Saturday, March 25, 2017

Emma Watson and the Evil Disney Hegemony: 5 notes on Beauty and the Beast

1) In a sense, Bill Condon's live-action Beauty and the Beast is Emma Watson's debutante ball, her first major starring role (aside from the beast, and he's diminished by the computer-generated imagery). The French Revolution-era fairy tale also makes Beauty and the Beast Watson's first historical drama. After her work as Hermione Granger, she tended to choose ensemble roles in movies like Sofia Coppola's The Bling Ring (2013), where her character Nicki stood out for her crass American consumerism and vanity, i.e. the opposite of Hermione. Watson didn't seem to fully know it at first, but one could claim that she became the break-out star of the extremely profitable Harry Potter movies in part because J. K. Rowling marginalized Hermione as Potter's sidekick, and therefore she became the most compelling character compared to Ron Weasley (the nondescript redhead played by Rupert Grint) and the rather dutiful Harry. Meanwhile, Daniel Radcliffe has since distinguished himself in the London play production of Equus by gouging out the eyes of horses in the nude, or, more recently, by playing a flatulent corpse in Swiss Army Man (2016), a movie which I have deliberately refused to see (in part because I cannot abide Paul Dano). In other words, of the three original leads of the Harry Potter juggernaut, Emma Watson has come out of it as arguably the most credible star.

2) As we get introduced to Belle in her decidedly provincial French town (Gascony), I remembered that the Disney cartoon version of Belle stood out more for her large eyes. I had heard that Watson was the original star in mind for the makers of La La Land, and if one thinks about it, Emma Stone has the freakish anime look that would suit Belle. As Belle walks along singing "There must be more than this provincial life!", the villagers call her odd in part because "her looks have got no parallel" even though she's always got "her nose stuck in a book." Now, when the villagers sang this in the 1991 cartoon version, it was obviously true. In the live-action version, Emma Watson does not exactly stand out in the same way. Director Bill Condon keeps finding ways to emphasize her, at one point making Belle the dominant contrast as the rest of the village freezes as only she walks by, but Watson still strikes me as the kind of character actress who can blend into a movie (such as, say, The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)) rather than command the focus of a scene as Belle. In short, one thinks of Emma Watson's recent work for the United Nations, and how she's perhaps too smart by half to be in a Cinderella-esque Disney extravaganza at all.

3) But perhaps, that's the main clever thing of Bill Condon's version. We've been waiting for a Watson vehicle that places her front and center of a very expensive production, and now that she's in one, she doesn't quite fit, and that tension makes the usual bland Disney pap somehow more effective, and more striking, even with its magic resurrections, its funny CGI sidekicks, its syrupy songs, and its ballroom dancing in the iconic yellow dress with a quickly tamed CGI teddy beast. Belle and Watson do share an extreme high regard for reading and books, but in the limited world of Beauty and the Beast, Belle can only go back and forth between provincial Gascony and an enchanted castle of pre-revolutionary 18th century France (with only a brief sojourn in an attic in Paris). Emma Watson, in dramatic postmodern contrast, has a heck of a lot of more feminist options, including the one of starring in the live-action version of her favorite Disney movie.

4) One critic wrote that she has doubts about Watson choosing this Disney vehicle. Doesn't it undermine her intelligence, her edgy roles chosen since the grim dark Potter world mercifully ended in 2011? Isn't Watson selling out to endless Disney hegemonic brainwashing merchandising, its savvy corrupt multi-media synergized machinations that gets otherwise intelligent adults to visit Disney World once or twice a year at obscene expense just so they can feel that Proustian youthful bit of manufactured Disney magic? In the same vein, I still sort of like a McDonald's Big Mac, but I know that's due to skillful TV marketing, advertising of the McBurglar and the smiling red-footed Ronald affecting my innocent brain many years ago before I had any way to resist it. So do so many brainwashed Americans pour into Disney World every year as they pay somewhere around $14,000 to fly in, stay in a hotel on the property for a few days, and see the cartoon characters cavort under the prefab magic castle under fireworks every night with their screaming toddlers, everyone always standing in long lines as they seek to that reclaim elusive Disney joy, that "It's a Small World After All" cheerful, smiling, always smiling, they-had-better-smile-or-else, heavily copyrighted-cartoon-ride of a lifetime.

