25 March 2010

"As Beautiful As a Bathroom"

After being a wee bit of a negative nelly in my last blog post, I'd like to be more positive this time around. That's right, dear readers, I can, in fact, display encouragement. That's basically the point of most everything I write, even the stuff that spews bile and viscera. My criticisms aim to help us - please note the first person pronoun - improve our art through thought and serious, reflective discussion, two things sorely lacking in life. I intend to write another post soon that focuses on several microcinema films that I genuinely enjoy, analyzing what I think they do correctly so that they don't bore and irritate their audience to tears. I promise not to use any examples of films I've personally been involved in, but I may use works created by people I'm acquainted with. Who needs objectivity when you've exploring subjective art, after all?

For now, however, I'd like to herald an older example of filmmaking done extremely well. It's not microcinema, but it is something very simple yet stunning, a trait we should all aim for in our own work. It is a very short sequence that shocked me, which was not something I was expecting to feel while watching an 80-year-old light comedy.

It was in a Buster Keaton film, College. If you are not familiar with Keaton's work, you are a sad, sad person. In my opinion, he was the best of the silent comedians (though, yes, Chaplin's melodrama can leave you staggered and wrung out - in a good way, of course). College is a relatively straightforward film, even by his standards: Keaton plays a bookish young man who loses his high school girlfriend when he denounces sports as a waste of time. She wants him to man up, so he follows her to the titular institution and tries out a range of physical activities to win her back from a lunkheaded lothario. I don't think I'm really spoiling anything when I tell you that at the end SURPRISE! he earns her affections once again.

Normal silent comedy plot material wrapped up in Keaton's superb physical comedy and hijinks. It's what happens after he wins back the girl that sets the film apart. (Alright, there is also a sequence of Keaton in blackface that will raise eyebrows. I don't want to condemn it as racist in a kneejerk, "Anything that makes me uncomfortable is bad!" reaction - the joke of the scene is ultimately on Keaton's character, after all - but it's still bound to inspire awkward coughing and "We don't use words like that anymore, Grandpa" thoughts.)

At the end, Keaton and his girl stride triumphantly into a church. There's a dissolve and then we see them walking back out, happily married. That's where most films end. But College continues. It dissolves again and we see them several years on. She's knitting, he's smoking and reading the newspaper, and they're flanked by three children. Another dissolve, and then we see them as elderly people, he with his pipe, her beside him, both looking slightly dotty. And then a final dissolve to two tombstones side by side. Only then does "THE END" appear onscreen and the film fades out.

"Keaton, you brilliant fuck!" I wanted to shout, but settled for a laudatory "Holy shit." It takes a lot of sand to cap your light romantic comedy off with a chilling reminder of the inevitability of family routine, decline, and death. The film basically says "And nothing else of interest ever happened to these people for the rest of their lives. These events were the highlight of their existence, after which it was all downhill. Have a nice day!"

No doubt the ending has inspired reams of essays by film students and philosophers. Me? I can't help but view it as a sort of "up yours" gesture to closure. At the moment, Hard Boiled Productions (now on Facebook!) is prepping a couple of short scripts for production, one of which has an ambiguous ending. We were discussing whether to alter it in some way to provide a little more semblance of a definite ending - a simple line, a look, a gesture - that will feel more like an appropriate conclusion. While thinking about this, I watched College, and so the sequence felt like a response to the demand to know more. Keaton could have been providing an answer to those audience members who want to know "But what happened next?" You really want to know? They grew old and died. Happy now?

The sequence is also a reminder and an inspiration to those of us still making films today. It tells us that yes, we can do something new and unique and groundbreaking and just plain different without a massive budget, without heaps of new technology, without whipping up complex formats and designs in the editing bay. Using only the most basic of film building blocks, College leaves us with our jaws on the floor. Ingenuity triumphs once again.

20 March 2010

Microcinema Community, We Have to Talk...

Oh! Microcinema filmmakers! Hi. I didn't expect to see you here. It's good we bumped into each other, though, because...well, I've been meaning to talk to you about something. And it's going to sound harsh, and it's going to hurt, but I really need to just get it off my chest in an upfront and honest way. And it might be good for you. It might be what you need to hear. So I'm not going to sugarcoat this.

This is going to be Real Talk.

