Friday, December 19, 2008

The Happening: A ten-minute review

Note: If you haven't read the blog entry prior to this one, please do so, as it contains important information and requests.

Now, on to kicking around a man who should not be employed in his current jobs: writer, editor, director. I'd start a petition on this matter if I knew how.

I'm talking about M. Night Shyamalan. In case you missed it when I mentioned it before, "Night" is not his middle name. His actual middle name is unpronounceable by humans. . . . Oh wait. That's Spock's middle name.

This is a "ten-minute review" not because it will take me ten minutes to compose or because the average reader will get through it in ten minutes. Rather, ten minutes is all I could stand to watch of this movie.

That's saying something. Look, I knew the reviews for this film were bad, but I figured I knew what I was in for. The reviews of Sunshine were pretty mixed, and my impression in the very first minutes was that that movie would not be well done (and indeed, my first impressions were never trumped), but I sat through Sunshine (in front of my computer, over the course of several sittings), even when it moved from not-well-done to an "Iceberg-dead-ahead!!-shaped catastrophe, because, except for the very end, it wasn't unbearably bad. 

The Happening is unbearably bad. If you did not think so, I am here to instruct you. Part of education is the shaping of taste. We won't share the same tastes, of course, but those aspects of taste that touch on quality of work, seriousness of craftsmanship, attention to detail, intelligence, a good eye, a good ear, and common sense are aspects we should come pretty close to agreeing on at the end of the day. Otherwise, discussion about film becomes nearly impossible.

The credit sequence told me right away that mediocrity had met its master. Fast-motion shots of clouds forming played for the duration of the credits, which themselves had no particular visual interest. The music was mildly suspenseful. But, really, clouds? That's all you could come up with? Since (spoiler, if you care) the film is about the trees sending out some sort of toxin to attack people, why not some interesting, active camera shots tracing the lines of different types of trees? It wouldn't give anything away, but would give the audience a motif that would recur. Or, since the film actually starts in Central Park, the camera could do something with the motion of trees while people move about in the background. Smarter still, the people could be in focus, as if we were watching them, while the trees are foregrounded and out of focus, used to frame the shots or shape how the camera moves. My point is, start the story. Why are you wasting my time with what looks like stock photography from a television movie?

After the fast-motion clouds, we see people walking about in what is identified as "Central Park, New York City." (Who in the United States is unaware that Central Park is in New York City, I dare not speculate.) It's something like 8:30 in the morning, per a title. After one or two lazy establishing shots, we see two young women on a bench, reading books. One says, "I can't remember where I am." This is meant to foreshadow the confusion people feel when this toxin hits them, and in fact, "Night" should simply have gone straight from there, with her partner confused by the other's confusion, but instead her friend says, "You were at the part right when they found out who the murderer was," or some such thing. "Oh, right," answers the other, who then turns one page and seems satisfied. Whew! I guess nothing was wrong with her after all! Except that she and her friend just had the most unrealistic exchange of dialogue you're likely to ever hear! In what world is this conversation possible? A series of shots then go back and forth between the second woman, who is looking around the park, and the actions of various pedestrians. We see one guy walking backwards. The woman says, "What are those people doing? Are they scratching at themselves? Is that blood?" but we don't see that. We see shots instead of people standing still. Finally we get an interesting shot, the camera drifting above the first woman's head and coming in tight on the rod in her hair bun; she removes the pointed rod and, dramatic music letting us know what's coming, she shoves the rod into her neck. The first woman, who is sitting at an angle which actually doesn't allow her to see the rod going in (point of view being a common screw-up in "Night"'s direction, fails to react (the point being that she is now also afflicted by something odd). 

Next we see a construction site. A worker is telling a curiously clean joke to his fellow workers standing on the ground. We see, in the background, a body smash into the ground. The men turn. Though we can't see the face, the apparent foreman identifies the man by name. The men all rush over (well, not exactly rush) and the foreman gets on his walkie-talkie. Smash. Another body falls back where they were standing. He can also tell who this guy is, though his face is also obscured. Now, you tell me: When would you look up to find out what the heck is going on? I mean, two guys have just dropped from the building you're standing next to, just barely missing you. But no, "Night" is saving that shot, so instead we get the foreman wandering about, the camera tight behind him, while more bodies drop: into the street, all around . . .   At last he looks skyward. Then we see what he sees (and its a good shot, but they showed it in the trailer): from several stories up, men, stiff-legged and dark against the sky, step off the building and plummet to their deaths. A good shot would have been, after the second body hit, a whip-around camera going from the ground to, as the foreman spun about, a shot of what was happening above. Maybe he couldn't figure out the logistics for such a shot, so we get these separate shots that don't feel like they're occupying the same space.

The scene now becomes Philadelphia (Pennsylvania, you know . . . in case an establishing shot didn't help) and we move to the least authentic high school classroom I've ever seen. It's around 9 o'clock. (So let's be clear: Those young women of working age, why were they sitting around reading at Central Park on a weekday? Not to mention all the other young should-be professionals who walked through the shots of the Park. Hmm.) Again, the dialogue is hilariously bad. Mark Wahlberg plays a science teacher who sounds like a sub. He gives maybe one sentence raising the issue of massive bee death, then asks for reasons why this has occurred (having given his students no other information or even explaining the situation well). The students are both too interested and too bored. They sit as if attentive (no one is doodling or even moving much), but they look inattentive--because the director hasn't given them anything to do. Wahlberg mercilessly picks on one good-looking kid (in a style so free of irony, there's no way in a Philly school he wouldn't fired or knifed afterward), then shows he was just joking around. Somehow, though he is a total stiff, treating the kids as if they were little children, they like him. He pretends to hide from the assistant principal when she comes in the room, even shutting out the lights. My god.

