Week 8 – End of Season 1

I think the problem may be that, if we zoom out far enough, every statement ever made becomes a lie of omission.

Yes, you’ve filmed the Empire State Building for 485 straight minutes. That is… that is what that building looks like. But only from that exact angle. On that night. From that distance and with the camera at that height. Yes, this is nitpicking, but in the end of the day what we have here is not ‘The Empire State Building’ so much as ‘A Representation of Said Building.’ It’s two dimensional, and you can’t look at the other walls or walk around inside it.

Now, I’m not saying that as some kind of critique. I’m not saying Warhol screwed up in not inventing some kind of magic hologram that you can view from every angle in the mid sixties. What I’m saying is… can we ever show something from every angle in film?

Can we show something from a non-subjective angle… ever?

Even if I try to tell you a story about how I wrote a blog post last night, it’s still going to be limited to my perspective. Which sounds fine, seeing as no one else was there, but everything from a disagreement over whether Seinfeld’s Kramer is a likeable character to the existence of the KKK seem to prove that ‘subjective experience’ does not equal ‘truth.’

So what I guess I’m saying is that maybe we should lower our standards a little bit. Truth is a little shaky, so what if ‘documentary’ is just a film that… aims for the truth? Or better yet, aims to represent something from the real world in a recognisable way?

Actually I tell you what, I haven’t seen enough documentaries to confidently stride around defining what they should or should not be. Highschool philosophy does not give me that power…

Let’s talk instead about the responsibilities of a documentary film maker. How important is impartiality? I’m aware that giving all opinions about this or that issue equal screen-time is insane, because if we give the guy who thinks the Sun is out to kidnap his (fictional) children as much weight as Al Gore, our global warming debate isn’t going to get much done.

I like the idea of trying to include informed opinions that are different to those of the creator of the documentary… but is that part integral? If I create a documentary that doesn’t explore a discourse in opposition to my own, does that make it a propaganda movie? Furthermore, if, in some alternate universe, the Holocaust deniers were right, and Hitler was just a legitimately nice dude: would Triumph of the Will be considered a documentary?

I’m aware that the chiarascuro lighting and dramatic zeppelin shots seem to be more-than-averagely distorting the audience’s perception of old Hitler, but hey, they did the same thing in ‘The Killer Inside Me.’ I’m not really sure where the separation lies. It just feels to me like the word ‘propaganda’ only ever comes up in discussions of works whose views are different from my own. Is that not odd?

I’m tempted to throw my hands in the air and say ‘Everything is subjective, so just communicate your perspective how you like and let others evaluate that view’ – but movies do have power, and that would open some unsafe doors…

 Which is why I quite like the concept of Reflexive Documentary! As I was sitting there in class pondering how to make a documentary that wasn’t lying to anyone, I thought to myself, ‘Why not just constantly say: ‘This is just my opinion and I’m probably wrong about all of it.’ 

And it turns out someone had already beaten me to the punch! This type of documentary gets me. It’s a little self-defeating, maybe, but it seems like a good way to talk about something without forcing your views onto anyone; and instead, inviting some debate and critical discussion. Hells to the yeah!

So there’s my incredibly non-structured spiel on documentary. I’m still not entirely sure what documentary is, but I’m becoming more and more inclined towards the position that it’s a helpful umbrella term, to a degree.  A construct, the definition of which differs a little from person to person, and yet all those definitions are more or less valid as long as they work. Like ‘art’, or… ‘narrative.’

Thank you for reading.

Isaac Mitchell-Frey (9985182)

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Week 7 – Weird Science

What I took away from last week’s clip-show extravaganza wasn’t so much ‘this or that technique’ so much as a sense of the over-arcing variety of techniques on display.

The ingenuity, and sometimes outright eccentricity of these wildly different films struck me over the head; and as a result I’ve been thinking more and more about the opportunities available to me as a person who might end up making some films.

I feel like I’m having an epiphany over common knowledge, but I guess I’ve just never stopped to consider the plethora of options inherent in telling a story in a film. Granted, most of those options would probably lead to a pretty bad movie; but I think, personally, that the crazy backdrops of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari are genuinely awesome, and deserve a comeback.

