A Dreamer Walking

Thoughts from Tarkovsky – Static Passion

Posted in Personal Philosophy by Jacob on August 9, 2016

For me the most interesting characters are outwardly static, but inwardly charged with energy by an overriding passion.” – Andrei Tarkovsky’s Sculpting in Time

Imagine if we understood this? Though Andrei is referring to characters in this quote, I believe the principle applies to all filmmaking. So often we think filmmaking is about grand scale, flashy camerawork, and extravagant characters. The reason students never think they have enough money for their films is because they have bought into this idea that in order to make a good film you need to go, “BIG”. There is so much concentration on the need for outward excess we forget about the power of the inner battle. Many of my peers have the right message. They want to says something unique. Yet instead of finding confidence in their personal story they get distracted by the fact they don’t have enough; whether it be the right camera, the right crew, or the best locations.

We are taught the active camera gives way to the active emotion, yet the opposite can just as easily apply. And believe me, the best storytellers know this. All the way back to the silent era there have been filmmakers who knew just how powerful holding a static shot could be. If you don’t believe me, just watch the last five minutes of City Lights (1931) or when Joan is put on trial in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). In these movies you found storytellers who trusted the audience to stay attentive and find the inner emotion themselves.

I can’t resist compare this surface level storytelling we see today with all that is wrong with politics. What is going on outside is what gets the most attention. We have politicians on the left and the right who almost shout the “truth” at us. They think if they yell loud enough and with enough enthusiasm we will start to believe their “authenticity”. Yet our society has sensed a insincerity; a disconnect between the outward message and the inward action. When the audience senses a disconnect it does not matter how polished the outward seems, we will not buy into the story they are telling.

When I think about it the vast majority of my favorite scenes in cinema have little to do with scale or polish. Instead, what makes me want to tell stories for a living comes from the powerful feelings I had when seeing a group of students stand on their desks for their teacher (Dead Poets Society), or a man at a bridge asking to live again (It’s a Wonderful Life), or a distraught father walking away from his daughter as she shouts for him to come back (Blue Valentine). On the surface these scenes did not revolve around any great action yet they all broke through and allowed the audience to experience the stories essence. It’s this transformation from examining the outward to the inner conflict that must be the most important aspect for us as filmmakers.

The camera being used, amount of crew you have, or locations at your disposal are all surface level problems. They do need to be considered but should never be the most important thing. I’m in the middle of making a documentary at the moment and my favorite shot revolves around my subject and a blank wall. You know, the kind of wall you can literally find in any room you set foot in. Yet for the story I am telling the wall says so much about the anxiety the subject is going through. It comments on the great unknown awaiting her and the emptiness I sense she feels at the moment.

Maybe what scares us the most about this type of storytelling is the lack of control. When looking inward we must rely on the audience to come to their own conclusions. The outward can be calculated the inward is the great unknown. However, if you want to say something new you need to be willing to explore the unknown. We must always remember filmmaking is not about capturing beautiful images. We are storytellers. Our mission is to look past what is seen on the surface and examine the soul. If we can find a way to do this, there is no limit to where our stories could go.

 

The Essence of Cinema

Posted in Personal Philosophy by Jacob on May 27, 2016

Nothing disguises meaninglessness more than a pretty picture.

This is actually a quote from yours truly. I just think this type of thing looks more legit when you put it up in stylized quotes.

In the past I have suggested we live in the most resourceful age of filmmaking in history. The kind of technology we have at our disposal is phenomenal. Where just 30 years ago a film student like me would go wild if he had a few minutes worth of film stock to use, today we have crystal clear digital cameras, easy to use editing programs and special effect technology, along with all sorts of other gizmos and gadgets to make our Youtube or Vimeo videos look that much smoother.

As you might assume from the quote however, I don’t consider all this stuff a good thing. In fact, in many cases I find our new obsessions with the newest technology to be unhealthy. More times than not I run into fellow film students who feel it’s the type of camera they use that makes their work worth viewing. Instead of talking to me about the story they are trying to tell or themes they are trying to explore they simply show me their footage and exclaim, “Can you believe how beautiful this looks in 4K RESOLUSION!!!” And sadly, more times than not I can’t help but look at that 4K footage and feel an overwhelming sense of emptiness.

The cause of the emptiness you may ask… An utter lack of individualism. But what should I expect?! Any type of individualism was knocked out of most of us at a very early age.

The cardinal sin of the education system is the absence of independence. School’s most impactful lesson is conformity. The environment we are taught in, the subjects highlighted, and the testing system used to measure our intelligence are all oriented around our society’s demand we stand in line and function with a set of well established rules.

Since most of us didn’t grow up giving value to individualism, we needed to create value in other places. One of the easiest places to manufacture a sense of value is in the polish of a product. Most of my professors and peers advocate for the clean image. We are taught how to hold the camera, the proper way to light a scene, and what makes for the strongest composition. In no way am I suggesting these things are not important to know. I spent the last several years studying the rules of cinema and looking into the reasons why the great filmmakers of the past, like Kurosawa and Bergman, chose to shoot their films the way they did.

