A Dreamer Walking

Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy – Screenwriters – 127 Hours

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on April 29, 2014

Danny Boyle

I am not posting this to talk about how great of a visual it is. Although I want to point out really quickly how director Danny Boyle is using the rule of thirds in the way he frames this piece. The main character Aron is placed perfectly at the right third of the frame and his eyes are at the top third of the frame which is considered the most pleasing visual placement a character could be placed. Our eyes go to him right away. The digital camera screen also represents another framing device to focus us.

The reason for posting this image is to talk about how brilliant of a writing device Aron’s digital camera was for telling the story of 127 Hours (2010). For those who don’t know 127 Hours is a movie based on a true story about Aron Ralston who got his arm wedged between two rocks in the Utah Canyons. Most of the movie takes place with just Aron trying to get out of the nasty situation he found himself in. This kind of situation sounds very un-cinematic really and would be a hard sell for a studio to finance. The only reason Danny Boyle and writer Simon Beaufoy were able to get the financing is because they had both just earned a huge box office an Oscars for their last movie Slumdog Millionaire (2008). This movie could have easily have become boring in a hurry. Most of it revolves around just one character who is stuck in one place. Audiences usually rely on changing environments and character interactions to boost their interest. Danny Boyle and his crew needed to find a way to keep this situation interesting and let us know what is going on inside Aron’s head. Where in most situations the audience can get a clue about the psyche of a character through how he or she interacts with other characters Aron is by himself. Thus in comes the digital camera.

The digital camera is actually an item the real Aron had when he got stuck. The writers Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy were able to see some of the videos Aron had shot from his time stuck in the canyon. However, Boyle and Beaufoy were less interested in re-shooting exact footage of what Aron shot and more interested in using the digital camera as a tool to tell their story. During the movie Aron begins to turn on the camera periodically to give updates of his situation. We are first exposed to Aron’s more practical side. He explains how he has tried to get out, how his body is feeling, and how much water he has left. After a time Aron begins to go inward. He begins to talk about how stupid he was to not leave a note for where he was going. He begins to explore the idea he might not get out alive and uses the camera to express some of his regrets and say his final goodbyes. By doing this we get inside Aron’s head and are able to track his arc. The more malnourished Aron gets the more vulnerable he is with the audience. When he is giving his updates Aron is staring the audience directly in the face. The term used when a character does this is breaking the fourth wall. By doing this a special connection is created between the audience and Aron. The brilliant thing is the writers found a way to break the fourth wall without making us feel their main character is addressing an alternate universe like you see in most movies where they break the fourth wall – such as House of Cards and The Wolf of Wall Street.

Beaufoy said they would not be able to tell the story if they didn’t have Aron’s digital camera. The logs Aron makes serve so many different purposes. We also see the camera’s battery slowly going down suggesting there is only a limited time Aron has left. The great thing about movies like 127 Hours is it forces you to think outside the box. The goal is to allow the audience in so they can feel they are part of the Story. With Aron’s digital camera we were able to see Aron at his most vulnerable. It just goes to show working with limitations can be the inspiration for the most creative solutions.

Martin Scorsese – An Observation – Character Studies

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on April 23, 2014

Scorsese #2One of the reasons movies like Goodfellas, Taxi Driver, and his latest The Wolf of Wall Street rub audiences the wrong way is because of director Martin Scorsese’s determination to not show the big picture. What Scorsese is interested in is the individual perspective. Almost all his films revolve around an individuals point of view and Scorsese is unwilling to leave that point of view for sentimentality or political-correctness. He has faith his audience will bring a broader perspective to the films they are watching, but Scorsese is focused on showing a world seen through the lens of his flawed characters. This is what makes Scorsese’s movies so interesting.

The first Scorsese film I chose to watch when I started studying him was Taxi Driver (1976). After seeing the movie I couldn’t believe how frustrated it made me feel. “Gosh”, I thought, “they said this guy was a good director!” What I saw was a completely unlikable character, in Travis Bickle, with little arc. I first thought I just picked the wrong movie. However, after watching Raging Bull (1980), The Aviator (2004), and Shutter Island (2010) I found the same problems arose: the characters were all hard to warm up to and there was little to no character growth. In fact, one of my first papers on Scorsese revolved around the problem I had with the lack of arc in his films (check out the paper here).