I mean, take a look at the wave of fairy-tale ‘re-imaginings’ that have taken the world by storm lately.

All thinly-disguised action movies, investigating the deeply layered question of “What if the protagonists of [fairy tale] were The Avengers?” (The answer is money.) But why not have a fairy-tale reboot that’s surreal, almost child-like, the way fairytales actually are? (The answer is still money.) I’ve never seen any of these movies. If any of them had decided to embrace the inherent weirdness of their stories, and just run with it, I’d watch it.

OR you could just throw in the abstract cityscapes for a stylised effect. Dr. Caligari meets Sin City, anyone?

My point is there may still be some potential to this crazy low-fi technique from a 1920’s horror movie. We’ve all heard a hundred times from our friends doing Arts courses how every story has already been told, and we’re just re-shuffling them and changing the phrasing. I guess the point I’m getting at is that, well… Hell yeah we’re re-shuffling the phrasing!

There’s an uncountable number of different ways to tell the same story in a film; and these different ways are often more drastically visible than in, say, literature. What if I shot the whole film from the protagonist’s point of view? What if I green-screened a child’s watercolour into a scene as a backdrop, for no discernible reason? Should I re-dub this fight-scene with typewriter sounds and weird snake noises? Hell, give it a go! Let’s do some science.

In conclusion:

There’s the real epiphany.

Isaac Mitchell-Frey (9985182)

Week 6 – This Is Your Life, and it’s Ending…

For the past couple of years, I’ve always responded to the old ‘What’s your favourite movie’ riddle with ‘Fight Club.’ It’s served me well, and it’s still a solid movie, but I know it too well now, and I am no longer 16 and drowning in enough Year 10 English essays to make me want to burn the world down. In light of this… personal development(?), I’m thinking of jumping ship to ‘Toy Story 3’, a film that is – funnily enough – about growing up, amongst a whole heap of other things.

Soul-crushing depression, mostly…

I first saw Toy Story 3 in cinemas, on my own. Yeah I know, that was sad of me, but to be honest I don’t think I’d have been much use in a social context immediately after watching it. I came out of that movie struck literally dumb. I remember walking home and not knowing what to do with myself, with my life. This film came about as close to physically attacking me as a film ever has, and I guess we should probably examine why that is, huh?

Firstly, Pixar were very clearly aware that they were holding a generation’s childhoods in their hands, and – crucially – were not afraid to use that as ammunition. The opening scene of the film is basically a montage of references – with dialogue ripped straight from the previous two films. We see a Western-style conflict between a sheriff and a robber, a la the opening of the first film, but told in the semi-earnest, in-character, genre-movie style of the start of Toy Story 2. This all has the effect of basically saying… ‘Hey. You guys remember the Toy Story movies? Remember how much you loved those when you were little?’

Immediately after this huge reference-melange, we cut back to reality. We’ve been watching Andy play with his toys all along. Here’s where the clip I presented begins. We come out of this action-packed nostalgia festival, and slip smoothly into a sunny, care-free montage of… well, nostalgia again. A different kind of nostalgia, for all the stuff we remember from our childhoods outside of Toy Story 1 and 2. Andy’s antics remind us of our own. His life looks so different from ours! But that classic Randy Newman song is playing over the top, and everything’s so happy…

Do not trust this warm, fuzzy feeling, courageous viewers. In ten seconds Pixar is going to spin around, grab that nostalgic bliss tightly from either end and throttle you with it. I know every word of that song. So when, on the line ‘Our friendship will never die,’ the music fades out, and we fade to black… I die a little.

