Requiem for a Dream

Snorricam

If there is one stylistic technique that has reached a point of saturation in Hollywood, then it must surely be the Snorricam, otherwise known as the “reverse steadicam” or the “chestcam.”  I would go so far as to suggest that it may even qualify as the technique of the decade. (Ok, that may be an overstatement).

It is normally used sparingly, limited to one or two uses in a film for a few seconds at a time. The Snorricam presents a reverse point-of-view shot, which positions the camera close to the actor’s face and is, most crucially, connected to the actor’s body so it responds to the actor’s actual movement. As a camera technique it has not been limited to uses in particular genres; much like the Steadicam, it has been successfully used in disparate genres, from horror films to romantic comedies. Unlike the Steadicam, though, the Snorricam is a plainly evident and rather pronounced camera technique.

The history of the technique is vague: a Google search results in a number of websites that provide DIY instructions for a home-made chestcam, but very few articles on the technique itself and its history in the movies. Modern use stems from a contraption devised by Einar Snorri Einarsson and Eiður Snorri Eysteinsson, the creative team who work under the name The Snorri Bros., though they are not actually related. According to the pair’s website, the Snorricam was created for a music video “years ago for an all girl punk band. It has since become world famous.” Indeed it has, but why have so many films of the aughts turned to this technique?

Its diffusion in contemporary film and television is certainly owed to the Snorri Bros., but the technique itself is not new. Versions of the mounted camera appear in John Frankenheimer’s loopy Seconds and Martin Scorsese’s breakout film Mean Streets. Both films use it to convey the drunken disorientation of the main characters, which also characterizes the way it has been used in more recent films, such as Requiem for a Dream (more on this film a little later). The intervening decades proved to be unremarkable for this technique, perhaps overshadowed by the far more popular Steadicam, which came to prominence with Bound for Glory and Rocky in the mid-70s. I haven’t been able to find any notable uses of the chestcam in the 80s and 90s outside of Jacob’s Ladder and Malcolm X. Were characters in the 80s not getting drunk, dashing around in a disoriented way? Hardly. Were filmmakers not interested point-of-view shots to give some sense of character psychology? I’m pretty sure they were. So, how did this nifty device not gain traction? Well, on a purely functional level, the apparatus had not yet been refined, so weight and mobility could have been a problem. It is also a fairly disruptive technique, and by that I mean it can be disorienting for the viewer — purposely so, I suppose. So, there is good reason to believe that its design is a bit radical, especially in conservative filmmaking circles.

So, how can we explain the resurgence of the Snorricam in the latter part of this decade? It might be productive to look to Darren Aronofsky’s extensive use of the device in Requiem for a Dream and Pi. On its own, Requiem has become a film student’s film, quotable not so much for its dialogue but for its dizzying visual and sound style. Its stylistic palette even became fodder for The Simpsons. Out of the various techniques Aronofsky used to convey the troubled (and troubling) lives of his characters, the chestcam shots are distinctive for two reasons. First, he holds on the shots for some time, giving the impression that the technique is actually doing something more than providing a momentary visual gimmick. Second, the shots are not mere manifestations of subjective drunkenness, but instead suggest an out-of-body disassociativeness, which are neither purely omniscient nor particularly subjective.

The chestcam appears three times in the film: when Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) flees the gang murder scene, when Marion (Jennifer Connolly) leaves the scene of her first trick, and during one of Sara’s (Ellen Burstyn) paranoid delusions. Marion’s sequence is arguably the most visceral, lasting for over a minute. Aronofsky uses two different camera rigs, one in front and one behind her, to capture her walk from the john’s apartment, down an elevator and outside into the rain where she throws up onto the lens. Overall, the dizzying quality of the chestcam works well in the film mainly because it feels connected to the other overly-stylized elements.

The Hangover

In 2008 and 2009, the chestcam made cameos in The Hangover, Slumdog Millionaire, Rock’n’Rolla, District 9, The Lovely Bones, and Orphan among others. It has found favor among filmmakers like Spike Lee, who has used it in Malcolm X, The 25th Hour and Inside Man. It has even found its way onto television shows like House and CSI. Similarly, the taxi cab sequence in Zodiac accomplishes the same effect when the camera is virtually mounted to the moves of the car. The camera is locked to the CG taxi in a way that is slightly disorienting. The camera moves are too perfect, too still, which makes it all the more eerie.

The technique certainly calls attention to itself, which is perhaps why it is used so briefly. I’m not entirely convinced that it’s an effective technique even though it seems to be the go-to device for contemporary directors looking to add a sense of distorted subjectivity to a particular sequence. Peter Jackson recently spoke to Ain’t it Cool News about its use in The Lovely Bones, where he opted to have Stanley Tucci carry a small camera in his own hands, pointed at his face, while running through the house in one of the film’s climactic scenes. But I’m afraid that by this point it’s reached a point of real saturation, where it’s no longer as effective at creating the needed sense of urgency or “raw” movement. While not quite a gimmick, the Snorricam reminds me of how the slow Steadicam creep-in became a de-facto horror film convention after John Carpenter used it to such great effect in Halloween.

When used in an otherwise plainly shot film, the chestcam feels out of place. By this point it’s become a standard option in a director’s bag of tricks. Directors seem to be working off of each other here, borrowing the device to convey similar points. There are other ways of portraying interior states of mind, but this one seems to be the device du jour.

Lovely Bones

The Shining: Overlook Hotel Sketch

What Might Have Been

Late last week Variety broke the story that Steven Spielberg was no longer attached to direct a remake of Harvey, the 1950 James Stewart fantasy about a man and his friendship with an imaginary six-foot rabbit. According to the article, production was expected to begin in early 2010 for an expected late 2010 release. At this point we don’t know why the bottom fell out of this project, but Variety hints that creative differences between team Spielberg and Robert Downey, Jr. (who was set to star) are at least partly to blame. The announcement comes after two years of similar stories about Spielberg’s “next project,” which never seem to go anywhere.

Perhaps no other director in Hollywood is attached to direct more projects than Spielberg. There is the Abraham Lincoln drama based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, starring Liam Neeson. Tony Kushner, who co-wrote Munich, is apparently doing rewrites. There is The Trial of the Chicago 7, about the protests that erupted at the Democratic National Convention in 1968, which is now scheduled for release in 2010 with Ben Stiller directing. There is The 39 Clues, an adventure story based on a series of popular children’s books about a globe-trotting family, which is also in rewrites. There is Oldboy, supposedly based on the Garon Tsuchiya comic not the Chan-wook Park film. There is talk of a Matt Helm project, based on the Donald Hamilton espionage novels. There is Interstellar, the sci-fi project written by Jonathan Nolan. In recent months there has also been speculation that a fifth Indy adventure could be in the cards, along with a fourth Jurassic Park movie.

All of these projects have been spotlighted by trade papers like Variety, which in turn feeds the blogosphere, fan sites, and forums, where speculation often turns into geeky hysteria. The recent Talkback for the Harvey story at Ain’t it Cool News offers commentary from all sides: “FINALLY!!! Something Spielberg ISN’T doing for a change,” “Why, it’s Spielberg’s canceled project of the week,” and “This didn’t need to be remade.” It’s not surprising that there’s interest in these projects, but what happens when they are never made?

Never Mades

AI Concept Art

On one side, we follow the production status of these projects to the point where we can often imagine the completed film before it’s released. Casting decisions, leaked production art, covert on-set photography, script leaks, and the ever-reliable word of mouth from “sources close to the production” all contribute to our attachment to these projects. On the other side, the productions themselves have often spent millions of pre-production dollars developing the script, casting, sketching out storyboards and concept art. What happens to all this work? It’s either stored somewhere or thrown away, rarely to be seen again, unless the film itself is resurrected at some future point.

The Harvey story got me thinking about all the films that reached some stage of pre-production but were ultimately never made. Spielberg’s catalog of almost-mades is large indeed, but several of these films have gone on to be made by other directors. For years, he held on to Memoirs of a Geisha but finally released it to Rob Marshall. If it wasn’t for Spielberg, then Kubrick’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence would never have been made. But some things like Harvey just don’t go anywhere (yet). And we’re likely never to see Spielberg’s notes, art, and design for the film.

What do these never-mades tell us about the filmmakers behind them? When we consider a filmmaker’s output we never consider the films that were almost made. Would it be a stretch to say that we could learn a lot about the creative process if we could study these almost movies? These phantom projects can provide real insight into a filmmaker’s stylistic palette at a particular time in his/her career. Besides knowing what happened to sink the ship, we could learn valuable information about what attracted a filmmaker (not limited to a director) to the project.