5) When I think of all that highly evil, highly profitable thought control (not to mention the absolute horrors of the Pirates of the Caribbean series that still endures--a purely redundant nightmare), I wonder how I could like the new Beauty and the Beast at all?  Yet, I did, perhaps in part due to glibly cheesy half-baked memories of a cartoon that I saw long ago, and that's what so annoying about it.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

"That exposed edge of the world": an interview with Adam Houle, author of Stray

A friend of mine, Adam Houle, just published his first book of poetry entitled Stray with Lithic Press. Adam was kind enough to let me interview him for the Film Doctor blog. First, here's an example of Mr. Houle's work:

The One Where the Girl Died in Woods Close to Home

It started when a filament popped
in the lone headlight
of the snow sled,

quietly, beneath the engine’s roar
and the grind of the single-track
trundle churning snow

as the girl left late
to make it home.
The blizzard, my mother

says, buried her
back-trail and without
a light she could not find

her trace. That filament,
the fine hair finely split,
brought on a deeper night,

and with it the wind conspired.
The wind banked great drifts.
It rearranged the known world’s face.

Here's the interview:

FD: What do you think of the contemporary resistance to poetry? What advantages do poetry have over prose?

AH: What resistance there is is a particular type that seems steeped in distrust. Distrust that there’s a “hidden meaning” that the poem or poet or teacher will use as a weapon; distrust that poems don’t “do anything”; perhaps distrust because advocates for poems over-sell a piece or group of pieces and, when that piece doesn’t have the earth-shattering results promised, the hearer suspects either the poem or the self are defective in some way. Too often I think poems are presented as puzzle boxes painted black with a busted latch that’s latched from the inside anyway, and so what’s the point? But poems need time and space, and they are best met on their own terms. They’re not instrumental; rather they are worthwhile unto themselves as themselves. The act of reading carefully and with empathetic attention slows us down, it asks more of us, and I find a lot of pleasure in that process. Sitting down to read a poem need not be a hallowed event separate from the world. A poem can be a prismed look into that world, and I find my eyes are fresher when I’m also spending time reading and writing poems.

I think too that there’s a perception that poems are narcissistic little things written by narcissistic little souls, but that’s just absurd. I mean, if you go see a movie, and it’s a bad one, you don’t swear off all movies, right? You read a bad novel, and you think: that’s it. Prose is awful. That sounds really shortsighted. But it seems like we don’t have a problem doing that to poems. There is a lot of great work out there, and new pieces published all the time. There are magazines publishing excellent poems issue after issue, poems that could speak to all sorts of folks from all sorts of backgrounds and experiences. So, should you come across one that you don’t like, big deal. Move on. It’s such a rich field.

But I think that’s true of prose, too. The advantage that, say, a lyric poem has over a twenty-page short story is a temporal one. The physical act of reading down the page takes less time with a poem, which I think also works against the poem in that someone might, wrongly, assume it has less heft or significance or something like that. It’s just a little song, after all. But I think experiencing poems on their own ground should be a part of all our lives. Sometimes, I, with great sneakiness, start my classes a few minutes early and just read a poem I recently enjoyed. I say: Hey, listen to this cool thing I read. And then I read that cool thing. No commentary, no quiz, no paper assigned. Just a minute and a half or whatever to listen to a poem.

So that’s an advantage. I mean, I can’t take a few minutes before class to read Moby-Dick, right? Poems are companions to a thoughtful life, and I guess I get bummed when I hear someone say how awful poetry is. That said, I don’t need to get too bent out of shape. Poetry doesn’t need me to defend it. It’s crafty and wily, and it will be okay with or without me.

FD: How would you describe your aesthetics?

AH: I don’t know. That’s the short answer. The longer is this: I’m trying to get the words right in their right orders. I like speakers jolted to speak, to make structure of experience or psychological states, of both, to enlist artifice and authenticity. Poems are stylized, they’re crafted things that should seem essential, that they could not be otherwise. There’s pruning and distillation, a tautness in the language that, for me, is primarily important. And that starts with the line—and as the lines tumble down the page, I like when I’m engaged by vibrancy in voice, in image, in sound, in the singleness of the poetic moment being offered up, that builds on itself and organizes its own internal logic. Show me a possible world. Show me a possible self. I think poems memorialize through attention to how they operate. I like knottiness and texture, part luxury purse and part mucky rucksack that carry and convey something essential about the world in which they exist.

FD: Why do so many of your poems have such cold imagery?