In that one moment, you know everything you need to about where this film is going. Your friendship is going to die. The whole movie is about these characters we know and love dealing with the fact that time passes and things change. They face abandonment, being forgotten… even death, briefly; and by the end of the film, Andy’s still never coming back. These are, as far as I can tell, universally resonant themes… so yes, kid movie. But a quality one…

Anyway back to the scene I actually presented: I selected it because I thought it showed the film’s tendency to sucker-punch you with nostalgia with maximum efficiency. Straight after that brutal fade to black, we jump straight into another one of the Toy’s elaborate schemes. It’s just like it used to be! Sound is once again used beautifully, the music playing in this scene is the same music they played in the earlier films during these sequences. Pixar builds us up with all these little notes, lets us remember the good old days, and then WHAM. Grown-up Andy strides in, and we watch as Woody – clinging pitifully to the phone – listens to his owner ask ‘Is anyone there?’ but can’t reply. It’s quite possibly the closest Andy’s come to talking to him in years.

On repeat viewings, this scene gets even sadder. The toys have blatantly been planning this phone heist for a long time (Woody says they ‘rehearsed’ it) all to get Andy to notice them. They just want him to realise they’re there. In this scene the toys could easily be seen as representing, say, elderly parents in retirement homes. They just want their ‘kid’ to talk to them…

God, isn’t that bleak? Is this film seriously targeted at children??

Anyway… I’ve ranted again haven’t I? Bottom line: great use of sound, fantastic animation – especially like the little cracks in the material where the big toy box has aged – and shameless weaponization of childhood memories. A+++ would cry again.

Isaac Mitchell-Frey (9985182)

Week 5 – Captain Future and the Sky-o-Nauts!

I hadn’t really noticed until now that of all the TV shows I watch on my computer, some can be watched with the lights on, and some I have to watch in darkness. I watch everything from full-length movies to Vines on the same computer, so with the advent of longer, higher-budget shows like Sherlock or House of Cards, the line between TV and feature films is blurring pretty significantly. Maybe now that the physical location of ‘the movie theatre’ and ‘the living room sofa’ are no longer mandatory, the only distinction we’ll have is whether we want to turn the lights off when we watch.

I’ve never really thought of the implications of what I’m doing when I exhibit this behaviour. I’m shutting the blinds, switching off bright things and trying to subtly coerce the loud, yapping dogs to the opposite side of the house. I’m trying to build a cinema in my room, and I can’t decide whether that’s because I feel I genuinely need dark and quiet to watch this thing, or because I’ve been trained to think that by a lifetime of cinema visits. I’d probably argue a bit of both. There are practical benefits, or else real theatres wouldn’t bother with them – but why then am I not choosing to recreate the cinema experience with everything I watch?

The shows I watch with the lights on are, by and large, shorter in length, and usually comedies. Archer, Community, Adventure Time – light stuff. However – and this is just hitting me now – I tend to watch them movie-style the first time around, and then in subsequent viewings very casually, possibly just playing in the background while I’m on Facebook or blogging or what have you…

(I wasn’t, but now I am.)

So in a sense, there has been no blurring of lines. The cinematic gaze and televisual glance are alive and well! Some content made for non-commercial television has fallen into the gaze territory, but that just shows that the distinction is more in the tone of the content than what particular outlet it was produced for. Like we said in class – a Game of Thrones Marathon at the Astor would sell tickets. I’ve never seen the show but I’ll bet it wouldn’t feel weird at all. Why aren’t we screening subscription television in cinemas? Maybe even just two episodes back to back every week. You could meet up with friends, watch it on the big screen, eat ice-cream before dinner – make a real night out of your night in!

I hope that happens at some point in the future, even if we’re just testing it out. I also hope non-commercial television as an industry grows bigger and bigger and progressively more internet-based, because I don’t actually know how all the remotes work.

I’m not sure where I see commercial television in five years. I’m sure it’ll still be around, in some form. Advertising as a means of revenue seems pretty okay when it takes the form of static images off to one side of whatever website you’re looking at, and so I think that model will still be relevant for lower-budget web-series and so forth. Shows like Bravest Warriors or Crash Course are Youtube exclusive, and they pay their professional crews seemingly with a combination of ad revenue and merchandise sales, so go those guys!