But here is the difference between filmmakers like Bergman and Kurosawa, and the vast majority of student filmmakers out there; the masters of cinema learned the rules in order to break them. They did not find value in the picture itself, but rather they were interested in what the picture had to say. And often times it was through going against the traditional rules of cinema where the great filmmakers were able to say something unique. As much as the system we live in works tirelessly to have the majority in society toe the line, from the beginning of time it has been the rule breakers who change the world the most.

I have found a clean high definition image is one of the greatest enemies to a rule breaker. We are no more capable of breaking the rules of cinema today as we were 30 to 100 years ago. The only change is a development of technology. And technology has its dangers. As I said at the beginning of this piece, “Nothing disguises meaninglessness more than a pretty picture”. We are more capable of creating a “pretty picture” today then ever before.

I consider my papers on this blog to be a constant exploration the essence of cinema. And I am sorry if the title of the post mislead you into thinking I would somehow be able to tell you what cinema’s essence was. The point here is to tell you what cinema’s essence is not. The power of cinema can not be measured based on the type of camera you use. We must understand the value of an art is not measured by its paintbrush. What matters is the person holding the brush and whether he or she has something to say.

 

The Future

Posted in Personal Philosophy by Jacob on May 15, 2015

“I dream for a living”

This quote comes from one of my favorite filmmakers, Steven Spielberg. It speaks to the essence of why I want to make films myself. If you think about it cinema has more in common with dreams than reality. Not just in the stories that take place in galaxies far far away or lands full of mystical creatures and magic, but also in the very form of cinema. The language of cinema was never developed to replicate reality. Rather the technique of filmmaking is more reminiscent of dreams then anything else. Cuts, lenses, and music are all used to entrance the audience and give them an experience they could never have in reality.

As a child I was someone who loved to live in the dreams of people like Steven Spielberg and Walt Disney. The stories they told made me laugh, cry, and filled me with wonder. Their worlds were so enthralling I would explore them farther in the back yard with my brother. Eventually we began to create our own stories in our own worlds. Little did I know at the time, I had the keys to fairyland and was never happier then when I was able to play beyond these invisible gates.

The sad part is I grew up. And growing up seems to require one to wake up. The famous writer L. M. Montgomery wrote,

There is such a place as fairyland – but only children can find the way to it. And they do not know that it is fairyland until they have grown so old that they forget the way. One bitter day, when they seek it and cannot find it, they realize what they have lost; and that is the tragedy of life. On that day the gates of Eden are shut behind them and the age of gold is over. Henceforth they must dwell in the common light of common day.

The path to fairyland became harder and harder for me to find. Reality had too strong a grip on me.

I began to experience life; where the imagination was dwarfed by my struggles in school, inability to fit in, and the raw reality of the bigger picture. The world I actually lived in was overwhelming. Planes crashed into skyscrapers, countries declared wars, and governments had corruption in every corner. Who could dream in a place like this? The only result seemed to be nightmares. The ideals dreamt up by filmmakers such as Disney and Spielberg began to feel more like naive notions than anything else.

Still, throughout this time of growing up I never lost interest in telling stories and making movies. My gaze however turned from the idealists to the pessimists (though they would simply call themselves realists). Filmmakers such as David Fincher and Martin Scorsese caught my eye. At first I had a difficult time understanding my draw to them. I watched Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and couldn’t believe people hailed the movie as one of the greats. The main character was revolting and lacked any kind of arch. Fincher’s stories took place in a world of cynicism. The first movie I remember watching of his was Seven. The movie revolves around two detectives trying to find a serial killer who uses the Seven Deadly Sins as his catalyst to murder. Fincher never tries to deny these victims were guilty of these immoralities. Even the hero of the movie, played by Morgan Freeman, tells a woman she should have an abortion to keep her child out of the dark world they live in.

I soon realized Martin Scorsese and David Fincher interested me because they were unflinching in their mission to seek out the truth in the darkest corners of society. I resonated with the characters and worlds they created because I saw myself in them. Sure, I wish I could see myself as a flawless human being and the world I live in as this wonderful place where good always triumphs in the end. However, reality suggests differently and filmmakers such as Fincher and Scorsese were not afraid to highlight the dark side of this world; the side most of us would like to keep hidden.

Yet, even though these filmmakers looked at the world through a more cynical lens, they still kept a hold of the keys to fairyland. Scorsese and Fincher’s imagination was just as strong as my childhood inspirations in Disney and Spielberg. Their mission was never to reproduce the world we live in, rather a world where the truths of our society are seen even more clearly. With these filmmakers the camera was a paintbrush. And just like the great artists of the past their goal was to express humanity. Each cut, choice of lens, and use of music represented a stroke made to describe a greater whole.

The more my view of storytelling evolved the more I began to understand the words of writer Lloyd Alexander, “Fantasy is hardly an escape from reality. It’s a way of understanding it.” Just because I had a stronger grasp on reality did not mean I needed to neglect my imagination. At the same time, I refused to get barred down by the dark truths of this world. My goal became to transform the society I lived in. For this is what I believe dreamers do best; they transform our reality through the visions they cast.