AHStray isn’t really a warm book, is it? When I was organizing the poems, culling, structuring the book’s arc, looking for unnoticed recurrences, thematic echoes and the like, it became quite clear to me how much I identify with the sharpness of the winter world. It wasn’t intentional in the composition, revising, editing process. But I saw I had written a lot of poems, and it was time to get them into a larger shape, to curate and structure a manuscript. And there’s something evocative about a winter landscape. It’s brutal and unforgiving and elegant and austere. The sight lines are crisp, and in winter I truly feel like I’m on a planet, a living rock hurtling through space. So you have that exposed edge of the world sort of feeling, and then, if we increase the magnification, there are quiet dramas and sorrows and joys unfolding right there. I think much of Stray tries to come to find a shape for that.

In college, I lived in this little back apartment in Green Bay for a couple years. Half the place was heated on my dime; the other half by the landlord (illegal addition, electric heat, you get the drift). So, I blocked the warm half, killed the heat I had to pay for, and swept snow out of my kitchen most mornings from November through March. The cold must have seeped into my psyche.

FD: Why do you tend to favor formal poetry, such as the sonnet?

AH: Formal considerations help me speak to tradition; poems are shaped things—they have contours that I like to think make expressive and evocative sense. For me, the sonnet and its relatives in Stray offer a counterpoint to the thematic straying throughout the collection. It’s a formal return, then, and I hope offers echo, or a refrain of sorts, to the collection as a whole; there’s a rhetoric to the sonnet that makes sense to me. It’s nimble, it’s flexible, and it offers compression that, when it’s well wrought, lets the poem sing spontaneously within a frame. That’s the authenticity and artifice I mentioned earlier—it’s a worthwhile tension, a richness that I admire in so many poems I read.

FD: What do you make of the poetic tendency to write about animals?

AH: Wonder. That’s the first word that comes to mind. I’m in awe of life, and I think about the ways the world we make brushes against the world we find. For me, it’s attentiveness and openness to what’s missed in the day-to-day—the snippets of song and the suggested narratives of the animal world. I don’t think I’m doing the animals in my poems any great favors by writing about them. I’m just trying to pay homage to the world, to memorialize it in some small way. At the same time, I’m also aware that I’m responding to some necessary part of myself.

FD: Could you guide us through the writing process for, say, "The Least of Wonders," or is that a dumb intrusive question?

AH: That’s neither dumb nor intrusive. For each draft, for me at least, the process is dictated by the poem. I try to see clearly what a draft’s doing. Most drafts start with an image, a small bit of a line, a phrase that sort of sticks sideways in my mind. That ends up in the notebook, and as I follow the sound or the sense, I realize that it’s something that should get over to the computer. Perhaps it’s only a few stanzas, but I’ll type it, print it, and work on it more in pen. Changing the medium helps. Carrying the draft with both print and handwritten stanzas gives me some distance and clarity. “The Least of Wonders” first appeared in Jelly Bucket out of Eastern Kentucky University as a very different poem. The revisions that I hope made it a stronger poem happened in fits, with lots of other poems drafted in between. Those in between poems taught me things “The Least of Wonders” needed.

After grad school, the early morning hours of concentrated work became harder to find, so I’ve had to be more diligent in my conscientious working habits. Part of that is being okay with working in small spaces—a half hour here, jotting down nonsense rhymes for fun when I’m waiting for a meeting to start, that sort of thing. One thing it’s shown me, though, is how important poems are to me.

FD: Advice for young poets?

AH: Read widely and without prejudice. Write diligently. Don’t apologize for doing either. That’s advice to me, too. I feel very young.

FD: What motivates you to sit down and revise and develop your next collection on a pleasant spring day when you could be relaxing and enjoying yourself outside instead?

AH: I can do both, though. I find the hard work of trying to write poems well a true pleasure. My home office has a window, and I can look out there, see what the neighbor cats are getting into. I can take the notebook to the porch. I can take the dogs walking while hashing through some ideas, thinking about lines, or trying to think nothing at all and otherwise taking in the day on its own. For me, it’s not a beautiful spring day that gets in the way; it’s the other obligations. I take those obligations seriously, and it’s an honor to do so. But I also need emotional and psychological space to work, to say nothing of time. But the work gets done because it must. I’m happier and more effective when I have poems waiting.

FD: What do you think of promoting your work through readings, interviews, etc.? (I'm thinking of Don DeLillo, who I hear refuses to promote his work.)