Ever since I entered this world of no-budget production, I've been watching your movies, short and long, supporting you every chance I get, going to your showings and fundraisers and special events. I've seen a lot of your work, enough to have a pretty good sense of the community as a whole, I think. And so when I say this, it comes from a place of knowledge, but also love and commitment and affection. I'm only trying to help. Please keep that in mind.

What I want to say is simply this:

Your movies are terrible. Just flat out godawful.

And it's not me. It's you.

Nine times out of ten, the main flaw that makes your movie so painful to watch is that it is unbelievably boring. Many of us position ourselves as the anti-Hollywood. Rightfully so. However, I have to give Hollywood props, because while they make a lot of bad movies, very few of those bad movies are boring. Even the ones you hate know how to put Shot A together with Shot B in front of a peppy soundtrack to glide you along their unimaginative narrative. But most microcinema productions don't even have that basic level of competency. They are too long, repetitive, crawlingly paced, full of uninteresting characters and dialogue, and fucking drrrrraaaaaggggggggg.

Why is this? Because you think your story is much more compelling than it actually is. Because you think a great idea for a five minute short can be easily extended to an hour and a half with little adjustment. Because you think the words that fall out of your actors' mouths are witty bon mots full of life lessons rather than trite, cliched terms spoken with all the charisma and humanity of a tree stump.

Let's talk about your directing.

Everyone working at this level is extremely limited by what they can accomplish. With little money, it's hard to orchestrate car chases, buy a Steadicam, or even get permission to shoot inside of a common diner. But oftentimes, these limitations can inspire creativity. Learning how to film a production around these obstructions frequently leads to inspired angles, innovative set pieces, new ways of viewing the world.

At least, that's how it should work. In actuality, you use it as an excuse. Most of your shots are static medium shots, created with little thought to composition, filled by one character with nothing to bounce against, and flatly lit. Visually, your movie is bland. It is vanilla that cannot even be flavored with After Effects. And when it's not vanilla, it's usually aping some rigidly established aesthetic or ripping off other, better filmmakers. There comes a point where "homage" shades into "stealing" shades into "I HAVE SEEN THIS DONE FIFTEEN MILLION FUCKING TIMES BEFORE."

By the way, just because you are able to complete a shot in one or two takes doesn't mean either of those were any good. Contrary to what the buzz around Clint Eastwood is, sometimes actors - particularly untrained ones, ones without enough time to prepare, ones without adequate direction, or ones without much experience - well, sometimes they need more than one take. Sometimes they need to warm up to it, and then sometimes they need to be told how to adjust their performance. This is not a knock against their ability. It's just how you make a watchable movie. Not even a good movie, just a watchable one.

Some of you are only able to do one or two takes because you're shooting on film, and that's expensive. If you are, then you need to provide for enough rehearsal time, and need to plan your shots better in pre-production. Also, if someone can watch your movie and have no idea whether you shot it on video or film, you should not waste money on film.

Another factor that's an even more important in making your film no fucking good is your screenplay. Folks, I am here to tell you what no one else is willing to, the complete and unvarnished truth: YOU CANNOT WRITE. Oh yes, I know that you think you can write, and that your script is a small masterpiece that tackles the big issues in life, the universe, and everything. But it isn't, and it doesn't. Particularly if it can be described by one or more of the following:
  1. It is the first script you have ever written;
  2. The main character is a writer - doubly so if he is a struggling writer - triply so if he is a struggling screenwriter;
  3. The characters enjoy a healthy social life filled with mindless consumer purchases, yet still complain about how poor they are and have no discernible means of income;
  4. They talk at length about pop culture - doubly so if they complain about the emptiness of mainstream culture in a movie that still unconsciously adheres to its tropes and structures;
  5. The plot can be described as "One person's attempt to come to terms with [blank];"
  6. Any characters or scenes exist only to allow your stand-in (sorry, I mean the main character) to shout out his or her pseudo-intellectual, condescending view of the world.
If this sounds like you, you need to put that screenplay away and write another one. If this does not sound like you, you should still put that screenplay away and write another one. Because we need to write a million words of shit before we produce anything good, and chances are you are not through your million words yet. Do not subject people to a produced version of your first script. Churn your way through your million words. If you cannot, hire someone who has and get them to write your screenplay, or at least give you very honest, very thorough feedback. Remember: Most people will assume a "Story by" credit means you wrote it anyway, so you can still bask in the glory.