Here is where I must come back to the quote from L. M. Montgomery. It would be a true tragedy if she left her views about growing up on such a gloomy note. Yet she goes on from the quote above,

Only a few, who remain children at heart, can ever find that fair, lost path again; and blessed are they above mortals. They, and only they, can bring us tidings from that dear country where we once sojourned and from which we must evermore be exiles. The world calls them its singers and poets and artists and story-tellers; but they are just people who have never forgotten the way to fairyland.

As dark as Scorsese and Fincher’s worlds may be and as pessimistic a commentary on life as their story may have, they still play pretend for a living. There is nothing about an artist that is necessary for our society to survive. Yet the artist knows better then anyone, deep down we were not made to survive we were made to live.

I would like to leave you with the words of poet, D. H. Lawrence. He gets to the heart of where I want to live as a filmmaker. “All people dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their mind, wake in the morning to find that it was vanity. But the dreamers of the day are dangerous people, for they dream their dreams with open eyes, and make them come true.” The greatest filmmakers are those who live in the world of the dream so they may cast their visions into the world of the real in order to inspire the world of tomorrow.

As someone who is determined to dream for a living, my greatest inspirations were filmmakers such as Spielberg and Disney. They taught me how to dream. Mentors such as Scorsese and Fincher helped give my dreams an edge. My task now is to cast my vision into the world and see what future my dreams hold

Influences

Posted in Personal Philosophy by Jacob on February 16, 2015

Far too often I find the reply most students have to the question, “What makes you want to make movies?” less then interesting. One of the main reasons I find them uninteresting is because everyone seems to have the same answer. There are a handful of movies almost every film student sight as the films that made them want to make movies. I want to think of my experience as more unique, but like it or not the first example I have is from that handful of movies.

My dad taught at a local college and brought my brother and me to the theater one night. I was about seven years old and really had no clue what I was going to see. All my dad said was it was a big movie when he was in school, which honestly turned me off because I had yet to find anything my dad did when he was “in school” interesting.

The theater was probably pretty small, though I had not seen anything like it. All we had at home was a black and white TV screen that could fit in the span of my dad’s hand. After a few minutes of watching my dad mingle with his friends lights suddenly went out. Everyone hushed. Words faded onto the screen, “In a galaxy far far away”. I couldn’t even read them all. And then it happened. Sound poured out from all corners of the theater. In a huge font the title, “STAR WARS”, blasted onto screen. I couldn’t read the words that came after that but I do remember the tiny ship flying away from the biggest ship I had ever seen. What can I say?! I was hooked. There was no turning back. I just wanted to have this experience again and again. I wanted to bathe in the glory of the epicness that was, STAR WARS.

Another theater experience I vividly remember was when my Grandfather took me to see The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, staring Jim Carry. Though now I can point to many flaws the movie had, back then I was too caught up in the spectacle to care. What truly blew my socks off was the very beginning where it was snowing and the camera went into a small snowflake to reveal a whole world of imagination. I was in awe. What other possibilities are there in this medium if it could do that? I wondered.

Other movies, full of spectacle, got me excited about the power of cinema. I remember falling in love with Indiana Jones and going to the original Spiderman movie about 20 times in the theater. But spectacle by itself would never have made me interested in making movies. Even then I needed something more. In movies like Indiana Jones and Star Wars I saw a little of that “something more”. I had an emotional connection with those movies. They didn’t just fill me with wonder they also made me care. When Darth Vader revealed to Luke Skywalker, “I am your Father”, I went through a whole range of emotions which literally took me years to figure out. My favorite Indiana Jones movie is The Last Crusade. The power of the movie did not come through the spectacular adventure Indiana went on as much as the simple relationship he had with his father.

Yet the film maker I found the most emotional connection to was with Disney. Walt Disney, the man, might be my greatest inspiration in cinema. I am well aware of the fact he is seen as more of a symbol than an actual person in the world’s eyes. And, I know many consider his films to not be very deep, and have a generic “happily ever after” stamp on the end. However, I would say few people know Walt Disney like I do. This might be a little presumptuous but I have looked into the man Walt Disney quite intensely for more than a decade now. What really got me interested in him was the book, Walt Disney: An American Original by Bob Thomas. Here, I realized the “larger than life” figure I had grown up with was an actual human being with many flaws. The flaws were what really interested me. I, along with the majority of the world, knew about his “greatness”. Understanding Walt had flaws made a crucial connection for me; it taught me you don’t need to be perfect in order to do great things.

I still believe some of Walt’s first movies such as Pinocchio, Dumbo, and Bambi get to the core of what I consider great storytelling. Each movie’s characters affected me in ways that went beyond just the story I watched on screen. I found myself wondering what their lives were like outside the frames of the camera. Characters like Jiminy Cricket and Thumper were close friends who always brightened my day when I watched them. And, the most amazing part was the fact that these characters were not real. In the most basic sense I believe I knew this even in my childhood. They were just a bunch of drawings when put together created the greatest illusion of all, the illusion of life.

In many of Walt’s first features he was not afraid to show hints at the darker sides of life. He knew that great storytelling required not just happiness but loss as well. I cried when Bambi first lost his mother. I feared for the life of Pinocchio when he ventured out to save his father from the great whale Monstro. And I felt Dumbo’s longing when he visited his mother after she was locked up in a cage. All these movies produced very powerful and specific emotions from me even after the second, third, or twentieth time I watched them. I began to understand that cinema could go so much farther then spectacle and become something that touches the heart.