AH: I think a lot about my intention when it comes to promotion. More important than promoting my work, I hope I’m promoting poems and community and attentiveness, maybe a line or stanza or whole poems sort of rattle around and glom on to the mind and heart of a hearer. That’s what happened to me, at least, in high school to a certain degree and certainly in college and grad school, when our reading series brought in writers who memorialized things that mattered to them, and their verve, energy, and generosity at the podium and in the classrooms changed me in small, important ways. I felt less alone, less lost in my head—here were folks who worked hard to share a flash of vision, a structuring moment that resonated, invisible strings vibrating across the auditorium or wherever. So there we all are, engaged, entertained, listening to language structured, I hope, to do something of consequence, to broaden us, deepen us, humor us, mark us in some small way. It seems really human to do that, to want that, and I support being human.

The same human urge is true for interviews. We’re curious. We like insight. We like knowing things about books that evoked something in us. That seems reasonable. But it’s also reasonable for an author to dislike the whole process. I read once that James Joyce was asked why Ulysses was so long. Joyce responds with something like if he could have paraphrased it he wouldn’t have had to write it. So, what’s DeLillo have to say about Underworld that he didn’t say in Underworld? Also, who wouldn’t prefer getting the work done to talking about how some work gets done? I feel that way, but I also think generosity matters. And we must eat. For many, I think it’s both pragmatic and idealistic to both give readings and provide interviews to promote the work at hand but also literature or art in general. Good readings and good interviews can do both: sincerely promote a single work as part of a larger thing happening in the world, a diverse and faceted and rebellious thing where people get words on pages.

FD: Why do you repeat words on a given line? Can you give an example?

AH: The best example of that repetition in Stray is probably “Earthworm Flooded Out in Rain.” So, there, the speaker’s sort of lamenting the crappiness of how an earthworm dies after a big rain washed it out. I always thought that sucked. You make it through the flood, but then you’re up on the sidewalk or whatever, and the sun bakes you because you can’t get back to the dirt. So, in that one, it’s a pooling of sonic energy. For me, the repetition of “dappled” in such a short space creates an insistence, a cycling or charging of sorts. It allows the speaker and the reader to spiral for a moment before moving on. It has the same effect in “Night Studies,” but with different expressive potential. It’s echoing the memorizing work the beloved does with her Latin studies. I see that sort of repetition, in a general sense, as internal rhyme. That the preceding consonant sounds would make the two appearances of “dappled” not actually be rhyme seems inaccurate. I mean, maybe it’s uninteresting as a rhyme, but I don’t think that’s true either. In any event, that sort of repetition adds a sonic insistence that I like—it’s a bit hypnotic, a bit hymn-like, or chant-like.

FD: What do you think of rhyme in contemporary poetry?

AH: Poems make patterns; they have a shape, a form, a feel. Rhyme can be lovely and memorable and fresh. I remember reading a review of a book that used rhyme as a dominant patterning throughout the collection. The reviewer said it’s like listening to a friend with a lot of neat things to say who just happened to speak in rhyme. I loved that description because it touches on both the artifice and authenticity of the poems. Rhyme creates expectations for the reader, and when those expectations are both met and messed with, the results can be so satisfying as a reader and as a writer. There’s a tension between the orderly movement and the vagaries of the piece itself, and that’s exciting. It offers a framework for the play of the lines, and the play of the piece as a whole. And when that’s handled well, I’m invested as a reader. I respond to both the unexpectedness, the jolt of the poem, and the fulfillment of the sonic contract the poem made.

That said, a poem using pure end-rhyme that does so with less-than-successful results calls far more attention to itself than, say, an unmemorable open form poem. That poorly-rhymed poem sort of blinks like a church out in the county that uses neon signs. Well, not like that. I’d like to see that. I think, though, that the sound for poems like that are probably the least of the concerns. Usually, the rhetoric of the poem, the emotional / intellectual movements are sort of weak. The expected rhymes can be symptomatic of expected responses or nebulous, generic responses to the situation at hand. We’re probably lacking concrete significant details, a directed speaker, etc…we’re lacking a lot of things likely because the poem grew too enamored with its own end rhyme. The Love/Dove, June/Moon sort of stuff. But the whole line matters—I mean, what if we go:

“Honey Boo-Boo weighs down the mind of Mama June/ who smokes out back and aims her cherry at the moon”—so now we have rhyming hexameter couplets about the tv stars using the dread June/Moon rhyme. We also have a little drama unfolding, and the strange gesture in the image of the Mama June lady pointing her cigarette at the moon while mulling over her daughter. Maybe it could work. What we’re really worried about with rhyme, though, is “I loved you with all my heart all June / and we kissed under the summer moon,” right? A little vague, a little expected. But I’d say that the unsuccessful end-rhyme is one of a few things that could be addressed.