After listening to many of Scorsese’s interviews and commentaries I began to realize he was never interested in movies about characters who ended up overcoming their flaws and winning the day. I don’t believe Scorsese felt capable of telling many of those kinds of stories in an authentic way. Most of Scorsese’s movies don’t revolve around huge life altering events that send his characters on specific adventures. He is actually known for his lack of interest in narrative driven films. And, though I still hold to my point I made years ago about Scorsese not having much of an arc for his characters, I have come to realize that has never really been his intent. What he wants us to see is the effect a changing environment has on his unwavering characters. Again and again in Scorsese films we observe characters who are unable to change and adapt to the shifting world around them.

We see the characters in Scorsese’s films show their inability to adapt to a changing world in many different ways. In Gangs of New York there is Bill The Butcher. From most accounts audiences considered him the most interesting and colorful character in this Scorsese epic. Bill deals with a the world around him by demanding it stay the same. The story takes place in the city of New York during the Civil War. This represents a huge evolution in the United States, yet Bill refuses to acknowledged it. He tries his hardest to keep New York the same way it has always been. He ruthlessly undermines newly elected officials and continues to hold onto his hatred towards immigrants and African Americans. Bill represents the old New York. I believe this character most resonated with Scorsese because he also fell in love with a New York (the place he grew up) which has since gone away.

In the movie Goodfellas change is dealt with in a completely different way. The main character of the movie is gangster, Henry Hill, and unlike Bill The Butcher he is not in a position where he could force his environment to stay the same. The first half of the movie shows us exactly why Henry is the kind of guy he is. We see how enticing life as a gangster can be. Scorsese brilliantly displays the glamor, excitement, and power that comes with gangster life and then he pulls the rug out from under Henry. Soon the struggle for power puts friends against friends. Henry’s luxurious lifestyle and excessive amounts of money get him into drugs and allow him to support mistresses which in turn brings more chaos to his life. He soon finds he can’t support the glamorous life he and his wife have grown accustomed to and things begin to crumble around him. Though you can’t say Henry’s lifestyle ends up benefiting him in the end, there is no attempt to show Henry having regret for the life he lived. He doesn’t seem to feel remorse for cheating on his wife and helping to cover up the murders of several people. At the end of the story we see his situation change dramatically but he is no different.

If you enter a Scorsese movie wanting to see characters come to their senses or pay for their crimes I am afraid you will be disappointed. The latest Scorsese film, The Wolf Of Wall Street, is proof of just how little Scorsese cares about appeasing his audience byshowing any kind of justice or redemption. The protagonist of the film is one of the most despicable men you will ever see, Jordan Belfort. The film revolves around a team of stockbrokers, lead by Belfort, who cheat, lie, and double cross their way to the top of the Wall Street food chain. The film is based on a true story yet not even a second of the film is focused on any of the many thousands of people Belfort ruined because of his scams. Instead we are are exposed to an excessive amount of drug use, prostitution, and partying. Many asked what the point of the movie was. I don’t think Scorsese had a particular message he wanted to send. However, I think he made the movie because he wanted to get into the head of someone who could do such damage without thinking twice about it. Scorsese didn’t show any of the victims of Belfort’s schemes because Belfort didn’t care about his victims. As I said at the top of this post, Scorsese is relying on his audience to bring a bigger picture to his movies.  His job is to show us an unflinching example of what goes into the mindset of a character like Jordan Belfort. Scorsese isn’t interested in having us like Belfort, but rather he wants us to understand him. Like the movie or not Wolf Of Wall Street produced a huge amount of dialogue about the corruption of Wall Street. This dialogue was generated because of Scorsese’s unwillingness to create false sympathy for the character of Belfort and because of Scorsese’s ability to let us see through the eyes of such a corrupt character. The movie forced us inside the head of a man few of us would ever care to know in the real world.

Scorsese is completely focused on transporting his audience inside his characters head. In fact, what almost all Scorsese films have in common is they are deep character studies. Scorsese wants his audiences to be consumed by his characters. And once we are in his characters heads, he refuses to let us out. We end up seeing the world of Scorsese’s protagonists rather then the world we know. In the commentary for Taxi Driver the film professor Robert Kolker talked about how we don’t know what is real or not in the movie because Travis Bickle isn’t seeing the world in a realistic way. The same could be said to an even greater degree for the movie Shutter Island. (SPOILER) At the end of Shutter Island we learn the whole story we just watched isn’t real at all but was simply imagined by the protagonist, Teddy Daniels (END OF SPOILER).

