A Dreamer Walking

The Frame – Restriction’s Power

Posted in Personal Philosophy by Jacob on May 20, 2017

blog exampleSo often I find what students of film think they need in order to make a good film are more resources. If only I could have the new GH5 camera to shoot slow motion. If only I had a drone to create scale. If only I had the after effects program to perfect my shot. Naively, we tend to believe more resources will allow us to make a better movie. Yet, in many ways I have found they do the exact opposite.

To understand where I am coming from you need to realize who my heroes of cinema are. Charlie Chaplin, Ingmar Bergman, and Akira Kurosawa are all filmmakers I aspire to. They created films even at the time of conception were considered far less technically advanced than the other films of their time. Yet, today they stand heads and shoulders over their peers. Chaplin’s lack of sound, Bergman’s square aspect ratio, and Kurosawa’s black and white pictures are not signs of weakness in their storytelling, but rather strength.

We forget the essence of cinema is found in restraint. Throughout it’s history we have needed to deal with the unrelenting constraints of the frame. And yet, it is in this very restraint we find an endless number of possibilities. The frame is what creates the possibility for the vast majority of language we have developed for cinema today. Without the frame there would be no shot. The shot represents the filmmakers canvas.  We need those four edges to go from a wide to a close-up. The difference between a character who resides on the edges of the frame compared to the middle is extremely significant. The frame allows us to focus the eye through blocking all but the most important aspects of the story, out.

Now there is a movement coming. VR (virtual reality) breaks from the “restraints” of the frame and allows the audience to look anywhere they please. This is not a post trying to bash on this new technology. Even Chaplin, Bergman, and Kurosawa started to explore the power of sound, widening the frame, and color. Infact, some of their greatest masterpieces came from these newer cinematic resources. Yet, understanding the value of their perceived limitations is what helped launch their storytelling into another stratosphere. These were artists who if they were not provided with a paint brush, they would bask in the joy of being able to use their hands.

Less resources force us to value the tools one has. I can say this is extremely true for my current career. I have never owned a camera, lead a large crew, or owned any complex editing/effects software. However, I do not consider myself or the people who work with me any less capable of creating great art.

The resources we have at our disposal will all be inadequate soon. Luckily nobody cares about the chisel Michelangelo used when carving David or the pen Shakespeare wrote with for Romeo and Juliet.  When we have unlimited resources we are allowed to avoid looking into ourselves; we can hide our shallowness behind bells and whistles. However, the greatest measurement of an artist’s worth will always be time and it is the soul of one’s art time will reveal.

 

Thoughts From Tarkovsky – The Ever-Changing World

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Personal Philosophy by Jacob on July 22, 2016

It is a grave, I would even say, fatal, mistake to try to make a film correspond exactly with what is written on paper, to translate onto structures that have been thought out in advance, purely intellectually. That simple operation can be carried out by any professional craftsman. Because it is a living process, artistic creation demands a capacity for direct observation of the ever-changing material world, which is constantly in movement.”  – Andrei Tarkovsky’s Sculpting in Time

This is just one of countless insights I have found from Andrei Tarkovsky’s book, Sculpting in Time. The quote is extra relevant today since there are so many new tools being developed in order to plan out stories, scenes, and even specific shots in advance. Film demands a curtain amount of structure. The very definition of a “frame” suggests structure. Yet, more then any other artistic medium, filmmaking rewards those who are able to break away from the inherent structure of film and adapt to the ever-changing world around us.

I have been in the process of creating several short documentaries. Last year a friend and I made a 20 min documentary on a clinically blind 91 year old woman who walked a mile and a half to church every Sunday. One of the most daunting aspects was the absence of a script. Unlike with fictional filmmaking I was not allowed to create a story before going to shoot. All I could do was hope to find little moments in the process of making the film and put them together in the end to tell a complete story.

What the inability to use structure demanded of me was to observe. I couldn’t rely on any per-conceived ideas. I needed seek out the truth each day, in every moment I captured. Even in the interviews there were contradictions between the characters we covered. Instead of looking at what was said, I found the greatest truths were revealed through mall things, like a hint of a smile or a movement in the eyes; things I would never even think of let alone know how to write into a script.

In the process of making the doc I became less and less interested in telling a specific story. I told my partner I didn’t want this to be about a 91 year old who had all sorts of insights to pass down to younger generations. I didn’t want this to be a doc about a 91 year old who was about to die. I simply wanted it to be about a person who happened to be 91 and let her tell us the rest of the story.

In the end we were able to create a story out of the pieces our subject gave us. But the story had less to do with getting to specific answers and more to do with going on a journey. For a brief 20 minutes we let the audience take a walk with a 91 year old lady and discover a few divine insights before departing. Because we had not yet come to any conclusions before filming we were able to discover insights none of us by ourselves would have ever made.

