunter named Horace Applegate (Charles Ruggles) who reminds me visually of Brooke's former flame Dylan as they both sport a distinctive beard.

Aside from the screwball influence, how does Mistress America work? Why is it so good? When one thinks back to Gerwig's and Baumbach's previous association--Frances Ha (2012), one can point to its black and white cinematography, its portrait of a 20-something creative woman, Frances (Gerwig) going in circles, visiting Paris hopelessly, suffering jet lag, and not meeting anyone. She also visits her parents in California, and in another wickedly succinct montage, one learns that she enjoys visiting them, but the sheer repetitive pleasures of being back at home give the impression that she's merely treading water. Frances returns to her alma-mater, Vassar, to the same pointless effect. The overall hopeless poignance of her life, and what one can affirm of it--her relationship to her friend Sophie, her artistic aspirations as a dance choreographer--leaves one with a sense of deeply felt humanity intermingled with futility. Even the title with its chopped off name Ha implies an element of ridicule, as in "Ha!" that lampoons everything she attempts in the movie.

In tone, Mistress America is lighter, frothier, and more farcical, but one still gets hints of that same bleak core in the dialogue. Tracy falls in a kind of love with Brooke and her ability to truly live (singing for a band in a concert, going to parties, sneaking into apartments, always talking fast), but Tracy is also a subversive writer who uses her relationship with Brooke to compose a short story called "Mistress America" that ends up getting published in a Barnard literary society's journal. As a writer, Tracy proves something of a thief (she also steals small emblematic objects (a small plane, a coin) from various interiors, making me wonder if she has something in common with Godard), and she can be quite vicious in her assessment of Brooke even as she loves her. For instance, in her story, she writes of Mistress America: "She smelled of something rotten, like her youth had died and she was dragging around this carcass." Later in the movie, everyone in Connecticut reads the story and confronts Tracy for her wicked portrait of Brooke, but she defends herself, calling it fiction, and saying she didn't think she was capable of harming the daunting grandiosity of Brooke--but that proves to be untrue. Her portrait of Brooke keeps switching between praise and criticism, ultimately landing with a quasi-positive assessment of her character's potential:  "She was the last cowboy, all romance and failure. The world was changing, and her kind didn't have anywhere to go. Being a beacon of hope for lesser people is a lonely business."

Somehow within the farcical humor, Baumbach and Gerwig provide insights into postmodern life that resonate. Even as New York proves a place only for the rich, the movie still celebrates the city, just as the movie diagnoses Brooke's malaise as she brings the movie to life. As Brooke says:

"I think I'm sick, and I don't know if my ailment has a name. It's just me sitting and staring at the internet or the television for long periods of time, interspersed by trying to not do that and then lying about what I've been doing. And then I'll get so excited about something that the excitement overwhelms me and I can't sleep or do anything and I just am in love with everything but can't figure out how to make myself work in the world."

Tracy replies, "I think I have that too." These flashes of recognition amidst the general distracted despair, the mix of wit and desolation, what Tracy calls Brooke's "romance and failure," gives the movie's humor its unexpected edge.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Video production class weblog: Day 4--another mugging, pitches, and a jump in a cold pond

Once again, I'm tired and not feeling especially coherent, but the Interim class had another excellent and productive day. After we watched the world premier of the first two short short videos of Big Bad Squirrel Studios and Pacific Pundit Productions (one involving a student stalked and abducted, another involving the president of the US stepping outside of an office just before being tackled by a secret service agent, after which "Love Wins"), I followed the Squirrel gang outside to stand by as they shot an opening scene in some hammocks. The other group was off on the other side of campus finishing a circular story, a series of linked GoPro shots that move from the ladies bathroom to two soccer playing dudes, to a bicyclist, and finally to a fellow who gets mugged before returning to the ladies' bathroom. Incidentally, I asked both groups why they have a hankering for including muggings. They more or less shrugged and said that was the world they live in.

Later in the afternoon (after I helped with another scene where two runners had to climb a wall), I helped the PPP figure out some good pitches for tomorrow. They are as follows:

1) A young man enters campus, does not gain many friends, and falls in love with an extremely popular girl who has 3 "suitors." He realizes that his attraction to her is hopeless, but one day, during a lunch in the cafeteria, a mysterious note arrives on his tray that tells him that someone understands his love, and if he's willing to follow directions, they can both arrange to have all three suitors expelled from the school. Without knowing who wrote the note, he signals his agreement. His first mission is to leave a sheet of paper in a person's backpack.  The next day, that person gets busted for cheating and expelled. Our hero continues these nefarious practices until all three suitors have been obliged to leave campus. On the last day, the hero picks up the final communique, but this time there are drugs in the package. He is immediately busted for possession by the school police, and as he's leaving he learns that a female student (who we've seen glancing at him before) had arranged everything, and she is now about to take over the original popular girl's affections.

