Friday, June 27, 2008

"Wanted" is real ballet, like all super-hero movies


Wanted,” directed by Timur Bekmanbatov, and from Universal, certainly illustrates action film for its own sake. It’s pretty much a ballet, choreographed to a mesmerizing orchestral score by Danny Elfman, with lots of repeated quarter notes in common time, arranged to simulate a “Dies Irae” shape. James McAvoy carries of the dance with great charisma. An ordinary guy can reach his destiny and become a kind of superman, yeah.

The movie comes from comic book characters by Mark Miller and J.G. Jones, and the screenplay was written by Michael Brandt, Derek Haas and Chris Morgan. And a shooting script would have required enormous detail.

Well, “Wesley Gibson” does return plenty of search engine documents, starting in Wikipedia, as “The Killer” in the comic book series. We know that the movie starts at his boss’s (Lorna Scott) office birthday party, and we also learn that he is an “account manager” and not just an “account servicer.” (Maybe he has no search engine references because his boss made him give up Myspace to avoid confusing clients!) Wesley is a real wimp who takes prozac or something similar. His buddy Barry (Chris Pratt, “Bright” from Everwood) gets all the action. He lives in slum in Chicago, next to the El, and somehow has a girlfriend. Pretty soon things take off, as he is napped by Sloan (Morgan Freeman, in his form from “Se7en”) and told that his pap was an assassin in a thousand year old fraternity. Fox (Angelina Jolie) will train him, brutally, and prove that a woman can be a lot stronger than a weak man; but Wesley will transform from a wimp to a leopard quickly; it's in his dad's DNA.

That’s where the ballet takes over. The images (including reparative sitz baths with some wax thrown in) take over and create their own logic. Eventually he winds up chasing his prey in Kosovo or some such place, with a climatic train wreck over a chasm that recalls “The Cassandra Crossing.” And there is some perverse logic to the ending, which I won’t spoil – but instead of “Mouse Hunt” we have a real “Rat Pack.” The movie, however, brings up a lot of issues with all of these visual metaphors. That’s what keeps it working. For example, the textile factory (it has to be something that could have existed a millennium ago) provides a vehicle for steganography, for identifying the next marks in binary code corresponding to the threads (or the iron core studs in a mainframe computer, as in all those textbooks). A serious incident, that I think really happened, where a judge was targeted by the Chicago Mafia gets mentioned.

McAvoy seems even more effective in the part with his slight build. (Tom Welling or Jared Padalecki wouldn’t quite work, but it’s easy to imagine that Shia La Beouf or Gregory Smith, who looks a bit like McAvoy from a distance and who costarred with Pratt in Everwood, could have been cast). Scottish born McAvoy, whose normal native speech is heavily accented, is quite effective as an “ordinary middle class” American. (I don’t know how actors learn to speak so well in non-native accents.) And his actions do punctuate the story with evidence character and moral sense, which will take him above the norms of the fraternity. It’s always important that the hero (whether Clark Kent, Sam Winchester, or Ephram Brown, or Wesley Gibson) do that to keep the audience bonded. Wesley will be a much better man than his father.

The 8 PM show for this movie at a Regal in Arlington nearly sold out (in a large auditorium).

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

"The Edge of Heaven" - a story involving Turkey and Germany, resembling "Babel"


This posting is a review of “The Edge of Heaven” (other translations and titles: “Auf der anderen Seite” – “On the Other Side” – "Yasamin kiyisinda"), 2007, Strand Releasing / Matchstick Factory/ NDR, dir. Fatih Akin, in German and Turkish with subtitles.

Strand has been releasing bigger and more ambitious foreign films (like “The Yacoubian Building”), sometimes with LGBT themes embedded in coincidental stories examining much bigger issues, sometimes set in conservative societies. This film has been compared to “Babel” (dir. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, from Paramount Vantage in 2006). It demonstrates how events, partially coincidental, can set off “daisy chain” reactions that bring characters from different countries or cultures together. You could call it “karma film.”