Almost, But Not Quite

Hitch

Alfred Hitchcock was to have made The Short Night after Family Plot, but the director’s deteriorating health derailed the project at Universal. A completed screenplay was published by the author, David Freeman, in the book The Last Days of Alfred Hitchcock. Wikipedia even has a page devoted to  Hitchcock’s unproduced projects. In 2007 Martin Scorsese put together a short film based on a bare-bones 3-page treatment prepared for Hitchcock, called The Key to Reserva. It can be viewed here. You gotta love Scorsese’s passion for the material: “It’s one thing to preserve a film that has been made. It’s another to preserve a film that has not been made. … I’m obviously not going to shoot it the way I would. But can I shoot them as Hitchcock? I don’t think so. So who will I shoot them as? This is the question…this is the process.” Priceless.

There’s no question that Scorsese shot the sequence with Hitch in mind. The camera angles, pacing, and even the music suggest an oddly familiar Hitchcockian flavor. Some of these choices were inspired by the script treatment, while others seem to represent Scorsese’s attempt to channel the stylistic signature of the old master. He is right to say that the result isn’t quite Hitchcock, nor is it Scorsese. It’s Hitchcock through Scorsese. I can only imagine a filmmaker in forty years channeling Scorsese from an unproduced treatment. Say, the long gestating Sinatra project.

The Scorsese experiment reveals very little about the aborted Hitch project or Hitch’s own stylistic impulses. Since he never made the film — or The Short Night, for that matter — we can only speculate as to how he would have approached the tone, look, and sound of these projects. Scorsese indulges in a way that any of us would with an unproduced Hitchcock script: he interprets the material as he knew Hitch would. Or, the way we assume he would.

The Key to Reserva

In Hitchcock’s case, health issues were the determining factor in sealing The Short Night‘s fate; Harvey seems to have suffered from “creative differences.” But budget considerations seem to be the biggest factor in Hollywood’s ability to sink projects that are in some form of production. Which leads me to the one of the most storied never-mades in film history: Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon project. In fact, Taschen books has just released a mammoth volume which compiles all of Kubrick’s notes, photographs, script treatments, and other pre-production materials in the aptly titled “Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon: The Greatest Movie Never Made.”

The Napoleon Project

Allison Castle, who previously published the Kubrick Archive for Taschen — an outstanding collection of Kubrick’s sketches, notes, and other materials from all of his films (and some of his never-mades) — has seemingly done the work for film scholars by packaging the bulk of Kubrick’s notes and other research materials in one place. I say “seemingly” because I have yet to actually see the tome myself. Castle’s work on the Archive was outstanding, so I expect nothing less here. Then again, I would be satisfied with anything released on the Napoleon project.

I remember hearing about the film a dozen years ago when I was just getting acquainted with Kubrick’s works. Back then there was still hope that he might mount a return to the film, but that sadly never happened. There was also The Aryan Papers, which receives some attention in the Archive. It’s rumored that Kubrick abandoned the film in the early 90s after he learned that Spielberg was producing his own Holocaust drama.

Scholarly Matters

Even with internet leaks and trade press attention, we are rarely given access to actual production materials from unfinished projects, which makes it extremely hard for budding film scholars to uncover very much. Castle’s work on the Kubrick archive is special but incredibly rare. Indeed, the Kubrick Archive revealed for all to see that the final act of A.I. was planned that way by Kubrick not by Spielberg. Here is one instance where early concept art and story notes have been used to dispel rumors and conjecture that Spielberg diluted Kubrick’s vision by tacking on a “happy” ending.

I have always been fascinated with the markings of the creative process: handwritten revisions on a screenplay draft, development conversations and roundtables, concept art, musical outtakes and alternates. When the Star Wars scores were re-released in 1997 (to coincide with the theatrical re-releases), I was amazed to find a selection of outtakes from the main title, which were “hidden” on an unlisted track. Included were the first few takes of the cue, which contain slightly different orchestration and timing. It felt as if I was transported to that London scoring stage back in 1977 and was hearing it for the first time along with the engineers and orchestra.

These uncompleted projects all share a certain cachet because they are shrouded in mystery. We will never know, but we can certainly imagine how good they could have been. I doubt Napoleon was going to be the greatest film ever made, but we’ll never know, will we? All we have are the frayed pieces of the puzzle. To be sure, I have only scratched the surface with films that were never made. If you have a favorite, please share it. I’d love to compile a list of almost-mades.

Variety Reserve

On a completely unrelated note I was very disappointed to find out that Variety is ending its three year “experiment” of free access to its online content. From now on, unsubscribed users will have extremely limited access to the site, amounting to something like a handful of articles per month. From now on the site will charge upwards of $250 for an annual subscription that will provide full access to its digital content. Turns out that the trade paper is happy to narrow its readership to industry-only folks, leaving the rest of us to either pay up or move on to other sources of industry news. According to a Huffington Post article on the matter:

“The vast majority of Variety’s subscribers are in the entertainment industry, and so are the advertisers. Because these agents, studios and other companies in the trade seek readers in the industry, they care less about the general audiences that had read the site for free, Stiles said. About 95 percent of Variety’s advertisers buy spots on the Web site and in print.”

I, for one, count Variety as an incredible resource for my research and general interest in the Hollywood film industry. The film reviews are concise, thoughtful, and well-rounded pieces of pop film criticism — especially those by Todd McCarthy. Their attention to fine-grained details like editing, scoring, sound design, and photography is unique among trade press and newspaper reviews. I also find their broader articles on trends, profiles, and other matters of craft to be pretty informative. So it’s disheartening to see the publication go the way of the pay wall. Oh well, either I’ll pay the piper or try The Hollywood Reporter, which still remains a free resource.

On a brighter note, Happy Holidays and Happy New Year! I’ll be back soon with some thoughts on the decade that was, including a year-end list that has been ten years in the making.

The Shining: Overlook Hotel

James Horner Conducting

Liberation through Limitation

It’s the end of November, which means Wright on Film has been dark for nearly two months. Yikes! I think that’s a record. With my thesis and teaching load, I have had little time for anything else, especially things related to cinema. As my course winds down for the term I thought it might be time to share some of what I’ve been up to.

Lately, I’ve been mired in the practical world of sound production, learning how to write about the norms and conventions of this particular facet of modern Hollywood. Like any element of the American film industry, the sound chain represents a site of cultural production. There are union dynamics, hierarchies within the employment system, shared aesthetic conventions, and complex relationships with technology. The sound chain itself is a spider’s web of different duties and departments, which are amazingly connected by one governing rule: the story.

At every level of the sound chain, story remains the guiding light for nearly every element of sound style. From Foley to the final mix, every squeak, tweak, and dub is motivated by the oldest question in the Hollywood playbook: how will this affect the story? This Hollywood chestnut anchors the sensibilities of the sound crew, so that everyone is on the same creative page. Go too far with a bone crunch and it loses its meaning within a scene; don’t go far enough and it loses its emotional impact. Dialog editors, too, are gatekeepers of clear and intelligible speech. If someone swallows their line or the production track is too noisy, the main goal of any dialog clean-up artist is to sift through alternate, usable takes. Here, “usable” means intelligible.

You might think that this is a fairly constrained way to work, but artists in most mediums work within some set of boundaries. For many sound professionals, constraints offer creative flexibility — however strange that sounds. But limitations in the form of norms and conventions can be profoundly liberating, especially when working under tight schedules and even tighter budgets with which modern Hollywood sound crews are faced. A re-recording mixer recently told me that there is still room for experimentation even in the most programmed summer blockbuster. But that room is quite small. The mixer suggested that if you needed to work in a creative environment without boundaries, then Hollywood sound production was not for you. At the same time, those same blockbusters offer the sound artist unparalleled access to new technology and, perhaps most important, the chance to collaborate with other creative types who are at the top of their field.

In this sense, my work in film sound has revealed the extent to which boundaries inspire creative decisions. James Horner, the composer of Titanic and the upcoming Avatar, has suggested that unlimited creative options can often be more constraining to one’s work than simply working within a bounded set of options. Which is why story appears to dominate the goals of most Hollywood sound practitioners. Given the demands of the narrative, sound can shape its contours and emphasize (or de-emphasize) certain elements that the image cannot properly convey. In the case of Avatar, Horner’s musical score is “more accessible. We tried some experiments with really weird stuff and ended up alienating the visuals. It was so overwhelming. It’s good to be a little more conservative.”