Actually, the good-looking boy gives the theme, if you will, for the film, when he says that the reason for the disappearance of honeybees is "something we'll never know." Wahlberg raises further doubts about his scientific acumen when he declares that this is the best answer, because even when science comes up with answers, they're just theories. (Okay, so add biology to the list of classes "Night" didn't pass in high school.)

Finally called out of his classroom--to mild (and clearly dubbed-in) "Ooooh"s from the students, who we don't even see in the shot--by the assistant principal, he is told that an emergency is going to send everyone home. The teacher is surprised, since "The superintendent keeps us working even in a foot of snow." Why does Night frequently set his films in that part of the country if he doesn't really know that part of the country? Philadelphia-area schools shut down when even a few inches of snow arrive! Anyone who has lived there, as I have, knows this. The place never gets a foot of snow. In fact, the light annual snowfall is the reason people tend to panic and go into emergency mode whenever any snow at all comes down.

The teachers gather in the auditorium. It's far too few teachers for a school this size, obviously, but I guess the director's budget for extras was trimmed. The principal gives the laughable line, "We have news that an event is happening" (Wow, what would it mean if an event didn't happen, or if something happened that wasn't an event . . . and isn't a "happening" a really cool event to which people like this director were never invited when they were in college?) People standing closest to him, extras all, react in utterly unconvincing ways, while Wahlberg, now joined by John Leguizamo, merely listen farther back (though in the center of the shot). They learn that the first step in this "happening" is confused speech (really? that's not quite what happened to that woman), the second is a cessation of movement, and the third step is fatal . . . which is an adjective, unlike the first two steps. The word, Night, is "death." And boy, is that vague, or what? 

Following this, Wahlberg and Leguizamo phone their family members. Leguizamo informs Wahlberg that his mother has heard about what's happened in New York, but he has calmed her fears that it might spread to Philly "by throwing some statistics at her." Um, like what? "Disasters in one city only spread to other cities ten percent of the time?" He then points out how valuable it is to be a math teacher at such times.

My patience was at an end. 

First, some business

If you missed the last class, then you missed being assigned a date for your presentation. Please contact me for that date. I will, this week, post something more about the presentations, though I've been pretty specific in class.

If you haven't yet turned in your paper, e-mail it to me ASAP. While people involved in the musical (and one other person who talked to me) had extensions, the rest of you did not, and your grade will be adduced (and reduced) accordingly.

Revisions may be requested when we return for the remainder of the quarter.

Upon our return, one section will have three full days of classes before the presentations commence; the other class will have four days. (Of course, this is barring any more snow days.) My intention had been to show two films before we wrap things up: Darren Aranovsky's first movie, Pi, and The Station Agent, the first film by actor and director (and writer) Tom McCarthy. Both films are under 90 minutes long (can you believe people still make such films, that everything isn't a two-and-a-half-hour butt-numbathon?), so I have time for both. However, one section has started The Host, a Korean monster movie (kind of), and people seem to want to continue watching it (one person even going so far as to mention it in a Christmas card!), so if the movie is still available to me, that may be what we do. (People who've seen the first twenty minutes of the film, please weigh in on this decision.) I do love The Host, and it does give us a lot to talk about, but Pi is so darn strange, I had wanted to share it with you and show you what $60,000 can buy.

Talk to me.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Anyone doing this film?

Roshomon. Did someone tell me she or he has chosen it either for the first or second projects? I'm trying to choose one more film to show this quarter (in addition to what I've already decided on).


Sunday, December 7, 2008

Yeah, that *is* what I said.

Someone asked the other day whether this was to be a five-page paper? "Did I say that?" I asked. I didn't think I'd been quite so specific. Turns out, I was that specific (see the previous blog entry). Still, that's not so much to write, not much more than 1,000 words.

However, only a few people have seen me (per my directions) about what film to do. This does not bode well.

No one has seen me about resources for critical essays on the films. This, too, does not bode well.

Take care of business, people. This quarter is like a college term: There's an assignment in the middle and another at the end. That's it.

I'll give you a handout on Monday and Tuesday to help with the structure of the paper. It includes a sample essay (by a college sophomore). My expectations are different, since we haven't approached film in quite as formal a way, but I do expect thoughtful observation. Watch your film more than once. Take notes. Read about the film. Write seriously. E-mail me questions (or post to the blog if you think it's a question others would appreciate).

Monday, November 17, 2008

Independent Film Assignment #1

Due: Depending on your section, either Dec. 11 or 12.

This is the first of two independently chosen assignments for the second quarter. The second, coming at the very end of the semester, involves both a paper and presentation. This first one involves only a paper.

Choose one of the films from Ebert's book. I'm especially interested in having you choose something you haven't seen. Check with me to make sure it's not a film I'm covering in class. You can choose this film in collaboration with others; watching the film together would be both enjoyable and useful, as you can gain insight from each other's views.

The end result is an approximately five-page paper, a critical overview of the film plus your own view of its value and success as a movie. Use Ebert's comments as a springboard, but also use other critical commentaries on the film. I have several resources myself or can point you to some at the public library. Knowing something about the history and having behind-the-scenes information about the film can also help flesh out your writing.

Friday, November 7, 2008

On Cloverfield

Yesterday, I watched Cloverfield. I avoided it at the theater because of warnings from reviewers about the vertigo caused (for those who are susceptible) by the shuddery, handheld camera. I picked it up at the library yesterday, with some hesitation, given that it might be unwatchable even on a small screen. This turned out to not be a problem, for two reasons, I think: first, I could always pause the film and look around a bit, exercising my eyes; second, though the camera was shuddery, it wasn't as extreme as it might have been (the few times it was, I looked away), nor did it swing abruptly from one side to another very often, which can be vertiginous.