One more element is key to making cinema something I wanted to participate in for the rest of my life. The element is seen a little in movies like Star Wars and Pinocchio. However, it took a more mature kind of storytelling to really drive the element home for me. And now I get to the movie I consider the greatest of all time, Schindler’s List. I was far too young when I first watched this movie; so young in-fact that I didn’t really know all of what was going on. My parents thought I needed to know about a part or our world’s history that the movie covered, the holocaust. I remember being horrified as I saw hundreds of human beings get thrown out of their houses, treated like cattle, and killed for no reason other than they walked the wrong way on the street.

By itself I do not think the horror of the story would have done much for me. However, through the horror I saw a man, Schindler. At first I really didn’t like him. He wasn’t as mean as most of the Germans but I could tell he was taking advantage of the Jews. He was a married man who was selfish with his money and had sex with many women. But then something happened. I was able to see this man change right in front of me. He didn’t become perfect, but he did begin to care. He helped to save hundreds of Jews. What really moved me was a scene at the end of the movie.

Oscar Schindler needed to leave the Jews because the war was over and he now was considered a fugitive. As he was leaving his factory the Jews he helped protect gave him several small gifts. It was here Schindler broke down. He looked at all the people he helped save and all he could think about were the ones he didn’t. “I could have done more”, were the words that have stuck with me ever since. I couldn’t believe it. Here was this imperfect man who had done so much, yet still he wept for what more he could have done. It was then I realized the true power of movies. They could go beyond spectacle. They could take me beyond emotional relevance. Movies had the power to influence the direction of one’s life.

My life was changed after watching Schindler’s List. I thought if such an imperfect man could do so much and yet feel he could have done more, what could I do? I made it a goal to help those who were less fortunate than me. I wanted to make movies that brought up subjects like Schindler’s List and see if I could harness the power of cinema to influence others like the director of Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg, had done for me.

The movies I have shared have most likely influenced many people. However, the older I get the more I realize the most important influence in any kind of artistic ambition must be one’s personal life. My personal story is where true inspiration comes from. My goal is not to copy the imagery I watched in movies like Star Wars, Bambi, and Schindler’s List. Rather what is most important is to try to understand the emotions these movies stirred up in me and where the roots of those emotions originate. The movies I have watched will be just what I have described them as being, Influences. My goal is to use those influences to create movies full of spectacle and emotion, and help change other people’s lives for the better like the great films of the past have done for me.

The Long Take

Posted in Personal Philosophy by Jacob on February 3, 2015

There are few techniques more cinematic in the great art-form of film then the long take. The great majority of directors we hail as masters of the craft have indulged in this film technique at least a few times in their career. Filmmakers such as Alfonso Cuarón and Joe Wright have made a career in perfecting the long shot. I remember watching Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006) and just sitting their with my mouth wide open in awe as I watched a single shot capture a touching scene between two long lost friends and then suddenly transition into a horrifying action sequence that left me, along with the rest of the audience, completely devastated. When done right long takes are able to completely immerse us into the world of the movie. They have the ability to ratchet up the tension of a scene and communicate volumes of information in a short amount of time. However, what I am curious about is how this film technique got started? After a bit of research the surprising thing is though we consider the long take to be one of the most innovative techniques in cinema today, you might say it was the very first type of shot created.

This is one of the very first shorts ever made and it consists entirely of one shot. The footage was shot all the way in the 19th century. And for quite a long time this was the standard type of shot in filmmaking. When cinema was first being developed the “cut” was hardly ever used. There was no such thing as the close up or even medium shot. One of the sayings back then was, “Why would I want a close up when I am paying the actor for his whole body?”. Even the great Georges Melies (director of the famous 1902 A Trip to the Moon) shot his movies in mostly long takes that consisted almost entirely of wide shots. The problem is very few of these long shots ever explored space or immersed us into the story. The camera just sat there, capturing the action as if observing a play. It took innovators such as Edwin S. Porter and D.W. Griffith to really explore the power of the cut and close up. However, the long shot didn’t go away. Some filmmakers such as Buster Keaton began using the long shot to great dramatic effect, like in this clip.

I know, this is only 15 seconds long. However, the shot does show an evolution in how one can use a continues shot. Keaton was able to build a great amount of tension through keeping the shot going all the way through the stunt. The shot immerses us into the action in a way that wouldn’t have been possible through using cuts. This is just one of many movies during the 1920’s that really pushed the boundaries of what cinema could do. And then came sound. Believe it or not sound in many ways took cinema back a few decades. No longer did everything need to be communicated visually. This lead to lazy storytelling where dialogue was used to communicate story rather then visuals. One of the greatest problems that came with sound was the weighting down of the camera. The cameras became much heavier and the equipment needed to capture sound was expensive. Thus filmmakers did not have the ability to explore the environment in the way pioneers from the silent era, such as Buster Keaton and F.W. Murnau, were able to.

