Category Archives: Movies

The narrative form in cinema

I’ve been thinking a bit more of my notion that all art forms are basically about creating and relieving drama (or tension as some call it.) It strikes me that film is an interesting art form to examine as it really is a combination of different art forms. Film uses storytelling, dialogue, music, framing and various other devices. To really build drame well, all these tools need to work in concert.

For example, let’s say we wanted to write a movie scene that captured a sense of mystery. Here’s some bad dialogue.

Bob: What was that sound?
Mary: Huh… I dunno, I didn’t hear anything. It’s probably the neighbor’s cat. He always prowls around when I leave food outside and I did this morning.

Bob: Oh, ok.

Much better would be something like…

Bob: What was that sound?
Mary: You heard it too? It sounded like it was coming from inside the walls. But that’s impossible… Isn’t it?

But film can’t just stop at dialogue. The music needs to be spooky too. If some Katie Perry song is playing in the background it deflates the mood. You need some creepy, Bernard Herrmann-esque chords to amp up the tension.

And the framing of the camera comes into play. If the camera just positions the characters in the middle of the frame… BORING! The camera should shift uneasily, like the view of a person itching to make a break for it.

You could say that in all these art forms a language has arisen than communicates a mood such as suspense. But, just as with spoken language, repetition becomes cliche. Certain music sounds creepy but corny. So artists have to be always experimenting to find the new thing that audiences will find novel and exciting.

Thus I have spoken.

The return of the auteur?

As you probably already know: Sony Pulls the Plug on Dec. 25 Release of ‘The Interview’ After Threats

As major movie chains moved to pull “The Interview” from their holiday lineups after threats from the Sony Corp. hackers, Sony has decided to shelve the film.

“In light of the decision by the majority of our exhibitors not to show the film ‘The Interview,’ we have decided not to move forward with the planned December 25 theatrical release,” the company said in a statement. “We respect and understand our partners’ decision and, of course, completely share their paramount interest in the safety of employees and theater-goers.”

Freddie De Boer also notes:

There have been widespread claims that recent blockbuster movies like the latest Transformers have been written so as to appease Chinese censors. There’s nothing wrong with writing movies to reach out to a particularly huge foreign box office– why wouldn’t you want your movie to play to Chinese moviegoers?– but appealing to the Chinese government is a whole other ball of wax.

I’ve complained about the fact that much of modern cinema seems toothless and feels as if it was neutered by committee style writing. I also think it’s very hard to be an auteur style filmmaker (or musician or comic artist) because audiences are used to high production values. A filmmaker in the 1970s who had a great or at least provocative idea for a story (think Abel Ferrera or Doris Wishman) could collect a meager budget, make the film and earn some some small success, usually as a step towards a greater career. Viewers were more forgiving of cheap special effects because even the big players didn’t have particularly awesome effects. (Think about how fundamentally cheesy the creatures in Steven Spielberg’s Gremlins looked.) But once we entered the era of massive CGI it was hard to make a decent action or sci-fi orientated film without being compared to the Transformers or Planet of the Apes reboots (the latter of which I think have some great stories.)

I think this idea that blockbuster movie companies are running scared from internet terrorists and the Chinese censors may be a great thing for cheap, auteur storytelling. If the big players are too afraid to create stories that take chances, then poor (in money, not talent) writers, filmmakers and comic creators have a void they can fill. And there’s a hunger for that kind of storytelling.

The Danny Kay/Kramer Connection

I watched “White Christmas” for the first time last night and was struck by how much Danny Kaye’s character reminded me of Michael Richard’s portray of Kramer on TV’s “Seinfeld.” I was so struck by the similarities I looked online to see if there was any discussion of this. In fact, it’s right there in the wiki article for Kramer which states…

It is interesting to note that many of his mannerisms resemble those of Danny Kaye’s character in “White Christmas” though it has never been mentioned as an inspiration for Richards’s characterization of Kramer.

But that’s not all. Over at this yahoo page an observer notes:

Danny Kaye died shortly after appearing on The Cosby Show, in 1986.
Kramer (Michael Richards) died horribly (career) after making racial comments at The Laugh Factory, on the, “Cosby Stage”, in 2006. Exactly 20 years to the day.


It’s clear that the Danny Kaye/Kramer connection exposes the machinations of a secret society that has been controlling world governments since time immemorial!

And I like this gal’s spin on things.

It’s amazing how much Danny Kaye looks like Seinfeld’s Michael Richards. Perhaps Richards should star in a remake of “White Christmas”? After the “N” word incident, it would give the title a whole new meaning.