I enjoyed the film much more than I expected to. The performers were all fine, the script worked, the special effects were integrated well into the cinematography (an easier task given the grainy mock-video effect in any case), and the film contained quite a few shocks and surprises, which is what's wanted in a monster/horror film. I recommend it.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Wednesday's quiz moved

Those of you who were going to have a quiz on Wednesday, you're in luck. I moved the quiz to Friday because you have a writing assignment due Wednesday.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

I know, I know . . . (and other news)

I should probably post that glossary of film terms for you to study, right? Right. I'm working on it now. It will be up later this evening. The test will most likely be a straightforward list of definitions requiring you to give the proper terminology. Simple.

There will be some additional homework (though some people still haven't given me their papers on Double Indemnity). You'll be writing a brief response piece on Psycho. After that, you'll be given an article about Psycho, and I'll ask you to respond to the film in light of it.

Important: For those of you who have no other English class this semester, you must give me immediately a draft of your yearbook blurb. The yearbook staff needs to have these.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

I missed a few

If you didn't get the handout from me (I forgot to hand it out at the end of class on Wednesday), please see me.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Double Indemnity: The Assignment

When you've finished watching the film, read both Ebert's essay on the film as well as the Studlar essay I handout out in class. (The handout lacks an attribution: it's from Film Analysis: A Norton Reader, eds. Geiger and Rutsky.) The readings should provide you additional insight into the film while also giving you the chance to hear how two writers talk about it.

You're to write a reaction piece on the movie. It's not a review, per se, but a formal argumentative essay of approximately 500 words that analyzes your response to the movie by focusing on three scenes in the film. (Each body paragraph would deal with a particular scene.) You'll want to consider scenes that had an impact on you, scenes that are at the heart of why the film struck you and why the film is successful. You can use the Ebert and Studlar essays as touchstones and reference sources. You might refer to what they say and comment on it. Whether you merely reference them or directly quote them, you still have to cite them properly in the paper. I don't require a bibliography, so it's enough to write something like "(Ebert, p. xx)" or "(Studlar, p. xx)." Cite their ideas, don't plagiarize them.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Scary stuff

I appreciated the talk today about "scary movies," prompted by Ebert's comment that he didn't find Nosferatu frightening.

Upon further reflection, I think I view a lot of scary movies as more interesting than frightening, but perhaps I don't watch films that would truly frighten me. I'm planning to show the class Psycho later this year (I may change my mind and show a different Hitchcock film . . . but Psycho is such a classic, it seems wrong to skip it), and there's a film that certainly no longer has the ability to frighten but which is certainly involving and fascinating. I think that may be all I ask of a horror film. I like fantasy or science fictional elements, and I like to be surprised, but I'm not sure "being frightened" is what I'm after.

This past week, however, I watched The Mist, written and directed by Frank Darabont and based on the novella by Stephen King. I found the film, in its best moments, truly startling and horrifying, but I think what made me take a break from the movie with half an hour left was less fear than dread. The movie is unrelentingly bleak. Terrible things happen, but it's not the kind of "horror porn" that informs the Saw movies, for example. Films like that are depressing for me (and I avoid them) because there's something so terribly cynical about treating characters that way. The Mist treats its characters as humans, so the existential terror feels more personal.

"Making it personal" is key, to me, in the movie's success. Much of the camera work is handheld. It's not shuddery, like Blair Witch, and it doesn't whip about, like in the Bourne films; only once did I notice it moving in a jarring way that drew attention to the camera work. By and large, it conveyed its handheld nature by moving among the characters and placing us comfortably in the action. The dialogue, too, is largely conversational. People don't say clever things. There's none of the leavening humor or snarkiness that usually creeps into horror films.

Humor gives horror audiences an escape, a release. (Horror porn, on the other hand, relies, I think, on absurdity grounded in disgust and cynicism in order to free its audience, though I'm sure some people simply wallow in such things.) Such humor is often provided by false scares: the sudden noise that turns out to be nothing; the hand on the shoulder that belongs to a friends; the music cue that signals nothing. The Mist provides no false moments. "Are you scared at this moment?" the film asks. "Good, you should be, because something bad is definitely about to happen. And now it's happening." And this is done without providing musical cues, which is part of why the film feels so different than the usual. The musical cues for terror also give us some relief, so familiar and expected are they.

The film does have a few problems, and they turn out to be a mix of script, acting and direction. A fervently religious character, played by Marcia Gay Harden, survives in all her awkwardness from King's novella. Similar to the the main character's mother in King's Carrie, she's obsessed and dangerous, but she's not believably written, somewhat too well spoken to be seen as merely deranged (she uses the word "hubris," which is woefully out of place) and too clearly in charge. A better writer would have portrayed her as a more broken character who just happens to provide a focus for people's fears. Andre Braugher's out-of-town lawyer is also miswritten and misplayed. His responses aren't believable; as written, he seems more mentally ill than the Harden character. However, Braugher plays the character forcefully, so that when Thomas Jane, in the lead role, says the Braugher is acting out of fear, the line doesn't fit; the character seems fearless. (I don't recall that character from the novella, but it's been a long time since I read it.) Darabont wisely leaves out a romance that would seem horribly ill-placed in the film; in the novella, King sells it, but it's unnecessary.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The new assignments

Because it's too lengthy to explain on the calendar (though I'll list it there), here are the assignments for the upcoming classes:

For the section that hasn't finished watching The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, please read the handout containing reviews of The Great Train Robbery and the early Edison and Lumière films. We'll discuss those on Thursday, Sept. 25.

For the class that has finished The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (and for the other class once it has), write a capsule review of the movie, making it less than 200 words; also write two 10-word reviews or summaries of the film (make them fun!). Also, read the piece on Dr. Caligari in the second handout. Lastly, read the piece on Nosferatu in Ebert's book.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

War of the Worlds thoughts

Twice today I found myself referring to Spielberg's version of War of the Worlds, once in 8th grade English, because its 9/11 imagery connected to a book we're reading, and once in film class. I want to explain farther what I don't like about the flick.