The story starts with a kindly young Turkish-born college literature professor (Nejat, played by Baki Davrak) in Bremen, Germany. His reckless father (Tuncel Kurtiz) consorts with a prostitute (Nursel Kose), who has a daughter Ayten (Nurgul Yesilcay). The father flippantly remarks that he expects his son (who appears to be single and might be gay) to take care of him. The father accidentally kills the prostitute and goes to prison for manslaughter, and Nejat travels to Istanbul and rents a car, looking around the Black Sea coast (the Edge of Heaven) for the daughter, whom he would like to help. But, unknown to him, Ayten, a political activist, has fled back to Germany, hoping to find asylum. She meets a sympathetic girl Lotte (Patrycia Ziolkowska) who actually invites her to move in with her mother. They develop a bit of a lesbian relationship, shown as largely “platonic”. But that seems subordinate to the other political issues. The German police stop them and investigate Ayten, who claims legal asylum, but the German courts refuse on a technicality. There is discussion that Turkey is about to join the European Union, whereas Ayten has been part of a radical group protesting the EU. Ayten is deported, and Lotte follows her to Istanbul. Lotte carries a gun, carelessly in a satchel, which some street kids snatch. When she finds then, they shoot her as if they were playing with a toy cap gun. Lotte’s mother travels to Istanbul in grief, and the ending of the film connects her to the kindly professor, who seems to want to stop teaching an live in Turkey and operate a book business. The plot circle is closed.

The movie, which runs slightly over two hours, moves quickly through the long series of events. It’s usually clear what has happened, but the pace is so quick that the scenes lose some urgency. But many scenes are intimate and powerful. Rarely has the underbelly of Istanbul and even rural Asiatic Turkey been shown in so much detail. The sequence where Lotte is killed seems random and rough, and comes across as a shock to the viewer. The film uses a scene with a casket being unloaded from a Turkey air plane and then later another casket being loaded as a visual way to circle to story. The film also opens and almost closes with a little exchange at a convenience store in the Turkish countryside, again to frame the events. There is even a chilling mention of Chernobyl, as if to tell us that while the film tells us a real story, it is really a sequence of events, connected somewhat by coincidence (sometimes excruciating in tragedy) that raises a panoply of political issues. This is a kind of segmented story telling, although here it unfolds in a relatively linear manner.

"Driving Greener": short film on improving gasoline mileage


"Driving Greener", dir. and wr. By Brian Palmer, is an independent short subject (12 minutes) about practical tips for reducing gasoline usage. A little of it was shown on Washington DC's NBC4 on June 24, 2008. The link is here.

The filmmaker analyzes his own 92.5 mile round trip commute, reverse from traffic, across the Bay Bridge in Maryland, in a 2000 Honda Civic. He buys a scan gage, which shows is miles per gallon and the load from air conditioning and even high beams. His baseline mpg was 32.5. He found he could improve it to 37 by “drafting” behind large trucks as well as staying within the speed limit and accelerating and decelerating gently. A tune-up increased his mileage to 39. His best mileage ever was about 45. The filmmaker gives mathematical analysis of the potential annual savings by changing driving and car maintenance habit.

The film discusses the issue of gasoline additives, such as acetone. One fuel buyer for a convenience store chain tells Palmer that when retailers had to switch to 10% ethanol (gasohol), all gasoline storage tanks had to be cleaned internally, because alcohols are effective solvents. The film speculates that additives, even alcohol itself, could be harmful to engine gaskets and other components. Indeed, I had one oil pan gasket leak at about 80000 miles in a Ford Escort, and the repair shop said that this inevitably happens with ethanol additives in gasoline.

The film contains some interviews, some brief but neat animation (Morgan Spurlock style) and some impressive photography of the Maryland Chesapeake Bay Bridge (on US 50, 10 miles east of Annapolis and the US Naval Academy). The Bridge opened in 1952. But for several years before, as a boy, my family made trips from the DC area to Ocean City using a ferry to cross the bay. The filmmaker works in Chestertown, well known for antique homes.

Picture: Bay Bridge, my own trip, March 2004 (snapshot from video at doaskdotell.com in photo directory, look for "Bay Bridge")

Monday, June 23, 2008

HBO: Hard Times at Douglas High, a "No Child Left Behind" Report Card (review)


"Hard Times at Douglas High: A “No Child Left Behind” Report Card" (112 min) is an important new documentary from HBO Films (Picturehouse would handle any theatrical showings). The HBO link is this.

The film presents daily life for students, teachers and administrators at an inner city school in Baltimore, MD. That school is Frederick Douglas High School. The year is 2005. The film focuses on “live action” style of documentation, with not that much narration. The film tells us early that the school has failed to meet the norms of Adequate Yearly Progress as specified by the federal “No Child Left Behind” law passed in 2002. A minority of students pass sate exams (HSA Standardized Assessment Tests in Maryland, they would be called SOL’s in Virginia) in English, math, and other subjects. HAS’s are not required for graduation until 2009, and some students do not attempt the test beyond signing their names. The school has only 83% attendance, when 90% is required.

