Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Black Panther and the American Military-Industrial Complex: from Adam Serwer's "The Tragedy of Erik Killmonger"

Black Panther left me stunned, impressed, and eager to learn more about Ryan Coogler's aesthetics, politics, and his treatment of key themes like isolationism/integrationism. I plan on writing something more later, but for now I'll quote from Adam Serwer's excellent Atlantic article "The Tragedy of Erik Killmonger" which concerns the central ambivalence the viewer feels about the villain of the movie:

"It is also a mistake, to, as Lebron does, view Killmonger as 'as a receptacle for tropes of inner-city gangsterism.' Killmonger is not a product of the ghetto, so much as he is a product of the American military-industrial complex. Here too, the script is explicit. Noting Killmonger’s technical background (he studied at MIT) and his war record (tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, even in Africa where, he acknowledges, 'I killed my own brothers and sisters on this continent'). The CIA agent Everett Ross says of Killmonger, 'he’s not Wakandan, he’s one of ours,' later observing that Killmonger’s coup is what the U.S. government 'trained him to do.' The part of Killmonger that makes him a supervillain is not the part of him that is African."

Other compelling articles about the movie:

---"Behind the Scenes of Black Panther's AfroFuturism" by Angela Watercutter

---"On Killmonger, the American Villain of Black Panther" by Doreen St. Felix

---"How Black Panther Solves Marvel's Villain Problem" by Ciara Wardlow

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Ingrid Goes West, #perfectlife, and the Nightmare of Instagram

I very much enjoyed Ingrid Goes West due to the way it dramatizes the deranging effects of anyone seeking approval and self-validation on social media. The hook of the movie that involves Ingrid Thorburn (Aubrey Plaza) macing a beautiful Instagram star at her wedding was entertaining, but Ingrid's tendency to spend all of her time on her iPhone, mostly repetitively liking other people's Instagram posts, fully got my attention. The movie is full of the little beeps, boops, and buzzes of the Apple corporation that now provide the Pavlovian sonic backdrop of our lives.  When Ingrid's mother dies,she leaves Ingrid with the financial ability to start life over as avatar IngridGoesWest, an opportunity she uses to stalk, then infiltrate the social life of Instagram Influencer Taylor Sloane (a very blonde Elizabeth Olsen) who lives in Los Angeles with her cute husband (Wyatt Russell), her especially cute dog, her perfect vegan place to eat lunch, the beach, her perfect fashion sense, etc. She lives the #perfectlife embodiment of what appears to be a social-mediated heaven on earth, and part of the fun of the movie lies in the way it exposes the vapid, more disturbing real life that underlies all of those perfect photos and happy moments that Taylor sells and Ingrid envies and emulates.

Unexpectedly but not entirely unreasonably, given its portrayal of someone desperately seeking the company of the rich and famous, Ingrid Goes West resembles The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999). Yet, in that text, the writer of the original novel, Patricia Highsmith, tends to reward Ripley as often as punish him for his twisted desire to imitate Dickie Greenleaf. In Ingrid's case, the writers of the movie, David Branson Smith and Matt Spicer, keep the stalker's derangement more on the surface. By kidnapping Taylor's dog and then "finding it," and then subsequently buying a bad painting made by Taylor's husband, Ingrid does infiltrate their perfect household for awhile. One can see the high point of Ingrid's life is getting photographed with Taylor as they display the peace sign. Once Taylor actually posts that photo on Instagram to her zillion followers, Ingrid has it made. She has attained the near-viral success that she craves, so, of course, things start to go awry after that.

I was intrigued by the movie's focus and plot shifts throughout (whereas often I get dissatisfied with the third act of most recent releases). Billy Magnussen's abrupt appearance as Taylor's alcoholic and pleasantly demented brother Nicky works especially well. Nicky is quite buff, punchy, and fiercely and extravagantly rich in Bret Easton Ellis fashion, having just flown over from Paris, but he also shares with Philip Seymour Hoffman's character Freddie Miles in Mr. Ripley the instant ability to see through the stalker at the high end glamorous entourage of the rich and famous. And once Nicky gets involved, Ingrid Goes West turns to the violence that underlies Ingrid's hidden desperation.