We often separate the work of composers from the rest of sound production, but Horner’s sensibilities are no different than the work of sound editors. Faced with an elaborate car chase, the sound editor must choose certain elements to emphasize and others that will be sacrificed for the sake of narrative clarity. Unless otherwise directed to include a particular sound element, the editor composes the sequence the same way Horner works with the picture to emphasize certain gestures and movements with his music.

While Avatar afforded him an opportunity to create new sounds for the alien Na’vi culture, the horizon of possibilities was ultimately too wide, and he returned to more familiar orchestral territory. This may enrage critics of Horner’s work, who accuse him of recycling his own melodies in score after score. But I believe the calls for plagiarism have less to do with compositional conservatism than with aesthetic convention. Horner has often stated in interviews that the function of his music should serve the dramatic arc of the story and character goals. Without a clear sense of the narrative, he admits that he has trouble finding the purpose of the music. This reliance on story can also explain why he favors certain orchestrations and instrumentations. It is also why composers often return to familiar idioms when faced with action sequences, love scenes, or comic moments. There is no mistaking a Jerry Goldsmith action cue or a John Barry love theme because these types of scenes sound a certain way to these composers. Goldsmith hardly spoke about the mechanics of his working style because for him it simply made sense to score a scene in a particular way. “How did you come up with that theme?” is one of the most common questions that composers are asked, and yet their answers are rarely satisfying. When asked by Peter Bogdanovich how he shot a particularly memorable sequence in Stagecoach, John Ford famously sniped, “With a camera!”

The intangibility of the creative process offers us few avenues of insight to this particular problem, but shifting our focus to questions of “why” may yield some greater insights into the conventional logic of composers like James Horner. Why were certain tonalities chosen over others? Why a particular focus on this character? Why no music in certain passages?

As original and fresh as the Avatar score may be, Horner’s compositional approach has not changed; indeed, the function of his music remains the same. The orchestral colors may be new, but the structural DNA of the music reflects Horner’s conventional logic. In this sense, convention is less a pejorative term than one that defines an aesthetic approach, including the function of music in any particular sequence.

Hollywood craftspeople have been complaining about shrinking budgets and shorter schedules for decades. And yet I have never read of a composer or sound editor admit that extremely long schedules produce better or more innovative work than shorter ones. Perhaps this may not be the case with visual effects artists, who often require more time to fine-tune FX shots. Horner has experience at both extremes. Ransom and Troy were scored in fewer than 14 days; The New World and Avatar were written and scored over a period of months due to picture changes. And yet even with so much time, he needed to adapt quickly to the editorial changes and sometimes drop or rewrite entire cues to fit the new assembly. Alfred Newman once said that if one was not prepared to work quickly and sacrifice personal taste in favor of what was needed to better tell the story, then one should avoid work in film music. As much as craftspeople complain about short schedules, there is nothing quite like a deadline to inspire the most creative solutions and innovative breakthroughs at all levels of production.

There is still so much to learn about the process of film production, especially the structured environment of Hollywood post production. Not surprisingly, it’s also one of the hardest things to teach, because film students at the undergraduate and graduate levels are generally accustomed to analyzing films for broad-based cultural, social, and authorial meanings. To study a group of films and ask why certain choices were made is difficult not only because we rarely have access to filmmakers, but also because we have yet to develop a solid framework with which to study these issues productively.

This is not an intentionalist argument, since I am not concerned with intention as much as I am interested in the process that led to a particular decision. For example, James Cameron might have given Horner a particular direction for his score — an intent — but I am interested in studying how Horner juggled that request with his own frames of reference and horizon of possibilities.

Update 11/28/09: A new interview with James Horner has been posted by Daniel Schweiger. Although not as long and in depth as the 2006 discussion, Horner provides some context for this creative decisions on Avatar, and speaks a little about the current state of film music. It’s definitely worth a listen.

Editorial note: I have tried to locate a lengthy interview Horner gave to Daniel Schweiger from “On the Score” in 2006, but the links have disappeared. Hopefully the audio will be reposted at some point, because it offers a candid and honest discussion of the composer’s style and his ideas on the functions of modern film music.

Horner Contemplating

Dispatches from TIFF

Tiff09

Earlier this month, while flipping through the Toronto International Film Festival program guide, I glanced past the inclusion of a spotlight on Tel Aviv filmmakers, which encompassed a set of ten films. Frankly, I didn’t think much of it, since it’s common for the Fest to profile a city or country with a vibrant and emerging film culture. I made a note of the other Israeli films on offer, as I normally do, and moved on to other categories. Around the same time, I started to hear the faint murmurs of a protest aimed at TIFF, with the Tel Aviv selection at its focus.

At first it seemed to be a local skirmish, covered by the Toronto papers, with brief mention on local news — but nothing broader than that. Then, within a day or so, there was a group of names attached to the protest: Jane Fonda, Harry Belafonte, Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, John Greyson. I was in disbelief that a group of prominent Canadian and American personalities would try to censor the work of Tel-Aviv filmmakers simply for being from Tel Aviv.

Surprisingly, they did not call for a boycott of the Festival. Remember, some of the voices of dissent had films premiering here (Viggo Mortensen with The Road, for one). So instead, they aimed their outrage at the Festival programmers and organizers who chose Tel Aviv as the spotlighted city. Around went a petition, encouraging more dissenters to lend their names to the growing protest. I guess they wanted ticket-buyers to avoid the Tel Aviv program, or at least share an unkind word with Cameron Bailey and Piers Handling, the Festival’s co-directors.

Arguing that TIFF is helping to support “brand Israel” and promote the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s new advertising campaign, the protesters stated that the Festival “has become complicit in the Israeli propaganda machine.” Strong words from a group of people who had yet to see the ten films comprising the program. No matter if the films glorified or critiqued Israeli domestic policy, these folks were acting on principle. Never mind that these films were made by talented individuals, who likely spent months or years making their film projects. In my view, these artists deserved better than to be the subject of a misdirected attempt to raise awareness to a controversial subject.

I felt compelled to respond to this story not because I saw the need to defend fellow Jews, but because so much of this protest is misdirected, uninformed, and ignorant. We can speculate on the reaction that another controversial choice may have garnered — say, Tehran. Iranian filmmakers have for decades been lauded for pushing cultural, aesthetic, and political boundaries within their own film community. Would the same folks who protested the Israeli spotlight have had the same worries over an Iranian focus?

Obviously, not all Iranian films support Iranian government policy. Several Iranian films have attempted to push back against the fundamentalist nature of the government regime (see the films of Mohsen Makhmalbaf). The fact is, Israel and its cities remain politicized targets, even as Israeli filmmakers attempt to reach a global audience with thoughtful stories and commentaries. Why should an intimate story (The Bubble) about dealing with modern life in Tel Aviv, warts and all, be treated as a site for international conflict? Why not celebrate the technique and artistry of the film, as well as its confrontation with some very delicate issues, including homosexuality, fundamentalism, and nationalism.

In fact, one voice of dissent, Canadian filmmaker John Greyson lamented the lack of focus on Palestinian films at TIFF 09 to offset the strong Israeli contingent. Actually there were a handful of films by Palestinian filmmakers on the Festival roster. I seriously wonder if the next time Greyson applies for a funding grant from the government of Canada if he will see the irony in that decision. Anyone on this side of the border knows that Canada Council grants and others like it aim to promote a certain–some might say restrictive–image of Canadian arts to Canadians and a global audience. Some might call it “Brand Canada.”

The double-standard at play here seems pretty obvious. I may not support everything the Israeli government does, but that should not preclude me from supporting individual filmmakers, who have a story to tell.

In the last few days of the Festival a counter-protest finally emerged. On the front page of the Toronto Star were two sets of photographs — one with Tel Aviv supporters and the other with the original protesters. Of course, most of the counter-protesters were Jewish personalities in film and television, which will simply reaffirm the notion that Jews will support Israel at any cost. I can’t speak for people like David Cronenberg and Natalie Portman, but maybe these filmmakers also realize that censoring a group of filmmakers for belonging to a city, a culture, and a religion should not be tolerated by anyone, especially those who seek to speak for minorities. You don’t have to be Jewish to see that.

Now with that out of the way, here are some thoughts on a few of the films we caught at TIFF this year.

