Wednesday, September 23, 2009

While you're away, I cogitate

As we view the earliest films, I want you to see how people drew on previous forms of expression and entertainment in order to craft the new medium. Those first movies, with their fixed perspective on unscripted scenes of ordinary life—the factory day ending, people disembarking from a boat, a couple feeding their child—are nothing more than animated photographs. The decision to film the arriving train at an interesting angle represents a decision to bring drama to the proceedings. The troublesome boy stepping on the hose is our first example of a script, a story.

Méliès takes his lessons not from photography, but from the stage. He not only crafts theatrical pieces, he constructs elaborate sets and moves from scene to scene through the use of the dissolve (know that term). He also employs special effects, some learned from his stage magician's act but others only possible with the invention of film. Multiple exposures and the use of cuts let his imagination take on reality.

What you're seeing is film develop its own language even as it borrows from the visual and narrative language of other forms that precede it. I started watching Watchmen last night (I had avoided the film, though—or perhaps because—I like the graphic novel) and it made me think about how film continues to compete with and borrow from other forms of narrative. One complaint about the film leveled by critics is that it tried to merely emulate or reproduce the images from the graphic novel rather than develop its own way of approaching the material. It's a complaint you could level, in a different form, at other adaptations. After all, films of books or plays borrow something of their narrative structure, even if there's no visual structure from which to lift. Though some of the shots are indeed exactly from the book, the director still has to present movement between those shots, so it's not as if the device spares him from having to employ some creativity. So far, he seems to handle that pretty well. However, I'd say that the narrative itself is a challenge for the unitiated to follow—or to care about. The actress playing Silk Spectre is dreadful. (The other actors seem fine, but Ozymandias's German-with-a-lisp is a profoundly wrong choice.) The conceit of the original material is that only Dr. Manhattan is superpowered, but the people in the movie shatter people's bone (and blocks of granite) as if they were super beings; that's just wrong, and misses the point. The script isn't working well to hold the narrative threads together. I find that the problem isn't the look of the thing but that, in trying so hard to have his film look like another art form, he forgot to labor on a script that didn't merely lift words from the graphic novel. Forms of entertainment always inform each other and borrow back and forth, but you still have to labor at every element.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

At the Movies (the TV show)

For future reference, At the Movies, with A.O. Scott of the New York Times and Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune, airs on our ABC station on Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. (I happened to catch it yesterday).

Here's the web site, which has clips from the show:
At the Movies

I read a review at Entertainment Weekly's site, and I agree with their reviewer that Scott and Phillips still don't capture the fire—and sometimes outright hostility—of the classic days of Siskel and Ebert. It is strange that, in an increasingly rude and abrasive culture, a show about contrasting opinions lets people agree to disagree. Well, the show is owned by Disney . . .

I also agree with EW that the rating system is something of a cop-out: "see it," "skip it," and the profoundly ambivalent "rent it." I saw Phillips say "rent it" to a movie he didn't think anyone should see. I should still spend time and money on this? It's a puzzling solution. They're not allowed, for trademark reasons, to say "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" as Siskel and Ebert did, but they could at least give movies stars or numbers or some clearer designation.

I'm a big fan of the system used by the San Francisco Chronicle: it's a drawing of a little man in a chair. If the movie stinks, he has nodded off; decent, he's sitting at attention; good, he leans forward with great interest; outstanding, and he's left the seat to applaud, mid-air.

Read reviews and watch reviews, even if you haven't seen the film or have no plans to see it. You're picking up the language reviewers use, as well as references (at least by competent reviewers) to film terminology and history.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Comments welcome

If you have any thoughts about what we've discussed so far—the Ebert essays and the opening minute of Star Wars—feel free to comment. In the next class, we'll watch a few more minutes of Star Wars and then I'll show you part of the film that inspired George Lucas's idea for the framework of the story. You should be surprised (unless you're one of those film geeks who already knows this stuff!).

Then we'll see some of those first films that you're to read about in the handouts.

I hope you're enjoying the class and, every day, taking away something new.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Tuesday update

As always, check previous entries to make sure you haven't missed anything . . .

My thanks to today's students; both sections have been great. I talked too much today, but I think it was the large room's fault. (I actually mean this.) In any case, please note: Both classes will be in HUM 8, my violet-colored classroom. Mr. O'Malley couldn't really teach his class in my room, which lacks both a computer and all of his language posters, and I wasn't comfortable in his space either. Some people have shifted sections and some have dropped the class, so at most each section will have 17, which we can manage in the smaller room.

Bring something with which to take notes and your Ebert book, but try to leave backpacks behind.

Everyone should be able to access the schedule, which for some reason wasn't available this afternoon. Please let me know if you have problems with the blog site. You can post comments here if you like, and it might help if I answer questions online for everyone rather than for just one person.

Monday, September 14, 2009

My answers

Before reading this, please look at the preceding blog posts for September 14.

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).

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.

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

Norwood, Charles Portis
stories from Love and Hydrogen, Jim Shepherd
Death with Interruptions, José Saramago
Far Bright Star, Robert Olmstead
The City & The City, China Miéville
stories from Aye, and Gamorrah, Samuel R. Delany
Nova, Samuel R. Delany
Pnin, Vladimir Nabokov
The Forever War, Dexter Filkins

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

First Day, Redux

Three issues:

If the handout I gave you was improperly copied—with the print too large and thus not fitting on the paper—let me know. I have good copies available. (I only found one copy like that, but I assume there were others.) Those handouts concern some of the earliest films made and the reactions to them. We won't get to those films next class, I realize, so read them for Friday's class rather than Wednesday's.

Secondly, I'm sorry to the students who didn't have chairs. We may be in a different (larger, more-chaired) room next time, but even if not, I'll get chairs. Obviously, you could have fetched some for yourselves—and I should have gone in search of some—but everyone seemed so comfortable . . .

Lastly, I just realized that I may have misspoken when a student asked if we're "annotating" the Ebert book. I said no, but that's because I think of "annotating" in a more formal sense. You should take notes, somehow, on Ebert's key points in those two essays. Also, be sure to mark any terms or ideas you find unfamiliar. Ebert does write for a "general audience," but that doesn't mean you'll get all of his filmic references.

Thanks for an enjoyable conversation today. We'll get to Star Wars next time, right at the top of the class.

First Day

I hope there was no confusion about the first assignment. I did not post it to the blog (I thought I had), but it was posted, along with every other upper school assignment, at the "Summer Assignments" link that was on the MPH home page.

For the first day of class, I'm going over those assignments (and possibly looking at some trailers to help you see how yours did or didn't really fit the form) and showing you part of two movies, Star Wars (A New Hope) and Hidden Fortress. Today you'll learn new terms to keep track of and, I hope, some things you hadn't considered when looking at film. Pretty much every day in this class should be like that.

For the next class, your assignments are:
One writing assignment on personal viewing history; you can see that on the link at right.
Reading: A handout about some of the earliest films [as per the note above, don't read the handout yet; do read the Ebert pieces] and, in the book Awake in the Dark, brief essays on Star Wars (p. 341) and on Ebert's lifetime of film viewing (p. 387).