Subtle Digital Effects

When I look at my favorite movies, in general they focus on practical effects. These effects have aged much better than movies using digital effects even five years ago, In addition, movies like The Assassin or The Hateful Eight have opted to use real (70mm) film for much of the production and the beautiful shots from those movies affirms that choice. Whether or not I enjoy these movies more because of their “real” aspect, or because of the type of director that would choose to use these “real” techniques, I have developed a bias towards “real” effects and methods. However, the reading explored some uses of digital effects that changed my view, at least on a little, on their use in films.

For one, there is a very obvious utility in having an incorruptible master copy of a shot via a digital file. Many different effects can be tried out with no risk to prior work done (unlike in the older methods, e.g. optical compositing) . Someone posted a short video of Wes Anderson trying out different fonts and signs in the lobby of the Grand Budapest Hotel through digital editing. I think we have seen directors take more risks in set design and the more subtle effects knowing that they could “fix it in post” and it wouldn’t look bad.

The digital toolkit has also opened up new possibilities of what can be filmed effectively. The reading brought up a very weird but interesting example of this in Ratatouille’s food. Onscreen food has always looked strange and fake to me, which I didn’t even realize until the reading brought it up. Digital techniques have allowed a very fine tuning of minor details like this; I’m sure there are many more examples of completely minor details that were throwing my subconscious off, that we can now fix through digital editing. Even as the large scale effects become outdated and obvious with time, I think the low-key examples of digital effects remain immersive and unseen as a new tool in the director’s kit.

Escalation (and De-Escalation) in Do the Right Thing

The idea of escalating conflicts is explored throughout Do the Right Thing (dir. Spike Lee) as the day escalates in temperature. Buggin’ Out’s initial dispute with Sal (at least literally) starts with a half-dollar argument over how much cheese he gets on his slice of pizza. It then grows into an argument over Black representation in Sal’s Wall of Fame, and further into an argument over Sal’s treatment of the neighborhood and the ownership of his space. Both Sal and Buggin’ believe at each step to be simply responding in kind to the other’s actions, but are in fact taking steps to worsen their conflict. Buggin’s criticism of Sal’s wall in a different context (e.g. after ordering a slice and not arguing over price and value of that slice) would be taken in a completely different manner. Sal seemingly can’t help but take his criticism as a continuation of their argument over pizza and aggressively tells him to leave instead of staying and causing trouble. This escalation continues until Mookie takes Buggin’ out of the store. Neither aggrieved party is willing to de-escalate the situation, and an outside actor in Mookie has to step in to calm things down.

We see similar situations of escalation throughout the film (Radio and the store owners, Mayor and the store owners, Sal’s sons, Mookie and his sister, and of course in Radio and Sal’s confrontation at the end). In all of these cases (maybe not the brothers’). For these situations, neither person/group is necessarily, completely in the wrong (even the police were shown earlier in the film not to “have it out” for the people in Bedsty, though their treatment of Radio Raheem shows racist tendencies). These morally grey situations seem to leave little hope – if neither party is wrong, how can we prevent situations from arising? However, Lee does depict some scenes of de-escalation.

When Buggin’s shoes get scuffed by the biker, the outside parties actually step in and deliberately raise the tension. The biker escalates the situation by being rude to Buggin’s instead of apologizing. Buggin’ has to choose to calm himself down and take no action, rather than escalating the situation further.
We  see Mother Sister and Da Mayor reconcile after years of hostility through Mayor’s gift of flowers, and Mother Sister’s recognition of Da Mayor’s positive qualities.Other resolutions: Mookie and Tina make up, the Korean store owners avoid damage at the hand of the neighborhood, even Sal and Mookie have some kind of resolution at the end in front of a mural showing The American, Jamaican, and Puerto-Rican flags all sandwiched together. In a sense, even the neighborhood’s burning of Sal’s pizza is a de-escalation relative to the loss of a human life.

This write-up was very muddy, but it is a complex topic and my own thoughts and feelings on it aren’t completely settled. I think the most important take way from Lee is that viewing conflicts like these (especially in the context of racially based conflicts) as tit-for-tat is not productive and is missing the heart of the issue. This is especially relevant today, as conversations about violence against Black people get locked into looking at the specific circumstances of these events and not on the larger issues that enable this brand of violence to occur.