A typical ninth grade class has 500 students. By senior year, only about 180 students are left.

The film shows many classroom scenes. One particular English teacher, Mr. McDermott, seems to be effective in class as the film shows him. He is a young Caucasian male in a school that is almost entirely African American, effectively segregated de facto. However, he tells the filmmaker that he is overwhelmed by discipline issues despite careful lesson planning. He resigns after one semester.

The school hires a graduate student (in social work and education) as a long term sub for his class. The graduate student, African American, has no classroom teaching and finds he must learn to bond with low income teens. The film goes on to say that 66% of the teachers are uncertified, and many are subs (including long term subs).

The principal (Isabelle Grant) is shown disciplining students. Bathroom doors are locked during class. Sometimes students are required to attend remedial and Saturday classes.

Near the end of the film, the graduation is shown. Many students do not graduate, and many who do graduate do not have parents to attend.

The English scores rose from 10 to 25% and math from 1% to 10%. There was a battle over restructuring the school because it still did not make adequate yearly progress. Finally much of the administration was replaced and a local university was involved in helping with the ninth grade problem.

Visitors know that I was a substitute teacher in northern Virginia from 2004 to 2007. I have discussed the problems on a couple other blogs. For example, this link explains much of it, and the label provides related entries.

Visitors may want to compare this film to "Freedom Writers" (2007, dir. Richard La Gravanese, Paramount / MTV), about Los Angeles inner city teacher Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank) who has her students write journals that get published in a book; my review is on an older site here.

Picture: Department of Education Building on Independence Ave in Washington DC. Note the NCLB banner on the building (2005).

Saturday, June 21, 2008

"The Great Pink Scare" on PBS Independent Lens: docummentary about a college witch-hunt in 1960


On June 22, at 12:30 AM in Washington, WETA aired “The Great Pink Scare” (dir. Dan Miller) in its “Independent Lens” series.

In early September 1960 three Smith College (Northampton MA) professors were arrested in a “sting” set up by Massachusetts state police with the United States Postal Service for receiving “obscene” material in the mail. These items consisted mostly of muscle and male magazines and some 8 mm movies. The first man arrested was Newton Arvin, who did the “naming names” of other homosexuals in a manner than reminds one of military witchhunts today under “don’t ask don’t tell.” The men were tried quickly; two received suspended sentences. Arvin would die of cancer in 1963, and the others would have their convictions overturned in 1963. The faculty of Smith wanted them retained, but the administration refused to renew their contracts.

The mechanics of the first arrest are striking. Newton was at the laundry when he was told that men were in his apartment. When he arrived, police searched his closets for "contraband" much the way police search hard drives today, even for "deleted" files.

The newspapers in 1960 made a sensation of the “scandal”. A fundamentalist preacher fed the flames with “deliver us from evil” speeches. Yet, there were gay bars in nearby Springfield, MA. It is ironic that in 1960 Massachusetts was one of the nations most homophobic states, even though now it is the first state to legalize gay marriage. Yet, from the viewpoint of the police, this was as much about “smut” and mails as it was about homosexuality.

Barry Werth, author of “The Scarlet Professor: Newton Arvin: A Literary Life Shattered by Scandal,” speaks in the film. Werth discusses the invasion of the professors’ privacy, and the idea that the police could enter their homes with no provocation. The film draws a hidden analogy to the Patriot Act today.

The film also mentions "Boston marriages" among lesbians of past repressive eras (a topic also covered in the 1998 indie film "Out of the Past" from Jeffrey Dupre.

It may be interesting to note that Smith College is an all women's school, and that in 1960 it's mission was to produce "educated wives and mothers." One of my best high school friends started at nearby Amherst in 1961. I remember a winter hiking trip in 1965 (Mt. Greylock in the Berkshires) that included a visit to both Amherst and Northampton.