Movies continue to suck

Not long ago, in the pages of acid logic, I complained that modern, big budget movies were sucking.

Big budget movies seem less and less interesting while low budget flicks that almost fall between the cracks win my love. Another big film of the summer, “Man of Steel,” was a complete waste of time. I was so bored by Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy that I didn’t even bother with “The Hobbit.” I found no reason to waste any time with the new Star Trek. These movies seem indistinguishable from each other and I don’t think I’m alone on this view.

This trend seems to be continuing. The Hollywood Reporter notes: Box-Office Slump: Hollywood Facing Worst Summer in Eight Years
The article doesn’t specially point to stupid plots as the leading cause, but I think that’s a big part of it. Technological change is, of course, also an issue.

Filmmaker Jon Favreau agrees that the popularity of television and new technologies are altering viewing habits. “I think times are changing. We have to acknowledge that and not try to chase what used to be,” says Favreau, who is currently prepping Jungle Book for Disney.

I’d argue much of television’s success is that it has gotten much better story wise. I’m a big fan of Law & Order, and while I haven’t seen them I understand shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men etc. are well crafted. TV is doing what the great film dramas of the 70s (Scorsese, Coppola etc.) did.

All that said, I was pretty impressed with the recently released “Snowpiercer.” Part of its strength however, was that it didn’t have the “produced by committee” feel of many Hollywood flicks.

Thus I have spoken.

The movie industry bloodbath has begun

I’m often rather loudly complaining around here about the devaluation of entertainment products brought about by the internet. This is partly because the internet engenders piracy, but also because piracy itself engenders creators to offer their work for free (because it’s probably going to end up available for free anyway.) The result is the destructions of big chunks of the entertainment industry.

We’ve primarily seen this in the music business. But it stands to reason that as movies become more downloadable, the same thing could happen there. According to this excerpt from a book by screenwriter Lynda Obst, it is.

I leaned back a little on Peter’s comfortable couch, and he sat forward to say, “People will look back and say that probably, from a financial point of view, 1995 through 2005 was the golden age of this generation of the movie business. You had big growth internationally, and you had big growth with DVDs.” He paused to allow a gallows laugh. “That golden age appears to be over.”

“The DVD business represented fifty percent of their profits,” he went on. “Fifty percent. The decline of that business means their entire profit could come down between forty and fifty percent for new movies.”

For those of you like me who are not good at math, let me make Peter’s statement even simpler. If a studio’s margin of profit was only 10 percent in the Old Abnormal, now with the collapsing DVD market that profit margin was hovering around 6 percent. The loss of profit on those little silver discs had nearly halved our profit margin.

This was, literally, a Great Contraction. Something drastic had happened to our industry, and this was it. Surely there were other factors: Young males were disappearing into video games; there were hundreds of home entertainment choices available for nesting families; the Net. But slicing a huge chunk of reliable profits right out of the bottom line forever?

There it was. Technology had destroyed the DVD. When Peter referred to the “transition of the DVD market,” and technology destroying the DVD, he was talking about the implications of the fact that our movies were now proliferating for free—not just on the streets of Beijing and Hong Kong and Rio. And even legitimate users, as Peter pointed out, who would never pirate, were going for $3 or $4 video-on-demand (VOD) rentals instead of $15 DVD purchases.

Frankly, I never understood why people paid 15 bucks to own a DVD movie but I guess they’ve come to their senses on that one. Netflix is probably a big reason for that as you can essentially buy a huge streaming dvd collection for 7 bucks a month.

So what does this collapse mean in terms of movie quality? I think Obst’s article ties into an article I wrote a while back about the noticeable decline in the quality of current film’s stories. I used the blockbuster “WWZ” as an example.

On top of that, “World War Z” was just poorly written. There’s was no sense of ratcheting tension, no sense of real danger. The hallmark of the great horror films is that some of the characters—sometimes characters you really love—get killed. (Even “Shaun of the Dead,” which was something of a horror satire, got this.) Nobody you like in “WWZ” dies. (This is partly because you don’t like any of the characters but that’s another complaint.) And unlike the book, the movie “WWZ” is devoid of clever plot twists. The main conceit of the film—the means by which Pitt formulates a way of stopping the zombies—barely generates a “meh.”

“World War Z” had the sense of being written by committee. When a story is written this way, any interesting proposed plot twist (say, killing a key character, or having a likeable character betray the group) is bound to upset someone in the room. If everyone working on the story is granted veto power, all life gets sucked of a tale.