Scorese’s focus on the psyche of his characters is obsessive. Scorsese wants us to question what we thought we knew about people in this world. Repeatedly he refuses to give us characters we can completely root for or against. Instead he shows his audience a much more colorful world, filtered through the eyes of his protagonist. We can see ourselves being entranced by the same demons that send people like Travis Bickle, Howard Hughes, and Jordan Belfort into madness. And, we are never given any easy answers as to how to fix their problems. Instead we are made to come up with the answers for ourselves. In many ways it would be easier for Scorsese to create an out for himself by giving into the audiences desired outcomes for the characters in his films. But it is by forging his own path and taking an unflinching look at the people he concentrates on that Scorsese has become one of the most admired filmmakers in the world.

Fred Moore – Animator – Snow White

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on April 17, 2014

Fred Moore 1You can’t get much more appealing then this. In fact, appeal was Fred Moore’s signature trait. Ollie Johnston, one of his pupils, claimed beautiful stuff flowed out of Moore’s pencil like water. Those working under him claimed, “He couldn’t do a drawing without appeal”. He was a young prodigy responsible for Mickey Mouse’s classic design. He went on to define nearly all the characters we think of as Disney classics from the 30’s and early 40’s. He was responsible for the final look of all seven of the dwarfs in Snow White (1937). Both Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas studied under him during the feature’s production.

As talented as Moore was his actual life story had a bit of a tragic ending. Some claim his decline was due to the fact Moore was untrained and bloomed so young. He was in his mid twenties when he was assigned to be the lead for the Seven Dwarfs in Snow White. Disney hired him at age 19 with no formal training. It is said he submitted drawings drawn on paper grocery bags. At the beginning animation just seemed to come naturally to Moore. Every one of his animations had a charm to them. As you can see in this drawing there is nothing unattractive about it. The arcs are perfect and the situation humorous.

Moore needed to be inspired in order to animate and at times he had difficulty finding inspiration. Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas talked about him sitting at his office unable to draw for hours. They needed to prompt him and trying to get him excited about a piece of animation before he would start to animate. However, when he began to animate he wouldn’t stop. He could produce several feet of animation in a single day and each drawing flowed together to create beautiful motion.

With every new film Walt Disney demanded his artists to push the medium of animation. Walt began to lean towards more realism and designs that required a greater deal of draftsmanship. Fred Moore wasn’t able to keep up with the new Disney look. Legendary animator Marc Davis said, “In the early days Fred Moore was Disney Drawing”. However, with movies such as Bambi (1942) and much later films such as Sleeping Beauty (1959) and The Jungle Book (1967) Fred did not have the ability to keep up with Disney style. Moore also had problems with alcoholism and it was one of the reasons he was laid off in 1946 with a group of other artists.

Fred Moore going over Ollie Johnston's drawing.

Fred Moore going over his then Pupil Ollie Johnston’s drawing.

Ollie Johnston and a few other animators were able to hire Fred Moore again in 1948 with Walt’s blessing. Moore brought appeal to some animation in the 1950’s, most notably the mermaids in Peter Pan (1953). However, he went from Walt’s top animator to working under his one time pupil, Ollie Johnston. In 1952 Moore was involved in a tragic freak accident when his wife, who was driving, ran into another car while trying to make a U turn. Moore died the next day in the very hospital Walt would pass away in a decade and a half later.

Ollie Johnston kept a pencil of Fred’s taped to his window. In his 1995 documentary Ollie said he kept it there to, “remind me of how great the guy was and how much he meant to me”. He found there was a little lead left in the pencil and Ollie said he was going to save it for something special.

God’s Not Dead – Part 2

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on April 10, 2014

God's Not Dead Poster #2God’s not dead, but why is it I felt I attended his funeral?

From the last sentence you might already be getting the idea my experience watching God’s Not Dead wasn’t the happiest. In fact, I was visibly angry by the time the film ended. I feel sorry for my poor mother and sister who needed to hear me rant about my problems with the film the whole way back from the theater and then during the walk with the dogs afterword. To get to the core of my problem with the film I am going to need to go into some spoilers. So those who still might be wanting to go to the movie might want to check this out afterword.

As I explained in my last post I was not looking forward to this movie. From seeing both the title and the film’s trailers I had an overwhelming feeling this movie was more interested in telling us what to think then giving us something to think about. I chose to go because I didn’t want to judge the film on preconceived ideas. To the best of my ability I tried to be open to the movie being different from it’s advertisements. As the old saying goes you shouldn’t always judge a book by it’s cover. I wanted this movie to impact me like any other movie. I was interested in the basic concept of a student standing up for what he believes in even when it might mean he would be condemned. And trailers have a hard time expressing depth. They only have a few seconds to introduce characters and concepts. A two hour movie however obviously has much more time to get into character motivations and express more nuanced ideas.