A beauty of filmmaking is numerous people, if allowed, contribute to the whole of the story. If we structure our story too much we disallow the individual contribution of the person directing the film, the individual holding the camera, or man portraying the character. The difference between a craftsman and an artist is the ability to go beyond what is on the page and bring new insights to the table. We must have an unified vision, a similar journey we want to go on, but its expression need not be limited to one voice. As a unified group we can get to far greater places than we can as individuals.

The Business of Creativity

Posted in Personal Philosophy by Jacob on January 6, 2015

While talking to Kim Masters, the host of The Business, director Alejandro González Iñárritu explained how hard it was to find funding for his latest project Birdman. The film revolves around a washed up actor who needs to get over his ultra-ego that takes the form of the superhero Birdman- the character who he became famous playing- in order to find new meaning in life. The movie was hard to finance because it was an original piece and gave a strong critique about our idolization of the “superhero”. Talking to Masters it was clear Iñárritu’s greatest beef about Hollywood was with the superhero movie. He stated many of the superhero movies Hollywood is creating have no soul and are without meaning. Iñárritu compared today’s common “epic” to fast-food; it may make you feel good now but in fifteen minutes you will be vomiting. His main point was we are so addicted to gore, violence, and explosions we have lost the patience to observe human nature. Iñárritu said even his kids are uninterested in the kind of films that taught him about humanity. The very thing that attracted someone like Iñárritu to filmmaking in the first place seems to be all but irrelevant in the world we now live in.

I personally think Iñárritu’s views are a little more cynical then mine. This would make sense since Iñárritu’s in his 50’s now and has made a career out of fighting the Hollywood system to get his films made, and I am a young naive film student just venturing out into the abyss some like to call “the film business”. But none-the-less Iñárritu’s comments are worth considering.

Where Iñárritu often goes the cynical rout, with movies like Biutiful and Babel, I am more drawn to an optimistic look on life and consider optimistic filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, Walt Disney, and Frank Capra to be some of my greatest role-models. These filmmakers made a living by telling stories that resonated with a wide audience. The problem Iñárritu has with most movies which resonate with a vast audience is the way these blockbusters generate their appeal. When talking about the common epic Iñárritu said, “It’s a very black and white world where there is no interest in anybody’s gray-zone or complexity”. Iñárritu has a point. The common “good vs. evil” plot we see in most wide released films has a huge impact on the way we see the world. Iñárritu believes these exaggerated extremes in movies are responsible for the “you are either for or against us” mentality most of the modern world has. We don’t see humans as real people anymore. Rather they become good or evil. There is no middle ground. You can see this black and white mindset displayed in almost every political issue out there. You are either right or left, pro-war or pacifist, for immigration or against it. And depending on where you stand on any of these issues you are either an ally or the enemy. And we all know we can’t submit an inch to “the enemy”. NO WONDER NOTHING GETS DONE AROUND HERE! However, I digress.

In order to explore humanity we need to be able to see the “gray-zone”. What frustrates me about so many of the Superhero movies coming out of late is there is never a question about the hero’s morality. Let’s take a lovable character like Wolverine for instance. The guy is a killing machine. Those bad-ass claws inevitably end up cutting into numerous people in each movie we see. I remember watching X-Men 2, one of my favorite superhero films by the way, and seeing the clawed beast back stab two soldiers, armed with tranquilizers, and leave them lifeless on the floor. There was absolutely no reference back to the incident. The bottom line is killing people is way cooler if you don’t really think about the consequences. But X-Men 2 was way back in 2003.  Studios have gone on to destroy whole cities with hardly any lip service given to the consequences after the fact.

Any kind of drama outside of the action scenes seems to be put there for the sole purpose of walking out the plot. The heroes morality is never really questioned to any extreme because the producers need to make sure the viewers’ butts are in the seats for the sequel (or should I say sequels). Iñárritu explained in his interview he was,  “fascinated by the human complexity”. The problem is “complexity” is not a bankable concept in Hollywood. The deeper we go into a characters psyche the more chance we have of pissing someone off. Though I have already stated Frank Capra is one of my favorite filmmakers, I just read an interesting article slating him for creating characters who were “larger then life”- who speak with a greater eloquence, confidence, and rhythm then anyone we would see in real life. I, along with other Capra supporters, would say Capra gave us an ideal to strive for with his characters. However, I do think the point made by his critics – that his movie over simplify the problems and over idolize the heroes- is an accurate one. Though I am willing to give those tendencies a bit of slack for the 1930’s I am truly dismayed when I look at our tendencies today and see we haven’t gotten much better. In some ways we have gotten worse. At least it felt like Capra actually believed in the ideals he expressed in his movies. Today the “ideals” and “character growth” in big blockbuster films seem like an afterthought. Iñárritu said his kids forget what most of the movies they go to were just a week or two after watching them.

