A Dreamer Walking

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 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.

The Searchers

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on April 23, 2013

The Searchers (1956): Directed by John Ford

The Searchers is a beautiful movie. There is no time in the movie where I rather be somewhere else. Ford never dwindles too long and has enough interesting characters to make everything feel worth it. However most of the characters feel one dimensional. They have personality but they lack the depth needed to have a lasting effect on the audience.  The only cahracter with any depth is John Wayne’s Ethan. We see his past in his eyes. He is a war veteran for a side that lost. He is a man turned cold through seeing too much violence and death. The moment of great emotion are usually shown through Wayne’s character. He is a man full of hatred and demons. He can barely tolerate his partly Indian blood partner Martin.  The story revolves around both Ethan and Martin’s search for a family member taken by the Comanche. However, we have no idea whether or not Ethan’s hatred for the Indian will mean the death of his converted niece. Ethan’s hatred for the Indian is seen through out the film, it is breaking at the seems and expressed so vividly through subtle action. One of the greatest close ups in cinema is done through a push into Ethan’s face when looking with malice at a middle aged converted white woman.

Ford is able to say volumes with a little. He holds the camera still, refrains from showing too much action, and resists using the close-up too often. Doorways, windows, people, and the great landscape of Monument Valley are used to great effect as framing devices. The eye travels effortlessly to the people Ford wants us to see.

We are not given a story with a clear bad and a clear good. Though I think Ford shows the stereotypical and one dimensional perspective of the Indian he also shows how the evils of the “white man” were  just as extreme as the evils of the Comanche.  There is great emotions coming from the characters when we see the burning of Ethan’s brothers home at the beginning of the film and yet Ford gives us just as dramatic of a image of an Indian camp being burnt to the ground with little emotion expressed from the films antagonists.  The villian of the movie Scare says he kills because the white man killed his loved ones first. Scare is a direct reflection of the main character Ethan. The same hatred that drives Scare drives Ethan.  I don’t know whether or not I like Scare being played by a dressed up white man. However, this could be a further commentary by Ford on how the savage Indian we have in our minds when we think about the West has less to do with reality and more to do with Hollywood’s manipulation.

As cynical as The Searchers is it also has a great sense of humor. From Ethan’s unwanted partnership with Martin, to the head strong Lori who just can’t help but be in love with Martin, to the over the top reverend played by the great Ward Bond, Ford keeps us entertained while not taking us away from the seriousness of Ethan’s wrath. Ford has the power to play one fight as a sort of comedy relief and a few minutes later play another piece of action as a serious piece of action full of suspense.

We do see Ford’s very cynical and shallow opinion of youth in the film. Martin really doesn’t develop in the story. He is constantly made fun of and is treated like a little incapable kid by most of the other characters. Lori is portrayed as a restless over tempered girl. Martin is barely capable partner with hardly any openings to give us something to relate to. And Ethan’s niece Debbie, the girl Martin and Ethan are searching for, is only used as a plotting device and nothing more.

Though Ford delivers on the turnaround of John Wayne’s character Ethan I see little authenticity in the development of the secondary characters. The love story between Martin and Lori is shallow and nobody but Ethan is given room to really grow through out the film. However, the characters are full of entertainment and Wayne is able to give Ethan a great amount of empathy. Ethan holds plenty of depth to keep the audience interested through out. Ford has confidence with his storytelling skills. He rarely misses a beat. At the end of the film Ford manages to deliver on our hopes and bash them at the same time. The music drives the story forward and visuals are a wonder to behold. Ford brings humor, suspense, action, horror, and happiness to the film and gives us a truly great story. John Wayne’s Ethan seems to be a direct reflection of John Ford. He often seems cold and will never be able to live on the inside with the rest of us, yet deep down his heart is in the right place full of the humanity that keeps us going back to the movies.