This movie however left nuance at the door. All the characters were created to represent stereotypes, both of Christians and the secular world. None of them showed any depth. People who did not believe in the Christian God were all portrayed as evil; whether it be the Muslim father who beats and kicks his daughter out of the house after she claims to love Jesus or the mean boyfriend who gets angry at his girlfriend for bringing up her cancer after he tells her about his promotion. All the Christians the film concentrated on were true servants of God. Sure, there was the pastor who kept getting frustrated about his car not starting. But none of them really faltered when it came to choosing to do the right thing in the end. The character most representative of the “selfless man of God” was the main protagonist of the story Josh Wheaton.

It was clear Josh’s character particularly represented the Christian industries expectation for a good Christian youth. He did everything right in the eyes of the Christian base. He isn’t willing to put down on paper, “God is dead”. He goes to his elders for instruction. He reads the Bible and stands up to his God hating professor in class. I mean this guy doesn’t miss a beat. There is no attempt to allow the audience to understand Josh’s unwavering faith in God. There is no insight to when he became a Christian or why he feels the need to stand up for his faith except for the generic comment of, “I think God wants me to”. I call the comment generic because it is the same excuse Muslim extremists use to blow things up and kill innocent woman and children. Josh is a shell with no real personality or meaning outside his mission to convert the unbeliever. There are tones of opportunities for him to actually interact with the world around him yet he is too focused on his mission to convert to give a crap about anything else. The best example of Josh’s ignorance comes when interacting with a fellow student Martin Yip. Martin is actually the one who reaches out to Josh by asking him about why he is speaking up in class. Josh takes this as a opportunity to preach and tells Martin about how he believes in Jesus and doesn’t want to disappoint Him. I almost yelled at Josh in the theater to ask a question about who Martin was. Start up a actual conversation and maybe ask Martin what he believes. But no luck. As soon as Josh was done with his preaching he left Martin sitting at the table. The only time Josh really becomes interested in Martin is after Martin turns to Jesus at the end of the movie.

There were so many missed opportunities. This could have been an authentic look at the secular world and why at times it seems so against Christianity. Yet, after watching the movie you get an overwhelming feeling the only thing Christian media thinks they do wrong is stay quiet. The only open Christian in the movie who was portrayed in a negative light was Josh’s girlfriend who adamantly encouraged Josh not to speak up in class. Christians might point to this character as daring, but I thought of her as just shallow. The writers did everything but put a sign on her spelling out, “This is not a real Christian”. She never talks about God and always spoke about how Josh fighting his professor in class would make her look bad. She finally broke up with him because he wouldn’t sign the paper that God was dead or leave the class. Why do I or anyone else in the audience care she she left Josh? I mean there was nothing about her that was interesting or made me care. I couldn’t figure out how the morally unshakable Josh Wheaton would have hooked up with someone like his girlfriend in the first place?

The farther into the movie we went the more this movie looked like a carefully planned out propaganda film. Their mission was to keep the Christian base confident in their faith and reinforce a narrow view of the outside world. It reminded me of the countless messages I sat through in Church where in the end I was told to give my heart to Jesus and tell others about the good news. Quite literally the movie told us to tell people, “God’s Not dead”. It wanted me to text all my friends telling them God wasn’t dead as if that was going to do the trick. The frustrating things is there were tons of people who did this. As I explained in my last post I saw tons of status updates declaring God wasn’t dead. Put yourself in the secular world’s shoes. What if one of your friends had text you, “God’s dead”? How would this make you feel? Would it really make you more acceptable to thinking God’s dead? Or would it get you frustrated because you are being told bluntly something you believe is not true. For many the text “God’s Not dead” are fighting words. The text is starting a debate few Christians are interested in or prepared for. Heck, I believe there is no batter proof for how unprepared we are then this very movie.

The premise of this movie revolved around Josh’s debate with his professor about the existence of God. While the atheist professor had a board with a few atheist philosophers and scientists names on it as explanation for why the class did not need to look into the idea of there being a God, Josh had a fully realized video display, he somehow found the time to put together, to help argue his case. Each time Josh made his arguments for God’s existence this display helped guide us into feeling comfortable Josh’s arguments made sense. On the other hand while some of the first arguments the professor makes feel partly thought out it becomes more and more apparent his real problem is a personal grudge against God. There was no attempt to treat the debate fairly. In the end we see the Professor show his true colors and admit his real reasons for not allowing God in his class room was because he was angry at Him for not saving his mother from cancer. For this to be the main argument in the movie for why the secular world denies the Christian God is completely ridiculous. Yet, this philosophy seems to be picked up by more and more Christians. Most Christians I listen to seem convinced the reason the secular world denies God is because they are selfish and have a personal grudge against Him.