The bottom line is Hollywood wants to make it’s audience happy. They want us to be entertained. It makes for good business for the client to be satisfied. The only problem is the businessman by himself can’t satisfy. The product is what the audience wants. And in the medium of film the product has become stale. We know the difference between an original and recycled product. Film is a creative medium but most of the decision makers in the “film-business” don’t come from creative backgrounds. So all their decisions end up being made on the defensive. It takes creativity to be on the offensive. The stories end up being recycled both in name (the remake of the remake) and in themes (“Oh, look at that. Another happy ending.”).

I believe the greatest point Iñárritu’s made was about the school system and how many film-schools are teaching their students how to satisfy big companies rather then teaching them how to discover who they are and how to express themselves on screen. Cinema will truly be dead when the filmmaker’s main objective is to satisfy the moneymakers rather then one’s personal vision. I am not saying filmmakers don’t need to be financially responsible with making films. Filmmaking is the ultimate collaborative medium. It can literally involve thousands of people, all of whom need to make a living. But if we begin to try to make films that satisfy everyone we will end up satisfying no one. The audience will begin to grow tired with the simplicity that comes with black and white storytelling. To be honest they already have. Theater attendance is lower then it has been for two decades. What cinema needs, what our world needs, is storytelling that explores all the shades of gray and all the colors of the rainbow.

WALL-E – Old Vs. New

Posted in Animation, Film and Filmaker Studies, Personal Philosophy by Jacob on September 16, 2014

Wall-E #2

With Pixar’s WALL-E director Andrew Stanton wanted to create a sort of look that made one think the movie was filmed in the 1970’s.  This honestly was a tough goal to set since animated movies are not “filmed” they are shot in a computer, and to be honest there weren’t very many computers in the 70’s. Film is so loved by so many because of it’s inherent flaws. Things like lens flairs, grain in the image, and scratches on the celluloid are all technically flaws in film yet are now considered some of what makes it so special. It’s loved so much in-fact the leading edge in digital technology tries to reproduce the same kinds of “flaws” in their newest cameras. Stanton had a whole team try to reproduce the filmic look for his movie WALL-E. He even went as far as recreating actual live action footage of certain scenes they were doing in the computer so the technicians could see the difference between the imagery captured in camera with celluloid and that shot in the computer.

The story of WALL-E lends itself to this idea of bringing a classic look to a new medium. In the movie we follow an eight hundred year old robot, Wall-E, around his world where his main function is to pick up trash. Everything about Wall-E’s design and texture represents an old fashion look which is directly contrasted with his love interest, Eve. As you can see in the image above Eve has a oval design with very few mechanisms. The true magic of this relationship is how well Stanton and his team were able to make the two opposites seem so perfect for each other. You need to go no further then the scene where Wall-E introduces Eve to his home to see just how well these opposites work cinematically.

Some have called WALL-E an anti technology movie with a preachy message about saving the environment.  However, I believe Andrew Stanton when he says he only went the environmental route because that’s where the story took him. His goal was not to make people hate the new and love the old. His objective was to create a story where two very different perspectives met and found balance. In fact it took something new coming into Wall-E’s life for him to find meaning. But more on that in another post.

Stanton went farther back then just the 1970’s for inspiration for his movie. He and the Pixar artists would watch old silent classics from the early 1930’s and before. They studied silent comedians such as Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and of course Charlie Chaplin. After studying these great filmmakers Stanton said he realized Pixar didn’t know anything. The idea that some of the best stories in our history were told without sophisticated special effects, flashy cameras, or sound blew the Pixar artists away. They made it their goal to recreate the magic they saw in the best silent films. In the first act of WALL-E there is hardly a line of dialogue heard. Rather, we discover Wall-E’s soul through a magnificent set of sound effects produced by Ben Burtt, who is best known for his work on the original Star Wars trilogy, and by the masterful work of all the Pixar animators who took the silent movies Stanton showed to heart.

In the end we have a movie in WALL-E that not only makes us laugh but also makes us care. We don’t care about seeing the environment around Wall-E change because of some liberal agenda, we want it to change because we get a glimpse of what “unplugging” and cherishing our world could do for the health of our personal souls. Those who think WALL-E is anti technology seem to forget the movie stars two robots. The best of Pixar is about balancing the new with the old. Pixar is known for being the leading edge in digital technology. They are famous for creating the first computer animated film in history, Toy Story (1995). However, the majority of their films are special because the technology is only there to enhance their stories. And, their stories revolve around themes that are as old as time itself.

A big debate is going on in the film industry today about the transition from film to digital technology. Celluloid is going extinct. There are fewer and fewer companies around who are able to process the film so it could be projected on the big screen. Some filmmakers, such as the famous Quentin Tarantino, have threatened to quite the film profession altogether if true “film” is taken away. The bottom line however is filmmaking is bigger than the stuff you use to shoot the picture. And as I said at the beginning of this post, the companies making cameras today have not overlooked the public’s love for the look that comes from the old classics of the 1970’s and before. Just like Wall-E and Eve, eventually the film industry will find a balance.