I have a complicated reaction to director Steven Spielberg in any case. Of his recent films, I very much liked Munich; of his early films, Jaws continues to impress me. I despise Saving Private Ryan, partly for its Spielbergian excesses--which I'll get into another time--but largely because the story is awful, with each character meeting some obviously ironic end (the point being?), and the Germans portrayed as non-humans. 

I looked forward to War of the Worlds. It's a great story, and I like the 1953 film quite a bit, which gave us truly iconic images of terrifying Martian ships as well as a marvelous sound for the ships' death ray. One of Spielberg's strength is in choreographing complex action scenes (this is why George Lucas brought him in to help with the final fight between Anakin and Obi Wan; with too many vectors of action in play, Lucas, who has trouble with more than two people in a shot at once, was out of his depth). He seemed well-suited to the project. Then I read the reviews and stayed away.

I watched the film on DVD this summer. I had tried to watch it sooner, but about fifteen minutes in, was so fed up with the sloppiness (no electronics work, but, for the sake of a shot, we see a hand-held video camera film its owner getting blasted; Tom Cruise runs faster than the ships; a few blocks away, no one has noticed what is essentially the end of the world), I could watch no more. At the urging of a friend (who isn't a big fan of the film, but liked a few things he wanted me to see), I returned to the movie.

As I said, the sloppiness bothered me, but that isn't an issue later. Tom Cruise is terrible. When he puts on his false positivity to cheer up his kids, it's overplayed into a combination of silliness and the youtube-available video of Cruise, with fearful jolliness, evangelizing for Scientology (he's welcome to his beliefs, but it's a very odd performance on behalf of them). His whole attempt at a working-class character fails to come off.

The plot has little structure to it. They flee and flee and flee--and then we spend an awful lot of time with the hunkered-down Tim Robbins, during which we see the aliens at length, get a prolonged hide-and-seek scene, and learn, unhelpfully, that the aliens are turning human blood into goo that they spray around. Why? We never learn. And if we're supposed to see some growth in Cruise's character, I missed it. He acts to protect his child. I get that. He manages, to his own surprise, to blow up a tripod. Beyond that, I don't feel anything has happened. Unlike the earlier movie, in which the main character is actively working to defeat the Martians, we're given here a protagonist who just wants to survive, and who wants his family to survive. If it's a parable for our time, it has little say except that people will behave desperately to protect their own. But if that's the ethic of the picture, then the humans really are little more than cattle with attitude. If you really wanted to bring this story down to earth and make it more startlingly realistic, you'd have to deal with the trauma the daughter experiences. Also, you'd actually kill off the son, who, for no good reason, not only survives but gets to the proper destination. 

Wells's original novel ends with a deus ex machina, the germs that kill the Martians part of the divine plan of protection (Wells surely means this ironically, since he's not religious). This sudden ending is still in place, but the timing is even more abrupt, and paired with the miraculous survival of the son, the plot seems even more absurd.

I also find the camera-circling-the-vehicle shot (we'll watch it in class) more distracting than involving; it draws attention to itself rather than the action.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

When Batman Began

Last week, one of the commercial television stations broadcast Batman Begins, director/c0-writer Christopher Nolan's first shot at Batman. As I said in a previous post, I disapprove of the ninjas and the use of a white Englishman to play a famous Arab villain from the Batman comics. (I guess that's to fool the viewer: "They'll never suspect that the villain with the Arab name--who we first suggest is some kind of Asian--is actually a guy who looks nothing like an Arab!" Brilliant. Not that having the Arab villain initially represented as Japanese (Ken Watanabe) made much more sense.)

However, what's strikingly good about the first film is its visual style. 

First, let's talk about Gotham City. (Well, I'll talk. But feel free to post comments.) In the second Batman film, Nolan shot on location (for some scenes) in Chicago. Chicago's streets and buildings provide great opportunities visually; it doesn't look like New York; and Nolan managed to not show widely recognized buildings. The problem for people adapting DC comic heroes (Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, Flash and so forth) is that the geography of DC's America isn't American geography, quite. There are major cities in the same places, but they aren't the same cities. Like Superman's city, Metropolis, Gotham City (and for those who don't know, New York has long been called "Gotham" or "the Gotham City," from a short story by 19th century American writer Washington Irving, referencing a town of crazies back in England) is on the Eastern Seaboard. Really, they're both aspects of New York. Marvel Comics, on the other hand, places its characters in actual cities, so filmmakers can have Spider-man, say, swinging from the Empire State Building.

In Batman Begins, rather than use Chicago, or any actual cityscape, Nolan crafts a fictional, dark city. While Wayne Manor lies on a green atoll outside of town, the Gotham he depicts looks more like the stacked slums of Mexico City. One shot in particular, the camera dropping from the heights down past hanging laundry and then to the streets themselves, recalls--in what seems to me a clear homage--the imagery of Blade Runner, a city swathed in endless darkness, where it never stops raining. Long shots of the city are clearly not real, and it all looks run down, brutalized by both violence and endless rain. Why did Nolan leave behind this fictional creation and resort to something more prosaic? Is it to suggest that, already, some change has taken place in Gotham, granting it architectural beauty overnight? 

A second issue of style involves Batman's weapons in his fight for justice. In the first film, Batman's rather clever with his technology, using the sonar device to summon bats, putting sensors in his mask, designing a Batmobile that is both a brilliant vehicle and fantastic weapon. His base of operations is the cave beneath Wayne Manor, reached by passing through a waterfall via Batmobile or riding an elevator concealed in the manor. The cave itself harbors both his secrets and his psychic core, the bats that terrified him and made him who he is. In the second film, nearly every device he uses is some variant of a gun, and he seems to be carrying a lot of them secreted somewhere on his person. The Batmobile is gone, replaced by a cycle which, frankly, is capable of a lot less. The cave is gone. Yes, Wayne Manor is being repaired (though we never see this), but the cave must be still there; nevertheless, he spends his tech time in a steel basement like the one Iron Man uses. Visually, it's all wrong. Heck, are there even any bats in the film?