There are so many more things I can address, but I think you're getting the picture.

Why do I keep watching your movies? There are many reasons, but the biggest is that I feed on the hate I feel for your work. It's a hate that comes from love and passion. I know how hard it is to create any film, no matter its quality. Coming up with a concept, writing the script, finding the right cast and crew, the long months of waiting for all the pieces to fall into place, the arduous hours of actually shooting the damn thing, the sleepless days and nights of editing, the no-win decision of figuring out which take to use, the agonizing realization that all the shots of one scene are crap and you have no way to reshoot...

Friend, I have been there. And so when I see your terrible movie, it makes me doubly sad. "All of that hard work and dedication and for what? This horrible thing that makes me feel like I'm having my fingernails ripped off with pliers." It just gives me that much more motivation to go out there and create a film The Way It Should Be Done.

I know you think you're not one of these people I'm describing. You think you're one of the ones who can create something truly compelling and interesting on a shoestring budget, the Diamonds in the Rough (they are out there). You recognize what I'm talking about, though, and so you're probably nodding your head in agreement right now, thinking, "Yeah, Justin! Give it to those untalented hacks!"

That only makes it all the more likely that you are, in fact, one of those untalented hacks. We all are, and yes, I include myself. Working at our level, there is no room for ego. We all stand on the precipice of disaster. Even if we are satisfied with our last project, we must always remember: Something Could Go Wrong with the next one, and then it's our turn to be the subject of withering criticism and peer whispering. We must always question, probe, second-guess, distrust our instincts. It's a long process - God, is it a long process - and throughout it all the one question that should be at the front of our minds is "Will this be a waste of the audience's time?"

The people who put in the work, the study, the effort, the thought, are more likely to make a film that maybe not everyone will enjoy, but they'll be able to say "There's something here. It showed me something new. If this movie were a person, I would not want to shove its head through a plate glass window." Of course, there is something positive to be said for getting a bipolar reaction - one half of the audience loves it, one half hates it - but that's a whole other essay. Also, you should make sure that the half that loves it isn't just blowing smoke up your ass. There's no room for that smoke, anyway, not with your head so far up it.

Understand, I am only trying to help, not just you, but myself as well. If we do not take stock of the lessons we have been taught and discuss them as much as we can, we will learn nothing and go nowhere. We are all in this together; we should compete, but in a friendly and supportive way, inspiring each other to greater heights. Low budget filmmaking does not have a great reputation, and for a very good reason. Let's do our best to change that.

10 March 2010

"Say 'Auf Wiedersehen' to your Nazi balls!"

While I was out getting lunch today, Kinji Fukasaku's Battles Without Honor and Humanity series (BWH&H) once again filtered into my mind, as it is wont to do. For some reason, I was thinking about the violence in the five films examining Hiroshima's postwar yakuza scene, which then led me to ponder the cinematic depiction of bloodshed at large. And I ended up thinking my way into the swirling vortex that exists up my own ass.

Also, a heads up - there'll be SPOILERS about every film I discuss in here. But don't worry, the lone recent one is Inglourious Basterds, and you really should have seen that by now, if only to discuss it on venom-laden message boards. Something else you should know - every clip I post here (each one dutifully stolen from YouTube) is extremely NSFW. Fun!

The violence in Fukasaku's films is tinged with a certain something. I didn't consciously think about this; I only realized it after I put my finger on what that certain something is: humor. No matter how brutal or horrific the acts onscreen, there is a certain element of inherent comedy, usually when the facades his characters wear melt away as the shit hits the fan. Tough guys turn into blubbering, panicky messes, or friendly young women stop being nice and fight without mercy.

For example, in the opening scene of the first film in the BWH&H series, a group of American soldiers chase down and rape a Japanese girl. Terrible, of course, but it almost sends itself up with a brief shot where one of the men drops his trousers and enthusiastically jumps on top of her without a moment's hesitation. The way he does it is cartoonish, not bothering to shake off his pants or, uh...gird his loins for the point of contact as he leaps off both feet. The camera's angle, viewing him from behind with his skinny white ass in our faces, makes it look more likely he'll break his dick off on the floor than actually penetrate anything. For a moment, a bunch of cruel men are transformed into a pack of stereotypical frat boys.

