Digital Realism in a Modern World

Film has, from its outset, included the manipulation of the captured image.  Extensive techniques for manipulating the visual elements of a frame have been a continually evolving and ever-present aspect of cinematography.  The digital image has brought about the introduction of image manipulation rather than image creation.  Where a filmmaker would have previously been stuck with the elements made present in a shot as it was taken, digital imaging offers total control and manipulation of what is shown even after it is captured.  Prior to digital imaging, there were tricks implemented to alter the images shown, but these tricks carried with them a loss of quality and significant amount of labor to achieve.  The author points out that though many argue for the more honest and accurate nature of film’s depiction of reality, there has always been an inherent loss in the transition of the originally captured image due to the internegative media that is used to mass-produce film for theaters.  The author further illustrates points for digital cinematography as an opportunity for a filmmaker’s artistic preference to be given free reign.  With digital images, components can be added to the frame, details can be selectively enhanced or removed, the nature of the shot can be largely redeveloped with ease.  Interestingly, as film has transitioned towards digital imaging, the inherent “perfection” of a digitally generated image has frequently been manipulated to maintain the viewer’s expectation of how a movie should look.  The author references a quote from Wall-E’s director, Andrew Stanton, where he says “’Life is nothing but imperfection and the computer likes perfection, so we spent probably 90% of our time putting in all of the imperfections.’”  As the film industry transitions to a heavily digital age, the balance between the capturing and manipulation of reality remains an ongoing conversation between filmmakers and audiences about the nature of what we will choose to find believable.

Tension and Realism in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing

Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing places special emphasis on the nuanced complexities of the interactions that occur across cultural boundaries on a daily basis.  His film shows the beauty and intricacy of life on a block in Bed-Stuy, almost effortlessly developing its characters with depth and complexity.  The argument of the film is centered around the largely conflicting activist arguments of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.  Lee works to show that violence begets violence, while also asking his audience how else one is to respond to senseless death and institutionalized victimization.  He uses realistic characters with opinions and actions that prevent them from being completely pinned into a single box (good or bad).  In doing so, Lee points to the unavoidable complexity that comes with looking at the humanity in the emotions individuals develop.  Sal frequently shows compassion and camaraderie towards his black neighbors, but when angered he quickly slips into racial slurs that show quite the opposite.

The scene that stands apart from the linear storytelling of the rest of the film, wherein characters yell racial stereotypes towards the camera, is a direct commentary on the narrow line that seems to separate racial and cultural divides.  This scene draws attention to the thinly veiled tension that runs between the individuals cohabitating this neighborhood, a parallel to America at large.  Interestingly, the cool and collected DJ that offers the neighborhood its soundtrack is the only member featured in this scene who comes to the camera, urging everyone to cool down.  However, even this voice of reason cannot fully restrain himself in the aftermath of Radio Raheem’s death, the senseless murder an unavoidable catalyst.  The only remaining voice of reason, Da Mayor, tries to calm the crowd and preserve King’s seemingly herculean love in the face of hatred. This film gives its audience a glimpse into the constant struggle of working to make progress in the face of infuriating circumstances.

What did you think of Spike Lee’s characters?  Did they feel real?  Were their motivations and beliefs well-developed?

Do you think Spike Lee successfully communicated his argument with this film?

The Range and Impact of Experimental Film

What is Experimental Cinema?

This article attempts to define what constitutes experimental film, and argues for its defiance of rules as a method of furthering the language of cinema.  This can range from Kubrick’s hugely impactful innovation of technical methods to “Kren’s 16/67 September 20th, dubbed the ‘Eating Drinking Shitting Pissing Film’ [which] involves clips of exactly what the title suggests, and seems to exist to shock its audience purely by portraying this human cycle.”  The author emphasizes an approach to defining experimental film as a work that pushes or defies some aspect of what is expected by an audience.  Film has inherently captured the nature of experimentation from its inception, with cumulative innovation driving growth in the techniques and storytelling devices used by directors.  On the spectrum detailed by the author, the end farthest from convention approaches “visual art, with each technical choice being like the purposeful strokes on a canvas.”  This article works to capture the facets of experimental film, with a broad range allowing for the inclusion of those films that edge the mainstream envelope ever further to fall in the same category as extreme works of visual manipulation.  It argues that these films are often created to draw attention to the nature of our expectations by turning them on their head or making us painfully aware of how heavily we rely on convention.  Regardless of its creator’s intent, experimental film is a driving force of innovation and an ongoing conversation between artist and audience about what can be conveyed through cinema.

The Expectations of Genre

Genre is a fascinating aspect of storytelling, as it has the power to dictate our expectations and preferences.  In the context of film, it tells us what sort of emotional or intellectual response we can expect a feature to illicit.  A movie poster/trailer draws on collective experiences and tells a potential audience about the nature of the film.  Audiences look to cinema for a variety of reasons, and genre creates a method for discerning a movie’s nature.  A comedy or musical can provide escape or relief from a mundane or upsetting aspect of reality, while a melodrama offers emotional release with vicariously experienced pain or struggle.  Genre defines parameters for a film to follow, and the varying degree to which these guidelines are matched results in the (relatively) broad range within genres that we encounter on a daily basis.