Third is the look of Batman himself. I've commented in my previous post on the visual absence, in the second film, of the cape. Seeing (part of) the first film confirmed that this is a shift for Nolan. In the first film, the cape is a constant--swirling, concealing the shape of his body, creating streams of movement that are inhuman. In several shots in Batman Begins, Nolan shows Batman moving quickly--but not running. Rather, he seems to fly from one side of the screen to the other. We hear the cape flutter, the figure, shown only from the waist up, moves abruptly, and there he is. It's as if Nolan thought more carefully, in the first film, about how to capture what was dramatic about the character without letting himself get stuck in the literal.

I complained, previously, about the second film having two villains, and thus too many story arcs that fit together awkwardly. I'd forgotten that the first film also had two villains, but the structure of the film is smarter: Ra's al Ghul frames the film, though we don't realize he will until towards the end. His plot (ridiculous as it is), while it intertwines with the Scarecrow's, doesn't fight it for attention; Scarecrow is the "criminal" of the film; Ra's is a larger nemesis for the Batman; and most important, the key character, obviously, is Batman. It's his story; he suffers; he loses and wins; we're more or less clear on the objectives of those other fellows, but it's Batman's story, and he dominates the screen.

Also, I feel Nolan dropped the ball on how the second film starts. At the end of the first, Batman is shown the Joker's calling card and says, "I'll look into it." But there's no sense, in the second film, that Batman has been tracking his actions or even knows who the heck the Joker is until he shows up at the party. Time has gone by. What's Batman been doing? The film would have played much better--and, again, been more about Batman as our protagonist--if we'd seen him attempting to catch the Joker at the beginning . . . and failing to do so. Nolan felt, for some reason, that he wanted to hold off on a face-to-face confrontation between the characters. I like the scene at the party, when we see how formidable a foe the Joker can be, but we could have had a better set-up for the building antagonism between the two men, and Batman would have been more clearly seen taking action.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

My answer to the assignment

Here are my thoughts on the newest assignment. (The Friday class received the assignment, but the other class hasn't yet.)

Thinking back to your childhood, detail any key emotional or personal experiences you've had watching movies.

I believe the first movie I saw was Batman, a full-length feature with the actors from the television show. I must have seen it when I was four or five years old. I recall how startling the colors were--we had only a black and white television at home. Both the vivid, too-bright colors and the startling size of the people troubled me. The film was too much. When Batman ran around with a bomb, desperately looking for a place to drop it, I felt anxious, not amused.

* * *

Saturday afternoons, I watched horror and science fiction films on two UHF stations from Philadelphia. One program was called "Dr. Shock's Mystery Horror Theater." The good doctor, dressed like Dracula, emerged from a coffin into his laboratory and proceeded to introduce--and interrupt--the weekly films. I found that I loved to be scared. I loved the British movies, with the interesting accents and the foggy outdoor scenes. I couldn't judge the movies at all. I just sat on the floor in front of the television and stared.

* * *

My home town had one theater, an old brick building with a popcorn counter that faced you as you entered the doors to the lobby. Often, it showed second-run features. In my high school years, they showed special films in the evenings: the classic horror films of the 1930s; and W.C. Fields, Laurel and Hardy, and Marx Brothers comedies.
I'd first seen the Marx Brothers on "the late show" on television one summer; my parents had let me stay up very late to watch A Night at the Opera. I was amused and puzzled. I didn't understand why the characters broke into song. I couldn't understand their relationship to one another. Why did Harpo not speak? These guys were brothers? Half the jokes were based on 1930s culture. But it was compelling, and so when the Newtown Theater showed their movies on summer evenings, I went, by myself.

Perhaps those evenings are still with me less because of the films, with their strange humor and their lack of color, than because of the walks home in the mild summer air. Nostalgia for a time long before I was born was somehow mixed up with nostalgia for the town in which I lived and which I could not imagine leaving.

* * *

Two college friends, guys who were a year younger (and who are my friends to this day), took on the job of running the weekly film night in my dorm. Both were students in the radio-television-film program. A company mailed film reels to them, 16 mm, and they threaded the movies into the machines and we watched them in the dorm's common room, where we held weekly wine-and-cheese parties with professors, occasional dances, and talks from visiting speakers.
The night that most hit me was the showing of Klute, a mystery whose villain is revealed almost immediately. The film was compelling, visually interesting, and the acting seemed almost dangerous. Every scene was fraught with anxiety, but very little actually happens in the movie.
When it was over, my friends and I talked about the movie, and they suggested we watch it again up in one of our rooms. We did, discussing how the film worked, marveling at the symbolism in the images, and rethinking the film's point and focus. That's when I saw you could sit and analyze a film and enjoy it even more. You could turn it around in your head and reinterpret what it meant. You could be both entertained and challenged.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Shout out, etc.

Big shout out to Joe Smeeding for admitting to reading my posts. 

Now, is someone going to comment?

Although we didn't get a chance to talk about Jonathan Rosenbaum's essay today (nor did we talk about the EW piece), I'd like to quickly get to those at the next class. We did lose time to the 12th-grade meeting, and my dead clock made it hard to keep track of time, but I'm glad people have something to say in class. Something about film, about cinema, invites us to react and have strong opinions—perhaps because it so often sticks itself in our face like a rumbunctious child. But so many movies out there—ones you likely haven't seen—invite reactions more like those required by literature and the other arts: reflection, unease, thoughtfulness, altered ways of thinking, the need to watch and think again. It's not all about the quick buck and the quick reaction.

I look forward to the next class.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

My answers

Below are my answers to some of the questions on your homework assignment. Don't forget to mark up your assigned readings for comments and questions.