The Quiet Moments

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on December 22, 2013

Screen Shot 2013-12-22 at 7.57.16 AMI am just as big a fan of the epic moments in film as the next person. They are why I first thought I wanted to make movies. There were those moments that truly felt like they were bigger then life– Mr. Smith’s filibuster on the senate floor, Col. Shaw’s men charging up the hill of Fort Wagner, Bambi saving Faline from the hunters and escaping the fiery forest with his father– All these epic scenes played a crucial role in me wanting to become a filmmaker. However, other movies with truly epic moments don’t have the same impact. Look at Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise.  He seems to have several dozen shots in his movies where we see huge explosions, robots kicking each other’s asses, and more explosions. I mean the epic moments and the half-naked woman are why people usually go to Michael Bay films. And man do his films have an audience; Transformers is a billion dollar franchise. I am blown away by some of the shots in those films. Yet, you will have a hard time finding anyone who calls Michael Bay a great director or any of his films memorable. In critical circles his films are compared mostly to junk food. They taste really good when you first sit down to see them, but they end up leaving you wanting more. In short, they create a high but not for long and the only way you can get the high again is if you consume even more explosions and special effects the next time around.

Michael Bay is not the only director who knows how to film things exploding. Almost every trailer I see before a mainstream movie has tons of shots feasting our eyes with huge visual effects, over the top scores and sound effects, and massive amounts of cutting. It’s like the film industry heard we like cake so now they are loading them up and stuffing our face with them. We hardly have time to enjoy one piece before another piece is stuffed into our mouth. It’s making me sick. When I go to movies with my mom she often looks away because the cutting in the trailers overwhelms her. When I go to the movies with my friend she needs to cover her ears during the previews because the trailers are so overloaded with sound effects and over the top scores. This isn’t just a personal problem. The theater is attracting fewer and fewer people. We are seeing the television ratings explode while more and more theater seats are left empty.

One big problem we see in the film industry is a lack of trust in their audience. The powers that be in the movie business do not think audiences are capable of appreciating a trailer without a grand score and butt loads of special effects. They treat you like children and think you will only appreciate something if you are constantly stimulated by a bunch of lights flashing and noises going off. The blockbuster of today cannot sit still; the camera is always moving and we experience dozens of cuts every minute. No longer do we feel suspense in film. No longer are the characters the focus of the blockbuster. No longer are we given the time to appreciate the quiet moments.

Intimacy is found in the moments between the actions. The small moments in film are our true connections. Think of any family event, if you are married think about your honeymoon, or think of a personal adventure you have gone on, what are your fondest memories from those events? My guess is they have more to do with the small things; the personal problems you overcome and the relationships you create. The same goes with film. The main moment I remember from Mr. Smith’s filibuster is the image I chose for this blog, when Mr. Smith whispers, “I guess this is just another lost cause Mr. Paine”. This moment actually comes after Mr. Smith has been defeated and shown all the mail asking him to stop the filibuster. The moment I was most impacted by in Glory was right before the soldiers charged the hill. The music didn’t come in yet and most of the sound went away. In Bambi I remember seeing Bambi jump across the great divide and get shot in mid-air. I remember as a child looking at his lifeless body on the ground. The instant the motion stopped is when I was most entranced. His father shows up. All he says is “Get up”. Bambi slowly getting on his feet made me more excited than any of the action before or after.

We remember these quite moments in film because they speak to the heart the loudest. They are the things we can really relate to. We have no context for big robots blowing each other up. We have no reason to invest ourselves into those kinds of things. My body was never made to live off of the high moments in life or in movies any more than it was made to live off of cake. Film has always been a personal medium. There is nothing more spiritually satisfying to me then having a group of strangers in a theater cry together, or more accurately share the same feeling. Great action can be replicated by other filmmakers the emotions of your heart cannot. To get to these moments filmmakers need to look inside themselves and be willing to bring to screen their most intimate thoughts and feelings. They need to be willing to trust the audience to celebrate the quietness in your film. The reasons for the grand battles and the great stands need to become most important. If you are able to do this, your movie will live forever.

Hamburgers and Hotdogs

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on June 27, 2013

Many of my friends give me a hard time about my simplistic choice in foods. I am perfectly fine with eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich seven times a week for lunch. For dinner I want a little variety. I mean seven days of just pizza would get a little old. I would like to have a hamburger every once in a while and maybe some chicken wings on special occasions. Keep in mind the hamburger must be plain and if the pizza has more then just peperoni I am likely to throw it out. Let’s just thank the gods we have more sophisticated eaters then me. Cooking is an art form and there are people who spend their whole lives working on making new types of dishes for the eater to enjoy.