2) Three students, who do not know each other very well, learn from a mysterious but plausible source that one of the three will die in ten minutes, but they don't know which one. The movie is shot in real time, and it plots the various responses of all the students (incredulity, irony, confusion, denial, the 5 stages of grief), until one of them does die, but in a completely unexpected but highly logical way.

3) The third pitch posits a miniaturized variation of the time loop of Groundhog Day (1993). A young man finishes dinner and walks across campus to break up with his girlfriend in a 15 minute or so period. He is successful (she is crushed), but then he abruptly finds himself finishing the exact same meal and walking across campus to his girlfriend again. He breaks up with her again, but as the loop repeats, he becomes increasingly self-conscious. Has fate arranged to punish him for the act? What does he do? As he keeps repeating the action, he finds himself increasingly remorseful, since we learn that he has been unfaithful to his girlfriend, and perhaps the only way to come clean and break the curse will be to be fully honest with her about his treachery. Does he end up not breaking up with her? Again, the group was a bit vague about the outcome.

Meanwhile, the Squirrel gang had been shooting scenes across town, and they ended with one fellow getting shoved into a cold pond later in the afternoon. They all returned to a Skype session with a Hollywood producer (another alumnus). He proved fascinating as he talked about how quickly those who work in Hollywood get fired if they produce a flop. He also said that, regardless, now is the best time to go into filmmaking, because talent scouts will notice if someone produces an amazingly good video and releases it on the Internet. We also talked with him about pitch techniques, the prominence of sequels being released, the importance of suiting the cinematography to the story of a film, and the difficulty of getting one's movie seen, especially given the distortions brought on by people looking at movies on their cell phones. Perhaps later, with his permission, I will post the interview on this blog. He left the impression that Hollywood is intense, but also capable of granting enormous creative satisfaction to those who are smart and hardworking enough to earn it (and somehow keep their jobs).

All in all, not at all a bad day.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Video production class weblog: Day 3--Cinematography, Gender, and O. K. Keyes' Crosswalk

Today, we were very lucky to have O. K. Keyes come by to discuss her career as a cinematographer and educator. She discussed this movie Crosswalk shot by shot. She pointed out how many of her color effects and individual shots of the movie came from strategic choices that she had to make with sometimes lesser materials (like a porch light that she couldn't turn off, or a projector combined with cheap colored lights from Wal-Mart). I like the many ironies of the short movie, especially the way it ends with a traditionally happy long shot of a house in sunlight.

Keyes not only taught the class much about cinematography, she supplied me with superior sample shot lists, storyboard forms, shooting schedules, and script breakdown forms. As the students worked on their action video concepts, Keyes quickly refined them, pointed out ways to unify them through transitions, and also discussed the ways that they so easily slip into gender stereotypes in their first narrative attempts. Due to everyone's immersion in media these days, an image of a woman being strangled can have all kinds of implications that the class in its screenwriting innocence may not be conscious of. Does the superhero in this scene have to be male? Why does the female character automatically appear weak? Why do both production groups happen to include someone being mugged in their first movies? Is there some sort of paranoia at work here? On a larger scale, why are there still so few female cinematographers and directors?

Crosswalk from O.K. Keyes on Vimeo.

Later in the afternoon, the two class groups went their separate ways to scout locations and take some preliminary footage. I went off with Pacific Pedant Productions (I think that's the name) as they tried out some of their GoPro footage in a soccer field and a women's bathroom. Naturally, when they tried to get some sound of the water running in the sink with a Canon t3i, someone turned on a vacuum cleaner in the hallway, mucking up their shot. I said that's why directors like the control of a quiet studio.

Tomorrow, both groups will attempt to finish shooting their action videos before we talk to another alumnus who now produces TV shows in Hollywood (writing and directing indie films on the side).

My colleague Joe ended things with this email to the students to help prepare them for tomorrow:

Below are links to a couple well-done chase scenes you might take inspiration from. 

The scene from Brick is a better one to emulate for your own projects: it's more well-composed and tightly-constructed, and shows how you can create a really terrific sequence without any flashy effects or high-budget items. Hot Fuzz shows a different, entertaining approach.

For Brick, take note of: 
  • use of sound (footsteps especially)
  • the beautifully-composed shots
  • excellent noir-style lighting
  • use of deep space
  • consistent axis of action (180-degree rule: they consistently move right to left right until the jarring reversal at the end)
  • the overall variety of shots (long shots, high and low anglesclose-ups on feet, interesting camera motion, etc).
For Hot Fuzz, a very different tone is set with use of saturated color, ultra close-ups, faster pace of editing, whip-pans and zoom shots (generally these are cheap tricks, but they're done for humorous effect here), and chaotic shifts in the axis of action. 