Waking Sleeping Beauty

Beauty and the Beast

The highlight of the Festival was, for me, the documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty. Getting its world premiere here in Toronto (after a sneak preview in Telluride the previous week), the film offers a glimpse behind the scenes of one of the most celebrated periods in animation history: Walt Disney Studios’ resurgence in the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties. From The Black Cauldron to The Lion King, filmmakers Peter Schneider and Don Hahn utilize found footage (mostly home videos) to explore the corporate culture at Disney and the relationship between Disney animators and the executives who wrote their paychecks. The tone of the film is captured best in an early scene, where we are shown outtakes from a corporate video presented by Michael Eisner, Disney’s CEO at the time. Eisner smiles and congratulates the crew of The Lion King on a job well done, then looks off camera, loses the smile and snaps, “That good enough?” He looks tired, defeated, and angry. Apparently, he was. While the Disney animators have a lot to say in the film about their work and crazy schedules, the picture belongs to Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg, who emerge as great Shakespearean characters at a time when the company was producing some of the most memorable and successful films. Eisner comes off as the better man, even after his two-faced display in the corporate video. While Eisner seems genuinely interested in the quality of Disney animation, Katzenberg has trouble connecting to his employees — the animators. He struggles to communicate, and when he does he ends up angering them even more with his aloofness. Interspersed with the found footage are high-def snippets of the films themselves, which have never looked better — from The Little Mermaid to Aladdin to Beauty and the Beast. It’s all topped by a moving section that details the work of Howard Ashman, the co-composer of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, who died of AIDS before Beast was completed. We were told that the film will be released in April. When it comes to your town, be sure to check it out.

The Hole

the-hole

I was excited to see Joe Dante’s new film, which turned out to be the first 3-D film ever exhibited at TIFF. The Hole is a predictable, if somewhat uneven, horror tale that represents the first live-action 3-D film I have seen since Captain EO back in the eighties. Dante’s use of 3-D is surprisingly underwhelming since he avoids the obvious z-axis stingers and arranges his 3-D mise en scene with subtle depth. Foreground and background planes are noticeably more pronounced, but focal problems were apparent. This may not be a glitch with the 3-D process, but a rack-focus error that occasionally threw the background into sharp focus when the foreground action was unintentionally blurry. In several sequences, Dante is in fine form, as he cleverly mixes humor with genuinely frightening imagery. The bathroom sequence is a real highlight, as is any scene with the demonic clown doll. During our screening, however, the fire alarm was pulled fifteen minutes before the end of the film, which forced us to abandon our seats and exit the theater. Looks like we’ll have to catch the rest of it some other time.

Get Low

Get Low

This is a low key affair with Robert Duvall in a rare starring role and Bill Murray in another memorable supporting part. This might be Bill Murray’s first period piece, actually. The film takes place in the early part of the 20th century, with Duvall playing a feared recluse who one day decides to drive into town on his donkey-drawn cart to ask the local priest for a living funeral. He intends to “get low” (i.e. down to business) and wishes to stage a funeral so he can hear what people really think of him. Duvall plays it close to the chest, emoting only when he absolutely must. As Murray’s character says late in the film, “Is it just me, or is he extremely articulate when he wants to be?” It’s still looking for a distributor, which will hopefully happen, since Duvall and Murray are terrific in the scenes they share together. First-time feature director Aaron Schneider stays away from “homespun” cliches and lets the story breathe on its own without showy editing, camera movement, or musical choices. Getting to see Murray and Duvall in person was a real treat, along with Richard Zanuck whose son Dean produced the film.

Les Herbes Folles

Les Herbes Folles

I was looking forward to Alain Resnais’ newest film, Les Herbes Folles, but left the screening scratching my head. Was he being deliberately playful with his narrative structure and tone? It was slowly building to a romantic pay-off, or at least an ironic punchline, but instead Resnais pulled out the rug from under us, and we were left with a seemingly unrelated and unmotivated question: when a young girl becomes a cat, will she be able to eat cat munchies? The audience, almost in unison, shouted “Huh?” when the screen cut to black. For most of the film Resnais hooked me with a rather simple love story that begins with a woman losing her purse and a lonely house husband retrieving it for her. He falls for her and finds it hard to stop thinking about the stranger whose wallet he found. He fantasizes about her, while she seems completely uninterested in his advances, and seems only content flying her plane. Maybe someone needs to explain this one to me.

Good Hair

Good Hair

Lastly, I wanted to mention Chris Rock’s documentary on African-American hair, called Good Hair. As a white man myself I never knew the complexities associated with black hair. Rock does a good job as on-camera interviewer and voice-over narrator, taking us through the many ways women style their hair. As the father of two young daughters, Rock sees himself as protector and educator. He digs deep and examines the social and cultural roots of what constitutes “natural” black hair (i.e. white Eurpoean hair), and the lengths black women will go to achieve straight, bouncy hair. There’s the highly toxic chemical, sodium hydroxide, which is the main ingredient in most relaxers. Rock and a scientist show how prolonged exposure to the hydroxide will disintegrate a soda can, even though it is commonly used on toddlers and young girls. To explain the origins of weave hair, Rock travels to India and finds that thousands of young women routinely shave their heads as part of a religious ceremony. This hair is then processed, dyed, cleaned and eventually sold to African-American women. Rev. Al Sharpton offers some insightful commentary, as do several other prominent celebrities.

Reading up on TIFF coverage in Variety and other trade sources, it sounds as if this was a pretty mediocre year in terms of film quality and acquisitions. Some blame the recession on the slow acquisition of titles by major distributors, others blame the quality of films for the slow sales. The film Creation, about the relationship between Charles and Emma Darwin, left the Festival without an American distributor, leaving some to wonder if its subject matter would prove too controversial for American audiences or if the film just isn’t that good. I was surprised to see Get Low leave the Festival without a major distributor either — even though the film’s pedigree (produced by the Zanucks, starring Murray and Duvall) suggests that it would be a no-brainer for anyone interested. Which is why I was relieved to hear that Waking Sleeping Beauty will actually get a release, unlike the 2002 behind-the-scenes-at-Disney doc, The Sweatbox. Many other notable features went home without a deal, making it the topic of conversation in the TIFF post mortem. Check out Roger Ebert’s blog post about some other titles that may not be coming to a theater near you.

It’s always a shame that none of the films my wife and I love are ever recognized by the TIFF award juries. This year, Precious: Based On the Novel Push By Sapphire won the People’s Choice Award, which seems to be building Oscar momentum. Last year we thought JCVD was a shoe-in for the audience prize, but then Slumdog Millionaire premiered. As a consolation, it was nice to see that the documentary category finally became eligible this year for the People’s Choice Award. Which is why we were keeping our fingers crossed for Waking Sleeping Beauty to take home that prize. Oh well.

Ben in 3-D

monsters vs. aliens

Hear it in 3-D!

With a busy summer winding down, I’m staring down an equally busy fall. Unfortunately this summer produced fewer blog essays than I intended, as I was busy conducting interviews and developing other research for my doctoral project. I hope to remedy that in the coming months, as I prepare for another round of festival-going at TIFF and take on a teaching challenge at my alma mater, the University of Toronto, where I was offered a full-year course on the history of American filmmaking in the studio era. So, along with my usual thoughts on film style and technology, there will be plenty of film for thought to keep this blog busy.

Today, a few more thoughts on 3-D.

In transcribing some interview material from my conversations with sound practitioners, I came across an interesting point made by a notable re-recording mixer. In addition to finding the right balance among sound effects, this effects mixer is often responsible for placing sound effects in the 5.1 sound space. This means, for example, spreading explosions across the front channels or sending a variety of “bys” or passes from the front to the rear surround channels.

Before the re-emergence and hype surrounding modern 3-D presentations, 5.1 audio represented one way to immerse the audience in the space of a film. Sound mixers routinely envelop audiences in different sound spaces as a way of conveying the spatial geography of a scene; to provide clues to the location of a scene; and to embellish the sound signatures of a particular locale. Sound was a natural choice to convey immersion, since it fills the entire theater space with speakers not only behind the screen but along the side and back walls of all modern auditoriums. But now with 3-D all the rage, it seems that immersive 5.1 audio may not be immersive enough.

Speaking casually about sound technology and the aesthetics of modern film sound, this mixer — who has some experience mixing for recent 3-D fare — expressed frustration with the state of sound in relation to the 3-D format. Here’s the whole quote:

“At the moment I feel it is just a strictly visual experience. With 5.1 you can’t make it sound like special venue sound. In a standard theater, you just can’t do it. You try. You try to exaggerate surround. You try to get more special with things. But you can only do so much because you don’t have a speaker over your head. You don’t have a wall lined with them, like they do in some theme parks.”