If you are a follower of my blog right about now you might be wondering if someone hijacked it. This blog is about storytelling and filmmaking, not food. However, it is easy to equate a good chef to a good filmmaker. Both are often described as artists and both profession’s main purpose is to satisfy the audience. However the audience is not always the best judge of what they want. As audience members we usually tend to fall back on what we already know. I say my favorite food is pizza because I don’t know any better. I have tasted but a small fraction of what is out there, yet rarely am I willing to venture out and eat something different.

The executive producers of the movie business know that we as audiences want something we are familiar with. And that is what they give us. We are given the same kind of love stories, with the same kind of action sequences, and the same kind of heroes again and again. Why should we expect anything else when sequels and reboots are making the most money? Look at the top five grossing movies of this year (2013), all are either sequels or reboots. Today’s audience is asking for the ordinary even though the medium has never been more able to give us the extraordinary. We have greater artists in the medium of film today then we have ever had.

It’s as if we have the greatest chefs in the world at our disposal and all we have them make is hamburgers and hotdogs. Sure they could make some damn good hamburgers and hotdogs, yet their talents are for the most part wasted. At the end of the day it is the audience who calls the shots. We choose what the industry makes. How long will it take for us to get tired of seeing the same kind of characters and knowing the ending of the movie far before the story is finished? Are we going to be willing to go outside our comfort zone? Will we dare to discover something new; something that could give us a greater insight to our lives and this world?

I am entering the medium of film knowing the audience wants a curtain type of movie. I will appease the audience and follow the narrow guidelines they require me to walk. I am willing to do this because I have seen artists do great things with a limited amount of creative freedom. But I will not continuously retread common ground. I will give you my version of the hamburger and then I am moving on. I want to experience new foods and new ingredients. I want you to experience something new as well. Shakespeare was not the last original storyteller, just as the hamburger, in all its glory, is not the greatest culinary achievement.

 

Charlie Chaplin- An Observation- The Key to Comedy

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on November 6, 2011

You know if you threw all Charlie Chaplin’s gags into a montage you probably would be rolling on the floor laughing before it finished. However, many great gag artists filled the screens in the silent era. Critics credited Harold Lloyd  with just as much creativity in his gags as Chaplin. And, Buster Keaton in my opinion might have been better. Keaton did things that stuntmen these days wouldn’t do. The gag in and of itself didn’t make Chaplin stick out. Charlie was the best comedian of the silent era and one of the greatest comedians of all time because he was able to generate a huge amount of sympathy and affection for the gags he pulled off. Most of this sympathy and affection was directed toward the legendary character that he often portrayed, the Tramp.  The Tramp was not the everyman character Harold Lloyd tried to portray and he definitely wasn’t known to be a stone face like Buster Keaton. Chaplin’s character almost always was living on the edge just trying to survive. The Tramp drew immediate sympathy because he represented the poorest of the poor in our society. The childlike heart and the ability to wear his emotions on his sleeve is what won over our affection for the Tramp. Even in this generation, almost a hundred years since the Tramp first appeared on screen, few children or adults can avoid being entranced by the amiable smile the Tramp gives when trying to get out of trouble or the poignant image he creates when going through tough times.

Chaplin’s makeup and costume perfectly expresses the sympathetic character he wants to be to his audience. His face is perfectly framed with the dark eye shadow, centered mustache, and tilted hat. His costume is abstract, he wears over sized pants and shoes, and a too small hat and shirt. Even though he represents the poorest of the poor in our society, the Tramp tries to make himself look like an established gentlemen with the cane he carries, the ripped up gentlemens gloves he wears, and his black felt bowler hat. The Tramp creates for himself along with the unwavering optimism for life he has, attracts us to his character. We invest in the Tramp because he is both visually and emotionally appealing. When we are invested in the Tramp as a character we become all the more interested in the scenarios he gets himself into and the gags he is able to pull off.

Chaplin’s gags stand out because they often give us a greater understanding of who his Tramp character is. Gags like, the Tramp trying not to starve through eating his own shoe in the The Gold Rush or the Tramp trying to save the depressed rich man from suicide in City Lights, separate Chaplin from his peers. Even at the point of starvation the Tramp is still optimistic he will survive. He treats the shoe like an upper class dinner, taking it apart piece by piece until the man next to him becomes envious of how much Tramp enjoys himself. The irony that comes with a completely broke man- the Tramp, trying to convince a extremely rich man not commit suicide is funny in and of itself.