Movies like God’s Not Dead are why the secular world isn’t interested in the Christian God. As I said at the beginning of my post I felt I was attending God’s funeral while watching this. I just couldn’t find any substance in the movie. This film claims to be a light. Yet it is a light that holds little warmth and shows no depth. The film was an encouragement for believers to go out into the world and preach with ears plugged and eyes closed. The more Christians take on this kind of instruction the farther they will find themselves from both this world and their God they claim to love so much.

 

 

 

God’s Not Dead – Part 1

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on April 3, 2014

God's Not Dead PosterFor those who don’t know I work two blogs. One concentrates on my ambitions to understand the technique and art of storytelling/filmmaking and the other covers my views on faith and politics.  Even though both blogs revolve around my pursuit of art and efforts to understand God the subjects don’t usually intersect. However, just the other day I accompanied my mother and sister to the movie God’s Not Dead and I knew immediately I needed to write about my experience. Seeing it was a movie and concentrated on a the issue of faith I have decided to post my views about this movie on both my blogs. I am also going to break my thoughts into two posts. For this post I will try to explain why I chose to watch this movie and my next post will concentrate on what I felt about the film.

To be honest this movie never appealed to me. From seeing the very title God’s Not Dead I was afraid it was going to be another Christian produced film that never really tried to give us something to think about but rather told us what to think. There is an argument to be made I, along with many other secular audiences, had already made preconceived judgments on the movie without being willing to give it a chance. I will not try to suggest I went into the theater with a completely open frame of mind. I tried to have an open frame of mind but I couldn’t help but be influenced by the title, the advertisements, and the second hand comments I had already heard regarding the film.

Lets first look at the title. Why would the title God’s Not Dead turn me off? Well, you tell me the last good film you watched with a title telling the audience precisely what to think? I mean the movie didn’t even want me to think about the possibility God could be dead. I did not need to watch a frame of the movie to know we were going to see a story trying to prove the existence of God. It might just be a malfunction of how I was brought up but I was taught to think for myself. The teachers who really mattered to me allowed me to come up with my own conclusions about what I believed. However, this film with its very title suggested it didn’t want to trust the audience in that way.

The advertising for God’s Not Dead felt just as manipulative as the title. Here is the first trailer I had seen for the film:

Here is another example of the movie not trying to leave anything up to the imagination. Sure the movie suggest the premise is “We are going to put God on trial”. But based on the characters we see in the trailer and the Newsboys song playing in the background with the lyrics “God’s not Dead, he is surely alive” we could tell this premise is only there to thinly disguise a cookie cut message about the evils and dangers of the secular world and the need for us to choose God. The reporter in the trailer even asks about those who don’t believe and the famous Duck Dynasty star Willie Robertson replies, “If we disown Him (God), He will disown us”. The secular world is represented by a power hungry professor who calls himself god. We also see another secular businessman who is asked to visit his mom and replies back, “What’s in it for me?”. They don’t want us to question the story arc of the freshman either. The trailer makes sure to show us a clean cut collage Christian who ends up standing for what he believes and confronting his power hungry professor. I felt like the trailer showed a movie aiming to make the Christian audience feel good about themselves at the expense of the rest of the world. The trailer offended me because it seemed to be further proof of a film interested in talking down to it’s audience by not even giving them the chance to discover any truths for themselves.

Now the title and the advertising of the film are prime examples of why I wasn’t interested in going to the movie. So the big question is, why did I end up going? After God’s Not Dead came out I found the reaction from friends and across the internet interesting. What was most intriguing was the difference in opinion I heard from the Christian base compared to the secular base. There were advertisements all over my Facebook wall where Christian friends were posting statuses declaring “God’s Not Dead” and suggesting I and the rest of Facebook go see the movie. I also saw flyers posted claiming the film was #2 in the Country’s Box Office. I didn’t really understand where this stat was coming from since Box Office Mojo and IMDb claimed it took fifth in the box office nationally. Absolutely none of my none Christian friends claimed to see the movie. I did look on Rotten Tomatoes and out of the few people who chose to review the movie, it received a 20% rotten Tomato rating. For those who don’t know it takes a 60% or higher for a film to receive a “fresh” rating.

So what was this huge separation about? Why were so many outside the faith criticizing the movie and so many inside the faith praising it? Why was an advertising campaign that felt manipulative and demeaning to me seem to intrigue so many of my Christian friends?  I knew I needed to check out the movie for myself to find out these answers. Rather then make this post excessively long I will leave you guys with a cliff hanger and give my thoughts on the actual movie in my next post.