The ads before Youtube clips (that are usually about 1/3rd the size of the clip in question) do still annoy me, but hey, maybe in the Future they’ll tailor their duration to suit that of the content. People watching a ten second clip probably don’t want or need a thirty second ad. Maybe just flash up your logo for two seconds, like those little ‘this program is sponsored by…’ ads. That’s still getting your brand out there, and now I don’t hate you. It’s a win-win!

In conclusion: the Future’s gonna be perfect you guys. We’re gonna fix all the problems.

Isaac Mitchell-Frey (9985182)

Week 4 – Freeze-Dried Mirth

Hopefully not going to spend the whole post on this, but I’m interested in how some people (myself included) find the characters of Seinfeld sympathetic. Yes, they are all horrible people, that’s their thing. But do we really judge TV characters by the same ethical standards as our own? Is there something about the context of a sitcom or series with comedic elements that changes the way we view a character’s behaviour?

Look at Barney Stinson, or House. Both cartoonishly horrible people who hurt others for their own amusement every day – and I couldn’t care less because Neil Patrick Harris and Hugh Laurie are amazing. House is a bad guy, but he’s almost never ‘the bad guy.’ House of Cards also comes to mind. Kevin Spacey as the protagonist is basically the most evil politician imaginable (based on Shakespeare’s Richard III, another sympathetic monster), but he’s so clever and in control of things that I just feel horrible when things don’t go his way. I want this power-hungry jackass to go all the way to the top! Clearly these characters are being judged on a different standard than what we would use for real people.

So when I look at a character like Kramer, who constantly steals food from Jerry’s fridge, who burns down people’s holiday houses, pees in parking lots and goes to cockfights; I don’t think ‘what a horrible person, imagine having him as a neighbour.’ I think, ‘Oh great! Kramer’s back! What’s that loveable scamp gonna do next?’ I think in his case it helps that he’s the kind of naive ‘manic-pixie-man-child’ of the group. When Jerry complains that ‘These balloons won’t last until the Millenium’ and Kramer replies ‘Oh, no. Those are my every-day balloons’… come on. Isn’t that just a bit adorable? If we can forgive House for openly mocking his dying patients and their loved ones, can’t we forgive this simple, deranged low-life his numerous shady dealings? He’s a character in a sitcom, and he makes me laugh. I think I’d hate him if he didn’t make me laugh, but he does; so short of killing a stranger and making soup out of their lung tissue, I’ll let him get away with just about anything.

The other element of the sitcom that may be contributing to this effect is the whole ‘family’ aspect – the show focuses on Jerry and his friends, with only minimal focus on the consequences of their actions (until the end). Other characters point out to them how awful they are, but it’s not like we’re made to sit through the fallout these characters leave behind in their escapades (until the end). For the most part, we live entirely within this little family unit, and so maybe we don’t care as much about the victims who have less screen-time and will by the end of the episode be replaced by someone new. We think about the central characters, and sort of blot out the feelings of the rest – which is funny, because that’s exactly the mindset that makes these characters such bad people themselves! In sympathising with the characters of Seinfeld… am I becoming Seinfeld??

That said: when we watch film and TV we’re made to sympathise with all sorts of people. Everybody wants Uma Thurman to succeed in Kill Bill even though it’s four hours of her mercilessly killing hundreds of people. Maybe I’m focusing on the wrong thing. Do people hate Kramer because of how thoughtlessly he disadvantages those around him, or because they just find him intrinsically unpleasant? Is that it? Am I completely barking up the wrong tree?

This show seems to be a bit polarising on this subject – half the people I ask agree with me, the other half hate the whole gang with a passion – but I’m being forced into some troubling conclusions with some of the other shows I’ve been referencing. House is clearly meant to be a sympathetic character. The shows’ success is largely hinged on our laughing along with his lack of a bedside manner and casual (if not-at-all-sincere) racist / misogynistic remarks. The guy does a lot of really bad things, and for the large part we do not care, because he’s funny. I’ve been attributing this to some ‘different way’ we judge characters on television compared to how we evaluate real people – but what if there is no different way?