With so few films being prepared for release in 3-D, the reality of this situation has yet to be felt by the majority of Hollywood re-recording mixers. Many have noted that norms and conventions have yet to be augmented to better suit 3-D because time, resources, and the small number of actual 3-D films prevent people in sound editorial and mixing to re-conceptualize sound style. While visual effects departments get the time and financial resources they need to refine and complete shots, sound departments are routinely told by post-production supervisors that there isn’t extra time or money for fringe benefits like reconfiguring the 5.1 layout.

The traditional press, along with the blogosphere, have had a lot to say about 3-D (including my own essay on the subject), but few have noted how the sound track might work in relation to eye-popping imagery. I naturally assumed that the 3-D sound track must be exploring new avenues of immersion, or responding in some way to the illusions of depth. If hardware firms like IMAX and Dolby are spending millions developing 3-D technology and studios are readying a growing number of 3-D releases, then surely sound must be part of the innovation party. Well…yes and no.

No one can say for sure what the future will bring, but at this moment the state of the 3-D sound track is unchanged. That is not to say that mixers aren’t working with sound differently than with traditional 2-D films. As the effects mixer noted, they will sometimes push more “hard” effects into the split surround channels to mimic an action that sends the image “into” the theater. Backgrounds (also known as ambiences) may also be treated with more gusto. In this sense, mixers are pushing more sound into the theater space to complement the visual push. It also helps that most 3-D movies has been animated, a genre which often affords mixers greater play with sound level and placement. Things can be more lively, full, and bright with films like Monsters vs. Aliens and Coraline.

Mixers are, therefore, tweaking current practices to suit the new image. They are not, as one might imagine, re-configuring the sound of sound. Why not? Well, a new delivery system for sound would be costly for exhibitors, who have already had to install digital cinema projectors to offer films in 3-D. A new sound system may involve not only new processors, but also more loudspeakers behind the screen and along the side and back walls. For years Tomlinson Holman has been arguing for 10.2 surround sound, which adds a pair of left and right overhead channels, a pair of wide left and right channels, a second subwoofer, and a center rear channel (which Dolby introduced in 1999 with the release of Star Wars: Episode One — The Phantom Menace). This layout would add the overhead channel desired by our effects mixer, and gives more latitude to the behind-the-screen channels to localize sound more precisely.

This report from Audioholics points out that psychoacoustic experiments suggest that human sound localization is far greater on the horizontal plane and front hemisphere than on the sides or rear. Unfortunately, the home theater industry continues to emphasize the importance of surround channels, and continues to add rear channels to the home array as some 7.1 systems demonstrate.

10.2

In Japan, NHK has proposed a 22.2 system to complement their super high-def television technology. Another re-recording mixer introduced me to a new sound system out of Germany called IOSONO. Here’s a brief excerpt from their description of its cinema applications:

An IOSONO system really comes into its own with IOSONO-encoded material. Sound designers can place up to 32 independent sound objects anywhere outside of, or within, the theater, either far behind the walls or right next to any member of the audience. What’s more, these sound objects can be made to move along any given path, at any desired speed. Ever experienced a helicopter slowly flying into the middle of the theater and hovering right above your seat? With IOSONO, you can.

Here is a description of the technology itself:

A computer controls each loudspeaker separately and actuates it the moment the desired wave front would pass through it. To synthesize a spherical wave front originating from a point behind the speakers, for example, the speaker closest to the virtual source is actuated first, followed by the speakers to the right and left of it. This results in a wave front with a relatively large radius and a virtual source point outside of the listening space. Reversing the order of actuation (where the speakers closest to the virtual point source are actuated last) results in a wave field corresponding to that of a source within the listening space.

The result is a stable wave field in which the listener can localize the virtual sound sources as if they were emanating from actual objects. The loudspeakers themselves, however, cannot be localized. Wave field synthesis thus creates a stunning illusion of acoustic events in a space, adding a whole new dimension to audio in the entertainment and other industries.

Beyond the marketing language of the IOSONO system, it is easy to see how this type of application could be attractive to Hollywood sound mixers who seek to augment the soundscape of a 3-D film by adding more localized channels. As the effects mixer stated, 5.1 is not broad enough to pin-point sound in space. In fact, several mixers agree that 5.1 is a digital compromise between exhibitors and industry practitioners. More channels may represent greater creative control, but it inevitably costs more. And, according to Tom Holman, 5.1 achieves the minimum number of discrete channels required for an immersive sound field.

In practice, mixers often avoid pin-pointed sound in 5.1 sound space because of its potential to distract audiences from the screen. Which is why many supervising sound editors and final mixers aim to fill the rear channels with rich but undefined backgrounds. Very rarely is dialog placed in the rear for the same reason. With 3-D, mixers are faced with an image that calls attention to itself, so why can’t sound do the same thing? If an arrow is shot out from the screen and lands somewhere to the left-rear of the viewer, why not indicate the arrow hit with a sound effect in the left-rear of the auditorium? As I mentioned earlier, mixers already use the rears as transport channels for fly-bys or car-bys or other moving objects.

As much as mixers are frustrated with the financial constraints to 3-D sound, there are some theoretical issues that still lurk in the shadow of 5.1. Mixers may want more channels capable of reproducing localized sound, but they must first overcome the conventional logic of surround sound mixing: avoid localized sound in the far left, far right, and rear. Tom Holman once quipped, “In Top Gun, when jets fly left to right across the screen and then exit screen right, what may be perceived aurally is the jet flying off screen as well, right into the exit sign.”

That is why Holman, among others, has opted for immersive film sound not localized film sound. Unlike a theme park ride which often directs your attention through sound cues placed in a 360 degree fashion around a room (think of the Hall of Presidents in Walt Disney World), cinema sound must contend with a two-dimensional screen on which audiences must stayed focused, even with 3-D presentations where your eyes remain fixed on a general axis, where any movement outside that axis might reveal the images to be cardboard cutouts — a phenomenon all too familiar to me.

The call for special venue sound for 3-D presentations seems to be an unlikely reality given the cost and small base of films released in the format. The desire for special venue sound also hides a fundamental aspect of Hollywood filmmaking that James Cameron continues to emphasize, even as he touts his upcoming Avatar as a veritable “game changer” in the way we experience our movies. In an interview with the Daily Mail he stated,

The irony with Avatar is that people think of it as a 3D film and that’s what the discussion is. But I think that, when they see it, the whole 3D discussion is going to go away…That’s because, ideally, the technology is advanced enough to make itself go away. That’s how it should work. All of the technology should wave its own wand and make itself disappear.

He is emphasizing story clarity and intelligibility, two of the most fundamental building blocks of American cinema. As much as the technology can wow our eyes and ears, the experience is in service to something else: the story. So as much as Cameron is prepared to awe his audience, he’s acutely aware that the illusion will fail if the audience isn’t taken on a journey that means something more than eye-popping visuals.

Filmmakers, including sound professionals, have always had to reconcile the spectacular nature of technology with the need for narrative invisibility. This is especially the case with sound mixing, where their art is based on the fine balance of story comprehension and environmental immersion. It is, therefore, hard to imagine sound acting any other way than it currently does in 3-D environments, especially if directors like Cameron subscribe to the story-is-paramount ideology.

Avatar

This Island Earth

Keep Circulating the Tapes — The Best of MST3K

After being off the air for nearly a decade, Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1988-1999) is perhaps more popular now than it was during its initial run. While it has maintained a loyal fan base since its cable access launch in 1988, it continues to attract new fans — or MSTies — thanks to the release of 15 DVD anthologies of some of the show’s funniest experiments. Not to mention the countless websites devoted to the series and its satirical treatment of bad movies. Some of these movies have even re-entered popular discourse after being featured on the show, such as Manos: The Hands of Fate. Despite its strong niche popularity the series remains an acquired taste. Its mixture of broad shtick with esoteric observation is not hard to grasp, even for the uninitiated. Still, however, some viewers might find it hard to take pleasure in watching others watch bad movies.

The premise of the series is simple enough that the show’s original theme song distills its basic plot quite nicely:

In the not-too-distant future — next Sunday A.D. — there was a guy named Joel, not too different from you or me. He worked at Gizmonic Institute, just another face in a red jumpsuit. He did a good job cleaning up the place, but his bosses didn’t like him. So they shot him into space. We’ll send him cheesy movies. The worst we can find (la-la-la). He’ll have to sit and watch them all, and we’ll monitor his mind (la-la-la). Now keep in mind Joel can’t control where the movies begin or end (la-la-la). Because he used those special parts to make his robot friends.

