Sunday, August 23, 2015

A Salute to M*A*S*H (Television Show)

This is a salute to M*A*S*H, the most human show I have ever seen. It accomplished so many great things that I respect, had so many characters that I cared about, and moved me repeatedly - sometimes to actual (manly) tears. So, I would like to address M*A*S*H directly and thank it for all it's done.

Dear M*A*S*H, you're the best. Sure, you ran for a long time, and were wildly popular. Sure, you still hold the record for the most widely viewed television finale - pulling 125 million people in to turn on their TV sets in the mid 80's. Sure, you aired during the middle of one war to talk about another one (but not really talk about the other one...). Sure you aired several years before I was even born. But, that's not really what I care about. You really moved me, and made me want to be a better human. And you did it while joking about alcoholism, drug use, and skirt-chasing. You're remarkable. So, I salute you M*A*S*H, for all the great things you've done:

- You were never serious - even though you almost always were. Each episode was like a clown somehow got off the wrong train station and ended up at a funeral.

- You didn't respect authority, but you respected life. In everything you ever did, you respected life. I came to really identify with that.

- Your characters didn't have weaknesses, they were weaknesses. Their strengths were veiled weaknesses, their coping methods were weaknesses wrapped in neuroses, and their weaknesses were real and identifiable.

- There were no villains - the only real sin in the world of M*A*S*H was to stop caring about the feelings and lives of others. Those villains were the only ones you never exonerated, the people who had forgotten what empathy felt like.

- You ran boldly for eleven seasons - switching out more than half the cast as you went - and still ended on a high note without being cancelled by the network.

- I could never tell whether I would laugh or cry during your episodes - you played the comedy and the tragedy straight, as it came.

- You kept your own rules, even after eleven seasons the characters remained the same, they grew up, and were shaped by events, but they were never someone different just to suit the needs of the plot.

- You praised everyone equally, even in a time when that wasn't necessarily popular. You talked about women's rights, racism, homosexuality, fear, faith, mortality, poverty, and how to decide between eating liver or fish.

- Your characters were honest, and pure of heart, while also being real and approachable.

- You replaced excellent characters with better characters each time someone left.

- You snuck major political, personal, racial, moral, and philosophical dilemmas and conversations into an innocuous comedy. You got me to think, when that's supposed to be a comedy killer.

- You explored, you stretched and challenged your characters. You made them make tough, irreversible decisions. You put them in situations that changed their perceptions, tested their compassion, and questioned their morals. And did I mention it was all very funny?

- The comedy was constant. It never stopped. To this day, I rewatch your episodes when I want to relax and feel happy. I like to sit back and slip into a half-sleep and let the constant stream of comedy wash over me. Whether or not I laugh, it doesn't matter - I just feel better knowing that we've all got it tough, but that doesn't mean it can't be fun too.

- You help me keep my hipster street cred. I've never once been able to convince someone younger than my parents to watch you, and so each time I recommend you to others, I remain "too cool" for what is current, mainstream, or socially acceptable in any way.

- You really made me sad - like devastatingly so - multiple times. But then I'd turn on another episode and the happy would come right back.

- You were crass and irreverent. You were artistic and experimental. You were honest and charismatic. I'm not sure you wanted to choose what you were, so you took a stab at everything, and you felt more lifelike because of it.

- You grew up. Sure, your characters grew and changed, but so did you. At first, racism and infidelity were a couple of big jokes to you. Then, they took on new meaning, and they became difficult issues. I don't know if that was your way of convincing cynical people to like and listen to you before you delivered the moral messages, or if you just matured over time by sheer exposure to your own subject matter. Either way, you began to realize and explore the true implications of your themes, and I was changed for the better because of it.

- And above all, you laughed your way through it all. You kept that one promise for eleven seasons. You started as a comedy of characters in a horrible situation, and sometimes when things got really tough, the comedy was almost like a coping mechanism or a reflex. Sometimes I didn't know whether or laugh or cry, and sometimes you cracked a wonderful joke, but we both cried anyway. But no matter how sad things got, the comedy was always there.

- You delivered something meaningful, dressed in a clown's outfit.

Here's to you M*A*S*H and to how few people I will ever convince in my lifetime to give you a second glance. You were - and still are - the most human television show I've ever seen.

And now, to complete the salute - here is a collection of gif's from my favorite character of yours. Stay Classy, M*A*S*H.

Monday, July 13, 2015

The Death of Movie Magic and the (re)Birth of Movie Art

I teach film to a small group of students. And as I speak with people learning those skills and beginning to really look critically at the media around them, oftentimes I hear the same, sad exclamation "Now the magic is gone."

Even with ever-expanding media hype, and unprecedented access to "Behind the Scenes" footage, for the majority of the population - the process that goes into making movies is still kind of magic. But I'd wager that demographic and those feelings are fast disappearing. Today, the average technology consumer has more filmmaking power than more than half of the filmmakers in all of film history - at least in terms of equipment. iMovie is free for every Mac, and has all of the capabilities (and more) that the old editing machines did. The equipment is no longer a barrier to entry.