Do you ever watch just part of a film, and under what conditions?
If I’m flipping around on television, I might watch a few minutes of a cheesy action picture. We only get a few stations, so I don’t tend to stumble across great movies when doing this. I get a good laugh out of watch portly Steven Segal use his martial arts skills on bigoted toughs, and it’s kind of cool to see Jean-Claude Van Damme kick butt on evildoers harassing an innocent woman.

List three films you’ve enjoyed. You may have seen them once, many times, or they may be the kind of film that, no matter what else is happening, if it’s playing on television, you have to stop and watch. These can be films you enjoyed when you were a child; they don’t have to be recent. For each film, say a little about why you liked it.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Funniest movie ever. The thing I think I loved right away when I saw it, which was on television when I was in high school, was how the dialogue could be both silly and smart at the same time.

The movie manages to make science look exciting and action-packed, the special effects are beautiful, and Jodie Foster is just so interesting to watch. For all the obvious elements of the plot and annoying bits of directing, the film pulls me in because of the relationships surrounding the conflicted, smart character that Foster plays.

Certainly I’m pulled in by the time-travel idea. It shares, with Contact, that notion of communicating across a distance (both main characters operate ham radios) with a loved one. The plot goes a bit crazy at the end, but if you buy into the logic early on, it makes a kind of goofy sense. Jim Caviezel’s emotional performance appeals to me as well.

Name one film you’ve disliked. (Perhaps you didn’t even finish watching it.) What did you dislike about it?

The Sixth Sense
I figured out the movie’s “trick” right after its first scene. I couldn’t believe how obvious it was, and sat through the rest of the movie hoping I was wrong. I wasn’t, so the big surprise not only wasn’t a surprise, it seemed poorly revealed. In addition, the plot didn’t even follow its own rules for what the characters were capable of (this would also happen in Shyamalian’s next movie, Unbreakable, which was somehow both more moronic but more interesting).

List any reading you did over the summer that wasn’t part of a school assignment.

Blindness, José Saramago
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Jean-Dominique Bauby
Kentucky Straight, Chris Offutt
Mr. Muo's Travelling Couch, Dai Sijie
Hopper, Mark Strand
Second Skin, John Hawkes
The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga
Cool Hand Luke, Donn Pearce
Movies as Politics, Jonathan Rosenbaum
Written on the Body, Jeanette Winterson
The Heart of the Matter, Graham Greene

I also read various short stories from collections, many issues of the New Yorker, and books that I didn't finish.

Friday, September 5, 2008

The Dark Knight (because Ben insisted)

It's important to consider my reactions to The Dark Knight from the context of my own experiences with comics and comic book movies. Yes, ultimately the film stands or falls as a film—and I have serious problems with it as a film—but it wouldn't have been made if comics hadn't been such a huge part of Baby Boomer formative years and if Batman hadn't previously been a success in television and film.

I was born in 1962. In the late 1960s, Spider-Man was on television in the form of an animated show (a half hour of two fifteen-minute episodes) overseen by famed animator Ralph Bakshi. I didn't read the Spider-Man comic, but I did watch the show (the comic came later for me). At the same time, Batman was a huge television hit as a live-action half-hour in prime time. (The first or second movie I saw was the film version of the television series.) The show was "camp": that is, it exaggerated for humorous effect. Batman's speech was full of stiff moralizing; the set design was all about bright colors; villains and dire situations were filmed with a tilted camera; fights were punctuated with illustrations of such words as "Bam!" and "Socko!" overlaid on the image. I was a little kid, so I actually found the show frightening and dramatic. The most fun to be had was from the colorful villains, played by outstanding Hollywood actors who all brought a kind of gleeful  insanity to their roles. I had a Batman battery-powered car, Batman action figures, and Batman coloring books (I loved his costume's colors, the purplish blues, one deep and one paler, and the yellow oval around the black bat). I even had a Batman cape and cowl. (The cape tore on my backyard slide when I was five; the cowl, a thick plastic affair, lasted into my high school years, when we used it to costume Ratman in our full-length movie Ratman and Pigeon.) Later, I read Batman comics and enjoyed him as a character, the "dark detective" (the artists in my early days of reading were Jim Aparo and the legendary Neal Adams, both of whom depicted a dynamic, lithe figure of flowing cape). Though I haven't kept up with Batman exactly, at times over the years I've read some Batman comics. He remains the tortured and mysterious character I had enjoyed when younger, still visually and emotionally interesting.

Jump ahead to this year and the string of comic-book-inspired films. I saw Iron Man, The Hulk and The Dark Knight, in that sequence. 

I got a big kick out of Iron Man. The third act is lousy, with a fight that makes no logistical or logical sense, but aside from that it worked. Its major strengths were two: First, Robert Downey, Jr., gave the most interesting line readings. Nothing sounded as if it came from a script, but as if the actor were inventing smart things to say at every moment. Without Downey's idiosyncratic (look it up) take on those lines, however, I'm not convinced the script would have held much interest. A second strength, equally important, I think, was the film's approach to its technology. The manufacture of the metal suits was dramatically and visually interesting. Mechanical elements looked as if they actually worked and lived. The combination of those elements—when Downey is involved in making his suits, interacting with his computer and his robots—made for some of the most riveting (no pun intended, but I'll take it) scenes.