FD: How often do you abandon poems?

AH: Every chance I get. I take ‘em to the swamps, tell them they’re better off without me, and fold them into paper boats and send them on their way. I sprinkle them with turtle food too, so they get eaten.

I’ve become pretty diligent about seeing poems through a few different drafts before I either full-on commit or put them into the abandonment file on my computer. I’ll filter through there from time to time to see what might strike me. But, for the most part, I abandon a poem when I lose interest. I don’t really see misshapen stanzas or a few lines going nowhere as a poem I abandon, though. That’s exercise or a start to something that will come around again. So, I think that when a poem or starts are going nowhere, I’m just recycling them, composting them. If the image, line, metaphor, or genesis are urgent enough or deeply rooted enough, they’ll come around again. Right now, there are some poems I refound from last year. They’re works in progress. So, they were abandoned, but when I went through some old draft work, I found them, read them, and didn’t cringe at some of the work there. I’ll revisit.

FD: Do you find some subjects (such as, say, multinational corporations) not conducive for poetry? Are you careful about the ideological implications of your work?

AH: I try to get the poem right. I try to be emotionally and intellectually honest. I try to be accurate and find fruitful juxtapositions of sounds and sense. It’s an ideology of attentiveness, and I think that matters. I respond to the world in specifics, though. I don’t think in terms of movements or ideologies. That’s not say there aren’t implications, because of course there are. I write from my own limited, tentative, and tenuous grasp on the world, and that’s bound to change over the course of my life. So I hope that my work rings honest, sincere, and well crafted with people. I hope the voice is compelling. I hope readers enjoy the poems, that something sticks with them, slows them down a bit. But I don’t sit down to write and say, okay! Let’s write one that a Marxist would really appreciate. Or I really want to burn the Tea Party folks with this.

Speaking of Marxists, I don’t think multinational corporations are inherently off limits to poems. They’re part of the world, after all, for better or worse. Do I feel moved to write about them? Not overtly, not consciously. Images have found their way into poems that conjure corporate-y things. But that’s in service to that particular poem and not part of a larger project. I think it’s less about subject and more about execution. Compel me. Move me. Show me the private history of one against the backdrop of a world in crisis. Teach me something about being on earth.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

The Beguiled official teaser trailer, related links, notes on Somewhere (2010)









Looking forward to this by one of my favorite directors:



Related links:

"8 Questions about A Very Murray Christmas"

"The lifestyle everybody kinda wants": The Bling Ring"

more Sofia Coppola links

Also, some notes on Somewhere (2010):

1) After watching Somewhere, I mostly remember Johnny Marco's (Stephen Dorff's) J. Crew boots. His sense of style has a deadbeat working class stoner aesthetic that reminds me of the guys who wore lots of flannel and jeans back in high school. He wears one expensive Red Wing boot untied and dangling, the other underneath the jean leg as he stumbles about from his black Alfa Romeo to his Chateau Marmont suite in his stubbled sun-struck LA Bret Easton Ellis celebrity-decadent world. In some ways, Somewhere is a more faithful low-key version of Ellis's Less Than Zero than the incoherent 1987 movie version starring Robert Downey Jr. Marco is so jaded with movie star fame, he passes out as Playboy dancers gyrate on stripper poles in from of him, or he zonks out snoring in the midst of undressing another woman during a party. Often as not, he's asleep when he's not sitting on a sofa and staring blankly into space with an opened Corona in one hand.

2) If Johnny didn't have Stephen Dorff's charm and Elle Fanning as Cleo, his daughter, needing his parental attention, he would be an insufferably blank self-involved poltroon.

3) As he sinks deeper into his characteristic stupor, one thing becomes clear: in Sofia's films, sex is always the enemy because it falsifies what little authenticity that can exist between wealthy, famous folk. As an alternative, she prefers to depict two people seeking an innocent prelapsarian playfulness amidst all of the adult fakery. In Lost in Translation, Bob asks Charlotte if she wants to escape from the insufferable Park Hyatt Tokyo Hotel, and to some extent, by dashing aimlessly around the city and laughing cruelly at the phonies like Kelly (Anna Faris), they succeed. But Coppola's vision requires that she persuade her relatively poor audience to become just as alienated from this super-rich world as she is (not an easy thing to cajole us into). In Somewhere, I think we are meant to admire Johnny's decadent lifestyle even as it proves hollow, with awkward overly long shots emphasizing his boredom and his race car running in circles. Only his fatherly obligation makes him rise above his besotted hedonism on rare occasions. Still, to share in his alienation still seems like asking a lot.