The “experiments” sent by the evil Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) are among cinema’s tragic failures, which are lampooned by Joel Hodgson and his robot pals, Crow T. Robot (voiced by Beaulieu), Tom Servo (voiced by Kevin Murphy), Gypsy (Jim Mallon) and Cambot. We watch the cinematic travesties with Joel and co., who sit in a row of theater seats silhouetted against the movie. They laugh at the screen and make self-reflexive wisecracks that highlight the often uncontrollable badness of the movies they are forced to watch.

Joel and the bots mike and the bots

Unlike its premise, the history of the show is rather convoluted. After a mid-series network switch from Comedy Central to the Sci-fi channel in 1996, the show changed hosts (Mike Nelson replaced Joel), Trace Beaulieu was replaced with Mary Jo Pehl as Forrester’s evil mother, Pearl, and the voice of Crow was replaced with that of another series writer, Bill Corbett. Despite the acting replacements and the loss of Beaulieu and Hodgson, the writing staff remained relatively unchanged throughout the series’ run. The show’s most commercial outing was with Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie in 1996, which skewered the now revered Universal sci-fi flick, This Island Earth. In fact, the feature film represents a bridge between the “Joel years” which preceded it and the “Mike years” that followed it on the Sci-fi channel. An “almost but still not quite complete history” of the show is available here.

Part of the show’s longevity stems from a request by the writers to “keep circulating the tapes,” which would appear during the credits of each episode. In the days before streaming internet video, home recorded VHS tapes were traded among fans who might have missed an episode or an entire season of the series. The trend continues to this day with some sites selling bootleg DVDs of episodes not yet released officially on video. In fact, some of the best episodes remain unreleased due to copyright claims and licensing restrictions. Until they are all released, I’m sure the show’s creators would like you to keep circulating those tapes.

Torgo

Postmodern Silliness

We, the audience, are back-row participants in the fun. Put rather dryly, the humor derives from the double-exposure of watching the film and listening to Joel and the bots simultaneously. The jokes are timed to interrupt the narrative as little as possible, thereby allowing the audience to experience the film in a rather unobstructed sense. Much of the humor is observational and thus tied to the happenings on screen, yet some of the most effective jokes are broad reflexive gags that highlight outmoded social and cultural attitudes, or point out inter- and extra-textual meanings across a wide range of films. In this sense, the show demands the audience to be schooled in the finer, if somewhat marginal, aspects of pop culture. How else can we explain the inclusion of a Herbert von Karajan reference in the offbeat 70s horror film, The Touch of Satan? Without veering too far into high theory, Mystery Science is postmodern humor without pretension. It unearths the forgotten disasters of cinema to pick them apart, line by line, and call attention to their relationship with other films. In one of the show’s best “meta” jokes, the cast spends the final minutes of Laserblast reading Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide in hopes of finding other films that were also rewarded 2.5 stars out of 4 by the editors of the Guide. To the cast’s dismay, Maltin’s Guide suggests that Amadeus, Being There, Unforgiven, A Fish Called Wanda, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom are on par with this utterly hilarious 70s sci-fi bomb.

I came to know Mystery Science in 2001 when it had already been canceled by the Sci-fi channel. My wife, who was then my girlfriend, introduced me to her collection of VHS episodes, and in a very short time I was hooked. With a name vaguely reminiscent of George McFly’s favorite TV show, Science Fiction Theater, the show appealed to me with its high-brow assault on some very low-brow movies. As an antidote to the sarcasm of the movie segments, the show’s bumper sequences are often silly, campy riffs between Joel/Mike and the evil earthbound scientists. Some of the funniest host segments feature the cast in a recreation or “homage” to that day’s film, where Joel/Mike and the bots don costumes and reflect the attitudes and behavior of the characters.

Not everyone understands the joy of watching the gang skewer a particularly bad movie. In his review for the feature film, Jonathan Rosenbaum snickered, “Of course making up your own wisecracks and passively listening to the wisecracks of ersatz spectators aren’t precisely the same activity. The potential creativity of the audience has been usurped…” Usurped is a strong word. I think this critical hesitation says something about our relationship with movies and how we watch them, which invaraibly leads to a feeling of being left out of the fun. Rosenbaum believes that passively listening to someone else make jokes somehow undercuts the whole enterprise of back-row heckling. In a way I see his point, but film viewing requires passivity. I would argue that the show rubs some viewers the wrong way because it asks its audience to forgive moviegoing etiquette and incorporate the wisecracks into the narrative. Whereas we might normally criticize the hecklers up front for ruining our moviegoing experience, Mystery Science Theater asks us to loosen our 1:1 relationship with the screen and participate in a weekly roast of a cheesy movies. It might not be active participation, but then again, why not? I wouldn’t be surprised to hear about MST3K screenings where people shout the jokes back at the screen like a Greek chorus.

Entering the Screening Room

The List

With nearly two hundreds episodes to its credit, dozens of classic lines and memorable moments, and some perfectly roasted films, Wright on Film presents its Top Ten Favorite Moments from Mystery Science Theater 3000. The list comprises a selection of the funniest lines, gags, or entire films featured on the show. Join the chorus with your own favorites, if they aren’t among the ten chosen here.

10. The Skydivers (1963)

skydivers

“Somebody with Attention Deficit Disorder edited this film.” This Colman Francis gem about a group of professional skydivers is a bleak and dreary exercise in cinematic boredom. Not much actually happens in this movie, except for the frequent discussion and enjoyment of … coffee. “Coffee? I like coffee,” says one character. Mike replies, “Thus we peer into the complex inner workings of this character.” The film itself is almost unwatchable, due in no small part to the dreary grayness that saturates every frame of this film. Not much happens here, as evidenced by this exchange: “Wonder how high they’re gonna jump.” A guy responds, “I don’t know.” Crow quips, “Wow, they really captured that kind of situation.”

9. Soultaker (1990)

soultaker

No, that’s not Martin Sheen as the Soultaker, it’s his brother, Joe Estevez, a veteran character actor who has appeared in dozens of direct-to-video genre pics, frequently with Robert Z’dar, another DTV favorite. Two of the funniest riffs by Mike and bots have to do with the size of Z’dar’s face: “He looks like a catcher’s mitt with eyes!” and — as Z’dar looks at Estevez — “Man, that guy’s face is small.”

8. Puma Man (1980)

puma man

An international co-production about a super hero with the powers of the ancient Aztec Pumaman (who might also be from an alien planet). It’s hard to determine what is funnier, the film’s visual effects or Donald Pleasance’s overwrought performance. The rear-projection flying sequences are completely inferior even for the period. Luckily the poor effects don’t go unnoticed by Mike and the bots: “I’m falling at a 60-degree angle, defying all the laws of physics!” Pleasance’s oddly affected British pronunciation of “Puma Man” (more like “Pee-yoo-ma-man”) never tires of being funny, especially since he seems to be relishing every syllable. Honorable mention also goes to the film’s funky disco score, which only adds to the joy of this 70s mess.

7. Merlin’s Shop of Mystical Wonders (1996 and 1982)

Merlin!

“Rock’n’roll martian…” So, basically this film purports to tell one story about the mystical sorcerer but is actually two different films by the same director cut together. It’s not that obvious, unless you happen to notice the 180 degree plot shift, the change in film stock, the different lighting styles, and most fundamentally the different fashion styles. One was made in the mid 90s, while the other reeks of the early 80s. Looking past the blow-dried hair and E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial references, the film’s most memorable character is a skeptical newspaper columnist who claims to eviscerate new businesses with his influential reviews. Of course, he sets out to review Merlin’s shop by leafing through his book of spells and making sarcastic remarks into a tape recorder. We’re not sure if the actor is overdoing it, or if the character is that ridiculous, but he nevertheless provides plenty of fuel for Mike and the bots. When his wife complains of his lack of tact and sympathy, the bots chime in: “If she had a store, I’d crush her!” Later, during one of his tedious interior monologues, Servo adds, “I talk to myself a lot. Long monologues complete with sarcasm.”

6. Boggy Creek II: …and the Legend Continues (1984)

Boggy Creek II

“Can I borrow a cup of shirt?” A professor and three of his students head for the Arkansas backwoods in search of the legend of Boggy Creek, a woolly behemoth that is not unlike Bigfoot. Along the way, we must contend with the professor’s droning monologues, a sweaty swamp hillbilly, and Tim, the kid who refuses to wear a shirt. There are several jabs at Tim’s shirtlessness, Arkansas, hillbillies, and some technical oddities like the film’s inconsistent look: “My flashback wasn’t color corrected when it came back from the lab so it was kind of dark.”