To quote Obst:

[The studios are] frozen, so the gut is frozen, the heart is frozen, and even the bottom-line spreadsheet is frozen. It was like a cold shower in hard numbers. There was none of the extra cash that fueled competitive commerce, gut calls, or real movies, the extra spec script purchase, the pitch culture, the grease that fueled the Old Abnormal: the way things had always been done. We were running on empty, searching for sources of new revenue. The only reliable entry on the P&L was international. That’s where the moolah was coming from, so that’s what decisions would be based on.

Gut calls are part of what lead to interesting, innovative movies. And deference to the international market means you have to dumb content down for non-English speakers and those who may not get the nuances of certain kinds of storytelling.

As I mention in my article, I think cheap horror flicks are still willing to take risks, as they always have. But I’m curious as to whether they are making any money.

Was Rorschach Henry Lee Lucas?

The book I recently finished, “The Anatomy of Violence,” had quite a bit of discussion about the life of famed serial killer Henry Lee Lucas. Lucas had a childhood designed to turn him into a serial killer. His mother was certainly a psychopath, a prostitute who beat her son mercilessly. (She was also one of his early victims, possibly his first.)

As I read about Lucas’s childhood, I was reminded of the scenes in the comic book Watchmen which showed the childhood of the fictional vigilante Rorschach. (I discussed him here.) Rorschach and Lucas’s upbringings were so similar I was curious as to whether the former was based on the latter. I don’t think author Alan Moore has ever commented, but a Google search reveals I’m not the only one to make the connection. This review of a Lucas biopic states…

The early part of the film shows you the upbringing of Henry. It would seem pretty basic except for his incredibly abusive mother that could almost resemble the angry mother Lois from Malcolm in the Middle except on rabies and alcohol. In fact some of the scenes with the mother and young Henry would almost resemble some of the same scenes with a young Rorschach and his mother from Watchmen.

LaBeouf versus Clowes

I’m a big fan of the comics and graphic novels of Daniel Clowes; have been for 20 years. (His compendium Lout Rampage is one of the funniest and possibly most profound works I’ve ever seen.) As a result of my Clowes-philia, I was interested in this story: Shia LaBeouf admits Daniel Clowes’ uncredited work was ‘inspiration’.

Actor Shia LaBeouf posted the short film he directed and screened at Cannes, “,” online Monday. The short stars Jim Gaffigan as a unhappy film critic who opts for a harsh critique of one of his heroes for reasons that are more personal than artistic.

Hours after the posting, comic book fans began noticing that the work bore a significant resemblance to Daniel Clowes’ 2007 piece “Justin M. Damiano.” Not only was it the same idea — unhappy film critic — LaBeouf’s film opened with a voice-over that is a word-for-word match with Clowes’ text…

You might recall LaBeouf as the waste of carbon that starred in such travesties as the Transformers movies and the last Indianna Jones (which I actually didn’t think was as bad as many people did.) He’s one of these actors Hollywood tries to convince you is a person of talent until it’s painfully apparent he is not. (Remember Josh Harnett?)

Not only did LaBeouf “borrow” Clowes work, he doesn’t really seem very apologetic. He’s tweeted:

10:42 p.m.: “In my excitement and naiveté as an amateur filmmaker, I got lost in the creative process and neglected to follow proper accreditation”

10:42 p.m.: “I was truly moved by his piece of work & I knew that it would make a poignant & relevant short. I apologize to all who assumed I wrote it.”

Right… what idiots people were assuming LaBeouf actually wrote the film.

I do consider, however, the following. LaBeouf is really of the first generation that grew up in a “content is free” culture. In this culture, if you want to own a song you go online and download it. If you want a picture of a cat for your web site, you find one and click ‘save as’. You happily create mash ups of other people’s work. That’s just how it’s done.

I’ve been thinking about this unavoidable evolution of the creative process and I want to write about it more here. My thoughts might surprise you.

Having said that, LaBeouf is clearly being a douche. I’d like to say I will now boycott his work but I probably wouldn’t have seen it anyway.

“The Last Dragon” and egoic thinking

Less than a year ago I read the Eckhart Tolle book “A New Earth” and talked about it here. Now I’m reading what is considered his main text, “The Power of Now.”

Tolle’s main point—one that hardly originates with him—is that “egoic” thinking is the source of a lot of unhappiness. Egoic thinking is “I” thinking. For example…

“I am a millionaire and so I am awesome.”