The movie leaves me wondering these things: Do we have any idea how the addictiveness of social media has already mucked up our lives? Are you conscious of how others manipulate your attention and why? Do you know anyone who spends a disproportionate amount of his or her day "liking" posts on a website? Do we know where this relationship with our phone is leading? Ingrid Goes West all too accurately suggests just how sick and warped our mediated world may soon become.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread and the Sins of the Artist

It's good to have Daniel Day-Lewis back on screen again, even if his character spends much of the movie glowering and acting peevish. Day-Lewis plays the 1950s English couture costume designer, Reynolds Woodcock, a man with a preternatural talent for fashioning exquisite dresses for princesses. I was happy to see how director/writer Paul Thomas Anderson has moved on from the execrable hippie fashions and plot incoherencies of his film adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice (2014). In comparison, Phantom Thread straightforwardly conveys the story of an accoladed and distinguished celebrity who finds a new muse in a country waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps), but then learns that she has a more willful independence than he had bargained for.

Woodcock is a capital A Artist, extremely successful at his trade, surrounded by menial seamstresses and a resigned but competent middle management assistant/boss sister named Cyril (Lesley Manville) in his London townhouse. But Reynolds can be given to fits of temper when Alma butters her toast too loudly because he cannot stand interruptions to his concentration (my wife was quite happy to point out how I can oppressively be much the same way in my sensitivity to noise). Reynolds is also death-haunted and superstitious, placing secret items in the linings of his creations--words that attempt to get rid of a curse to a wedding dress, a locket of his mother's hair inside of his jacket, or the name of someone he's infatuated with. Alma, 25 years his junior, is happy to learn that she inspires him with her fair-haired German beauty, but she soon grows tired of catering to him, his busy schedule, and to his many acolytes as if she has no self to assert. One evening, she decides to kick everyone out of the townhouse and fix him a meal which included asparagus cooked in butter. Reynolds replies by showing up for dinner in his pajamas (in this film, the ultimate insult). Meals in this movie often serve as a kind of communion, but since Reynold is not really interested in Alma's internal life beyond her ability to help him with his art, she ultimately moves on to more extreme measures to control him.

I immensely enjoyed most of this movie, but there's a scene towards the end that struck me as both unlikely and the kind of thing that filmmakers nowadays often fall prey to--a moment of narrative extremity designed for a jaded audience that needs something more, a tendency that often bends movies' third acts out of whack as a result. In comparison, I like to remember the climactic scene when Day-Lewis as Newland Archer is tortured by turn of the century New York society in Scorsese's excellent The Age of Innocence (1993). In this concluding plot movement,  Day Lewis looks enormously pained by the fact that he can only sit next to Madame Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) during a dinner party instead of running off with her as his beloved. The climax of that movie has plenty of soul-crushing drama and tension, but it remains plausible, whereas the final act of Phantom Thread did not quite work for me, but given the brilliance of the rest of the film, one can take my reaction as highly qualified.

It's fun to brood upon Phantom Thread's cinematic DNA. During a fashion show, Reynolds arranges for Alma to walk past a hole in the wall so that he can secretly spy upon her as she sways and struts before an adoring audience. The scene directly refers to Norman Bates' peeping tom activity in Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) as he spies upon Marion Crane as she prepares to take an ill-fated shower, but in this case Alma knows what he's doing, and appears to enjoy her extra illicit audience member. At another time, Reynolds has Alma awkwardly strip to her shift and then take her measurements as a slightly ironical Cyril takes down his dictation. Using his Pygmalion-esque couture genius, Reynolds transforms Alma just as Scottie (James Stewart) obsessively metamorphoses Judy (Kim Novak) into Madeleine by having her wear a grey suit and just the right tight curl in her hair in Vertigo. 