And, as the equipment becomes more widespread, so does the knowledge. Famous cinematographers and editors now have Youtube channels where they share their secrets. More and more people are getting access to more and more technology and knowledge unlocking their potential in moviemaking and also it's "secrets." Among other things, this adds up to a world where fewer and fewer people wonder how things are done, and the mysticism and magic are largely gone.

My brother-in-law took his kids to Disneyland, which, at the time, had just added the Turtle Talk with Crush attraction. For those who haven't had a chance to see it, it's a dark room with a large screen, showing a static image of the bottom of the ocean. Once everyone is seated, Crush, a character from Finding Nemo comes onto the screen and interacts with the audience. He takes questions, makes fun of people, asks about things in the human world, and sometimes shows artifacts that he's found on the sea floor and asks about them. It's the best. As my brother-in-law was leaving with his family, he heard behind him a little girl ask, "How do they do that?" Her father casually replied, "It's just computers, dear."

No need to be scared, it's just computers. 

Yep, this too - just some computers.

No need to be sad, it's just computers.

That's all. Disney magic is just computers.

And in reality that's what moviemakers face today. Their audiences know more about their bag of tricks than they have since the beginning of film history. Much of the magic and mystery that used to surround these productions is completely gone.

But something else has taken its place. A genuine respect for the true masters and a desire for those masters to demonstrate their skill.

Take the below video for example. This commercial is all practical - it is done 100% in camera.

In a world that didn't know how films were made, taking the time to do something so radically different like this would be a complete waste. But current audiences do care, they do understand, and they can respect this approach. What's beginning to happen to this new generation of budding filmmakers is not a veil hiding how things are done - but a light shining on the man behind the curtain, and a recognition in those who are just learning that he really is a master at what he does. 

Film is becoming like painting. There is no mystery behind painting. No one wonders how the artist did it. Instead, they are filled with wonder that any person could do - with the same brush and paints they have access to - something so spectacular. Audience members are getting better at recognizing film as art, because they have the same cameras as these artists, and yet they can't produce a moving image that is as beautiful or (forgive the pun) moving. 

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Casting Choices (Spoiler-Free Review)

My posts can get a little didactic... I always end up wanting to get on the same page before reviewing the actual movie. Movies are subjective, and what each person extracts from any given film experience will be different and based on varying values. As a film-fan and filmmaker myself, I tend to talk in operational terms(how to make movies) and so I try to get everyone on the same page before I even start into a movie review. It doesn't mean you need to agree with me, or that my opinion matters more somehow. It just means that's how I've come to understand those experiences.

But today, I don't need any of that.

Recently I revisited Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and I just love that film. This time I was particularly struck by the genius of the casting. At it's core, Scoundrels is a buddy picture - and fits well within that genre when you consider it in those terms, despite the fact that Steve Martin and Michael Caine are actually rivals rather than friends for this story.

Good buddy pictures are built on the ideas of interacting opposites. Two characters that are so different their mere proximity breeds comedy. Whether it be pairing of straight-laced and carefree, old and young, or fat guy and llama.  But the genius behind Steve Martin and Michael Caine is that they are fundamentally different people. They can both have similar back stories, occupations, and can even be striving for the same goal, but they are incapable of being the same.

On top of that, the clashing opposites in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is often more subtle than in other buddy pictures. The two of them aren't reluctant partners or forced to be friends in order to get through some ordeal. Instead, the film recognizes their differences and uses them against each other in their ongoing duel. Also, their differences are obvious, but not cliche. They stem from the fact that these two characters - and more especially the two actors and comedians playing them - are just really different people who act in really different ways. And the source of that difference doesn't even really matter.

To illustrate my point perfectly, there is one scene after Steve Martin learns that Michael Caine is making significantly more money, wherein Steve Martin's character asks to be tutored in Caine's refined ways. Throughout the scene, Martin tries to imitate Caine's behavior, adopt his interests, and even tries to take on his mannerisms. It's so hilarious because Martin ends up looking like a child, pretending to be a grown up without knowing really what to do with himself while he goes through the motions. Part of this is due to the fact that Martin is a remarkably talented physical comedian, and part of it is just the plain fact that Martin couldn't become Caine if he wanted to.

In fact, part of the genius of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is that these characters have the same occupation and are pursuing the same goals. We get to see them chase after their muse, but using completely different strategies, strengths, and perspectives. And all this characterization is wonderfully conveyed within the first ten minutes of the film, without an exposition dump, before the central plot has even begun to unfold.

In summary, several directors have remarked at the necessity of great casting in film, and I just wanted to point out one of my favorites. Go see Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, it's a fun and hilarious film.

P.S. I also realized while writing this that Frank Oz has directed 3 of my favorite Steve Martin films. Guess he does more than pig, monster, and alien voices.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Field of Dreams, Emotional Logic, and The Destiny Trope

I apologize, right up front. This one is longer than I originally wanted my pieces to be. This article contains a full exploration, and you'll be better for reading the whole thing.