I actually enjoyed The Hulk more, and in part for reasons that affected how I felt about the Batman film. Though the opening chase in The Hulk is clearly lifted from the opening chase in the James Bond film Casino Royale (which was good, I suppose, for a Bond film but not actually a good movie), I appreciated that I was being shown an atypical location, a slum in Rio de Janeiro. (Unfortunately, most of the actors speaking Portuguese were Canadian.) I thought the story worked well; for the most part, it was uncluttered by narrative side trips. For anyone who read the comic, as I had, or seen the old television series (again, that's me), the film was stuffed with references, spoken and visual, to those other sources. (For true fans of Marvel Comics heroes, the film even gives us references to Captain America, America's first "super soldier," the first person given the formula used on the villain, Blonsky.) Visually and narratively, the film referenced the comic, much as the Spider-Man films have done. (There are certain shots in Spider-Man movies taken from particularly famous covers of the old comic or even certain panels drawn by John Romita.) Whereas the Iron Man film didn't visually reference the comic (the armor doesn't quite look like that in the comic, which is fine, but iconic stances aren't visually referenced, either), the Hulk film tied together comic, television series and film—for those exposed to all of those elements. It captured surprisingly well the explosive violence and potential of its main character, and I found it immensely satisfying.

Okay. Now we come to The Dark Knight. Overall, I liked the movie. But when it was finished, I wasn't satisfied in the same way as the other films had satisfied me—as a critical viewer of film and a comic fan. Clearly, this was the most adult of the three films. It's not a children's movie. (None of them is—though plenty of people take their kids to such things long before they're prepared to watch them—but there's a lot more for someone under 16 to appreciate in the other two films, though both have rather shocking violence at certain points.) In fact, the movie takes itself so seriously, so grimly determined to explore moral questions, that it doesn't quite fit the comic-book movie mold, and the Batman world that director Christopher Nolan (and writers Christopher and Jonathan Nolan) has created doesn't necessarily need the comic book to make sense.

I wasn't a big fan of the Tim Burton-directed Batman films (nor the two that followed those). The first one had a lot of energy and was visually interesting, and the second had the same strengths, but they didn't seem entirely serious. I had mixed reactions to Nolan's first Batman film, Batman Begins. I liked a lot of how Batman worked, his ability to disappear into the shadows, the abruptness of his violence, the way he used fear. I liked Christian Bale's performance. Katie Holmes, a non-actor, brought the film down a notch, and the use of ninjas just seemed wrong-headed. Those aren't Batman villains. (And why was Ras al Gul, a notorious Batman villain, played by Liam Neeson, who must have been wondering himself why he had an Arab name?) I hated the way the fight scenes were directed, cut too quickly to follow. I liked the movie and appreciated the seriousness with which the character had been treated, but it wasn't a great film.

The Dark Knight sees itself as a great film, and quite a few critics concurred, but I think, in the words of poet Robert Browning, the reach exceeded the grasp. ("A man's reach must exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?") The film aimed at lofty goals but couldn't quite pull them off. It reminded me of one of Bill Clinton's speeches: too long, too ambitious, too satisfied with itself, lacking a focus. (Clinton was always trying to write "the great American speech"; this was a mistake.) The film felt like two films smashed into each other. 

Who is the protagonist? The obvious answer is "Batman/Bruce Wayne," but I think he has less screen time—and less of an involving story—than Harvey Dent, the crusading district attorney. One of my complaints about the earlier Batman films is their need to muddy the narrative waters by bringing in more than one villain. To do it once can be a treat, if it's done well, but to do it every time smacks of desperation, as if the writer doesn't know how to fill the time. Harvey Dent ("Two-Face," a long-time Batman villain in the comic) could have had his disfiguring accident in the present film (any attentive viewer of the trailer knew as much) but played out his villainous career in the next film. Why the need to cram his story into this film—unless, as I'm suggesting, he is actually the film's protagonist? I don't believe the writers/director really see him that way; I'm just suggesting that he takes on that role because Batman doesn't quite.

Dent's story doesn't just extend the film an additional half hour and add narrative complication, it also confuses the film's meaning, even what filmmakers call its "through-line," the single arc of character and emotion pulling the viewer through from start to finish.

Also, the movie disappointed me visually. While it certainly looked, if not great, then good—and the use of Chicago for its on-location exteriors shots was a smart call, introducing viewers to novel streets scenes—Batman himself did not look good. He didn't look like Batman. He looked stocky, stiff, and dark. He's monochromatic (like his voice). His cape was used to help him glide, but it disappeared at other times. Nothing in the film referenced the iconic, beautiful imagery of the Batman. I guess I shouldn't have expected Nolan to have learned, between the two films, how to put together a hand-to-hand combat scene that's actually viewable and comprehensible, but he also forgot what worked well in the first film, using Batman as a figure of fear. All we had was the raspy voice, which was hard to hear and sounded downright ridiculous at times.

Certainly most films don't intend to "say" anything, or what they say is rather simple and obvious: families need to stick together; one should fight for what is right; people can sometimes let us down; a single event can have an enormous impact—these are standard film "meanings." The Dark Knight wants to have a philosophical discussion, and quite often pauses to do just that, so it's fair to consider what questions it's asking as well as what answers it suggests. Consider the various philosophical/moral points raised by the main characters.

The Batman's existence and actions raise questions about the uses and limits of violence; the role of the individual in society; the relevance of privacy (Batman's use of the phone-scanning technology is an obvious comment on the warrantless wire-tapping enacted by the Bush administration); the nature and value of a hero.

The Joker tells Batman that his role really has a philosophical point: he believes that, beneath the veneer of society, people are all monstrous. The rules exist only as long as the world seems settled and secure; remove that security (again, a politically loaded proposition) and people become animals.

Harvey Dent's character (which really should have been given a history) also asks about the role of the individual against the group (and is contrasted to how the Batman functions); the limits of the law; the roots of vengeance; the possibility of goodness; and, again, the function of a hero.