My own experience with McCarthyism would start in the fall of 1961 with my expulsion from the College of William and Mary for telling the Dean of Men that I was a “latent homosexual” after a bizarre investigation over the Thanksgiving weekend. That is covered on the Nov. 28 2006 entry on my main blog. Certainly, this film sheds some light on why this happened to me. The overriding moral climate seemed designed to protect (from distraction) the passions that were supposed to live within conventional heterosexual courtship and marriage. The moral climate also suggested that conventional marriage, family formation and procreation or at least some grounding in family responsibility was expected of every adult, although, if so, police raids, purges, firings and expulsions (like mine) are a horrific way to sent that kind of a message.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life - PBS Independent Lens film


Tonight, at 10:30 PM PBS WETA aired the documentary biography film directed by Robert Levi, “Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life” (85 min, Washington Square Films), as part of the "Independent Lens" (or "Independent Cuts") series. Strayhorn (1915-1967) was an African American jazz composer and pianist, and for much of his career the “power behind the throne” of Duke Ellington. Much of the film documents the way Strayhorn did much of the actual composition that Ellington got public credit for, and only over time (and after a brief separation) did Strayhorn start getting the public credit he deserved.

The film covers Strayhorn’s life in great detail, with comments by other composers such as Gunther Schuller and Don Shirley.

Strayhorn was raised near Pittsburgh in a steel town (although he was born in Ohio), among ten children, many of whom did not survive. He did not have a piano at home and his teachers discouraged his interest in music, which started out with the classics. Apparently he took an early interest in composing. He met Ellington when the famous performer came to Pittsburgh, and the relationship would grow quickly.

Strayhorn would demonstrate his composition talents in the early 1940s during the ASCAP strike, when none of Ellington’s music could legally be performed on the radio, but new music could. Ellington needed the radio broadcasts to sell vinyl records. Strayhorn and companions composed much of the music on a train tour, the locomotives of which are shown in the film. The movie, in fact, has much archival footage of Strayhorn, some of it in color of surprising quality.

Strayhorn was homosexual, and met a companion named Bridges, with whom he lived for about a decade in New York. In the 1940s, gay bars were often raided and gay life was carried out privately and underground, African American gay life all the more so. His relationships with other musicians or Ellington were not affected, however; he had a deep platonic relationship with one woman Lina Horne. Even after Ellington agreed to give him public credit for his work, at least one press agent refused to do so because Strayhorn was gay.

Strayhorn, even more than Ellington, sought merge classical music with jazz, and idea that made many people uncomfortable (although avant garde composers in both Vienna and France had also started to do so, sometimes even in twelve tone music). At one point, he developed and recorded a jazz adaptation of Tchaikowsky’s Nutcracker Suite, which Columbia Records produced. He composed a huge output of songs, including the one titling the film, as well as “Take the A Train”. He and Ellington collaborated on various musicals and shows, such as “Jump for Joy”. Ellington is credited with an orchestral suite called “Black Brown and Beige” but Strayhorn actually composed a lot of it at the last minute before performance.

Toward the end, Strayhorn became aggressive in the Civil Rights movement, meeting with Medgar Evers and Dr. Martin Luther King.

Strayhorn smoked like a chimney, and developed esophageal cancer, of which he would die at age 51. The film takes the viewpoint that Ellington gave him stability, but his creative talents might have gone farther if he had been on his own more.

Ellington has a major apartment building named after him in Washington DC, near the Lincoln Theater.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

"Deep Water" aired by Independent Lens series on PBS


PBS Independent Lens (with an introduction by Terrence Howard from “Hustle & Flow”) aired (on June 19, 2008) the 2006 British documentary “Deep Water,” directed by Louise Osmand and Jerry Rothwell, and with an original theatrical release by IFC films. The film probably relates to the book "The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst" by Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall. This film is not quite “Open Water” or “Castaway” but it shares the desperation of both. Documentary, they say, should have a beginning, middle and end with a kind of rooting interest even if you know the outcome. The film probably fits a textbook example of effective documentary technique.

Documentary must have a “story” and that is certainly strong here. In 1967, amateur yachtsman Donald Crowhurst enters a London Times sailing contest (the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race), and takes a lot of money on what sounds like a dare. He is to sail around the world, heading east, around the Cape of Africa, across the Indian and Pacific Oceans, south of Patagonia, and up the Atlantic. If he drops out, he loses the money and his family is forced into bankruptcy and loss of home. The film stresses the financial urgency, partly because of a failed business and prior life hardships. Despite elaborate preparations, he falls behind, and starts a deception, pretending to continue the race when actually he languished in the South Atlantic. He wanted to finish second so that he would not be investigated. But when the apparent winner’s boat sunk, he was to become the winner. He let his boat sleep in the sticky Saragosso Sea (more or less the Bermuda Triangle), and it would eventually be found by a passing frigate, along with his painfully philosophical handwritten journal (three decades before mobile blogging). Crowhurst vanished and is thought to have drowned after jumping overboard; anyone who has read Sebastian Junger’s “The Perfect Storm” knows that would be a horrible way to go.