To kick this off: two seemingly unrelated stories.

1. The Oculus Rift

Eight or so months ago I was evaluating the viability of using a new product - the Oculus Rift. I wanted to get a good feel for what it did well and where gaps in the product still existed. More than any product I've looked at in a long time, this thing had been hyped beyond recognition for almost a year prior to my getting one to test. It's a pair of goggles that fill your entire field of view, and track the movement of your head. So when you turn your head, the camera within the game you are looking at also turns, and you feel immersed in the experience. Basically, it's taking another crack at virtual reality. I tried test after test, and game after game trying to figure out what all the hype was about. More than anything else, I got really motion sick. Finally, I pulled up a test app where someone had recreated the final scene from Close Encounters (the alien's landing).

I tinkered around in the scene with my new toy, poking at corners and waiting for the aliens to arrive. That meant I heard the incoming ship before I saw it (I was facing the wrong way), and I turned just in time to see it come in over the mountain top. My. jaw. dropped. open.

As the alien ship, fake-looking and pixelated as it was, filled my entire field of view, I felt a sense of its vastness in my gut and tensed up all over with suspense. For just a moment, I understood all of the hype. For a split second that ship was real to me.

2. My Contentious Girlfriend

When I was in my first year in college - and deeply infatuated with film - I dated a girl who argued constantly with me about the merits of different films and stories - or the lack thereof. She thought that writers of drama in general were people seeking to turn anything into its most extreme form, and would often forsake logic and basic reasoning in favor of opportunities to make an audience laugh or cry. I'm not saying she's wrong, and that she hasn't touched on a major problem in entertainment media, but we always fought because she insisted that dramatic classics were some of the worst offenders, and often used them as her token examples for the central flaws in storytelling as we know it. Her favorite example was Romeo and Juliet - and she loved to trash Shakespeare in general.

I also just happened to be on a huge Shakespeare, and especially Romeo and Juliet, kick at that point. Besides, how could I allow her to badmouth the Bard? So we fought... a lot.

Emotional Logic

The first thing I want to tackle is a blanket term I apply to multiple individual phenomenons or experiences, and how we use them to assess our enjoyment of or empathy towards a film. I gave examples of two of these experiences (or thought  processes) - that I will explain in a minute - in the above stories. But, the big idea behind emotional logic is that when you as an audience member evaluate (even subconsciously) a piece of media, your methods for doing so do not necessarily follow patterns of logic or rational thought. You do not use the same methods as you would to evaluate an argument or research article. There is an emotional and empathetic component that takes over your mental processing, oftentimes even inhibiting rational thought, and sweeping you away. You begin to feel along with the characters on screen (assuming the film has helped the two of you build a relationship) and assess whether or not the narrative feels realistic rather than whether or not it actually is realistic.

In the first story, I told an experience where the emotional aspect of an experience completely overpowered the intellectual conversation I was having with myself. The psychology behind this gets a little complex (and would make this article even longer than it is), but the important part of this is that unless you have years of intense training in controlling your own emotions, this is true of just about everyone. It's a large part of what makes narratives so transportive, and also what allows them to take us to so many places. Sure, suspension of disbelief is part of it, but no audience member is willing to suspend disbelief entirely, accepting fiction on trust or face value. Suspension of disbelief pays off to the audience when they are rewarded with a rich experience that feels real in return for their willingness to believe it could be plausible. And then, when the audience is given those rich emotional experiences, suspending disbelief is no longer a chore, because the emotional assessment of the fictional reality is more powerful than our rational mind can keep at bay. It's why telling yourself that Bambie doesn't exist can't save you from crying when his mother dies. And the clarity, power, and familiarity of those emotions become our basis for assessing how believable or emotionally valuable a story is - regardless of how well it adheres to physical realities.

In the second story, I brought up another aspect of emotional logic: the actual assessment of films based on emotional (rather than logical) evidences that they are realistic or believable. A proper logical assessment of Romeo and Juliet would require that you remember both protagonists are 15, and at that age every emotion feels like the strongest and most real emotion you have ever felt in your life EVER! Both protagonists are motivated by pure, hormone-catalyzed emotion, and you can sit back from your logical high tower and contemplate how crazy the protagonists are. But no one ever thinks of the story in such detached terms. Romeo and Juliet is called one of the greatest romances of all time because we identify with it and empathize with it (at least those who like it do). It's not because we all think those tweens are so fascinating and silly, or because we distantly refer to it as a 'teen drama,' or a 'coming of age' story. We have an entirely separate ruler by which to measure our enjoyment of stories like Romeo and Juliet, and it's largely emotional. Romeo and Juliet is a classic because it captures an emotional rawness towards love that so many people can remember or relate to, and distills and displays it in its purest and most concentrated form - two teenagers that think there really is nothing else to life than that emotion. In this context, every kiss does actually feel like the world is spinning, and each moment is full of fireworks. We empathize with how that feels, and when the characters act irrationally, we evaluate the emotions they must be feeling, their history that informs their emotions, and our own history or understanding of that emotion rather than the reality or logic of the situation. Are the feelings of this character consistent with what I know about him or her? Are his or her actions consistent with their feelings?