More then a decade went past before we really saw filmmakers explore the power of the long take again. Not surprisingly one of the people who was most interested in re-exploring this lost film technique was Orson Welles. Lets take a look at a clip from Citizen Kane (1941)

Though there still is a limit to how much the camera could move Welles was able to use this deep focused continues shot to explore his story in ways that were completely innovative at the time.  In this scene Welles is able to connect young Kane playing outside with the mother’s choice to hand her boy over to the rich Mr. Thatcher; a choice that will result in the creation of one of the most tragic figures in cinema. Welles is able to create a wonderful and tragic contrast here, between the innocent Kane playing outside and the mother’s choice of taking that very life away from him.

Another great innovator of exploring just how much you could communicate in the long take was Walt Disney. His movie Pinocchio (1940) has a shot that cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars to pull off. Sadly I can’t find a clip of it, but in the movie Walt transitions from Pinocchio and Geppetto going to sleep to daytime. In one shot he goes from the town bells all the way through the town and too the front door of Geppetto’ where the enthusiastic Pinocchio is getting ready for his first day of school. Hitchcock is yet another filmmaker who wanted to push the boundaries of the long take and with his movie Rope (1948) he shot his 80 min movie in 11 seamless cuts.

During the fifties the long take was used by a few filmmakers to great effect. The main problem was the long shots at the time were extremely expensive because of the man power and equipment needed to pull them off. Orson wells is known for making the greatest long shot of the 1950’s in his famous opening shot of Touch of Evil.

All kinds of resources were needed to pull this off. However, you will find few scenes with more suspense then this. The whole time we are wondering when the bomb is going to blow. The car with the bomb in it lingers as we explore the environment. The shot again immerses us into the action in a way that no other type of shot could.

By the 1970’s, the decade many call the golden age of cinema, the long shot had been explored by greats such as Akira Kurosawa and Andrei Tarkovsky. However, what truly re-invented the possibilities of the long shot was the steadicam. The steadicam was one of the first pieces of film equipment to be able to move the camera in a smooth a precise way without needing to spend a huge amount of time laying down tracks or spending a huge amount of money renting out a crane. One of the first movies to use it was Rocky in 1976. However, it took one of the true masters of cinema to really show the world the possibilities of this new technology.

In this shot from Martin Scorsese’ Goodfellas (1990) the camera completely submerges us into the world of Henry Hill and shows just how enticing the gangster life could be. We have gone all the way from the static shot of people exiting the factory in 1895 to a world where the camera can literally explore every little corner. This shot allows us to experience time unaltered, as if we are a companion of Henry’s as he goes into the club.

The advancement of digital filmmaking has only added to the resourcefulness of the long take. No longer do filmmakers need to worry about running out of film. TV and small indi films use the long take commonly now as a way to save time and explore aspects of the story that were not possible before. Advancements in post-production has also allowed filmmakers to seamlessly connect shots in order to pull off the illusion of long takes that frankly weren’t possible any other way. And that brings us back to Alfonso Cuarón. I consider him the great master of the long take. The reason he is so good is because you hardly ever realize how long he has held his shot. He doesn’t go for the long take in order to show off. Rather he submerges us into his world and makes us experience cinema in a way no other type of film technique could allow for.

It’s A Wonderful Scene

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Personal Philosophy, Scene Analysis by Jacob on December 25, 2014

I don’t think there is any better time then the day of Christmas to introduce to you one of my favorite scenes of all time. The scene comes from the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). But first I need to do a little set up.

This is considered one of the key scenes from the movie. In it you see the main character George Bailey at his happiest. He is filled with enthusiasm for the future and is going to “see the world”. You can also feel the sexual tension between two characters. Though George may be a little too high on his horse to understand it they both are deeply in love with each other. After this scene George finds out his father died and it goes down hill from there. Instead of going to see the world he gets stuck working at his father’s old business, The Building and Loan. His plan was to work there until his brother came back from collage. However, he finds out his brother got married and was offered a job with his wife’s father after school. Again, George is stuck in Bedford Falls working for his old run-down business. Now I have set it up, check out the scene displaying Frank Capra and actor Jimmy Stewart at the pinnacle of their game.

Never have I seen a scene so elegantly walk the line between humor and anguish. The tension is so potent from the beginning and only intensifies the futher along we go. Capra once said, “There are no rules in filmmaking. Only sins. And the cardinal sin is dullness.” Capra’s greatest weapon against dullness in his movies was conflict. Conflict is one of the storyteller’s greatest weapons. Where the resolutions in a movie can only entertain for minutes or just seconds, curtain conflicts can keep an audience on the edge of their seats through entire movies. In fact the greater the conflict the more satisfying the resolution.

The main conflict finally concluded in this scene had been building since the beginning of the movie. As you saw in the first scene I showed, the tension between Mary and George was strong. In this scene it’s intoxicating. The audience desperately wants to see these two together and Capra knows this. So naturally he does everything in his power to stop them from being together. I mean it starts from the very beginning. George tries to come into the yard and he can’t open the gate. When it come to setting up conflict the audience will buy into pretty much anything you do to get us deeper into the hole. What are the odds that the gate wouldn’t open? Yet, we don’t think twice about it because it’s stopping George from getting to Mary. On the other hand, you need to earn your way out of the hole. The audience won’t buy into any quick fix solutions.