Films made largely at sea can suffer a certain blue monotony. But this film provides plenty of interesting visuals of Crowhurst’s life on land in Britain, or the south English coast and of the crowds wishing the contestants off; there is lots of original footage, some of it black and white, from the 1960s.

Again, remember that Crowhurst was alone at sea for months. I wondered if he had a volleyball called "Wilson" on board.

The story, one of personal ethics and personal tragedy, seems quite fitting for British film, as this sort of contest is most fitting for a nation with a millennium of world history based on seafaring. Yet the basic dilemma seems universal. The film, after all, reminds us that he did this for his family. This was one of those traps that one can fall into.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

New documentary protrays avant garde cellist Arthur Russell ("Wild Combination")


Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell,” directed by Matt Wolf, has shown at the AFI Silverdocs documentary film festival in Silver Spring, MD this week, after showings in the Berlin and Edinburgh film festivals. The website is this. Wolf was present at the screening tonight.

The 71 minute film (in HDCAM with some Super8) is a biography of the avant garde cellist Arthur Russell (1952-1992), singer and composer, who grew up in Oslaloosa, Iowa with progressive parents. He always wanted to be his own person with his music, and moved to a Buddhist commune in San Francisco in early adulthood. He found he could not “own” his own musical instrument and then moved to the East Village in New York, to a building on 12th Street, not far from Allen Ginsberg. He entered into a long term relationship with Tom Lee, who often speaks in the film. The film mentions his teenage acne, which persisted, but nevertheless he attracted men with his charisma.

He had admired serialist music, as by John Gage, and befriended Philip Glass (who appears in the movie), and took over as director of “The Kitchen” in 1974. That shop might be compared artistically in significance to Andy Warhol’s “Factory,” even if the latter is better known to many people. It struck me as I watched the film that the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh might want to do some sort of exhibit of his art (as well as show this film). He was interested in the idea that “classical” music could fit into the disco world, which was developing in Soho in the 70s. (I remember those GAANY dances at 99 Wooster Street myself.)

When he sings and plays, the cello often sounds deliberately out of tune, creating an effect that Mahler used with the violin in the Fourth Symphony scherzo. In fact, some of his music to me sounded like it could fit into a sort of post-late Maher post-Shostakovich “song chamber symphony” world (Shostakovich’s 14th Symphony came to mind to me during the movie.)

In the 1980s, he became HIV positive, and became ill with an HIV-related cancer and died in 1992, although he tried to remain active quite late into his illness.

I believe that I may have me him once in 1978 when I was living in the Cast Iron Building myself in New York. I had a friend named Bill Bent, another musician who would move to San Francisco in late 1978 and set up a music studio himself with 80s technology. Bent composed a 90 minute “symphony” called “Sirius Lullaby”. I believe I met Russell once somehow through Bent. (I was visiting Bent and his partner in San Francisco on vacation on the "Black Monday" of the 1987 stock market crash.) Russell’s music did sound a little bit familiar. I had another artist friend, Ronnie Kahn, who composed a book called “Songs and Creations” and who sung at nursing homes. I also knew a artist named Robert Adsit and have one of his woodcuts (which would be shown in San Antonio). Another artist in the area was sculptor Stuart Lamle, who founded the water art company "Aquagraphics". The movie brought back memories of that year in New York City. I would move to Dallas in early 1979.

I expect the film will air in some LGBT film festivals, and could make a logical selection for Reel Affirmations in Washington DC.

Picture: historic Cast Iron Building in NYC, where I lived 1974-1978.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

"Bigger, Stronger, Faster": documentary about the culture of banning performance enhancement substances


Bigger Stronger Faster,” from Magnolia Pictures and directed by Chris Bell, has two working subtitles, “The Side Effects of Being Human” and “Is it cheating if everybody’s doing it?” The website for this comical documentary is this.

I used to hear teachers say that about cheating. “Everybody does it, but it doesn’t make it right.” Indeed. But Bell has a point here, there is a lot of double talk in the steroids-in-sports crackdown.