Personally, I find it exciting to watch a movie that plays with the tropes/expected patterns of its genre to thwart the audience or call into question the nature of what is expected.  This somewhat descriptive approach allows for the growth of the genre and makes the movie more interesting to watch.  The interview with Christopher Nolan shows his approach to The Dark Knight trilogy as a different take on the action/superhero stereotype.  These films have a tendency to place emphasis on the action and plot rather than developing character with nuance and subtlety, something Nolan moved to change with his work.  In doing so, he called for the audience to take the aforementioned descriptive approach to their perception of Batman’s story.  The success that followed this adaptation shows the willingness of an audience to accept a moderate level of variance on their expectations.

Do you think that genre should be followed directly?  That gradual change should/should not happen?

Why do you think we cling so heavily to the notion of genre?  What does it give us as viewers?

The Nature of Objectivity in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane

In Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, a special emphasis is placed on the importance of each character’s contribution to the narrative of the film.  This is achieved partially through the use of deep focus, wherein all characters on screen are kept in focus regardless of their contribution to a given interaction.  In this way, we are constantly told to question reality.  Each flashback feels true, because we inherently trust what we see.  But if all the storytellers are perpetually in focus, regardless of who is reminiscing at the time, then whose account can the audience trust?

Shadows also contribute to the surreal nature of the story shown to the audience.  The reporter (shown in the image below) remains in shadow throughout his interviews, a mere mechanism for plot motion.  He has nothing to directly contribute to the film’s narrative, instead serving to move it from one memory to the next.  Key characters are sometimes placed in shadow as well, an uncomfortable experience for an audience expecting uninterrupted access to the focus of their attention.  This both calls into question our perspective of the characters and hints at the subjectivity of what we see and hear through the memories of those reflecting on time long passed.

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News headlines are a commonly used trope in films to convey a significant event with a tone of objectivity.  In the world of Citizen Kane, many of the headlines are orchestrated by Kane himself as a means to his own goals.  He makes his fortune by manipulating the stories told to the world by his paper.  Kane himself is a primary manipulator of what we see in his world of news.

The scene where Kane walks past parallel mirrors and appears to stretch into infinity was particularly striking to me.  It shows the many ways in which the life of this influential man can be perceived, and how each can somehow be the same and still carry different imperfections or idealizations.  It is an extremely effective visual representation of Kane’s life, and one that I found striking.

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This film calls into question elements of trust and objectivity.  It forces its audience to question the truth behind the stories they hear on a daily basis.  Do you think Welles effectively illustrated this with his film?  Do you think his primary argument was on the fallacy of objectivity, or something else?

The Emotion of Dialogue as Communicated in Casablanca

In Michael Curtiz’s 1942 film Casablanca, a heavy emphasis is placed on the emotions of interaction between characters, especially Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman).  This is carried out largely through the shot/reverse-shot pattern, wherein the shot is cut back and forth in tandem with the flow of dialogue to show the characters as they speak.  In his article “For the Sake of Conversation:  On shot reverse shot,” (http://www.aotg.com/index.php?page=shotreverseshot) Mott emphasizes the significance a character’s reaction to their counterpart’s words can have in producing a desired emotional response.  Rather than simply shifting directly between the faces of the speakers, a shot can linger on one character to show the audience how they react to what they hear and see.  This can be seen in the final moments of the film (clip shown below), as shots follow Ilsa’s speaking and listening to Rick.

As their goodbye builds to its iconic finale, the shot transitions from a close-up showing the temporary lovers in the frame together to a shot/reverse-shot sequence (1:07).  The scene is meant to emphasize Ilsa’s response to Rick’s goodbye, and this transition allows the shot to remain heavily focused on her face as she comes to realize the finality of his words.  Interestingly, the transition also has the effect of isolating them from one another as a visual representation of their approaching reality.  Through this and other such stylistic decisions, the dialogue editing in Casablanca effectively emphasizes the words spoken between its characters and the emotions that motivate them, which may help explain its position as one of the most referenced screenplays in American cinema.

Surreal Visual Elements in The Grand Budapest Hotel

In Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, the director juxtaposes his manufactured reality with quaint, fantastical, and often humorous bouts of surrealism that emphasize the narrative nature of the film’s story.  The film operates with two (or perhaps three, if one includes the screen) degrees of separation between the viewer and its primary subjects.  Anderson uses fantastical pseudo-realism to give Zero’s recollections of M. Gustave, told to the Young Writer and later written and read by an unnamed girl, a sense of whimsy and stylistic freedom.  However, Anderson structures the set in a way that the occasional snap from reality does not lead the viewer to lose trust in the heart of authenticity of the character’s situations.  Many scenes depict characters riding in machinery shown from a distance in a very obvious staging of miniature sets, such as the outdoor elevator depicted below.

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Though this is clearly a break from realism, the viewer is left to believe that the characters, in spite of their interaction with surreal visual elements, remain rooted in the story’s reality.  These visual elements contribute to the framing of the story within the slightly surreal backdrop of Zero’s memory.  The viewer trusts the essence of the story Mr. Moustafa tells, but also recognizes the imprecise nature of recalled memories, especially those skewed so heavily with emotion.  This can be seen in the bronze hue of shots of the Grand Budapest at the height of its operation, illustrating the perhaps idealized memory of a place so dear to the storyteller.  It is also shown when Zero helps M. Gustave escape from prison, as Gustave offers Zero high praise and the screen’s perimeter becomes blurred and hazy.  This shift in framing suggests that Zero may have romanticized his mentor’s remarks to emphasize the nature of their relationship to the audience.

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Can the viewer truly trust the recollections of Mr. Moustafa?  Do you think that the surreal visual elements are used primarily to contribute to the fantasy of a memory?  Are they perhaps meant to create to a tone of whimsy and understated humor?