In that context, Romeo doesn't kill himself just because he wants you, as an audience member, to be sad. He kills himself because his emotions make him feel as if there is no other option. And that - it turns out - is valuable to us because it is an emotion so many of us recognize. It's certainly not because it seems like realistic behavior.

Think about the return home plot in Wall-E. Logically, the autopilot has a much stronger argument for staying out in space than the captain has for returning to earth. When the evidence is weighed, you have a planet that has been deemed too toxic for humans by scientists, and orders that the crew can never be entirely sure that it has fully righted itself, versus a single robot that found a plant. But we don't care. So emotionally intoxicating is the idea of going home that we ignore the more rational argument in favor of what feels right. That robot steering wheel doesn't want to go home. What kind of monster wouldn't want to go home? (This is also a common tactic in political rhetoric, but I'm certainly not going to discuss that here.)


A Quick Sidenote about those "Fanboyz"

Before someone has a chance to jump in and say, "Wait a minute, I assess films logically and point out their flaws to all my friends and family so that they don't enjoy their experience," and think that they are either an exception to this rule or proof that it just isn't true, I want you to know I call people that do that fanboyz - and that's not a good thing in this case.

Everyone has different things that they value in movies, and everyone has a line of believability they won't let movies cross. My mother-in-law worked as a nurse before she first saw Thor. She loved the movie, except for the fight in the hospital, because she knew there was no way you could have a fist fight in a hospital gown without it falling off and exposing the nether regions. That was her line, and the movie crossed it. She was fine with rainbow bridges, ice giants, and the entire united Marvel universe, but that hospital gown was too unrealistic for her. But again, that's not really what bugs me about fanboyz.

Fanboyz actively seeks to rip apart their own and other people's experience solely for the purpose of proving that they are more knowledgeable than another person. They come up with theories about or attacks on movies based on surface details that don't matter to how the story is perceived or enjoyed. And for a multitude of reasons, fanboys ruin everything. Not only are their millions of them spreading their hate all over the internet at this very moment, but movie companies are beginning to think they actually have to listen to that garbage. Therefore, they feel the need to take an extra 30 minutes of Superman's runtime explaining what a codec is - even though it's an extraneous detail to the characters or emotional plot line of the film. They did it to make sure the film was more scientifically accurate and logical just so no one would complain.

Don't get me wrong. Being realistic, in fiction, is a huge plus. But it's not at the core of what actually matters to us, and with all the other dramatic missteps of Man of Steel, it obviously kept them from doing other, more important, things.But that's not really what I meant to talk about. 

So, my advice to fanboyz is twofold, (1) don't ruin other people's experiences over little details that you were only able to notice because you were watching a bad movie. And (2) those things probably aren't actually what made the movie bad in the first place, so maybe you should take a deeper look. Logistical accuracy has never been a requirement for fictional narratives.

Finally, let's look at one more aspect of emotional logic in for a deeper analysis - Familiarity. Asian "superheroes" differ greatly from western superheroes, and that difference tells us a lot about what people value, and what feels real to them. American superheroes are given their powers through accidents outside their control, magical coincidence, or just by being from somewhere else entirely. Asian heroes, on the other hand, are often normal people who have a whole lot of the right kind of training. Asian heroes are something that you can become by your own power rather than force majeure. So, for westerners to believe that a man can stop a sword blade with just his hand, we have to invent an elaborate story about how he became so powerful by existing within a faux reality - while any old martial artist can do it in Asia if they've trained enough and have the right mindset. And remember, this is all on an emotional level - that is what it takes for our superheroes to feel real to us. And that makes sense - western superheroes match the pattern of stories that we surround ourselves with, where people triumph based on their ingenuity, knowledge of science, and luck. Contrastingly, Asia has had super humans doing insane things out of sheer willpower, practice, and a still mind for thousands of years - and it is a one cultural staple that informs their world views. So, audience members evaluate those stories on a subconscious level by comparing them to the feelings of agreement and assurance that they have had while consuming other stories. Iron Man is Elon Musk - with science and ingenuity on his side, while Katayama Gorobei can sense a blow to the head before it comes, just as many thought Bruce Lee could in real life. It feels right because it feels similar to what we experience around us, even though it may not actually be linked to reality in any other way. So it might just be that Field of Dreams matters to us because it leans on the familiarity and nostalgia of classic baseball. But I'm not really ready to talk about Field of Dreams yet.

The Destiny Trope

Understanding emotional logic is important to our discussion because next I want to talk about the Destiny Trope in movies, and how completely enraptured movies and audiences are with the whole idea. Understanding why we - as audience members - consistently value this kind of story is much more important than understanding why moviemakers continue to create this kind of story, but it is also a lot harder to answer. Especially when it neither seems logical or helpful to us in the long run.