So who wins these arguments, and what does the movie conclude? The Joker (who sells himself as an agent of chaos—though why he bothers to rob banks isn't clear) sets up the two-boat scenario to test his hypothesis about human behavior, and he's proven wrong. People do the right thing. However, he's also set in motion Harvey Dent, who inexplicably blames Gordon for what's happened to him. (While I like the Joker in his nurse's outfit—his dance outside the hospital is inspired and perhaps the best visual moment in the film—his explanation of his motives to Harvey slow down the film.) Dent's rapid descent into vengeance suggests that the Joker was right after all. Then there's the puzzling issue of heroes: Batman is a hero who, because he doesn't reveal his identity, becomes a problematic figure. At the end, he allows himself to become even more problematic by seemingly taking the blame for the murder of several people (mostly crooked police, though where they come up with the numbers—five, then six—is a mystery to me, given the huge number of deaths in the film). Now people are allowed to believe in Dent as a hero but must find some focus for their fear in the Batman. This is a puzzling outcome, I suppose meant to set us up for the next film. And what does Batman think of himself and his actions? Throughout the movie, Bruce Wayne says he wants to make himself irrelevant; he supports Dent because he believes that the normal systems of society ought to handle issues of justice. Huh? The Batman isn't a political pragmatist. He's driven by the murder of his parents, which isn't mentioned in this film. He exists because of the terrible gray areas. He knows about corruption and understands that its inevitable. In this film, he sees it happen to Harvey Dent (whose fall from grace seems to prove the Joker right after all). The Batman does what he does as a permanent mission; demons drive him. The notion that he would have other motives violates the whole premise of the character.

I did enjoy most of the performances. Ledger was wonderful as the Joker, though his death was a fact that distracted me throughout. I thought the Joker should have said less about his motives. I liked when he told and retold his "origin," how he gained his scars: his variations on it make him unreliable, which is fascinating, and suggest that his very presence is chaotic, anti-narrative, impossible to contain. But then the writers let him yammer on and on about his purposes, and the character loses something.

A tighter film, more about the Batman, and more visually interesting, was what I wished I'd seen.

Monday, August 18, 2008

About those links

In the order in which they're listed:

The Internet Movie Database is a favorite site of mine. Fast and comprehensive, you can find any film, actor, director, character and even television show in moments. Part of what makes it a great resource is the "external reviews" link on every film, taking you to reviews from some of the finest reviewers in the country. I recommend checking into the reviews of Kenneth Turan, at the Los Angeles Times, and Mick LaSalle, at the San Francisco Chronicle (with its little man, and his various moods, in place of a star ranking).

Find lots of films, new, old, foreign, what have you, at the Onondaga County Library. I talk about this in my first blog post.

Movie Trailers at links you to a site with the latest trailers in various sizes and formats. Some trailers are posted quite far in advance of their release, so you can get an interesting heads-up about something that's not even on your radar yet. It's also a quick way to be exposed to diverse types of films. Get outside your comfort zone to see what else is out there.

Video Detective has new and old trailers as well as previews and isn't aimed solely at the Mac/Quicktime user.

Ain't It Cool is a site for all geeks and fanboys (and fangrrls). Science fiction, fantasy, horror, comedy, and other geektastic films are previewed and reviewed. Television shows and comic books also get a fair hearing. You get the inside stories via interviews with actors and directors; clips and stills from films still in production show up as well. It's an interactive site, where the readers engage in a no-holds-barred give-and-take (which is more informative and less hostile than you'd think).

Jonathan Rosenbaum is one of our great reviewers, a brilliant theoretician and historian of film who makes us ask hard questions about what we're seeing. He has several books containing reviews and essays on film. This site, featuring a different essay each week, contains archival links to brief reviews of hundreds of films.

Movie Scripts . . . is just what it sounds like. From my perusal of the site, it's clear that some of what you'll find is "shooting scripts"--what a director had in hand, rather than what ended up on screen. Some of these scripts are transcriptions from the actual films. Browse and enjoy.

The Internet Archive is a mini-library of multimedia original materials. The feature film link, which I provide, is just one facet of this online gem.

Posting Here

You should be able to post comments to this blog. (You might have to log in through a google account. Just get one. A gmail account is a fine thing to have.) Let me know if you have any problems.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

My Summer, Your Summer

You still have a few weeks left this summer. Check out some films. And when I say "check out," I don't just mean "see." I mean, "sign out something from the library." 

Look, Syracuse is a boosh-wah town. Finding great movies here is sometimes impossible. There simply aren't enough theaters. And the only "art" theater, the Manlius Cinema, looks like the interior of one of those military transport planes. Plus, the seats are lousy. The lines of sight stink. You can't find a place to park. 

This is where the library comes in. Get a library card, if you don't have one. Make sure you have a PIN (a code in addition to your library card number); check with a branch librarian to get one. This will allow you to order anything from the library system and have it sent to your closest branch. The Onondaga County library is at They have obscure films, old films, foreign films, films that should have had a larger release--and would have if the theaters didn't run the latest superhero film on several screens every hour of the day for months on end (until the scheduled DVD release).

Hey, I'm not bashing superhero movies. I'm a big comic book fan. I saw the Iron Man, Hulk, and Batman movies this summer (in the company of some highly educated fellow teachers!). But the finest in film is hard to find here--or hard to catch because, if it comes, it comes and goes like lightning. 

So in the time remaining, find some of the better reviewed movies that you never got to see last year. Adult movies, not movies designed for not-terribly-clever 12-year-olds. Go to and watch every trailer there to get a sense of all the things you won't be seeing in Syracuse next year, then make a note of those films so you can see them later.

Oh. And challenge yourself with some books while you're at it. Summer, for me, is reading time. I recommend going to 2nd Story Books, on Westcott Street; they have a small collection, but it's international and interesting. Fiction is where anything is possible, and the great writers know no bounds.

One more thought: Read Watchmen--not just one of the great books, but one of the great books period--before you see the film. I like what I've seen in the trailer (it captures the visual sense of the book without merely looking like a comic book that's been slapped onto the screen), but this is the director who gave us such dubious achievements as 300, so I wouldn't expect the movie to live up to the book.