Chaplin found humor in more then how he could pull off a fall or sell a punch. Chaplin figured out you don’t need to be in danger to pull off a gag. Sometimes Chaplin found humor through completely changing our emotions in the middle of a scene. One of the Tramp’s greatest gags is in City Lights when he meets the blind flower girl for the first time. Chaplin first wins over our heart through creating sentiment with the revelation that the flower girl is blind. Then Chaplin goes a step further when his Tramp character, even though dirt poor, is willing to let the girl keep the extra money for the flower he just purchased. Not knowing the Tramp is still there the girl washes out her flower bowl while the Tramp simply gazes at her beauty. At the most romantic point of the scene Chaplin completely changes the scenario as the blind girl unknowingly throws a bunch of water into the Tramp’s face. Plenty of gags involve people getting splashed with water. The reason why this gag rises above is because of the way Chaplin sets it up. He created a sympathy and affection for the scene in general. We were completely involved with what was happening on screen, completly in love with both characters, before Chaplin went to the punchline.

Chaplin’s humor succeeds because it goes beyond just a good laugh. His humor gives us joy that warms our hearts. He created in the Tramp a character that represented a part of us all. We can relate to the low parts in the Tramp’s life and are encouraged and find joy in the Tramp’s optimism. In real life Charlie Chaplin was a multimillionaire. He owned his own studio, a huge mansion, and was one of the most famous men in the world. Yet, the real Charlie Chaplin was always struggling with insecurities. He was always deathly afraid of not being adored and he went through many marriages and even more affairs. I think Chaplin would even admit he was never as happy as the Tramp. The Tramp’s gags encouraged us and allowed us to realize that happiness does not come from money or fame. Rather, happiness comes from finding the light in the darkest of times and most stressful of situations. Chaplin’s key to great comedy was through not making the gag more important then the character or story he was telling. Gags can be repeated but there will never be a character like Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp again.

The Ides of March- Review

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on October 14, 2011

The Ides of March is a well put together film. It has an all-star cast and the director George Clooney did a great job with its shooting and pacing. Clooney was also one of the stars and co-writers of The Ides of March. He went about creating the film in a very simple and clear way. Nothing was over used. There weren’t too many cuts, the score was played sparingly, and there were several cases where Clooney restricted what the camera revealed so we as an audience got more involved with the picture. However, none of this stuff makes a great movie.

The story is always the most important thing in a film. The cutting, score,  actors, and camera movements are only there to further the plot and get us more involved with the story. For The Ides of March, the story was hardly worth telling. Clooney said nothing new with this film and he tried to create entertainment through completely deceiving the audience. We are given characters who have good ideals, who seem to have integrity, and love for their fellow citizens and then out of nowhere they betray us. We find out that the characters who we believed in are truly as corrupt as everyone else. The point of the film seems to be “Politics is full of corruption”, a point that has been played in movies a million times over and something the audience already knows.

Another problem was the fact that we are told so much more then we are shown. The movie starts on a character named Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling). Stephen is fully devoted to Governor Mike Morris, a Democrat in the middle of his run for the presidency. We are told again and again in the film that Stephen is good at what he does. People say he has this charisma that makes everyone trust him. He is described as an excellent campaign secretary.  However, we never really see this charisma or understand how he is so good as a campaign secretary. He gives us and the characters around him all the reason to trust him, yet he is pushed out of the campaign by his own people. We are also told in this movie that running a campaign is a lot of hard work. Yet, the movie starts right in the middle of the campaign. The movie starts at the time of the corruption, we don’t see what caused the corruption. We don’t see the wear and tear of the campaign. We don’t quite understand how it could turn people who were good to evil.

The thing that really stops the movie from working however, is the motivation factor for Stephen. For some reason Stephen believes in Mike Morris at the beginning of the film. But, we don’t really understand why. Because we don’t understand what he sees in Morris we don’t understand his dedication to the campaign. The movie almost completely avoids the actual issues that come with running for a public office such as the president of the United States. Each one of Morris’ staff members verbally express how much they believe in him, yet we are never shown a scene where they need to back up their beliefs in his policies. Maybe that was the point of the movie. Maybe the point was that people run for president because they want to win, not because they believe in what they or their leader says. But if that is the point of the movie, why should we care for any of the characters?

In The Ides of March the twist becomes more important then the actual reasons behind the twist. If we as an audience can’t understand why a character would do what he or she does, we won’t believe it when it happens. We are left unsatisfied not because we aren’t surprised, but rather because we don’t understand and thus do not care. The film is full of cliche’s. We have the misunderstood hero, the naive victim, and the unexpected villain. The reason why they feel cliche is because we don’t understand or don’t care about their motives. Motive is what makes things unique. Many people have punched another person, however they all have different reasons they did what they did. The story of the why is often far more interesting then the final result. We don’t get to know Stephen at a personal level. We don’t know why he believes in Morris and we don’t know why he is in politics. Ryon Gosling gives Stephen a natural sympathy through some great acting, but that can only go so far and our empathy for Stephen only goes skin deep.