Of course, Norman is a psychopath and Scottie is a depressed control freak, both variations of Hitchcock's increasingly deplorable tendency to control and immobilize the loved object in his creations, but Phantom Thread left me wondering why so many stories about artists have to end up violating his or her self-absorbed autonomy. As Day-Lewis said in a recent interview, "If a poet is not self-absorbed, what else is he?" Couldn't Reynolds just remain a great artist? Recently, I've been studying Wes Anderson's brilliant Rushmore (1998). In this film, Max Fischer screws up his life to no end with his absurd fight with Herman Blume and his highly inappropriate and intrusive infatuation with Rosemary Cross, but then he heals these relationships by writing and staging a new play that acknowledges his mistakes, in effect using his art to cure his reality. Reynolds, in comparison, does not have that option with his couture skills. Instead, he must suffer a kind of degradation in Alma's hands, and I just get tired of otherwise admirable characters getting dragged down, even if they deserve it.

[I showed this draft to my wife, who had this to say in response:] "Doesn't the film also suggest that even artists have to live in the real world?  And, you can't just go around hurting other people?  I've known genuine artists who were also self-absorbed narcissists, people who purposefully (whether they knew it or not) destroyed things and people in order to create art.  I don't think anyone gets a pass on hurting others, even if he/she creates the most beautiful art in the world.  Reynolds enjoys moving on to the next muse, even saying that he can't marry because it's not fair--as if treating every woman at the end of the relationship as someone you can just discard is in any way fair.  It's not.  He thinks he has some sort of moral high ground because he doesn't marry--and that allows him to treat people horribly."

Poised between these two perspectives--the admiration of the artist, and the depiction of the rightful consequences of his sins--Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread treats us to much food for thought, perhaps because it leaves a mixed after-taste.  

Friday, February 2, 2018

"28 Days, 28 Films for Black History Month" via The New York Times

An excellent selection of movies that highlight the African American experience in cinema by A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis:

"The critical and box-office success of Get Out and the very existence of big-studio productions like Black Panther are good reasons to revisit the remarkable, complex story of black filmmaking in America. For Black History Month, we have selected 28 essential films from the 20th century pertaining to African-American experiences. These aren’t the 28 essential black-themed films, but a calendar of suggested viewing."

Sunday, January 28, 2018

"The Follower Factory" via The New York Times

A compelling multi-media article about fake Twitter followers raises the question: why be on social media anymore?

"These accounts are counterfeit coins in the booming economy of online influence, reaching into virtually any industry where a mass audience — or the illusion of it — can be monetized. Fake accounts, deployed by governments, criminals and entrepreneurs, now infest social media networks. By some calculations, as many as 48 million of Twitter’s reported active users — nearly 15 percent — are automated accounts designed to simulate real people, though the company claims that number is far lower.

In November, Facebook disclosed to investors that it had at least twice as many fake users as it previously estimated, indicating that up to 60 million automated accounts may roam the world’s largest social media platform. These fake accounts, known as bots, can help sway advertising audiences and reshape political debates. They can defraud businesses and ruin reputations. Yet their creation and sale fall into a legal gray zone."

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Sofia Coppola remembers making The Virgin Suicides

I enjoyed this recollection of Sofia Coppola's in The Guardian via @CriterionDaily:

"What does The Virgin Suicides mean to me now? It makes me remember shooting in Toronto with Kirsten and all the cast. Also, I have fond memories of it just not being a total disaster. I remember my Dad telling me that your movie’s never as good as the dailies – everything shot that day – and never as terrible as the first rough cut. When I saw the first rough cut, I thought: 'Oh no, this is terrible, what have I done? I’ve talked all these people into letting me make a movie and it’s terrible.' Then, little by little, we pieced it together and made it into a film.