While there are many forms which destiny can take in films, the specific flavor of the unavoidable fate that I am referring to treats each person's life as a river - flowing toward a predetermined point. Trying to make any decision contrary to destiny is not only futile, but makes the character unhappy and unsuccessful. However, should the character finally face their destiny and give in to what was always meant to be, they will find that life has already lined up everything for them to be successful and happy if they can just accept what they were always meant to do. once they accept their destiny they need only go with the flow, and success is assured. This type of destiny is decided by the universe and completely outside the control of the character - and the character need only accept their destiny to be happy and successful, or run from it and be forever unhappy.

This is subtly, but importantly, different from Strictly Ballroom's "A life lived in fear is a life half lived." destiny - wherein destiny is a destination, but the character must choose whether or not that is the life they intend to pursue. With this version of destiny, sometimes the character believes in their heart that is where they want to be, but fear or some other obstacle prevents them from getting to it. No. Instead, the destiny trope I'm talking about would say that the universe demands that the protagonist fulfill their destiny, and he or she has an illusion of choice whether or not to accept, but trying to deny destiny is painful, and giving into fate in inevitable.

A perfect example of the destiny trope I'm getting at is in August Rush (2007). Within the first act of August Rush, we learn that lover characters must love each other, must have a son, and they all must make music. Then, everyone but the boy spend the entire plot of the film trying to duck and dodge their destiny until the final act when they accept it, and VOILA, everything falls into place. (P.S. Spoilers!) This piece was largely panned by critics for being so predictable, but it was lauded by audiences for being touching and meaningful (I didn't make that up - those are real reviews and to clarify I'm not making fun of them). But what about this trope and this approach to story universes is so meaningful to us? As discussed before it is not because of how true to life it is, or how well it matches our perception of reality, but instead we value it on a deeper, more emotional level. So why? Is following destiny to a magical land of happiness a reality that is familiar to us? Or is it just a familiar story?

Rather than sitting around talking about a more obscure use of this trope, let's tackle the big kahuna - why is Field of Dreams, that timeless classic, a wonderful and poignant story? It's based on a construct of reality that even by emotional terms doesn't seem like how things are, but we still love it. We can all agree that the universe doesn't actually arrange people's lives for them and give them no choice but to fulfill a specific destiny, right?

Oh wait, I didn't actually want to talk about Field of Dreams yet. My bad. I promise we'll come back.

On one level it is extremely easy for me to understand why moviemakers write, shoot, and edit films with this trope - it's a group of driven people who broke into a tight-knit community, usually just by sheer hard work and patience. This is a group of people who spent a good amount of time going to sleep at night hoping that destiny had something in store for them, feeding their own motivation on the story that working in the movies is where they belong. And many of those who make it, don't necessarily love their jobs more than other people, but my experience has been that they continue to feed themselves the story of it being "meant to be" in order to help make the hard times easier. It's an emotion that I can really empathize with. So, of course moviemakers want to continue to tell that kind of story, but why do we as audience members continue to want to hear it? Are we all waiting to realize our "real" destinies and hanging onto a psychologically unhealthy hope that one day the universe will align and give us our due? I can't actually believe that's true. Are these movies only appealing to passionate youth (like Romeo and Juliet mentioned before) who haven't had their dreams completely crushed by the world? Still not buying it.

Which bring us to my last major point of emotional logic: it's completely self-reflective. It is tainted by our self-centered perspective on reality. You see, of the two types of destiny I mentioned -  unavoidable destiny decided by and driven by the universe and the destiny of a character deciding to set their own path and driving on - both feel the same when we reach our goal. In that moment, our selfish perception is that the world aligns for a moment to bring us unimaginable joy. So, a story that gets us there in more natural or healthy means would have the same emotional outcome as one that actually included the world bending over backwards to solve the protagonist's central issue - they both feel the same once we actually get to that point.

This emotional perception changes throughout our life. As our emotions mature, some stories lose their allure because we no longer identify with how they portray this emotional reality. So I'm not saying this is all subconscious and beyond our control - quite the opposite. What I am saying is that without persistent monitoring our natural reactions betray how emotionally mature we really are, and in some cases we find that we are more mature than the filmmakers trying to construct the emotional experience that we are consuming, and sometimes we find the opposite is true. That's why some films feel immature to many people, but appeal to others. It also helps explain, in part, how so many immature movies claim such large crowds and make so much money - one of the primary demographics for blockbusters is teenagers. And science tells us their brains are out of whack, and their emotions are full-strength without being fully matured.

Either way, the larger point is that neither our (nor the teenagers') emotions are concerned with the larger reality of the world and it's turning. They are completely self-centered. When we meet a huge goal in life it feels like the universe arranged it. It may not be true, but to our emotional experience the world does in fact revolve around us. So when we feel the great triumph of closing a big sale, or a lost loved one reclaimed, or even a high score in a video game - it feels like our entire life up to that point was meant for that moment. And so, films with narratives that move heaven and hell to make the destiny of the protagonists come to fruition end up feeling real by our own emotional logic, and don't seem as far-fetched as they are. Thus, the completely unreal twistings of the vast universe feel personal and poignant, as they do in Field of Dreams.