4) Somewhere left me wondering about Sofia Coppola's growing self-consciousness as an artist, her willingness to repeat herself by showing what she, as Francis Ford Coppola's daughter, could know about: the Eloise-like milieu of award ceremonies, photo-ops, and top-notch Italian hotel suites with swimming pools. When we see the hungover Johnny watch Chloe ice-dance to Gwen Stefani's "Cool," the moment comes off as too self-consciously pure after all of Johnny's recent decadence. Johnny is such a bonehead, we can't even tell if he can properly appreciate his daughter's ministrations on his behalf (Chloe comes across as unfairly smarter and more mature than her dad). At one point, she attempts to domesticate his hotel room by ordering a cheese grater to help fix some macaroni and cheese. Later, Chloe shows off her artistic bent by fixing him some gourmet-quality Eggs Benedict, complete with chives garnish cut with kitchen shears. But, even given these moments of grace, where does Johnny have to go with his life? We never once see him read a book, or show much cultural interest in anything. He's a docile puppet of the publicity machine.

5) My issues with Johnny reminded me of Pauline Kael's problems with Benjamin Braddock in her review of The Graduate (and both films share a tendency to have lingering shots of their hero drifting around a pool). If Ben had any ideas, we would hate him, but as long he remains blank, the audience can project what they like on him, but Ben is eventually defined by his rejection of the rich California lifestyle of his parents while Johnny embraces it. And in contrast to Bill Murray's expert depiction of a midlife crisis in Lost in Translation, there's no tension in Johnny's befuddled acceptance of the perks of his job. Meanwhile, Johnny's Los Angeles mise-en-scene is too close to that of Bret Easton Ellis's recent The Informers for comfort. When Johnny finally removes his sated mask of cool and cries while on the phone with his publicist (I think), late in Somewhere, he says "I'm f---ing nothing." A sad scene, but after spending so much of the movie looking disaffected, Johnny's moment of vulnerability has little effect.


6) What I wrote about The Informers also applies to Somewhere: "the problem with all of Ellis' depictions of youthful narcissism and Play It As It Lays-Joan Didion-esque `deep' posturing (with everyone endlessly lighting cigarettes and gazing with apathy off into the distance) lies in his difficulty in making anyone care about these characters who certainly do not care about each other. Moreover, this aesthetic based on youth does not age well." To be fair, Johnny's relationship with Chloe redeems him a little, and Somewhere is light years better than The Informers in terms of craft. It just strikes me that Sofia Coppola is capable of creating so much more.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

"Not my first rodeo": notes on Terrence Malick's Song to Song trailer

"Not my first rodeo," I thought, when watching the new Terrence Malick trailer for his upcoming movie Song to Song. I've been down this road before. I have forced myself to sit through Malick's recent films. I wasn't born yesterday, and, frankly, I don't buy into the hype about this new one, no matter how much Rooney Mara, Natalie Portman, Michael Fassbender, and Ryan Gosling (not to mention Iggy Pop and John Lydon) romp around in the midst of rock concerts, drive playfully in convertibles, or flirt during parties or whatever. Given what happened with Knight of Cups (2015), I doubt that Song to Song has a script. Instead (I imagine) Malick gave his high level cast a hand-typed sheet of quotes from Horace or Cicero, and then set them loose with his cinematographer/steadicam operator as they tried to make something out of next to nothing--their increasing desperation (Gosling chewing on Mara's foot or whatever) providing the real entertainment. Uh, a love triangle between Rooney, Fassbender, and Gosling perhaps? Malick enjoys watching these stars squirm, and it makes for a pretty, pretty trailer, but we will learn (once again, soon enough) the limits of a movie without a screenplay.

Recently, Ray Pride (of the excellent Movie City News) and I had a little exchange on Twitter on this very topic, a discussion that could foreshadow many a critical disagreement to come about Song to Song. Ray had posted the link to the trailer, and I wrote in reply:

Me: "where one gets to hobnob with screenplay-free movie stars improvising feverishly in pretty locations."

Mr. Pride responded: "I marvel at Knight of Cups and its slipstream of thought/regret made possible only by Malick's wild over-shooting and months upon months of finessing."