I don’t know if I would have a film career if it wasn’t for that book. Turning it into a film really opened me up, gave me the bug. I think I was just wandering in my 20s, trying to figure out what I wanted to do, trying different things and having that angst of not feeling comfortable in your own skin yet. It was scary directing a film, but I was so connected with the material I felt like I had no choice. The Virgin Suicides made me a film-maker."

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

From Film Studies for Free, a round-up of the best online film studies links of 2017

Catherine Grant of Film Studies for Free shared this excellent linklist of the best online film studies work of 2017.

New strategies for teaching filmmaking: an interview with OK Keyes

Note: After taking a break from blogging for awhile, I've started up again with thanks to OK for his help with my current filmmaking class. Here's a post from last year:

OK Keyes has been helping me with my video production class for years. He's a PhD student now at Virginia Commonwealth University, and I hope some day the institution where I work will be smart enough to hire him on full time. His expertise in cinematography especially made all of the difference in the class. He kindly agreed to be interviewed for the film doctor blog:

FD--How do you try to resolve the tension in a filmmaking or video production class between teaching students techniques and letting them learn strategies by actually working on their movies?

OK--My teaching praxis is centered around this idea of teaching failure by example, through the process of taking, breaking, and making some Thing. I make mistakes purposefully throughout lessons, to engage students with the experiences they have with technology that challenge my false assertions. Teaching technology is a great opportunity proccess these moments of discovery, the "aha!" moment, that is a shared experience between artists and scientists (a bond that I think often goes unacknowledged, in both circles).

Instead of showing students the "right way" to use the camera, I encourage them to explore different buttons and settings and engage them with questions about their observations. Is the image brighter or darker? Sharper or blurrier? Noisier or crisper? In this way, the class is co-constructing their knowledge of the camera through observation, interrogation, and discussion. As a facilitator, I might suggest the buttons and sites of investigation, but ultimately the students are just as responsible for teaching one another about the knowledge they are creating together in that space.

So to go back to your question about the tension between teaching techniques and making movies, I want to acknowledge that I have grappled with this question for a number of years as a media educator. I have found that if I can help facilitate technological confidence through teaching an investigative approach, then even if the camera stops working or something seems strange with the settings, students will feel less like they are "doing something wrong" but that it is "something they can change." I have found the fear of failure to be one of the biggest barriers in filmmaking, especially with (high achieving) high school students. And so, if I can address that fear while teaching techniques and encourage students to take risks in their filmmaking; then they will trust theirselves (and their team!) while making the film and rely on me less for technical knowledge while in the field.

FD--What are some classic mistakes of beginning film crews? What is your list of terms like "happy histograms" as reminders to keep them on task?

OK--I think the biggest mistake is not having a clear sense of the roles of each group member. Certainly on a student production, there will be overlap, and someone inevitably will have to step in to be an extra or an extra pair of hands for a technical assist. But, I think it's very important to establish what each member is responsible for. Especially, since the mythos surrounding The Director in popular culture very often (although not always) creates an unbalanced power dynamic between that student director and their peers in the creative process. I try to use a keyword association for each role when explaining to students.

Writer - the story (characters/dialogue)
Cinematographer - the image (light/framing)
Boom Operator - the sound (field/foley)
Actors - the performance (emotions/movement)
Editor - the time (pacing/flow)
Director - the communication (translates between members of the cast/crew)

I have found a good strategy in helping to de-center the role of student directors is to position them as the point of intersection - they are the translator. They have to be able to communicate how the cinematographer is framing the image so the actors know if it is a closeup or a wide shot. They need to communicate to the boom operator if the actors are going to move so they can stay out of the shot. They have to be clear and concise in their directions. They are not responsible for the style of the shot, nor the quality of the sound, or even the expressions of the actors, but instead they are responsible for directing all the moving bodies - both cast and crew - through the performance. And keeping in mind, the performance is not just what's happening on screen, but very much what is happening behind the screen as well. An effective director is not one who exerts their sole vision over the entire crew, but one that can allow that vision to be influenced and transformed by the other artists in that space.