Field of Dreams

Well, you've made it through the book prior to the actual movie review. And if you are now wondering why I focused in on the destiny trope in this film, while completely ignoring the other themes that the film addresses, there are multiple reasons. First, I don't actually think there are as many themes in this movie as the movie itself seems to think there are. It mentions themes of alienation, 60's aftermath, estrangement, and the tension between following one's dreams and fulfilling responsibilities towards those around us - but these are never explored. The tension between the financial and emotional needs of Ray's family versus this crazy destiny-chase he goes on are a strawman at best (the final argument/decision before Karin is knocked off the bleachers) - and an obligatory reminder that there is a conflict in this film at worst (the phone call scene before picking up Archie on the side of the road). The real themes of this movie are father-son relationships, destiny, and baseball.

I really don't have much to say about the father-son relationship bit or baseball. This movie makes me nostalgic towards America's pastime in lots of ways that I didn't think were still pertinent to me as a person (since it's been over 15 years since I last picked up a mitt). What the film does show and talk about it does well, and that's a big part of what I like about it. Also, I still get choked up at the end when Ray meets his father as he's never met him - young and wide-eyed. Sure, the father-son theme in the film gets significantly less time than the other two, but it serves to make the final payoff much more personal as well.

Which brings me to my third reason - I focused on the destiny trope because it was the theme that took up the majority of the time, but I had the most problem with. Like a doctor, I ignored the entire body that was healthy and just kept staring and poking at this one strange and puzzling mole.

And Field of Dreams is so inundated with the destiny trope it is practically the price for admission. the first real scene of this movie is Ray hearing a voice that thrusts him unwillingly into the plot. We don't even know who he is (besides his charming but unnecessary narration of his life up to that point) at this point in the film, but we do know that the universe wants him to get to work fulfilling his destiny. I say "unwillingly," but that attitude is only true of this first "destiny push." From then on, any time destiny calls Ray is there taking orders like he's Raymond from the Manchurian Candidate.  He loses all agency and power as a character, and is only there to do what destiny bids. Destiny commands he build a baseball field and he does it; destiny bids he find a lonely, antisocial author and kidnap him, fine, whatever you say; and then destiny tells him to find a dead doctor, and he doesn't know how to do that. But never fear, destiny will ambiguously send him back in time so that he can fulfill his goal. All of this shows that, thematically, this movie isn't telling us anything about Ray - if it were Ray would have some control over the story, his reactions would matter, or he would at least have something to say as the victim of this event. No, instead this film is telling us about karma and the cosmic spinnings of the universe that set events in motion so that Ray can reunite with his father - whether or not he actually wants to. Destiny demands that he act, he does, and he is ultimately rewarded for it. That tells us more about destiny than it tells us about Ray.

And yet it still works on some level. I still got a little choked up when "Moonlight" Graham lost his chance to play baseball, and when John finally got to meet his granddaughter. Especially since our responses are self-reflective, that tells you something about me, and how I resonate with themes and situations. But no matter how effective the moments that do work are, they can't communicate what the film could have been if it had treated this theme more maturely.

Every time I talk this point with people, I get a few eye rolls. I understand that it is kind of silly to compare a film to a hypothetical version that is way better. But ultimately, doing so is about the act of finding where a film fails for you, understanding how you think it could've done better, and drawing conclusions about film in general based on your ideas. And I'm not going to try and support that position, I'll just let Steven Spielberg do it for me.

There's an interesting BTS section on the Close Encounters special features where Steven Spielberg opens up and says that he would never make Close Encounters today; he thought it represented misguided ideas he had as a youth. In the film, Richard Dreyfuss is inexplicably drawn to discover what is at the top of a mountain - no matter the costs. He obsesses about it and ultimately abandons his family in search of what it all means. Sound familiar?

What Spielberg said about that situation was that it skipped over the real story to chase a contrived one. If the protagonist were obsessing about something, what would it take to get so under his skin to uproot or cause him to neglect the things in his life that were most important to him - like his family? How would having a family create conflict and add meaning to that experience? Ignoring the social and familial relationships to chase after the contrived situation of learning the meaning of someone's life and the purpose of their destiny is not only selfish (and yet rewarded in both Encounters and Field of Dreams), but it misses the point of where most people find meaning. In both situations the protagonists ignore their family in order to find the meaning of life. And, by my standards that's just counter-productive.

In summary, I think my wife said it best when, as we were watching Field of Dreams a brief shot came on of Ray pining over his empty field while Christmas happened in the background, "Wait, he's skipping Christmas for that dumb thing?"

And that's an emotional evaluation based on emotional values, and has nothing to do with how well Field of Dreams matches reality. Which is good, because it doesn't do that either. 

Thursday, May 28, 2015

An introduction into what it is like to make a film.