George and Mary’s demeanor at the beginning could not be further apart. One is upbeat and happy to be back home in Bedford Falls. The other is slumped in depression and finds the town of Bedford to be a prison. If you ever find yourself struggling with making a scene feel interesting, it’s probably because you have not created enough of a clash between characters. The two characters are at different ends of the spectrum on every topic they go into. Mary went to collage and chose to come back home because she missed Bedford Falls, George would like nothing more then to go to collage so he could leave Bedford Falls. Mary couldn’t be happier George is there to visit. George keeps on explaining how he wasn’t really planning on showing up. Mary puts out an illustration of the man lassoing the moon and puts on Buffalo Gals. George hardly gives these things any consideration. All this makes the audience cry out in frustration. We so desperately want them to come together and the tension is just killing us.

One of the beautiful things Capra does is add in sprinkles of humor through out the piece. Capra basks in the awkwardness of the conversation. This whole scene has less to do with what is said but rather focuses on what is communicated between the lines. George makes the comment when he sits down, “Well, I see it still smells like pine needles around here”.  Mary, “….thank you.”. Neither we nor she think the comment was exactly a compliment but what else is there to say? Mary makes an effort to echo the sentiments the characters had years ago when walking home from the dance. She begins to sing the line, “And dance by the light of the..” and of course George doesn’t remember, another example of George missing the opportunity to connect with Mary. At this point of the scene the barrier between the two couldn’t be more obvious. However, Capra doesn’t yet want to let the audience off the hook. He knows he can go further but to do so he needs to throw in another factor.

In comes the mother. Mary’s mom forces the conversation to go to another stage. “George Bailey?! What’s he want!”. Finally Mary is able to get more direct. “What do you want”, she asks. This confrontation sends us into the final act of the scene. Mary starts to grow tired of George’s indifference. Her comment, “He’s making violent love to me, mother”, is probably the best laugh out loud moment of the whole scene. And before you know, it the two are separated. To add insult to injury Sam calls Mary, just another reminder to George of what he doesn’t have. The tension is shattered literally through Mary breaking the record. We think everything has been for not, and the audience is devastated.

BUT WAIT! GEORGE FORGOT HIS HAT!!!

Capra goes to an over the shoulder shot of Mary talking to Sam while George listens in. Look how flawless the staging is here. George seems to leave again and we watch as Mary’s mother comes into frame left. “He doesn’t want to speak to George”, she says. There is the small sight gag of George suddenly being right in front of Mary as she calls to him. Now Capra has set up a visual metaphor of the conflict at hand, Mary is in the middle of the frame with her mom to her right and George to her left. Who is going to win out?

The cut to Sam might not be needed but it does drive home the point even further. If we needed more of a reason to root for George this would be it. Sam has a girl right behind him while he talks, and he is dressed up in a high quality suit all the indications of a successful business man. George is everything Sam is not.

What is wonderful at this point is Capra finds a humorous and organic way to keep Mary and George together. Sam suggests George go on the other extension and Mary replies, “Mother is on the other extension”. This is yet another humorous moment. It also does a far more important thing; it forces Mary and George to stay together. At this point, when the tension is at its highest Capra cuts to the key shot in the whole scene. It’s a tight two shot with Mary and George talking on the phone. Capra refuses to cut from this shot. What really elevates this moment is the silence between dialogue. The gaze the two have toward each other are agonizing. We can hardly bear it anymore. We are crying out for them to finally connect, to express their love for each other. And finally at the time the tension is at it’s peak with George declaring his refusal to give in, the phone drops and George admits his love for Mary.

When writing or shooting a scene the big question needs to be about who your characters are and what they want. Then you need to find ways to stop those objectives from coming true. Make them work for their goal so in the end your moment is earned. The amazing thing about this scene is how simple it is. It doesn’t take place on an expensive set and there are no complex camera moves. Anyone can do a scene like this. It consists of two characters who are unable to communicate. You don’t need anything more then this to create wonderful drama. In this scene Capra allows the audience to realize just how powerfully George loves Mary by refusing to give in right away. The end result is so potent because Capra earned it. Every shot in the scene is thought out and draws us further into the moment. This scene continues to remind me what is most important about cinema. At its core cinema is an exploration of humanity.

Akira Kurosawa – An Observation – The Pupil

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on November 26, 2014
Kurosawa#4

Kurosawa (left) Yama-san (right)

After his pupil, Akira Kurosawa, had made several global hits to put Japanese Cinema on the map, Kajirô Yamamoto was asked about his contribution to his once young assistant director’s career. His reply, “All I ever taught Kurosawa was how to drink”.

Kajirô Yamamoto has been described as one of the most humble men a man could meet. Kurosawa claimed he never got angry. While the other directors at P.C.L. (the production company Yamamoto worked for) had a reputation for dictating to their cast and crew what they wanted, Yamamoto chose to go the way of the teacher. His mission was to help his pupils learn to embrace who they were. Kurosawa maintained in his book Something Like and Autobiography, written after Yamamoto’s death, that Yamamoto’s films suffered because of his willingness to allow his Assistant directors to take the reigns.