Chris Bell is the middle child among three brothers (the filling of an oreo cookie, his mother says) in a religious (Catholic?) New York State (Long Island?) suburban family. All the family members tended to be heavy, but the men were always able to build muscle mass and strength. Pumping iron became a major family mission. The youngest boy, nicknamed “Smelly” had a wrestling career despite needing special education in school. Bell himself has had somewhat of a similar career and, in his 30s, lives near Los Angeles, apparently.

Gradually, Bell develops his thesis, that we are of many minds on the use of “performance substances.” They are banned in sports (both Bush presidents make a spectacle of this) because they are seen as “cheating” and making the “competition” meaningless. But there is nothing wrong with a classical musician’s taking beta blockers (like atenolol) to inhibit stage fright. And the US Air Force allows its pilots to take “Go pills,” which were mentioned in a tragic incident in Afghanistan in 2002 when friendly fire accidentally killed four Canadians. Athletes, in fact, are sometimes allowed “inadvertent use” of substances like common decongestants. Anabolic steroids (based on testosterone) are much more objectionable than other hormones. The film shows a cow genetically engineered to be “muscular” and asks ethical questions about genetic engineering for sports performance.

He spends some time on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has to act Janus-faced about the issue, and whose pictures were taken down from Gold’s Gym when he was suddenly elected governor in California when Gray Davis was recalled.

The bodybuilders in the movie tend to look moonfaced, and seem to pay homage to David Skinner’s notorious June 1999 essay in the Weekly Standard, “Notes on the hairless man.” In fact, anabolic steroids may increase body hair but cause infertility and reduce male performance. There is a scene where an ad photographer demonstrates manipulating a model’s look on a computer, strictly for vanity purposes. Nevertheless, a girl shaves the chest of the male “model” on camera, as if it were part of the beard, the first time I have seen something like that since a scene from “Bent” (about much grimmer subject matter; I’m not counting the waxing of Steve Carell or Harrison Ford.); that could have been done on the computer. There was plenty of animation (in Morgan Spurlock style), and some ("Final Destination") goofy special effects appeared for gross-out purposes, as when a man's arms fall out of their sockets at the shoulders during a power lift.

For men, remember, physical fitness and presence used to have socially competitive and "moral" significance for young men. The June 23 issue of Time Magazine, with its presentation on overweight kids, mentions that now even boys feel the social pressure from male icons where are "buffed and waxed" (page 105, from article by Lori Oliwenstein, "Weighty Issues").

The movie also treats us to the look of female bodybuilders, who have their own corner of the web world (look for “valkyries”).

Sunday, June 15, 2008

When do movie directors elect to use "Cinemascope"?



I often wonder how directors today decide whether to make their movies in fill 2.35 to 1 anamorphic widescreen or the standard 1.85 : 1 (originally the standard had been 1.37: 1). Theater management colloquially use the terms “scope” and “flat” for the most common formats. In fact, there are many lenses, film sizes, and techniques employed for each format. A good website reference to all of them is perhaps “Film Formats” on DVDaust, link here.

Many “multiplexes” present their “scope” pictures by cropping the height and projecting an image with less area, particularly in the smaller auditoriums. This is done even with the newer “stadium seating” complexes. This, to me, seems to cause loss of apparent definition, even though the full anamorphic image has more visual information more to look at. I prefer to see a full widescreen film in an auditorium where the screen actually widens further. Even so, some theaters crop images skillfully enough that the moviegoer does not notice.

What is also annoying is a couple of the ways previews are presented. Sometimes, the widescreen movies are cropped vertically. Other times, when the feature is itself in anamorphic “scope”, previews are shown to suggest that the previewed movies are in scope when actually they are not. Sometimes older theaters are not careful to fit widescreen pictures properly onto their screens, and do not open curtains wide enough. When I saw “The Good Shepherd” at a Regal Theater in a large auditorium, the curtains would not open fully and were stuck at the 1.85 setting, with some of the image showing on the curtains. Another curious event happened with Robert Redford’s “The Horse Whisperer” in 1998, which started out as 1.85: 1 and switched to 2.35: 1 after about forty minutes. I don’t know why this was done.

How do directors decide whether to use widescreen anamorphic? Alfred Hitchcock said that he did not like Cinemascope because it was not effective with closeups. Paramount, recall, developed a sharper process called VistaVision that used a more standard aspect ratio (in the 50s, 1.66: 1 was sometimes used, and sometimes is used overseas now). M. Night Shyamalan seems to prefer standard 1.85: 1 in films (like “The Happening” and “Signs”) that presumably could use more opening up.