“I have a beautiful cat therefore I rule.”

“I wrote a great piano sonata therefore I am the best.”

But it’s not just affirming statements, it could be…

“I have an IQ of 45 therefore I am stupid.” (Frankly, 45 is such a low IQ I doubt the idiot would even be able to form that thought.)

“I lost my wife to a better looking man therefore I am a loser.”

You get the drift. Who thinks this way? Pretty much everyone. Tolle argues this way of thinking is so built into our culture that most people are unaware that there even are other ways to think. Certainly I am guilty of this kind of thinking, though I am trying to do less of it.

I struck me today that there’s something sort of anti-progressive about Tolle’s argument. (By progressive I mean politically progressive: vegans, Mother Jones, Move On etc.) The progressive movement, at least its academic component, is very tied up in identity politics. “I am a gay, African American/Latino from a third generation middle class family” …that sort of thing. Borrowing from Marxism, progressivism is, well, frankly obsessed with defining people via classifications. Even though Tolle is associated with fringy, peace loving, new age types, I see a certain conflict between the two belief systems.

Frankly, plenty on the right are obsessed with individual classification too. “I am a God fearing conservative from Alabama” and what not. But you don’t get the sense the right is focussed on gender, race, class etc. to the degree the left is.

Oddly, this reminds me of my recent article on the 80s kung fu flick, “The Last Dragon.” I argued that Leroy, the African American hero of the film, essentially redefined himself as asian–he took on a new racial identity.

This kind of cultural switcheroo might just sound like a gag played for cheap laughs but I think it really is the “soul” of the film, arguing—just as your college sociology professor would—that race is a social construct, one we are free to dismiss when we find an identity more to our liking. Granted, the embrace of blackness by the Chinese trio seems a little phony—a desperate grab at hipsterdom—but Leroy’s comes across as real; even though he’s from Harlem, he finds a path and identity in the East.

Tolle would probably argue that Leroy should dispense with any racial identification (and as I think about it, maybe that is what he really does.) But the movie does address the impermanence of these kinds of egoic constructs.

I am awesome.

Why modern movies suck monkey balls

If you’ve been paying attention you’ve noticed that lately I’ve been complaining about the shitiness of much of modern film. Both the new Superman film and World War Z were, in my opinion, storytelling flops full of hard to follow action sequences and CGI hoohaw. (Modern CGI has removed the art of spectacle from film – if it’s as easy to show a giant robot flying into the sun and blowing up the universe as it is to show a happy elf, then what’s the point? If anything is visually possible, why be amazed?*)

* I commented on this in my old piece on Steve Ditko: “To me, Ditko’s work has lasted in the same manner of 60’s special effects great Ray Harryhausen – there are newer, better special effects, but in Harryhausen’s work, you can see the elbow grease, the creativity.”

The L.A. Times has an interesting report today noting that many of the big-budget summer films are flailing while smaller B-movies are succeeding. Why?

Several factors may be behind the turnabout, according to Hollywood analysts, including studios doing a better job of serving niche audiences and consumers experiencing blockbuster fatigue.

“Everything looked watered down and the studios were left trying to distinguish their movies,” said Ted Mundorff, chief executive of Landmark Theatres.

I’ve felt that fatigue. You find yourself thinking, “Do I want to see the movie where the hoard of zombies attacks New York or do I want to see the movie where the robot-alien attacks Los Angeles? Eh, think I’ll stay home.”

But I could get past the pointless spectacle if so many big budget movies of today didn’t also suffer from uninspired plots. The sense I get from many recent films is that they are written by committee and any plot twist that might offend some loser is voted down. In the Times article, Jason Blum, producer of successful B-Movie “The Purge,” is quoted.

Blum noted that similar sense of financial freedom helped him make satisfying choices within the movie. “I can kill my lead halfway through if the story calls for it. You could never do that with a $100- or $200-million movie.”

That’s the rub write there. With “Man of Steel” or “World War Z,” I know, in the general sense, what’s going to happen. That’s not the case with a lot of low budget horror I’ve been watching lately. You don’t see the twists coming. (Ironically, that unpredictability was part of what made the “World War Z” book stand out. But all that was washed from the movie version.)

Fish video

There’s no denying music just sounds better when accompanied by imagery. As such, I’ve been trying to augment some of my instrumental tunes with visual imagery. I’ve just started going through some of the existing free sources for video and created this short piece using some old music of mine.

Fish are the most inscrutable of animals.