In terms of helpful things that the director can suggest as checks is to check with cinematographer. Thus, the cinematographer asks: Do you have a happy histogram? Is there anything I need to suggest to the actors to be in better light? How can I help? The cinematographer can ask the actors to look into the camera so that they can do a "spot check" meaning they can check the focus of their eyes in the camera to ensure the image is clear. The director can call quiet on the set so that the boom operator can check the levels of the actors' voices. I try to encourage the director to trust his crew. The cinematographer should be the one initiating the offer for a "playback" or a review of the footage. If the director is asking to rewatch every shot, then not only does it increase the amount of time to do a scene but it doesn't facilitate trust between the director/cinematographer/actors that the performance is being captured to the best of their abilities. Positive feedback and open communication are really crucial. If anything they should check in with the boom operator, by asking questions like: How is the background noise? Do I need to turn off the AC? Do you hear anything weird? Then, finally, consistency is really key. I recommend the following protocol to start a scene:

Director: Sound!
Boom: Speeding!
Director: Camera!
Cinematographer: Rolling!
Director: Slate!
Assistant: Stands in front of the camera and states the Scene / Shot / Take (Ex. Scene 1 / Shot A / Take 3) and *claps* in the shot to sync the sound.
(wait for person slating to exit shot)
Director: Action!
(everyone waits a beat)
[Scene begins]
[Scene ends]
(everyone waits a beat)
Director: Cut!

This is a good way to get in the habit of making sure that you have a "head" and a "tail" on every shot, as well as keeping track of every shot you have taken. I try to keep students on a "three take" rule, meaning that if you can't get the shot you're trying to in three takes, then it might be time to re-imagine or re-configure it. It's okay to go off storyboards if something's not working. But also if the group is trying to do something technically complicated, I want to encourage that and this rule can always be broken. 

FD--Why did you choose the academic route over working as a full-time cinematographer?

OK--I have always felt a real draw towards teaching, and when I finally had the opportunity to teach media production at the college level, I felt connected to the craft in a way I hadn't in a very long time. There is nothing I'm more passionate about than teaching media arts to students who might never have had access to that knowledge otherwise. In addition to now teaching teachers about media arts education, I am also teaching animation to incarcerated youth at Richmond Juvenile Detention Center, through a partnership with Art 180, a community-based arts program near Virginia Commonwealth University. I see media arts, especially filmmaking, as a powerful medium for self-expression and want to create as many pathways as I can for voices that often go unheard and stories that go unseen.

Plus, who said I gave up being a cinematographer!? I get longer breaks in the winter and the summer, and am still collaborating with several of my friends. We're in post-production on a film called Witch, that I worked on with a group out in Minneapolis called Oxford Comma Film Cooperative, led by the talented Vanessa Magowan Horrocks. Our last feature-length collaboration was a film called Keepsake (2014), which is still making its ways into festivals, which is super exciting! I might be doing less commercial work now, but I find that to be a lot less soul-crushing. It's been liberating to not have to rely so much on freelance work from gig-to-gig to survive, and I feel very fulfilled in the classroom. I get to be more selective about the projects that I work on, and can focus more on telling stories that I think are important and meaningful to me.

FD--How's the GIF work these days? (also, could you send me the link to that gif showing the guy's face morphing due to different lenses?) What is the scholarly importance of GIFs?

Haha! Well... GIFs aren't exactly bringing in the big bucks, but weirdly enough those are the moving images that I've accepted to more art shows and galleries. I have a collection of some of my favourite GIFs that I've made at this tumblr page: (seizure warning). There's a combination of glitched remixes and bullet-time photography, and even some video taken with an open sensor camera that had an Erlenmeyer flask attached as the lens. The short story is that I had a professor in graduate school who told me to "remove the humans" for my work for half a semester; a lot of the GIFs that went on to be shown in shows or used in my media performance work were the result of that process.