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Video production class weblog: Day 2--learning the basics and Drained

Now that we've finished the second day of the video production class, I can report that the students have sort of learned how to use their Canon EOS Rebel t3i cameras, and they've shot their first short practice movies. I started off the morning with my summary notes for the entire class. They go as follows:

A Starting List of Filmmaking Terms

  1. Pre-production: “Preparation is all-important.”
Writing – “Drama is life with the dull bits cut out” --Hitchcock, Ideas, 3 Act Structure (intro, tension, crisis (climax), resolution), Genre (Horror, Romantic Comedy, Noir, Western, High School Comedy, Mystery, Melodrama), The Hook, Scene, Sequence, Character Archetypes, Protagonist, Antagonist, The Pitch, Screenplay, Treatment, Allusions, Story Coherence and Unity, Emotional Payoff, Story Conference

Storyboard, Animatics, Framing the Shot, Location Scouting (getting permission), Costume and Makeup, Shot List, Scheduling, Organization, Dialogue, Props
Acting Rehearsals
     2)   The Shoot: “We’re losing the light.”
Shot Types - Establishing Shot, Close-Up, Extreme Close-Up, Medium Shot, Full Shot
Over-the-Shoulder, Tracking (Dolly) Shot, Pan, Tilt, POV Shots, Eyeline Match, Handheld Shot, Shot Composition, Continuity, Reverse Shot  
Tripod, Telephoto Lens, Wide Angle Lens, Rack Focusing, Auto Focus vs. Manual Focus
Mise en Scene, Room Tone, Head Room, Magic Hour, Coverage, Boom Mic Operator, External Microphone, Cinematographer, Header and Footer, Zoom (NO!), Director,
Dominant, Subsidiary Contrasts, Placement Within the Frame, Improvisation, Blocking,
Patience, Multiple Takes, Coverage, Insert Shots, Dolly,

Lighting, Camera Batteries, Ambient Noise, Shadows, Daylight, 3 Point Lighting, Wrap
      3)    Post-production: “Editing feels like continuing the writing process.”
Editing, iMovie, Diegetic vs. Non-Diegetic Music, Montage, Special Effects, Foley,
Dubbing, Rough Cut, Final Cut, Credits, Titles, Outtakes, Reshoots, Trailer, Voice Over, Jump Cut, Revision, Seamless Transitions – Dissolves, Fade to Colors, Cut

Premiere, Making-of Documentary, Hollywood, Fame

Roles: Writer, Director, Actor, Editor, Sound Engineer (Boom Mic Operator), Camera Operator, Coordinator, Cinematographer, Extra, Makeup Artist, Set Designer, Script Supervisor, Producer

After I shared many of these terms, my fellow Instructor Joe spelled out with the use of a Power Point presentation many of the main shot types and the basic syntax of a scene as it often moves from an establishing shot to a long shot, medium shots, and then close ups as the scene reaches some sort of emotional intensity. We paused to examine the opening shot of Orson Welles' Touch of Evil and Hitchcock's thoughts on the Kuleshov effect.

After a half hour break, we turned to learning how to operate the t3i cameras. I have already posted some of the guidelines on that.

After lunch, we were fortunate to be able to check out a new movie made by one of the class alums--Morgan Honaker. It is called Drained. The filmmaker now plans on arriving on Friday to help out the class with sound technique, and to discuss her career in Austin, Texas.

Drained from Morgan Honaker on Vimeo.

By the afternoon, after taking inventory of the class equipment, the students went off in their two groups to shoot beginning scenes. We will see how successful they were when they start editing tomorrow.  

By Friday, we will have 3 alumni visit (one by Skype) to talk of their subsequent careers in film.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Video production class weblog: 8 questions for young filmmakers

Every year, I teach a 2 and 1/2 week video production class that obliges a group of students to make a 10 minute video using any location they can procure in a small town in South Carolina (here's a sample weblog of one class in 2012). As more and more former students return to present their work from various film-related graduate programs, I've been thinking of some questions to ask them:

1) What are the newest interactions between the Internet, social media, apps, and filmmaking techniques? Frank Rose explores this topic in The Art of Immersion.

2) Where do you see video production techniques moving in the future?

3) What do you think about vlogging? I find Casey Neistat's work intriguing--here's his summary of 2015.

4) Are storyboards being replaced by animatics?

5) How will the GoPro change video production techniques and scholarship?

6) How will the increasing production of video essays transform film scholarship?

7) Why has the single-shot film become more popular in recent years?

8) What do you think of the difficulties of younger filmmakers in getting anyone to see their films? Of the sheer glut of movies being made with an increasingly impatient and distracted audience?

Here are two interviews with student filmmakers: Olivia Keyes and Morgan Honaker