5. Cave Dwellers (1984

Cave Dwellers

One of a few MSTied movies to feature a main title credit sequence with footage from a completely different film. Thanks Film Ventures International! Set somewhere in the middle ages, this Miles O’Keeffe vehicle is about a He-Man named Ator, whose quest is to keep the Geometric Nucleus out of the hands of Zor. This one is very popular at our house as the one that started it all. It was the first VHS my wife bought. At the time, her youngest sister was taking the train in to the city for a weekend visit, and she wanted something fun for them to do. One look at Zor’s silly swan-topped black battle helmet, along with Crow’s apt quip, sealed the deal for the two of them: “You know that hat has a slimming effect on you.” It’s a small moment of silliness that was capped later in the episode when Joel and the bots donned the same oversized helmets during one of their host segments.

4. The Final Sacrifice (1990)

final sacrifice

“So, Rowsdower, is that a…stupid name?” Arguably the most popular title not to be officially released on DVD, this also happens to be one of my favorite Canadian films. When an ancient cult idol is found by a boy, he sets out to discover the truth behind his father’s death. Incidentally, he must evade capture from the Ziox cult and its evil leader, Sartoris, by hiding in the back of an unsuspecting Canuck’s pickup truck, who may or may not be a former cult member. This God among men is Zap Rowsdower, our beefy anti-hero with a priceless mullet, thick Ontario accent, and penchant for stonewash denim. Ridiculed endlessly by Mike and the gang, most of the Rowsdower jabs are hilarious, including a few about his hockey hair. However, my favorite is a dig at the kid. He asks his grandmother if he is like his dead father. Crow replies, “No, he was masculine and likable.”

3. This Island Earth (1955)

This Island Earth

Granted, this is the feature film “experiment” and not from the original series. We’ve included it here since it contains some of the show’s best riffing. That is not to say that there are more jokes here than in an average episode or that they are funnier, but the source material definitely provides much to be satirized. In a recent interview, Mike Nelson spoke about the elevated status of the original This Island Earth as one of the “best” 50s sci-fi flicks and noted that it’s still not very good. Perhaps the same people who have such reverence for the film haven’t actually seen it. Or maybe they haven’t seen the MSTied version, which points out many of the film’s shortcomings. Or maybe they have seen the Mystie version and can’t help but hold the original in higher esteem (what I like to call the Manos effect.) The “science and technology” montage is wonderfully silly, as is the “Normal view” song. My wife was lucky enough to see this movie during its theatrical release and while MST3K is hilarious on the small screen, the jokes feel even bigger with a large audience. For my wife, MST3K: The Movie still holds the title for the most she has ever laughed at a movie. Ever.

2. Time Chasers (1994)

Time Chasers

“So in the future kids become gay agents?” I’ll admit that it was hard to get over the loss of Trace Beaulieu as the voice of Crow and initially I wanted nothing to do with Bill Corbett. Then came the release of Volume Five of the MST3K DVD collection and the awesomeness that is David Giancola’s Time Chasers. We are introduced to the less kind, more acerbic Crow T. Robot who is clearly unhappy with the casting of Matthew Bruch as our hero, Nick the time-traveling scientist. Crow yells “Hey wait a minute. This isn’t our star, is it? I will not accept this as our star, sorry.” This new Crow isn’t afraid to get angry and hold a grudge, “Movie! Hey Movie! Can I see your supervisor? This will not stand.” And who can blame him? Our hero is dressed in stonewash jeans, sporting a mullet and riding a 10-speed. And he looks to have a dinner roll attached to his chin. At least Rowsdower had a pickup. One thing is for sure, the crankier Crow gets, the funnier the jabs become. One of the best set pieces is the mezzanine office of the evil J.K. Robertson, which looks like it was filmed at a public library. The host segments are also very strong, with a hilariously gruff “alternate reality” Mike taking over mid-way through the film.

1. Mitchell (1975)

Mitchell

Who’s the puffy guy who is a big blurry sex machine? Mitchell! That’s right, Joe Don Baker is the pushy, puffy, greasy and sleazy cop who manages to bust up John Saxon’s crime ring and bed Linda Evans (a “loser actor bouquet” indeed.) Where to begin with Mitchell? Joe Don Baker’s face and girth make good fodder for the guys. You’d think there was a limit to how many fat, lazy and drunk jokes can be funny. But there isn’t. And it’s even funnier in song: “Mitchell, Mitchell — eye on the sandwich! Mitchell. Hearts poundin’. Mitchell. Veins cloggin’, Mitchell!” Not to mention that this is the episode that sees Joel’s escape from the Satellite of Love and introduces us to Mike. Unlike several episodes, Mitchell is a fairly watchable movie with actual Hollywood actors, including Martin Balsam and Baker (who has appeared in a few James Bond outings). Its humor, then, isn’t based on the unprofessionalism of the filmmakers but instead on the contrived plot and uncharismatic title character. Which are endlessly funny. Not to mention the low speed car chase. We’re still trying to figure out why Mitchell is eating an orange at an upscale restaurant. Apparently Mitchell doesn’t care for the ways of society and chooses to live by his own rules.

Keep circulating those tapes.

MST3K

Insider 6

A Mann Among Us

Has Michael Mann redefined the cinematic close-up? That question, along with a few others, nagged me after a recent screening of Public Enemies in Toronto. First, some context. I have long admired Mann’s artistry. There is drama in his unironic flourishes — the final moments in Heat or The Insider before the end credit roll when Moby’s music fills the air and the characters take one last look around before the screen goes black. There is precision in his mise en scene, a compositional control that rarely goes over the deep end of mannerism, when style only serves itself. He is not afraid to marinade cinematic moments with lingering stares, contemplative glances, and longer takes that follow characters in their moments of crisis, joy, confusion, or pain. One way Mann accomplishes this in-the-moment presentness is with the extreme close-up. If you haven’t seen Public Enemies and don’t want anything spoiled, then this serves as my warning that spoilers lie ahead.

screen-capture2While much of the early press on Public Enemies has emphasized its historical subject m
atter, Mann has spoken a little about his technical and aesthetic choices. In an interview with Ain’t it Cool News, Mann discusses the function of the close-up in his films. One passage is particularly informative:

I look for where or how to bring the audience into the moment, to reveal what somebody’s thinking and what they’re feeling, and where it feels like you’re inside the experience. Not looking at it, with an actor performing it, but have an actor live it, and you as audience, if I could bring the audience inside to experience. It became critical in THE INSIDER, because the ambition was to make a film that was as suspenseful as I knew, and dramatic as I knew those lives really were. And, it’s all talking heads, but the devastation, the potential devastation to [Jeffrey] Wigand and Lowell Bergman was total annihilation, personal annihilation, suicide–all that was in the cards for these guys. And, yet, it’s all just people talking. So, that kind of began an exploration into how I could bring you into experience in as internal a way as I could.

For Mann, the close-up is a ticket to a character’s soul, their inner subjectivity. The closer the camera gets, the closer we are to their thoughts.

A Pair of Subjectivities

The close-up has always been used for emphasis. They portray the emotion on someone’s face or clarify the presence of an object. We might even say that it’s the most cinematic of shots, since it affords an intimacy and immediacy that is rarely found in the other arts. But can a close-up convey character subjectivity?

Griffith Close Shot

Kristin Thompson offers a fascinating essay on the nature of subjectivity in cinema, which can be found here. She notes that “the more imaginative [filmmakers] have shown immense creativity in trying to convey what characters see and think.” She isolates two kinds of functions that emphasize character subjectivity: perceptual and mental subjectivity. As she puts it, both functions suggest being “with” the characters as opposed to merely observing them. Perceptual subjectivity offers a visual or aural connection to what a character sees or hears. Point-of-view shots or point-of-audition sound not only places the audience in the scene, but in the head of a character for a given time. There are countless examples of effective POV shots, but POA sound seems much rarer, if only because they are harder to spot. The Do Lung bridge sequence in Apocalypse Now is a good example. An American sniper loads his gun and takes aim at the trees, where a vocal Vietnamese sniper is perched, hidden by the dark. The U.S. sniper focuses his ears on the Vietnamese’s taunting voice then fires. The trees go silent. In the moment leading up to the killshot, the din of ground activity fades away and the acousmatic voice becomes the solo aural element on the sound track. We hear what the sniper hears as he strips away layer upon layer of sound until he aurally spots the tree sniper.