The conventional wisdom is that “scope” should be used for genre action movies (like “Indiana Jones” etc.). Yet, today, many “indie” art films use full 2.35 :1, including the HD video “Bubble” and the curious reflexive drama “Redbelt.”

“Cinemascope” came to the movies in grand style in 1953 with 20th Century Fox and “The Robe.” In the beginning, it was widely used for spectacles, and large-scale musical comedies. Studios like Fox, MGM, Columbia and Warner Brothers developed their own stylized look in big films, partly because then companies used proprietary color processes that had subtle differences. Many other kinds of “scope” were experimented with (as in the link above), as was the three-projector (and later single projector) Cinerama.

Scope could be effective with black and white, as demonstrated with “Hud” (1963) and “The Diary of Anne Frank” (1959), or even "Advise and Consent" (1962).

It seems to me that aspect ratio can be used to demonstrate the “layering” of a film in a non-linear plot. For example, the “real time” story could be filmed 2.35: 1 in current time and full color. Flashbacks could be filmed in black and white, 2.35 : 1 still. But if the film in addition requires embedded “Hamlet plays” (stories made up by the characters than finally affect the main story), pieces of these could be shown on the same screen 1.85: 1 with some convention for framing the borders.

My understanding is that "Dogme 95" films are supposed to be presented 1:33 to 1; yet Lars Von Trier's triology "(including Dogville" and "Mandalay") has been presented 2.35 to 1, were his films "Breaking the Waves" and "Dancing in the Dark."

Friday, June 06, 2008

Tarsem's "The Fall" is a fascinating experiment


The Fall, from Roadside Attractions and directed by Tarsem Singh, is certainly an unusual film, and perhaps an archetypal example of nonlinear storytelling. The embedded “story,” however contrived, reminds me of Clive Barker’s novel “Imajica” in jumping from one space/time to another (as if the different sets in India, Egypt, South Africa, etc. in different ancient historical periods correspond to Barker’s “dominions”). In fact, the Black Bandit more or less corresponds to Barker’s protagonist “Gentle” and I could imagine Barker having directed this film and giving a similar look. The mideastern cities with the blue roofs remind one of one of Barker’s metropolises. I supposed the title of the film has some religious connotations, and the film's image "trademark" of the masked horseman is also striking. The desert, mountain and tropical fantasy scenes are breathtaking and almost call for Imax; at least, I think the film needed to be made "2.35 : 1" anamorphic aspect ratio (rather than the standard aspect).

The frame set up is also interesting. A silent movies stuntman Roy (Lee Pace), a likeable young man, lies in a Los Angeles hospital bed around 1915, injured from a jump from a train bridge on a set. He meets an injured little girl, and bonds the way a warm-hearted father should with a daughter (even though she is not his). They start telling a story, and the resulting tale is an amalgam of an adult and a child’s view of historical events and situations. There are other subplots, such as when she tried to fetch him some morphine from the period-piece pharmacy.

The pre-credits and closing sequences offer interesting shots of steam-locomotives and trains on bridges and then of train wrecks, in black and white, with the Allegretto movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony played in the background.

The movie is certainly an interesting experiment. Another level of complexity could occur if the embedded stories themselves were bifurcated. As it is, there is still a beginning-middle-end structure to both the outer story about the stunt man and the inner fantasy.

Update: July 8, 2008

The format of this film recalls that of the 1967 Italian setting of the Sophocles tragedy
Oedipus Rex” (“Edipo re”), directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini. The beginning and end take place in pre World War II (becoming fascist) Bologna, Italy, with the birth of the baby. The long middle section of the movie takes place in ancient times, in a setting that may be north Africa. The middle section (and the weaving of the plot in the play) seems baroque, but with plenty of effective use of the plain technology of the times. The washed out, pale Technicolor is surprisingly effective. Pasolini uses the opening introduction of Franz Schubert’s String Quartet, with its ambiguous modulations, to great effect.

The DVD is now released by Water Bearer Films, and includes a biographical short “A Film Maker’s Life.” Pasolini makes the point that Oedipus does some bad things because life unfolds on him without any real understanding. Pasolini believes that a filmmaker is an author, and should craft everything, including the music. He says he wants to outline and present all the moral paradoxes of his world, without proposing or even having to live out a particular solution (“practice what you preach”). He says he is a Marxist, but uses the market and capitalism to express his message.