Akira Kurosawa was extremely lucky to be in the right place at the right time with Kajirô Yamamoto. From the very beginning of his life Kurosawa possessed a will of iron. This did not help him in terms of being a teachable student. He was a problem child in school often playing pranks on his peers and instructors. He hated the majority of his teachers. In the mid 1930’s after just a few months of working for P.C.L. Kurosawa had it in his mind to quite. His career almost ended before it even began. The directors he worked for before Yama-san, as Akira called him, were control freaks and made Kurosawa do things he was completely uninterested in continuing. Yet Kurosawa’s friends convinced him to take another assignment assisting Kajirô Yamamoto. It’s because of Yama-san’s mentorship the young filmmaker flourished.

With Yama-san Kurosawa quickly climbed the ladder from third assistant director to chief assistant director. He was even put in charge of second-unit directing, editing, and dubbing many of Yama-san’ movies. Unlike most of his peers, Yama-san had a desire to involve his assistant directors creatively in how they wrote, shot, and edited his films. Yama-san and Kurosawa’s personalities could not be farther apart. Where Kurosawa directed with purpose and precise vision, Yama-san was completely reliant on others to give him inspiration and try new things. Where Kurosawa had a persona of great authority Yama-san had a persona of a humble professor who was more interested in his students then himself or even his films. Kurosawa maintained Yama-san would let his assistant directors do things he could do better in order for them to learn.  He would even use second-unit footage he didn’t like so he could bring his assistant directors to the theaters and point out how the audience reacted to the shots and suggest ways it might be shot better the next time.

Like any good teacher Yama-san was great at seeing his pupils strengths. He quickly realized one of Kurosawa’s strengths was in understanding story. It was not too long before he began to encourage his young pupil to write. He would play a game with his assistants while traveling to a location shoot where they would create a short story on a specific theme. Yama-san taught his young disciples how to read literature critically and think about what the author was trying to say and how he or she was saying it. Filmmaking is a visual medium and Yama-san taught Kurosawa how to paint a picture with words. Kurosawa said he learned a tremendous amount from Yama-san over alcohol. Yama-san had a vast range of interests and would go into detail about them. This allowed Kurosawa to understand the key part in creating great stories was through experiencing life and finding a way to translate one’s personal perspective onto the screen.

Kurosawa realized even before Yama-san that the edit was “the process of breathing life into the work”. However, like many beginning filmmakers Kurosawa had the tendency to put too much value on the shots he labored over to create. In the cutting room Yama-san’s greatest lesson about editing  was how to look at ones work objectively. Yama-san cut film so there was no excess. There are curtain scenes and shots directors feel they must have and they spend a tedious amount of time creating those scenes.  In the editing room you begin to see a film in a completely different light. After shooting a film there is usually hundreds of hours of footage to choose from. Yet in the end these hundreds of hours need to be cut down to one or two hours of a final film. Yama-san would go into the editing room with a joyful look on his face and completely change the structure of a scene or sequence after a night of thinking about it. In order to find and keep the best footage for the story being told you need to be fearless in how you choose to cut. Kurosawa described Yama-san as a “bona-fide mass murderer” in the cutting room. By embracing this mindset Kurosawa became one of the greatest editors the world has ever seen.

The place Yama-san helped Kurosawa the most was in how to work with actors. Kurosawa described himself as “short-tempered and obstinate”. This kind of mindset does not work well with insecure actors. Yama-san made Kurosawa realize one can not demand a specific performance from his actors. He claimed, “If you as director try to drag an actor by force to where you want him, he can only get halfway there. Push him in the direction he wants to go, and make him do twice as much as he was thinking of doing.” It’s obvious Kurosawa embraced this philosophy. There is no better example then his collaboration with Toshirô Mifune who played some of the most iconic roles in Kurosawa’s films and was allowed enough freedom to redefine Japanese acting.

In his book Kurosawa said the best proof of Yama-san’s skill as a teacher was none of the work of his “disciples” resembled his. Kurosawa wrote, “He made sure to do nothing to restrict his assistant directors, but rather encouraged their individual qualities to grow”. This I believe is the definition to what it means to teach. Kurosawa would not have made the movies he has been so acclaimed for if it weren’t for a selfless man who was willing to take him under his wing. In many ways Yama-san was capable of doing something far greater then Kurosawa. Kurosawa had vision and he had a complete confidence in himself to make his vision become a reality. However, Yama-san had a heart of a teacher. He saw a young artist and had enough confidence in him to devote his time and sacrifice his own work in order to help the student become the master.

Joe Wright- An Observation- Dyslexia

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on February 8, 2013

I first started to research director Joe Wright when I found out he was dyslexic. He has said in interviews his dyslexia made him feel stupid and is one of the big reasons he didn’t finish school. The man just didn’t read as fast as other students and he wasn’t a linguistic thinker. I am sure the school system was, like it is to so many other dyslexics, not kind to Mr. Wright. It is interesting however that Wright says his dyslexia is also the reason he has been so successful in the film profession. In a interview on The Telegraph Wright stated, “I think my dyslexia was a vital part of my development because my inability to read and write meant that I had to find knowledge elsewhere so I looked to the cinema”.