Me: "Yes, still, I tend to favor the emperor's clothes view of Malick. Much depends on how much the viewer is willing to buy into his pretension, and I like a good screenplay."

Ray: "And if you look at his earlier pages, you can tell he can write a screenplay. RADEGUND is reportedly the first of his fully-scripted chamber dramas to get produced."

Me: "Yes, but why bother now if he can get a-list stars to strain for effect for him? Why not embody pure spontaneity instead? Knight of Cups ended up being very pretty pretty pretension. Christian Bale was not happy."

Ray: "I wrote up my rationalization for KOC. Another eccentric perspective: those two movies were shot almost back-to-back, what, three years ago? Maybe at his age he’s now interested in making a few more finite productions rather than leaving a mass of sprawl behind."

Me: "I think he's just cashing in on his mystique. Real inspiration vanished back around the days of Badlands."

After that, our conversation ended amicably.

So, perhaps I'm wrong. Perhaps the emperor Malick wears clothes after all, and all will be redeemed when Song to Song opens in New York and Los Angeles on March 17. 

But I doubt it.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Video production notes: Entrapment directed by Morgan Honaker

Five years ago, I taught a rather small video production class who wrote, story boarded, and shot a horror film at a local mansion in a small town in South Carolina. Morgan Honaker directed it, and I appreciated her perfectionist style under those essentially amateur conditions, never accepting any shot until it suited her. She says that she is embarrassed by this video now, but I still like its suspense and its abrupt and bleak ending. I could discuss problems with the acting, but given the tight time constraints, the impatience of those involved, and everything else, I still say that Entrapment is one of the best movies made in my video production class, in part because I showed it to a more recent group, and one of the students screamed twice in the course of viewing it.

Here's the link to the video.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Video production notes: "A body lying on the street": Third Night by Afterglow Films

About four years ago, Afterglow Films of my video production class made Third Night (directed by Ryan Gonzalez). The video concerns romantic obsession that reminds me a little of Vertigo:



Here's an interview with the director. In comparison to OK Keyes and Morgan Honaker, Ryan liked to shoot fast and loose, making him the more Godardian director of the bunch.

Also, here's a blog post about the long night in which Erik spent much of his time lying on the cold street in his pajamas as Ryan and his film crew shot the van accident (note: I changed names at the time to protect the guilty):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Video production notes: making Entrapment (2012)

Way back when, a long time ago, one of my video production classes made a movie entitled Entrapment at an antebellum mansion in a small town in South Carolina. Morgan Honaker directed it.


By the by, I believe the star of this film is now the president of the student body at Clemson.












Here's the trailer:


I haven't been able to locate the actual movie online yet, but here's the blog post about making the movie:

Today, the video production class finished the DVD containing the movie Entrapment.  The class will show the movie to the entire school tomorrow during the Interim presentations.  So far, the buzz has been good.  My significant other just now flinched at a jump scare while watching the movie, and the film has a delightfully bleak, surprising, and abrupt ending that leaves the viewer with a pleasant sense of hopelessness and Poe-esque entombment. 

My notes from the past few days:

"There's so much blood!" --Jude

1) Now, on the morning of the 9th day of the production, the class is busy editing the "Making of" video, the final movie entitled Entrapment, and the blooper reel, so I can pause for a moment. We've been shooting at the manor all week, but it feels like one long day.

2) A cold mansion on a wet dark morning.  The crew is in the small dining room filming a scene where Fiona hops out of a cabinet by the back door. I'm sitting in a decidedly chilly gun room that could use a fire in its fireplace. We keep the heat off to cut down on noise in the room tone.  I keep recording random comments from the crew in the Moleskine:

"You still need to turn around faster," says the director.

"He turned around before she said Boo!"

"Go back in your hidey hole, Fiona."

"Are we getting enough reaction from Jude?"

"I am not a chipmunk."

"Don't use the mic as a weapon."  They shoot another take.  Jude grimaces afterwards.

"He wouldn't have calmed down that quickly."

I point out that the "The goal is to end up with a better movie than the blooper reel."[Later, we realize that we will have to reshoot this scene.  Any shot that involves Jude and Fiona talking to each other for any length of time requires at least 15 takes, and the director wishes that she had taken more.]

Every time the crew changes places, the cinematographer grabs the camera and says "Moving!" She claims that she has some shots that she hates (but has to use anyway), and others that she loves. The class has a chronic tendency to start filming a scene without remembering to turn on the microphone.