"Robert Kennedy Remembered": a documentary triibute to RFK made in 1968 by Guggenheim


On the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (in Los Angeles, by Sirhan) some PBS stations last night aired the documentary short “Robert Kennedy Remembered.” The film was produced and directed in late 1968 by Charles Guggenheim (associated with the museums in New York and Bilbao), and National General Pictures, which as a major studio from 1948-1973 (it would eventually be absorbed largely by Warner Brothers), and runs about thirty minutes.

The movie is in black and white and the story of his life moves quickly. The narration relates that Robert early decided to support his brother to build his own career, before he became JFK’s Attorney General. There was a brief account of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, with pictures of the U-2 images of the Cuban installations. The film says that RFK was flying over Indiana in 1963 when he learned of JFK’s assassination in Dallas. Robert was particularly vigorous in enforcing federal court desegregation orders, especially in Alabama, and he would go after organized crime. He often spoke of healing hatreds and strifes, but tended to speak of them in largely collective terms. Sometimes he mingled with demonstrators or the underprivileged, such as migrant workers. Gradually he developed a personal moral opposition to the war in Vietnam. In mid March 1968 he announced his candidacy for president. The film covers the final tragedy in Los Angeles briefly.

ABC News also reviewed the film and aired portions with its own commentary. NBC Today has noted that Robert Kennedy predicted that an African American would become president within 40 years. That would be 2008, and he (as had Johnson) used terminology that is not acceptable today. As I heard a high school administrator say once, over decades "times change" with respect to many issues.

In 1963, Washington DC would name its then new stadium after him, as RFK; the “new” baseball Senators played there until 1971, and the Redskins played there until the mid 1990s. The new Nationals played there from 2005-2007.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

"What Would Jesus Buy?", documentary of tour by "Reverend Billy"


A neat and somewhat overlooked film recently produced by Morgan Spurlock is “What Would Jesus Buy?” (website) from Palisades Pictures, Warrior Poets, and Arts Alliance America, directed by Rob VanAlkemade. The film starts out with lots of pictures of Christmas-decorated malls and cityscapes, and pretty soon has us on the tour with Bill Talen (Reverend Billy) and his Church of Stop Shopping Choir.

The film gives a lot of interesting observations and facts. Christmas is all about “buy now and pay later” urges. 60% of Americans owe more than $13000 in credit card debt. Children average 40 hours of media exposure a week, and up to about age 7 or 8 they do not know the difference between commercials and entertainment. (I used to hate those cereal commercials where words were deliberately misspelled.) There are some homey scenes of kids' toys, and one girl has an interesting model train set. Then the bus tour starts, and even includes a bus accident with a commercial trucker. Pretty soon Billy visits the Mall of America in Bloomington, MN (ten miles south of Minneapolis), which I visited many times when I lived there from 1997-2003. I used to park on the west garage (the western states), and I remember that the General Cinema theaters were to the South. I remember the amusement park, the indoor roller coaster, and even the Pride Alive parties. I particularly remember the Discovery Channel store. They head down I-35, detouring out of Des Moines to visit the small town of Traer, eventually to wind up in Dallas, then head to Las Vegas and Los Angeles to make protests.

The end of the film covers the Wal-Mart issue (with a confrontation in Bentonville, AK, corporate headquarters), and the whole subject of “globalization” and mentions workers in Bangladesh who, at age 13, work 19.5 hour days sometimes at 7 cents an hour. The organization “Responsible Shopper” is presented. Andrew Young comments on the Wal-Mart issue, which is said to drive small shops out of business as well as exploit overseas labor. Reverend Billy starts throwing around the term "shopapocalypse".

The DVD has some extras, such as a brief short showing a "Ten Commandments" icon being manufactured in China, which the film says does not recognize freedom of religion.

This might be a good place to mention the 60 minute documentary “Married at the Mall" (2002, Frozen Feet Films, 60 min.), produced and directed by Melody Gilbert, and used in discussion in a class in documentary filmmaking presented by IFPMSP in 2002 in Minneapolis. The film portrayed couples getting married in a chapel at the Mall of America, and how commerce and the institution of marriage relate culturally.

Picture: Downtown Minneapolis MN, Post Office on First Street.