A fair question to ask is “why did Wright fail in school but find substance through the cinema?”.  In order to understand you must learn a little more about dyslexia. Dyslexia is usually labeled as a learning disability. Those diagnosed with dyslexia usually have a hard time with organization, reading, writing, and spelling. The majority of school systems rely heavily on verbal and linguistic teaching creating a huge disadvantage for dyslexics.  Knowing this it is easy to understand why Wright failed in the school system. However the cinema can also be a learning tool. The cinema teaches through the use of images. Through the cinema’s stories we learn lessons on politics, geography, evolution, religion, humanity, and so on.

I don’t believe Dyslexia is a learning disability. It is a different way of thinking. Dyslexics think through images. Some of the strengths associated with dyslexia are the ability to think spatially, being able to look at a problem from multiple angles, advancements in the imagination, and being able to see the big picture of any given problem or project. If you watch Joe Wright’s movies you can see how he has a firm grasp in all these areas.

When listening to Wright talk about his films it seems he relies more on instinct then any literal reasoning. He has done the research for his project but he wants to let the locations and visuals dictate the way he films. Because of this we find every frame in his movies stimulating. His main mission is to provoke emotion through his visuals. Wright never lets the details of the plot get in the way of his characters’ emotional growth. As a dyslexic myself I remember taking tests and always doing badly because I didn’t remember names and dates. What fascinated me and the things I constantly talked to my parents about were the emotions of the events I had learned about, how those impacted the people during that time period, and how they related to me in the present. I understood the material but didn’t have the ability to express my understanding through writing or the the tests I took. I can imagine Wright had a similar problems.

For Wright the literal facts seem to be the farthest from his mind. In Wright’s first feature film Pride & Prejudice he doesn’t care about the fact that Elizabeth Bennett is at a much lower class then Mr. Darcy as much as he cares about the emotional effect that fact has on their relationship. In Hanna the whole plot point of the title character Hanna being genetically altered in order to be a better killer was described by Wright as no more then a “macguffin” (a plot device with little to no explanation, used to propel the story). What mattered is this plot point propelled us into an emotional story.  We see a child grow up and emotionally go to battle with what she was made to do verses what is morally right.

One of the most important things a director must be able to do is have the big picture of the film in his mind while shooting individual scenes. It has been clinically proven that dyslexics use their right brain to a much higher extant than most non-dyslexics. The right hemisphere of the brain is responsible for seeing connections that tie things together and seeing how parts relate to wholes. The beach scene in Atonement and the exploration of Skid Row in The Soloist are examples of Wright leaving the main characters entirely in order to observe the bigger picture. He is able to ground his individual stories by showing us the world around the stories.

Wright creates connections in his films in many ways, including the use of mirror imagery, musical themes, and repeating pieces of dialogue. In Hanna we see the title character use the same line of dialogue to start off the story and to end it; making us reflect on how or if the events she went on had created any change. Two of the key scenes in Atonement are when the main character Briony tells the great lie to the investigators towards the beginning of the story and the truth to the reporter at the end of the story. The lie is what sends us into the conflict the rest of the story revolves around and the truth is what resolves the story and brings the audience closure. Wright binds the two scenes by using the same framing, background, and has the main character Briony looking straight into frame both times. We instantly see how these scenes are connected and how important they are to the narrative of the story.  At the beginning of Pride & Prejudice we hear the musical theme we come to associate with Elizabeth and the Bennett Family. However the same music is played by Mr. Darcy’s younger sister when Elizabeth visits Mr. Darcy’s house. Though Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy’s worlds look quite different the music unites them emotionally. Wright’s ability to understand the complete story gives him more insight on how to direct these individual scenes and connect them to the greater narrative.

No matter how much a dyslexic has worked to overcome his or her natural weaknesses the struggles are never completely resolved. Wright still says it takes him much longer to read a script or a book then most people. However he has found ways to change these perceived  weaknesses into strengths. Wright has said, “Because I think visually, not being able to read meant that other parts of my brain were pushed further, and so when I read a book, I have to see it”. It is not a accident that three of the five movies Wright has directed have been based on literary classics. It’s not that Wright is against reading, very few dyslexics are. It’s just the words come to Wright’s mind as pictures. Wright’s ability to see what he is reading allows him to translate the written word to film in a much more visually expressive way.

There are many others who have struggled in the classroom to become some of the greatest filmmakers in history. It is suspected that the great filmmaker David Lean struggled with dyslexia as a child. He hardly got by in the school system and was constantly made fun of by peers and his father for being a slow learner. Steven Spielberg is another diagnosed dyslexic who also severely struggled in the school system. These filmmakers did not just overcome their dyslexia they have used it do miraculous things in the cinema.  I feel Joe Wright is on his way. Many would call movies like Pride & Prejudice and Atonement some of the best films of this new century. It is hard not to call his five minute shot of the Dunkirk evacuation one of the most awe inspiring shots in all of cinema. Wright continues to explore his art form and he is going in an ambitious direction. His last two films have been criticized for being over the top and against the grain of established cinema. However “against the grain” is a perfect description of dyslexia. We think in a different way and are often called failures in the established system because of it. Still, many of these school system failures, such as Steven Spielberg, Albert Einstein, and Thomas Edison, have the greatest success stories in our history.