3) In the afternoon, the sky darkens considerably as we prepare Fiona for the haunting moment when she realizes that she and Jude are now in the old photograph. It's not easy getting her to look properly freaked out, so she jabs her fingers in her eyes to make herself cry, and says "This is why I haven't cried in front of anyone since the fifth grade." I think of Kubrick tormenting Shelley Duvall for weeks and months in the midst of making The Shining.  Is directing inherently sadistic?

"Later, we're going to add in a loud bang," says the director. "Look up," she says to Fiona. "Turn your body forward.  Yell `Jude' and run out of the room."

The director bangs on the wall. "Do you know what to do?"

"Look bewildered and on the edge of mental breakdown?"

"Right." Meanwhile, I take pleasure in shooting footage from the bird's eye point of view from the landing over the stairs.

4) Still later in the day.  The crew works very hard to finish scene 2. Bored, I doze briefly in the parlor (oddly decorated with elephants and Santa Claus figurines), but not for long, because sleepers tend to end up on film. At one point, Jude fell asleep for 3 hours, so we placed some reflecting foil on his head.

5) I keep opting for a student to lie face down in a small empty fountain (except for some rank cold dirty water) at the side of the house to help create atmosphere in an early point-of-view shot, but no one seems inclined to do it. We all agree that a catering service would be nice.  Some hot chocolate?

6) "I'm not a character.  I'm a scaractor," says Jude in the midst of a "Making of" interview.  A football player, Jude chiefly acts with his eyebrows and his forehead with lots of squinting and rubbing his eyes. He has been working hard, but he distinctly does not enjoy the tender reunion scene that includes this dialogue:

Fiona: "Jude, you can't leave me like that again.  I don't want my closest friend getting hurt."

Jude: "I won't leave you, but we have to get out of this house."

I get the impression that he would prefer to not to have to look meaningfully into her eyes. We end up having to shoot this take over and over, more than ten times, with Jude getting more exasperated throughout. I tell him this is the reason why major movie stars earn 12 million dollars a picture.  Jude replies, "I would cut off my leg for 12 million, and buy myself a new one."  He also says he's going to "Tebow after this." Whenever I say anything critical about Scooby Doo, Fiona says she loves the show.  She finds the The Black Knight museum episode was especially scary.

7) By yesterday afternoon, the crew shot a nice action scene in which the two stars ran the length of a house (with two crew members following close behind, and the "Making of" director behind them) before a door slams and Fiona screams.  The movie contains several moments where ghosts (?) bang on or slam doors (using fishing line).  At one point, I slammed the front door so hard, plaster fell from around the windows. The owner (standing right next to me) was saintly nice about it, but if it had been my house, I would've kicked everyone out, especially since we were supposed to be finished the day before.

At one point, a door slowly shut by itself right after a take.  We figured the Captain, the original owner of the house, wanted to be included in the shot.

8) This afternoon, I read Portis' True Grit in the parlor as Fiona repeatedly gasps hysterically, twirls around, drops the photograph, and falls on the floor in the main hallway as the cinematographer lies on the floor with the camera and the two ghosts (with lighting equipment) contemplatively chew on some brownies as they look on. Everyone is eager to finish. Jude even points out in an interview that "The promise of getting done is a good motivator," although I have heard some talk that perhaps he has been intentionally been a difficult in a diva-esque way today. Jude claims that "Acting is very hard, and people don't know how hard it is."

When asked how she gets herself to look scared, Fiona confesses that she thinks of "horrible things, like heights and terrorists."  Both actors have much respect for the director, whom they call "Mein Fuhrer."

Late on the last afternoon of principal photography, we reshoot the first scene when Fiona and Jude walk into the house for the first time.  Then, we keep waiting for the director to say "That's a wrap," but first she and the cinematographer have to shoot another scene of the front of the house, and then get some more outdoor room tone (nature tone?) out back.  So, when she finally says the phrase in the bus, the moment ends up being a bit anticlimactic.

9) Over the weekend, the students found that mixing the sound, especially music, proved trickier and more time-consuming that editing the video.  They worked until 11 every night in the classroom.  Today, they just needed for Fiona to scream into the mic and then loop the scream for the last scene.  As they edit, we spend part of the time studying the symmetrical composition of each shot in the new trailer for Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom.  By this afternoon, the students were done and making copies.  For whatever reason, (lack of competition between groups? a perfectionist director? a detail-oriented cinematographer?) the class went especially well this year. I feel fortunate to have been involved.