They Might Be Giants, Archival Footage

The first thing I thought about during our class on Tuesday was this song:

It is a fun song that lampoons the idea of an amateur making an experimental film (or maybe the idea of experimental film in general). It has some fun lines, like: “I already know the ending, its the part that makes your face implode, I don’t know what makes your face implode, but that’s the way the movie ends”. This line in particular, in some way, parallels the grand ideas that these films are supposed to convey. For example, the idea that Dog Star Man is a creation myth or that Un Chien Anadalou would be extremely upsetting to the bourgeoisie at the time. However, I didn’t want to just pick this song since I really don’t think it has too much to say beyond “haha, aren’t those artists and experimental films strange?”.

This article goes into a bit into the history of archival footage:

Archival footage has become a business, but at the time Bruce Conner created A Movie most archival footage was old government stock. Material film is highly flammable, so storing it in the past posed difficulties. However, digitizing old footage has made it both easier to store and retrieve. I would be curious to see a movie similar to A Movie made today with digital editing, and compare the differences.

To tie to all together, They Might be Giants use a large variety of different sounds and genres. However, their entire catalog is immediately recognizable. Similarly, the making of A Movie didn’t involve any actual filming and used stock footage throughout, but has a very distinct feel and narrative.

Why work in genre?

Something I wonder about is, why do directors choose to make the movies they make? That is, I wonder why they diverge from the trope of looking at directors as “auteurs” who are happiest making inscrutable art-house films. Money is of course one cynical explanation (and there is definitely the occasion where a director will scale back after hitting it big). Of course this ties into the idea of the “cinema of attractions”, and that genre films allow for a departure from reality that suits the spectacle of the attraction. Even personally I can see this effect, as I am more interested in sci-fi movies because of the often incredible special effects. The book reading goes more into the use of genre to alert the audience of common themes and then play with them (e.g. special effects in sci-fi).

So  then why are directors (who at this point in their careers could make any movie they desired) continually choosing to make films in a genre. Tarantino likes crime films and lately westerns, Scorsese likes his crime movies, etc.

Christopher Nolan (at least partly) answers this question in the reading, here is the relevant quote:

“Why am I working in this genre for the audience? What does it allow me to do as a filmmaker that I couldn’t do in a more everyday universe? The answer is this operatic quality. It’s this ability to blow things up into very large emotions that are accessible to a universal audience.”

I think this is an interesting idea. There is certainly merit in a small-scale character driven drama, but it is easy to fail to connect to that kind of movie.  It seems strange that it should be easier to connect to a man in a bat suit fighting crime, but I think you can leverage the natural suspension of disbelief in a super-hero film to get the audience engaged and connected. That is, since the audience has already taken the first step in accepting to pretend that the fiction of the movie is real, then it is easy to get them to take another step to connecting with the characters.

Some questions:

Why do you think directors make genre films?

Why do you think you like the genres that you like?

Citizen Kane and Audience Engagement

The central action of Citizen Kane lies in the mystery of Kane’s final word – “Rosebud”. The overarching narrative (the newsreel staff attempting to find an explanation for “rosebud”) binds together the eclectic genius of the film. In essence there are two plots – the story of Charles Foster Kane’s life, and the story of the attempt to explain his last words. The flashback sequences take up most of the actual time and space of the movie, but without the newsreel plot the film would lose a great amount of coherence and structure. The “meta” narrative of the newsreel provides context for the flashback sequences and also allows for a smooth transition between the sequences.

Given the title, it makes sense that the most important, interesting, and meaningful scenes all take place as flashbacks focusing on Kane. In essence, and I think where Orson Welles’s real passion and idea was, the film attempts to condense a man’s life into two hours of short vignettes. However, the audience does not start out with any knowledge or attachment to Kane. Welles uses the mystery of Rosebud drives our attention and engagement with the film until we can make the transition to engaging because of our attachment to Kane. At the end of the movie, the reporters explicitly dismiss the importance of Rosebud. I thought it was hilarious as the woman says “What about Rosebud? Don’t you think that explains anything?”, and immediately Thompson ostensibly dismisses the entire point of the movie – “No, I don’t.”

I think Orson Welles uses these more traditional narrative structures, a mystery and an investigation, to lure the audience into the story he really wants to tell about a man’s life.