Apocalypse Now

Mental subjectivity, in Thompson’s view, goes a step further by offering fantasies, dreams, and other image-sound elements that are experienced by only that character. The numerous gags in Throw Momma from the Train where Owen (Danny DeVito) fantasizes about killing his mother are good examples. Without framing the fantasy, DeVito convinces his audience by playing the scene through. Only then does he cut back to the beginning of the sequence and we realize that the second half of the sequence was a figment of his imagination.

But the Do Lung sequence could also qualify as mental subjectivity since the U.S. sniper is specially trained to hone in on particular sounds — that technique is fairly unique to him. If we heard the same sequence from Willard’s position, we might not hear the same focused sound. In this respect, Thompson’s definitions are by her own admission fluid and ambiguous: “Filmmakers can create deliberate, complex, and important effects by keeping it unclear whether what we see is a character’s perception of reality or his/her imaginings.”

By all accounts Michael Mann works in the gray area between these functions. Films such as The Insider, Ali, and Public Enemies are intimate character studies even if the subject matter of each is expansive. The Insider is as much about the news business as it is about the personal struggle of Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe). It isn’t surprising, then, to hear Mann discuss that film in docudrama terms with lots of talking and exposition. He attempts to overcome the dryness of this approach by personalizing the story, thereby bringing the audience closer to Wigand, in three key sequences.

Immediacy and Despair

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We are introduced to Wigand at the beginning of the film through a series of fragmented shots. Mann captures a birthday celebration in the B&W chemistry lab through a glass partition. Wigand’s profile appears in close-up, out of focus, as the party continues in the background, out of ear shot. He packs up his briefcase with haste, then exits the office. Cut to Wigand in the elevator. The camera is perched on Wigand’s shoulder, inches from his ear. We’re only slightly off Wigand’s own eyeline, a pseudo POV shot. The doors open and Wigand exits — the camera holds its position. We move into the lobby still attached to Wigand by Mann’s fly-on-the-shoulder camera. As he approaches the floor security guard, we cut to a wider shot of Wigand passing the guard. Mann slows the film down, stretching the moment, giving an impression of Wigand’s own stunned numbness to the situation.

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Later in the film, following a contentious meeting with Brown & Williamson chairman Thomas Sandefur (Michael Gambon) and B&W legal counsel, Wigand leaves corporate headquarters in a rage. He calls Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) from a pay phone to blame him for the way the company was treating him. Framed again extremely tight, Mann’s camera is inches from Wigand’s face. In this way, Wigand’s enraged state is expressed with the extreme close-up. It’s made even more jarring when we cut to Bergman’s, who is framed in medium long shot, while Wigand is right in our face.

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It’s also interesting to note that during the B&W meeting, Mann incorporates the on-the-skin close-ups into his shot reverse-shot compositions.

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These two uses of the extreme close-up aim to bring us closer to Wigand’s inner subjectivity, to be on his skin — if not totally in his thoughts. I would even suggest that the tight framing also leads to a kind of compositional clostrophobia, where Mann’s camera seeks to make us feel Wigand’s pain. It’s not necessarily a POV shot, since both sequences utilize relatively objective camera angles, which are positioned outside Wigand’s body. We also don’t get much POA sound in either case. Instead, Mann uses a particular camera technique — bringing the camera close to the skin — in order to satisfy the need for inner subjectivity.

It’s not an altogether new technique, either. The Dardenne brothers achieved a similar effect in Rosetta. The rather grim tale of a young Belgian girl’s struggle with poverty and social alienation utilizes the same sort of on-the-skin camera to further bring us into her world. At times, we’re locked on her face and experience the world around her only through sound.

Rosetta

To express the enormity of the Normandy invasion in Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg offers surprisingly few establishing shots, and instead relies on a few well-placed extreme close-ups. The most notable example comes after the battle, as Horvath (Tom Sizemore) remarks, “That’s quite a view.” Close on Miller’s helmet, he raises his head, takes a swig of canteen water, and takes in the sight: “Yes it is. Quite a view.” Spielberg’s camera moves in closer until Miller’s eyes are the only thing in focus. Only then do we cut to a series of wider shots of the beach. Again, the close-up emphasizes the connection between character and audience without taking the form of a traditional POV shot.

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The final example of character subjectivity from The Insider is one of Mann’s only forays into mental subjectivity. Late in the film Wigand is holed up in a hotel room, his wife and children having already abandoned him. He’s all but given up, seated in a chair, unshaved, disheveled. A hotel employee attempts to get him to answer a telephone call from Lowell, but he’s drifted off into a daydream. Lisa Gerrand’s hypnotic voice primes the viewer for an unexpected fantasy that unfolds around Wigand. A pastoral mural on the wall behind him begins to morph into his old backyard, where his two children are playing. He turns to face them as the two girls stop and stare back. The moment is broken when we cut back to the hotel employee, who is still on the phone with Lowell, saying “He doesn’t seem to be listening.”

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It’s a relatively short daydream, but a bold move on Mann’s part to include such a whimsical touch in an otherwise button-down narrative. It works because we’ve been primed by the various close-up techniques to expect a glimpse into Wigand’s psyche.

Rat-a-tat-tat

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Public Enemies continues Mann’s close-up technique on a more visceral level. Instead of portioning out the device, he composed much of the film in a deliberately tight fashion. One film critic went as far to say that he dispenses with the use of establishing shots altogether! For the record, there are a few scattered throughout the picture, here and there. But the critic’s point is well taken: there are far fewer master shots than in any conventional actioner, including the Bourne series, which is anchored by a series of sprawling city shots with legends indicating the location.

Chicago itself is presented as a disjointed city; the Biograph theatre floats somewhere in between Dillinger’s hideaway and the Bureau’s HQ. The bank heists remain coherent, but verge on the indefinable. According to the filmmakers, Mann expressed a desire for immediacy in order to move beyond the period niceties of 1930s Chicago. As Roger Ebert noted in his review of the film, “Mann redressed Lincoln Avenue on either side of the Biograph Theater, and laid streetcar tracks; I live a few blocks away, and walked over to marvel at the detail. I saw more than you will; unlike some directors, he doesn’t indulge in beauty shots to show off the art direction. It’s just there.” In fact, Mann wants you to think that the detail is on their faces.

In the same Ain’t it Cool News interview, Mann mentions the psychological importance of the extreme close-up in the film:

So, with Homer, outside the bank, and he sees that police car drive up. There’s a close-up–it’s something you can only do in hi-def–I’ve got the lens right here, and you’ll just see the focus shift to right to the stubble, and then I’m heightening that and color timing by raising the contrast just when we get there. So, you really feel you’ve gone right into Homer, and you can feel his awareness just climb up. There’s no nervousness, there’s nothing. But, you see he has totally taken in the arrival of the cops outside.

Again, in Mann’s view, the closer we get to the skin the closer we can absorb that character’s emotional state. We not only see the sweat begin to bead, but we might also begin to sweat ourselves.

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We don’t get any closer than with Johnny Depp’s vivid portrayal of Dillinger himself. He plays Dillinger close to the chest, but that’s where Mann’s camera can peel away the hardened exterior to reveal his cheek scar, his five-o’clock shadow, and a range of muted emotions that are exclamation points in close-up. In the film’s final minutes, the close-up is combined with a pseudo POV shot of the fatal bullet that enters the back of his neck and exits under his right cheek. As he lies dying on the sidewalk, Mann returns to the on-the-skin shot one more time to see Dillinger in a much more vulnerable light. Ironically, we’re so close, yet we still can’t make out what he’s saying.

Returning to my original question — has Michael Mann redefined the cinematic close-up? — I don’t think so. Mann is an ambitious filmmaker who often seeks to refresh cinematic conventions if only to tell very familiar stories. The close-up remains a choice in the filmmaker’s bag of tricks to emphasize. But I would argue that even a long shot can emphasize character psychology, if placed in the hands of a talented filmmaker.

Mann’s close-ups are interesting because few other directors today portray subjectivity this way. They have become a signature Mann shot. With The Insider we witness Jeffrey Wigand’s crisis with a macro lens, while the rest of the film remains detached and cool. I would argue that Public Enemies erases that borderline between close proximity and objective control. By placing the audience in the immediacy of Dillinger’s present, the close-ups lose their emotional edge, their ability to read character subjectivity, and we are ultimately left with mannerist excess.

At certain points the close-up can emphasize character psychology, to bring us closer to their skin. As much Mann tries, though, it can’t put us in their skin.

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