The Ides of March will most likely keep you interested for it’s 102 minutes of running time. However, the characters are quite forgettable and the story seems forced. The film does nothing new. It is no doubt clear that George Clooney knows how to shoot a film, but his cause will most likely leave you unsatisfied. The movie keeps our attention because of fine use of cinema and exceptional performances from an all-star cast. However, I am left wishing the story was on a par with the filmmakers and actors who are telling the story.

Failure!

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on September 24, 2011

Film is a tricky medium. There is no formula on how to make a successful movie. You could think you did everything right and can still get bashed at the box office and by the critics. Worse yet, you can think you are giving your project all you got and still be personally disappointed with the final outcome. We work in a medium where failure is just part of the business. As filmmakers it is important to embrace failure. We all make mistakes and we all make pieces of art that we are not as proud of. We can learn from our mistakes and use the criticism of others to create a even better film the next time around. However, this doesn’t stop the fact that criticism usually hurts. As filmmakers we are asked to express our hearts with the images we put up on screen, yet people usually don’t think twice about criticizing us if what they see doesn’t match their standards. It is important to know when to stick to your guns even if you come out with something that is not accepted right away. There have been many great films that were hardly noticed until many years after their release. In the film business “failure” is sometimes up for interpretation. One man’s trash can be another man’s treasure.

One of the reasons I am so interested in studying the past and listening to extra features and interviews on other movies is because I want to learn from their experiences. I am not interested in just the good parts of filmmakers careers. I am just as interested in the low parts of people like Frank Capra, Walt Disney, and Steven Spielberg’s careers. If I can learn from their failures I won’t need to make the same mistakes myself. Looking into a lot of successful filmmakers lives is usually a very humbling experience. They almost always have one or two movies that were not very good. Even the directors themselves talk about regrets in their careers. It is important to understand how popularity can cloud a filmmakers judgment. Steven Spielberg has talked several times about how easy it is to stop working for the story and start working for the audience. When you stop thinking about what you want and start thinking about what your fans want you need to think about changing professions, Spielberg warned at Inside the Actors Studio.

Just because a movie fails in the box office and with the critics does not always mean it was a bad film. Great movies like Bambi, Citizen Kane, and It’s A Wonderful Life, were all bashed publicly when they first came out and were not recognized right away by the critics as being the masterpieces we see them as now. For both Orson Welles, director of Citizen Kane, and Frank Capra, director of It’s A Wonderful Life, the immediate failure of their masterpieces represented a fall from glory in their careers. Welles was never given complete control over a film project again and Capra seemed to lose his inspiration for the big screen. Neither of these filmmakers could have done much better in the creation of their films. However, we can still learn from their failures after the fact. Because Orson was never willing to work with Hollywood and create a more commercially oriented movie, he was never given as much artistic freedom again. Frank Capra allowed the worlds disappointment for It’s A Wonderful Life effect his creativity. There are times where we are going to need to kiss some butt in order to get more artistic freedom. And, there are times where we will be shunned by the public and still need to push on.

If we truly believe in the movie we have made, we will be willing to listen to criticism. We can only learn from failure if we understand the reason behind it. I personally don’t understand why many directors are not willing to listen to critics. Usually the critics who are getting payed to judge movies know something about filmmaking. I have found critics like Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times), Todd McCarthy (The Hollywood Reporter), and Drew McWeeny (HitFix), have informed and thought provoking opinions to why they like or dislike a movie. I don’t agree with everything they say, but they do give me a perspective I would not have without them. There are many people in this world who claim to know the right way of doing things and use that as an excuse not to be open to anyone else. This does not represent a confidence in their personal opinion, but rather a insecurity of potentially being wrong.

Ignorance will corrupt creativity. You must understand other perspectives if not for the sole reason to know why you stand against them. Usually the critics and the public can inform you about your film and show you it’s flaws better then you can. It is possible to get so consumed with your work that you can’t see the big picture. You might fall in love with a scene because you know how difficult it was to shoot. However, the audience comes in not knowing anything about production. They don’t care how hard it was to shoot the scene they just care about how it contributes to the story.

The bottom line is, it’s crucial to understand criticism and failure. Sometimes the failure is your fault, sometimes it’s not. Don’t let it destroy you. Remember, you need to play by the rules of the film business at times. We don’t make movies just for ourselves, we make them for everyone to see. Failure can build up strength in a filmmaker. Convictions are more often built through failure then they are through success. Hollywood will be angry if you give them the finger, but sometimes that is exactly what you need to do. Don’t do it out of ignorance. Be willing to listen and learn. But, what is just as important is being willing to stand on your convictions, even if some might not understand.