I find GIFs really helpful in showing specific scenes from films or techniques for the camera. In particular I have a couple that I love to use in teaching focal length.

I use this one for talking about the face:
I use this one for talking about compression/expansion of background:

FD--What do you see as the future of cinematography?

OK--Oh wow. What a question. I think we are going to see some really, really big changes in the way that people of color are portrayed on film - and I'm talking about in terms of representation but in terms of lighting/film stock/camera sensors. Bradford Young is a cinematographer I've been following for a while since his work on Pariah (2011). With the news that he'll be filming the upcoming Han Solo spin-off movie, I'm very very excited to see how his unique style and approach to color/light/saturation will influence the direction of cinematography for the next generation. I also would suggest checking out the work of Isiah Donté Lee, who went to UNC and was the cinematographer on Burning Sands (2017), which was accepted in Sundance.

In terms of technical, I think the drone becoming cost-effective for a lot of independent filmmakers is going to be a game changer in terms of closing the gap around the way that movement is handled between low-budget and high-budget films. While I certainly have come to appreciate well-composed still frames, I think this has become a type of compensation for independent films, where the director/cinematographer might have opted for a moving shot had the money been there for a Steadicam/tracking/aerial shot. I think the option of movement now means that those decisions can be more purposeful rather than a response to a limitation. In relation to movement, I also cannot stop thinking about the use of GoPro's in As Above, So Below(2014). That was such a big shift for me in how I thought about the found-footage aesthetics and how far they've come in the horror tradition since The Blair Witch Project (1999). I found the cinematography in AASB to be really effective at building an intimacy and vulnerability through the multiple lenses and perspectives in play throughout the film.

I guess, in short, I think there are about to be some really big shifts in the independent scene both in terms of the ways in which cameras treat bodies on screen as well as the type of movements those cameras can make.

FD--Why should every school have a media technology class as a serious part of its curriculum?

OK--Uh... is there a way to approach this question without being too political? I guess, in being careful with my words, I would suggest that American education has never really had a large focus on media literacy, as some European countries do (the UK and Finland come immediately to mind). But the ability to critically engage with media is only made possible once one understands how they are constructed. Think about how we teaching critical analysis of literature... we have to know how to read AND write in order to produce a critical analysis of a literary work. I think we can think of media in similar terms. Most folks understand how to "read" media by watching it. A film course can help unpack some of the meaning, history, and sociocultural context of the work. But it is a production course that teaches one how to "write" media. I go back to the original word for photography - photos (light) graphos (writing/drawing) - writing/drawing with light. In my experience as an educator, I have found that once students understand how media is made - how it is constructed - they can begin to see the ways in which all the media they interact with and consume in their daily lives is also constructed. They engage with it differently because their perspective about it has changed. That is the power of media arts education, in my opinion.

FD--How is the internet useful for new filmmakers?

OK--Something not working? Google it! Need to put together a crew? Post it on Facebook! Want to get hired for a job? Upload your reel to Vimeo! I think there is a great number of ways that new filmmakers can distribute their work as well as build networks and engage in self-directed learning. I have learned so much from tutorials on YouTube, too many to list here. It is also the space that I first started uploading my work in middle school and getting feedback from an online community I participated in. If it hadn't been for that early experience, I don't know if I would have ever been interested in picking up a camera, but here I am! There are also just so many useful tools for filmmakers from storyboard templates, to suggestions for affordable lighting equipment, to script formatters like the Google Doc Screenplay Plugin (which in full transparency, one of my middle school students introduced to me)! I think it's just a matter of pursuing what you are most interested in and seeing where those Google rabbit holes take you!

Once again, I could write a novel about the important role the internet plays in developing self-directed learning skills in young people, but I suppose that's what a dissertation is for! 

FD--Much thanks, OK Keyes, for your insights. I look forward to working again with you next year.