In another example, watch this scene from Cops Vs. Thugs, where Bunta Sugawara and his partner give the business to a yakuza tough in an interrogation room. The tough is full of piss and vinegar until the police start beating on him. He valiantly tries to maintain his "Fuck you!" attitude, which becomes increasingly ridiculous as they slam him against the desk, ram him into the window bars, and eventually disrobe him completely:

Here's another illustration of this from Fukasaku's later and better known film, Battle Royale, in the famous scene when a group of schoolgirls go from chipper to murderous in the blink of an eye after an unfortunate - and rather hilarious - poisoning mishap.

The Coen Brothers also traffic in this, particularly in Fargo, with Carl Showalter trying to look inside the house before breaking in and the kidnapped wife getting caught in the shower curtain and flailing wildly until she knocks herself out.

People watch these kinds of scenes and go "Well, that was weird." I think they're not used to the two wildly divergent tones - comedy and darkness - working together in this way to complement each other and further unsettle the viewer. But here's the thing: These scenes aren't really weird at all, they're just the way terrible events would be likely to happen if they occurred in real life. Every day violence isn't perpetrated by muscled strongmen, but by your friends and neighbors, people who are gangly, awkward, ignorant, and all too human. This realism only makes it more haunting.

I was content to think that this comedy was somewhat unique to a certain set of filmmakers, but let's be honest with ourselves. Action flicks are really just comedies; some just know it better. I dare you to watch Commando and believe that Arnold and his collaborators aren't in on the joke. They had to be. I mean, in this clip, he's standing right there - RIGHT THERE! - and no one can shoot him. Of course it's funny, and, I would argue, intentionally so.

But then, some action films aren't in on the joke, and take themselves way too seriously. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the poster boy for this case, one Mr. John Rambo:

Calling Rambo silly isn't anything new or revolutionary. So let's continue this train of thought and ask ourselves a question some of you (no, not all of you, but some) may not have asked yourselves before. Namely, what truly is the difference between this:

And this:

Superior direction, acting, and editing, sure, but I would argue there's not much else in terms of plot and tone. Saving Private Ryan set the modern template for war flick aesthetics that Rambo rigorously follows, and in doing so, the latter film only highlights the flaws in the former. After the landmark and genuinely gut-churning Omaha Beach sequence, Saving Private Ryan devolves into Hollywood cliches that end up in a good ol' fashioned shootout. It's marvelously choreographed and shot, but still ends up sending the same message as Rambo: War is fucked up and fun. They try to dress it differently, but anyone watching at home still feels the urge to cheer on as the Germans get mowed down in waves. (The opening sequence, Band of Brothers, and presumably the upcoming The Pacific manages to sidestep this by grounding themselves more in actual, verifiable history and focusing on the minute details of second-by-second combat rather than "We need to hold this goddamn bridge!" heroics.)

Exhaustingly, this led me back to pondering Quentin Tarantino's violence, which seems to operate on another level entirely. Consciously operating as he does within Film Reality rather than Real Reality, his violence is extremely cartoonish, and yet it contains a viciousness that I feel more than I do in something that attempts to ape naturalism like Saving Private Ryan. It may be Nazis getting gunned down in the theater at the end of Inglourious Basterds, but it still contains a sickening punch. Is this what vengeance feels like?

Is it that Taratino's films are full of such obvious passion for the very medium itself? Is it the way he intricately raises tension in long - some would say boring - scenes before allowing the violence to explode in a short, powerful punch? Is it the tactility of his old school gore, which is much more present and gruesome than what even the best CGI can do to a human body? Is it the primal instincts of his revenge-filled story lines littered with bad guys who gots to get got? Even despite the comedy that is riven through his violence - or perhaps because of it - the moment of impact hits you in the gut and makes your laughter freeze in your throat, whether it's poor, poor Marvin in the back of the car or an unfairly treated young man who just wanted to get into Gogo Yubari's skirt.

Having taken you on a tour through some forms of cinematic violence - merely the tip of the iceberg - I'm afraid my mind has left me without giving me an overall point or lesson to impart. I hope you have found something to enjoy; if not my words, then a bit of the old ultraviolence.