What if I’ll sympathise with any jerk who makes me laugh? Is comic talent a ‘get out of jail free’ card for morality? Is my liking Kramer a sign that I view him as a character rather than a person, or that I’m without any strong moral centre and a danger to those around me? What if I’m a sociopath? What if we’re ALL sociopaths??!?

Okay, so I did end up making the whole blog post about it. A long one, too. My bad.

Isaac Mitchell-Frey (9985182)

Week 3 – Dance, Monkey, Dance!

Over the past week, I have been growing more and more worried about Anne Hathaway.

 A whole other bunch of people too, but Anne’s as good a poster-child for my concern as any.

I approve of Anne Hathaway. Not her biggest, craziest fan, never gonna take a bullet for her, but she seems pretty okay. It occurs to me that I’ve seen about two of her films, and yet I still know her name, what she looks like, and that I approve of her. But I’m not here to trip out over how I can read all about this complete stranger’s messy break-up with an italian real-estate developer on Wikipedia – I’m over that now. What I’m here to trip out over is that I approve of her. I mean, when you think about it… isn’t that kind of messed up?

Why is Anne Hathaway – the person – up for my evaluation in the first place? I know, I know, ‘Star culture’, actors are part of marketing now, this is just how things work. But as much as it’s been staring me in the face all these years, I’ve never really thought that much about it, and now that I’ve thought a little more about it, I refuse to take it lying down!

I mean, imagine being Anne Hathaway.

You are, as has been established, nigh-on constantly playing a character, who is also called Anne Hathaway. Other Anne’s personality is dictated by a team of highly trained advertising ninjas. Your job – when you’re not, you know, acting – is to make sure nobody ever notices the real you. Feeling tired this morning? Suck it up, Other Anne’s never tired. She’s just so constantly perfect and poised and smiley and, by definition, better than you. Other Anne is super-human, and the whole world wants to be her best friend. So just pop along and pretend you’re some ageless, perfect alien. Don’t screw up.

I recognise that I’m ramping the hyperbole up to eleven over here, but at the same time, the other week someone spotted Cillian Murphy shopping for skin care products in Winnipeg and you can read the conversations between people on Twitter, gleefully commenting on how his hair doesn’t look as good as normal. Our ace internet reporter goes on to say that while he seemed a bit grumpy he was still nice enough to chat with her. As well he should, because if he’d just smiled thinly and then walked off while desperately avoiding eye contact like the rest of us would, there would be hell to pay.

Again, I know it’s nothing new, but… seriously, when did we start letting ‘ticket sales for the next blockbuster’ consume the lives of actual, living people? Anne Hathaway can’t stub her toe on a table-leg and then swear the pain away like a normal person without a tape recorder hidden in the lining of her cat’s stomach by TMZ picking it up and plastering it all over the internet; and the worst part of it all is that we’re the ones doing it to her. If we weren’t all so bloody besotted with Anne Hathaway TM, she could live like a regular person! Our love for her is what made that horrifying person take a low-angle photo of her getting out of a car – we didn’t ask for it, but it wouldn’t have happened without us. How is that a healthy relationship?

There’s no stopping it, of course. This engine of stardom could literally buy us and everything we care about. But on the other hand, it’s ludicrously easy to imagine a world in which all this didn’t exist. A world in which we all respected our favourite actors for their dramatic abilities, went to see every film they were in, and that was it. Don’t ask any questions about their private lives, because hey man, that’s private. And if you bump into Cillian Murphy at a body shop in Winnipeg, and he just scowls, confused, at your greeting and turns away, maybe we could all just shrug and say ‘Yeah, we’ve all been there.’

In short, imagine a world where we treated our heroes like people.

… that said, I’m pretty sure I would chase down and (violently) hug Neil Patrick Harris if I saw him walking down the street. Don’t want to be all ‘holier than thou’ here. We’re all messed up is my point.