I love this video so much. While the content is very abstract, this has been my experience with every video and film I've ever had the precious opportunity to work on.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Film Analysis and "Striking While the Iron's Cold"

One of my all-time favorite films
The title this week comes from a comment of one of my favorite film critics on a reddit AMA. I read it ages ago, but the sentiment of this comment has stuck with me, especially since it resonates with my approach to writing posts.

I never review or discuss current movies.

I can even remember multiple times (in my more pretentious days) going to see movies with friends, and then when they asked whether or not I liked it, I would just tell them that I couldn't say yet. I understand now that's not really what you do in social situations, but I really like to dissect a movie before I feel I can say anything beyond my surface feelings.

So, let me just stop there for a moment. Surface feelings are valuable. I know that now, and it took me a long time to learn.

However, striking while the iron's cold allows you to analyze a movie and ask why you feel the way you do. You get to dissect the jokes, dig into the subtext, research cinematography, and anything else you need to do to understand what elements are at work behind what you are seeing. And the best part is that you don't have to hang your feelings on the patterns you do or don't find - because those surface feelings are still there and they still happened. Even if you realize that a movie you love is a terrible film, by certain standards or according to certain major theorists or critics, you can still love it.

Besides, learning about films more, diving into the emotional and intellectual responses that come so naturally while we're watching them is the kind of experience that enriches us as human beings. And doing so while the emotions are not so fresh in our memory allows us to analyze them without returning to or being consumed by them again.

Plus, it also helps you to avoid telling everyone else that they are wrong (Refer to sentence that reads "Surface feelings are valuable").

Monday, May 18, 2015

Editing for Pacing and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

So, I'm going to start this one with a confession. For every one post I put up here, there are at least three that never happen or end up on the cutting room floor. It's common for me to write something, and then read through it, hate it, and throw it out. But this topic - pacing and video editing in general - has been on my mind a lot lately, and as I've written it I've been very pleased with how it's turned out. Video editing is near and dear to my heart because it is my role of choice (outside the director's chair) when working on video crews. In my mind, editing is when a few unrelated shots become a movie.

Sure everyone knows what editing is, and how to do it, but not a lot of everyday moviegoers understand what makes it good, how editors set themselves apart, or where the "art" side of the art and skill coin comes into play. The barrier to entry for video editing is so low that now ANYONE can do it for absolutely free, but still people don't seem to grasp the path to becoming a good editor or how to spot(appreciate) one in the average summer blockbuster.

Editing is like cinematography in that, sure, anyone can have a camera, anyone can learn the rule of thirds, but some few true artists just seem to make really stellar images (i.e. there is an art there above and beyond skill). But how does that break down for editors? Where does the skill end and the art begin? Don't video editors just (1) do whatever the director tells them to, and (2) find the best takes, and arrange them in linear (or non-linear, depending on the story) order?

That would be a resounding no.

If you were to break down a film editor's task list, you would definitely see some things that are very cut and dry, and very skill-oriented - like making sure a film comes in with the right runtime. Film editors do in fact have many rules of thumb, tips and tricks that govern how they do what they do - and there is really a lot there that we could dive into there. But there are also some tasks that are vague and difficult to execute - like using pacing to create tone, or constructing a scene to properly cover the action. However, the important thing for this discussion is to remember that at the end of the day, everything a film editor does operates on two major principles: gestalt and pacing.

A Quick Overview of Gestalt

While I could (and I hope to) devote an entire post on gestalt in video editing, let's just get the definition out of the way so that we can get into pacing. Gestalt (in film) is the understanding that the audience doesn't view any portion of a film in isolation. Audience members don't think to themselves that they are hearing creepy music and seeing someone walking down an alley, they think that this person is walking down a creepy alley. Audience members don't see a shot of a man licking his lips and then see a close up of a burrito, they see a man who is hungry and wants to eat a burrito. While you are watching a film, your brain integrates all of the elements into one, and views them within the context of one another - so the less they mesh the less clear the message of any given moment will be. More powerful moments are created when everything increases your understanding of everything else in a clear and meaningful way. This works in all directions too, you relate things that happen before to things that happen after, you relate things that happen at the same time together, and you relate things that follow a pattern into a single psychological construct. That's gestalt.

Check out this clip from Scott Pilgrim, and notice how everything is related. You know where all of the characters are in relationship to one another, the cuts allow you to understand their communication and reactions with each other because each shot gives context for the shot immediately afterwards, and the action is grounded in the narrative because the cuts let you know why and how things are happening. Besides, I just love this scene.