Star Wars and Casablanca

Casablanca is almost impossible to watch as only the film that is. It seems like every scene has a classic line; most of them are so integrated into American culture that I didn’t even realize they were from the film. As such, it should come as no surprise that later films owe a great deal of inspiration to Casablanca. One series in particular that wears this influence on its sleeve is Star Wars. In particular, Mos Eisley exists as a (insert whatever genre you think Star Wars is) version of Casablanca. Certain lines pay direct homage to Casablanca – 15,000 credits to leave Tatooine directly parallels the 15,000 francs to get a visa out of Casablanca. Classic Star Wars characters are spiritual successors to their Casablanca counterparts. Han is a space John Wayne with the attitude of Bogart; Jabba is a sluggified version of Signor Ferarri (early versions even kept the Fez). This article gives an excellent breakdown of the various influences of Star Wars. It doesn’t spend much time on Casablanca, but the time it does spend is interesting and insightful. This article stays much more focused on Casablanca as it relates to star wars. While I think both articles are interesting and worth reading, neither of them are professional in any capacity. I don’t think that this distinction is extremely important here since both films are very much made to be enjoyed by the general public (in the best way possible), but it is good to keep in mind.

Tang Dynasty Art and The Assassin

Traditional Chinese painting usually depicts a large landscape with minimal, if any, human presence. The reasons why are varied: a diminished role of the individual relative to Western culture, Tao-ist emphasis on nature, at one point many of the artists (mostly nobility) were kicked out of the court and only had landscapes to look at anyway. In class we talked about why Hou Hsiao-hsien would have such long and lingering shots on the landscape, with no action or dialogue occurring. I think his choice to include these scenes and let them sit for so long ties the “aesthetic tradition” that Dr. Zinman mentioned to the modern movement of film as a meditative aid. The traditional paintings and these natural scenes are so similar in composition that the relation must be intentional. The extremely wide field-of-view of both traditional painting and The Assassin forces the viewer to evaluate their role in what they are viewing (both the art itself and the environment it depicts. Below are a few examples of traditional painting from during and after the Tang dynasty, as well as some stills from The Assassin.

Tang Dynasy Example
Post-Tang Example

 

I think the aesthetic similarities are very clear. You’ll notice the poems written near the top of the paintings; the sparse and frequently poetic dialogue in The Assassin serves such a purpose in the movie. An interesting question to arise out of this is, why is Hou Hsiao-hsien emulating this traditional style? The obvious answer is that as part of adapting a 9th century text he will also adapt 9th century visual art.

However, I believe there are political aspects to it as well. The beauty and majesty of the landscapes contrast sharply with the confined (though luxurious) spaces of the Wei Bo court and mansions. The mood and tone of these places also contract; in the wide open spaces of the landscapes we take a break from the scheming and arguing of the court. Hou Hsiao-hsien invites us to step back from politics during the serene nature shots. It is ultimately on top of a mountain, with mist rolling over the peak, where Nie Niang tells her master that she will no longer follow her politically motivated commands.

Another interesting aspect of these scenes lies in the production. Filming of The Assassin took place in both China and Taiwan.  The two nations share a history and culture of which the landscapes in mainland China are a central feature. It must be difficult for Hou Hsiao-hsien to separate these beautiful natural landmarks from the unfortunate political situation that divides them from him. But separating the two is exactly what I think he asks us to do when he lingers on one of the many beautiful natural shots in the movie.

Stop Motion in Grand Budapest Hotel

During the  ski-chase scene between Zero/Gustav and Jopling, The Grand Budapest Hotel switches to stop motion animation. The actors are replaced by clay models and the set is sized down to just a few feet across. The picture below is the best example I can find of the exact scale. An interview I found (linked at the bottom) attributes this change to the fact that Willem Dafoe wasn’t a great winter athlete, but I think there is more to it.

Scale of Ski Set

Jopling is a very physical character; the grit with which he dons his skis fully implies some talent there. Meanwhile, Zero is from the desert (probably, given his experience during the “Desert Uprising”). Gustav isn’t really the skiing type. They also don’t have any skis. The absurd idea of two novices on a decorative sled chasing a trained killer on skis down a mountain necessitates a break from reality. The stop motion animation has a cartoon-ish aspect to it that reflects the hilarity and surreal nature of the scenes.

Stop motion is used in a few other scenes, all involving motion. The Funicular to the hotel, and the gondola to the monastery are animated with stop motion. Maybe this is due to real life constraints (e.g. budget), but the journey to the monastery is also ridiculous enough to warrant a departure from reality.

Other thoughts:
Wes Anderson released a full-length “claymation” movie called Fantastic Mr. Fox, so he has experience working with stop motion. His next movie, Isle of Dogs, appears to be entirely in stop motion. The often surreally colorful set design of The Grand Budapest Hotel meshes well with the stop motion style.

Questions:
What is with the use of language? Almost no one speaks with an accent, unless they are saying someone else’s name. Everyone speaks English.
Why set the film in a fake Eastern European country?

Interview