Isaac Mitchell-Frey (9985182)

Week 2 – Not Telling

I’d just like to start by saying that I was one of the people who hadn’t had Mulholland Drive explained to them in any detail up until last week’s class, and far from ‘ruining’ the film, having the film bluntly explained to me was almost the highlight of the film experience. What had been an entertaining but ultimately meaningless chain of events in my head was retroactively made into one of the most interesting and sad stories I’ve heard in a long time.

Also for the whole class I was like this:

And yes, I know, I’m not appreciating how amazing it would have been to figure it all out for myself. That’s practically the point of the movie, after all… but why is that? Why does David Lynch not want me to understand the story he’s telling as he tells it?

Or, to state it a little less dramatically, what I’m interested in this week is the balance of what we tell the audience and what we don’t. Traditionally in film everybody’s working really hard to tell the audience things. Actors do subtle little things with their faces so the audience can tell what their characters are thinking. Cinematographers line up shots and light things in such a way as to tell us how a scene ‘feels’ or what mental state a character is in, without anyone having to say it. Editors manipulate time and colour and a million other things – and if it’s done well, the audience gets it.

Conversely, watching Mulholland Drive, it becomes abundantly clear that David Lynch doesn’t want me to get it. The clues are all there, but they’re positioned in such a way as to be invisible to a casual first-time viewing. It’s the equivalent of a DOP shooting the entire opening sequence of a film in an apartment three streets away from where the scene actually takes place. You infer the action of the scene via a code hidden in the bricks that make up the wall that consumes the entirety of the frame, and the key to that code is only flashed up for a 500th of a second in the middle of the closing credits.

I understand why Lynch is doing this. Mulholland Drive, on first viewing, is a mystery that thrives on this sense of confusion. The blink-and-you’ll-miss-it clues allow for a film that’s genuinely surprising, and the puzzle makes the final revelation of the narrative that much more rewarding for the viewer. It also allows the audience to construct their own versions of the events that transpire – Lynch actively avoids canonizing any one interpretation of the film.

All these advantages, but at what cost? How many people are going to miss out on this brilliant story, just because Lynch is playing hard to get? I’ll be honest, I almost definitely would never have figured this film out on my own. I was a defeatist. I’d seen Eraserhead, I figured I’d already danced this dance, and I didn’t even attempt to ‘solve’ the film as I watched it. I toyed with the idea that it was all an abstract metaphor for Hollywood, but even that theory – seemingly bullet-proof in its vagueness – got shot down after Diane woke up (my main theory at that point became that the laws of reality within the film had been shut down by the opening of the blue box, which in retrospect was fantastically backwards…)

I suppose the question is, how much effort can we ask of our audience? This, of course, depends on the audience in question, and maybe that’s the answer. David Lynch made a film for the people who would go the extra mile, pause the movie in the middle of the credits and de-code the bricks. ‘Calling all artsy film-geeks,’ he shouts from the hills of Hollywood. ‘Every lonely bastard who’s tired of knowing exactly how the film will end. Everyone who knows ‘knowing everything’ is overrated. Here’s a film, just for you.‘ It’s admirable, really. Maybe not new, but definitely new-er. It’s something that’s not boring.

But that just brings me back to the question that I suppose I’ve been chasing this whole rant. If we say ‘Good job David, you made a brilliant film that refused to talk down to its audience. Fight the power!’ … what are the implications of that? If ‘not telling the audience’ is a virtue now, how far can we push that? How little should we tell them? How much do we leave open to interpretation? Is ‘Mothlight’ the greatest film of all time?

In the end I guess it’s all about balance. You choose how much to tell and how much to not tell. What to show and what to hide. Depends what you want and who you want your audience to be. Nothing revelatory in that, I just thought it was something to think about.

… also seriously, if anyone has a reading of Eraserhead that makes the same amount of sense as the one we got in class for Mulholland Drive, please tell me. Love the movie, thought it had amazing atmosphere, really stuck in your head… But what was with those big piles of hair? And why did they turn his head into erasers? It just… yeah. I know there’s something to do with the fear of becoming a father, but if anybody knows more to it than that…

I feel like there might be a whole new movie hiding in there.

Isaac Mitchell-Frey, 9985182