Now that we've covered gestalt, let's get into pacing. Pacing is a term for how editors manage the psychological state of the audience over the course of a scene, sequence, or over a full film. It refers to how the editor times and transitions cuts, music, movement, and effects to (1) create a reaction in the audience; (2) use those reactions and emotions to affect other contexts and situations; and (3) transition from one emotion, thought, or reaction to another. Pacing refers both to how fast or slow a film is AND the process or rhythm the film uses to transitions from one feeling to another. Amateur filmmakers will often let the pace of a film be determined by the delivery of the actors or the action that has been captured in the camera, leaving the scenes, performances, and action to run the full length, including every unnecessary pause, movement, and extraneous blocking. Pros, on the other hand, leave hours of footage on the cutting room floor so that only the necessary amount of information is conveyed, and at a pace and rhythm that matches the emotion and desired reaction of the scene. Each scene should take the minimum amount of screen time necessary to tell it's bit of the story, you don't want to waste a frame. Then, on top of that, editors have to consider the emotional context, visual language, and audio flow between any two scenes. If you've seen the Ang Lee's Hulk (2003) the transitions between scenes are both very apparent and very fluid, with a visual element from the previous scene always bleeding into the next. That is all done to set the pacing of the film. It's also why the most common special feature on any given DVD or Blu-Ray is the "Deleted Scenes." Frequently, when editing a final film, directors or editors decide that an entire scene is dragging the pacing down, changing the emotional tone too much, or just plain out of place, and so it is cut - sometimes even when it contains information vital to the plot of the film.

For an excellent example of how a film uses pacing to set the tone and transition from one emotion to another, check out the works of M. Night Shyamalan - especially Unbreakable, Signs, or The Village. Shyamalan holds his shots for a long time without cutting to build the tension, and then suddenly speeds things up for a few minutes for scares and excitement, and then goes back to slow to let the audience catch their breath or build to the next release.

Or, if you want an example that is hilarious, fast-paced, and created by one of the greatest comedic directors of our time, you could check out Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

I highly recommend Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. But, let me just start out by saying that if you are ready to run to the movie store (they still have those, right?) to get Scott Pilgrim just off of my suggestion, it's not really a film for everyone. The story is slightly incoherent (I'll talk more in-depth about what that means in a later post - I promise), it can be kind of difficult to track, the pacing jumps frequently from fast to slow, and the narrative doesn't follow the typical emotional logic that we are accustomed to. It's a hard movie to categorize in your brain. But I think it is definitely worth watching just for the pure skill in execution, and even more so if you fit in the generation and demographic that will get the inside jokes from sitcoms and video games.

Also, I do think that the movie deserves a little leeway because it tries to adapt SIX graphic novels into a single film, the team didn't know exactly how it was going to end when they started production, and is a heavy-handed comedy (which always means taking time for comedic payoff, even if it comes at the expense of time for characterization, plot, or action). That's really hard to fit into less than two hours of video. The whole film has kind of got a "bite-off-more-than-you-can-chew" vibe to it. But even with all that, it is a genuinely entertaining and well-crafted film.

So let's go back to what I said before about how Scott Pilgrim jumps around a lot. The pacing in this movie is outright insanity - with some scenes being slow and thoughtful, others fast and frenetic, and some with the drive, rhythm, and repetition of a music video. There's not a wasted frame.

Take a minute to look at the clip below - which starts at the end of a somber scene. Notice how the pacing transitions from one emotional tone to the next, and how the editor keeps ramping up the speed til we make it to the end of the clip. Notice how your emotional state as an audience member is being manipulated by the rhythm of what you are seeing, and how the editor maintains that rhythm by holding visuals and audio the exact amount of time that matches the pacing of the scene. It's really quite brilliant.

Check it out here.

So, not only is this clip dealing with two different scenes, a shift in emotional tone between the two, music and sound cues that are both stark and subtle, swinging camera transitions to add octane to the pacing, and generally ramping up the speed of all the takes, but it also takes a moment - just as the speed of the pacing reaches its apex - to use the pacing for a joke and to get a laugh. If you missed that, it was the shot of the shoe.

All of Scott Pilgrim is like this. The whole film moves at a breakneck pace, that only pauses for emotionally poignant moments before it takes off again and doesn't wait for you to catch up. It has to cover a lot of ground, visually and stylistically as well as within the narrative. Each scene has it's own pacing - setting slightly different tones for each Evil Ex, that bare a stark contrast from the quiet moments between just Scott and Ramona. But the place where Scott Pilgrim vs. The World really shines is in the transitions. To understand what I mean and for bonus points, go back and watch the Katanyagi Twins fight, but pay attention to the pacing and rhythm this time instead of gestalt. The final section ("Getting a life") is a transition, but a different kind I'll cover later.

With the vast number and variety of scenes used in Scott Pilgrim, it would be easy for the film to feel jumpy, disjointed, and like a collection of separate vignettes. Instead, each scene has a cohesive entry and exit point, linking it all together and helping the audience understand how each scene relates to the one after it. Even the opening credits transition from one logo to another, naturally flowing from the setup right into the rest of the film and setting a precedent for pacing and transitions that will be followed for the rest of the picture.

And it works flawlessly.

So while your chowing down on popcorn in your next flick, watch out for pacing. It's something that takes awhile to catch at first, because most films aren't as obvious about it as Scott Pilgrim. If you want to know what type of stopwatch a movie ticks to, you usually have to slow it down and take it shot by shot. But that's not so bad - it makes for a great experience, and hey, that's what the editor had to do.