X-Men: First Class-Review

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on June 3, 2011

 X-Men: First Class starts exactly where the original X-Men (2000) movie started, in a 1944 German concentration camp, where we see a young Jewish boy being forcefully taken away from his father and mother. After being taken away the boy reaches out and begins to miraculously bend the fence blocking him from his parents. After a bit of a struggle the kid ends up getting knocked out by one of the guards. The scene is basically shot by shot the way the original X-Men director Bryan Singer shot it, with different characters portraying the roles. However, the re-shoot seemed void of the tension and emotion that made the original Bryan Singer scene so great. The wight of the piece seemed absent. The sounds and visuals did not put me in the middle of a concentration camp, but rather on a set where people were trying to act. I thought maybe the new X-Men director Matthew Vaughn had a few bad days of shooting. I was fine as long as he got better the farther along we went. However, this was not the case. The new X-Men movie ended up being a mediocre superhero film. It was a film full of thought provoking ideas and interesting characters, but all of which were executed with a middling flair. The film, like so many superhero movies these days, was built on action scene after actions scene all of which seemed more interested in showing off effects then trying to express the true essence of the characters.

To be fair we were given a few scenes with character development, but almost all of it felt forced and passed far too quickly. I did not feel like we had enough time with the main characters Charles Xaiver (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), let alone the team they recruit. The movie did not really give us much more of an origin story, on how both Charles and Erik were raised and built their ideals, then the first film. We had one scene with Charles as a kid in his luxurious home being kind to a mutant he meets for the first time called Raven. This scene does not tell us anything about how Charles built his ideals on being kind to those around him. We are just shown he is a kind rich kid for some reason. We also had one extra scene with Erik as a child where an evil man, working for the Nazi’s, Sabastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) tells Erik to use his mutant power to move a metal coin or he will kill his mother. Erik can not move the coin, Sabastian kills Erik’s mother, and then Erik pulls a Darth Vador and destroys the room around him out of anger. None of this caught me emotionally. The acting by Kevin was easily forgettable and the boy did not seem to show any more physical emotions then screaming loudly and getting really tense. The music didn’t take a hold of me and the surroundings felt disconcertingly fake.

What happened to the mud and darkness in the first film? For this film everything was too clean. Most of the sets felt too obviously like sets, not locations where the characters really lived. I felt like the expensive budget allowed the film crew to be too free with their set pieces and special effects. Peter Weir once talked about shooting film as though you were always on location and could not remove the walls or scenery. Shooting in a cramped environment often allows for a more realistic scene where the sets feel lived in and the cameras have limits. There were huge shots in the Arctic and during the big ship fight scene at the end of the film that felt too extreme and showy, taking us out of the movie.

The costumes were always perfect, no dirt and no stains. There was a lot of fighting and a lot of killing but we were not allowed to see the consequences to most of the action. We were not allowed to see the blood and the brutality of it all. The only injury they concentrated on was Charles Xavier’s at the end of the film, where he is hit in the back by a reflecting bullet from Erik. Yet, in this scene the acting did not impact me. These characters were supposed to be best friends at this time. The fact that Erik was the cause of Charles injury was supposed to be shocking and deeply emotional to us. I however, through out most of the film and even at the end, did not feel the chemistry between the actors James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender. There were tears but little connection.

Everything relied on us connecting to the X-Men characters. We needed to feel the pain of Erik if we wanted to understand his need for revenge. We needed to understand the belief Charles had in the best of mankind if we were going to care about his convictions not to make war on the human race. The X-Men recruits and the villains of the movie felt completely one dimensional. We are introduced to Emma Frost (January Jones) and see her follow Sabastian Shaw with no explanation to what connects her to this evil man. Shaw just treats Emma like dirt and apparently she is okay with it for some reason. There were glimpses of hope with characters like Hank McCoy (Nicholas Holt) and Raven (Jennifer Lawerance), two of the first X-Men recruits, but there characters were not explored very effectively. We knew Hank hated his ape like feet and Raven was uncomfortable with showing here true form, but there were few examples of how society abused these characters so much they began to hate part of themselves. The closest we get are a few stupid jokes a few of the other X-Men recruits make on Hank.

Superhero movies can have such a powerful impact on our society. Superhero’s like The X-Men, Spiderman, and Superman are the Greek and Roman gods of the 21st century. They also represent part of who we are. They are full of flaws and insecurities. A great superhero is not someone who is all powerful and perfect. A great superhero is a character who has the power to make a difference and fails again and again, but somehow finds the strength to get back up. We must know the flaws and insecurities of these characters before we start rooting for them to get up and fight. The emotional connection created between the audience and superhero is far more important then the scale of their task.

First connect me to the characters and world they live in before embarking on a mission for them to save the world. All the powers of cinema need to be directed toward bringing these superheros down to earth so we can relate to them as human beings. X-Men: First Class is not a bad movie. However it falls victim to a lot of mediocrity because the filmmakers vision could not go much farther then a visual feast of visual effects and action sequences.