Sunday, February 27, 2011

In Defense of the Oscars

So as I count the down the seconds to the 83rd Academy Awards I'm am forced to stop and think. As my friends say, "why do you like the Oscars so much?" To me the answer is simple on many levels. First off, its a cultural event. The same way I watch the Superbowl for the commercials even though they are not that much better than any other day of the year is why I watch the Oscars. It creates conversation. Most people, even if they don't care or watch, know who is nominated (at least for best picture) and who they think should win. Watching can create whole dialogues about who wore what, who's speech was too long or brought tears, and how the host(s) did.
Also, I feel that in some ways award shows measure the pulse of the popular culture. The winners don't necessarily represent the best of the category; sometimes it is purely an actor who deserves recognition or one whose career is about to rise. I like to watch so I can say I've seen these moments in the making. Being a female interested in a career in the film industry and seeing Kathryn Bigelow win as the first female director ever last year was an amazing moment of pride. It was history being made and I got to experience it.
For those who say the Oscars are elitist, well yes I agree. But I think that's part of the fun. If you want to watch "Twilight" win all the awards, watch the People's or Teen's Choice Awards. As Aaron Sorkin says, "elite is not a bad word, it's an aspirational one."  Yes, it is a bunch of old men voting on the best movies for  and yes they probably all didn't understand "Inception" and yes movies that people have actually seen like "The Hangover" will never be nominated but that is what the Oscars is and what it always had been. Film making is art. Most people forget that because it is such an integral part of our lives. Awards shows celebrate the art that is film making.
Lastly, I love the tradition and old school Hollywood feel that comes with each Academy Awards. To me there is something magical about watching women in gorgeous dresses and men in fabulous tuxes walking the red carpet and hanging out at the most fabulous party of the year.
So tonight I will sit back and unashamedly over- tweet. I will squee when my predictions come true and heckle when they don't. I will go gaga over anything Natalie Portman wears. I will love every minute of it and ignore all my friends who don't understand because this is my Superbowl. 

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Straight Out of a Frost Poem

This week we only watched three films in my cinema class since we had Robert Todd, a guest director, come to discuss some of his films. (More on him later). All of the films this week used elements of nature in some way (hence the title of this post) to get their point across. Nature has the dual purpose of being something both tranquil and powerful at the same time. It reflects the theme of this week: spirituality and simplicity because it represents a higher power, but does so in an uncomplicated manner.
1. 31/75 Asyl, Kurt Kren (1975)
 The process of how this film was made is as important as the film itself. Kren recorded the same location over a period of time and covered the lens, cutting different holes so that each time, different locations could be seen. He used the same strip of film for the entire project. The effect gained is one that appears like a puzzle. Small pieces are put together to make a bigger scene that shows variations in times of day and weather. It seems at times that the elements are competing with each other for dominance in the scene and in the viewer's line of sight.
The process of using only one strip of film reminded me of the theory of the hyperreal as put forth by Jean Baudrillard. Since the images are layered over each other there is no way to tell which is the original or which occurred on a certain day. The images have become a copy of a copy of a copy, there is no longer a point of origin. I feel like this is what Kren is trying to say with his film. It is just showing a certain environment at a certain period of time. There is no beginning or end to this place; it has existed before and will exist after he stops shooting.
2. Kristallnact, Chick Strand (1979)
This film was arranged in a very particular manner to tell a story about the Holocaust and the film's namesake, the Night of Broken Glass. The film begins with dietetic sounds of nature and splashing. It is also very dark so while the beginning seems innocent, there is something sinister hiding underneath. The camera is too close to tell for sure what is really going on. With the sound of a train going by there is a definite shift in the tone of the film. The sounds shift from those of day to that of night. The film is no longer an innocent romp in the water. One of the swimmers disappears and non-dietetic, hypnotic music is added as the other swimmer searches for her missing companion. When the final scene shows solely moving water with no girls swimming in it, there is a sense that the water is trying to erase what has happened; covering and hiding all things. The film can be seen as representative of the actions the Nazis took first destroying the innocence and ending youth, the tearing apart of families, and finally an attempt at removing an entire population of people from the globe.
3. Story of a River, Peter Hutton (1997)
My view of the Hudson River from the Railway Bridge seen in the film

As a person who has spent fifteen of their twenty years of life living in the Hudson River Valley, this film struck a chord for me. I even saw the old Railway Bridge near my house in one of the film's scenes.  I liked the idea of telling a story of a location through nature, specifically the Hudson River. There was a very majestic feel to the film; there are many gorgeous shots of the river in different seasons covered in ice or as smooth as glass. There is a balletic quality that comes with the film and in seeing the water. The way it moves and the way the boats move through it is very graceful but at the same time very powerful. The power of nature is also transmitted through the silence of the film which helps the viewer appreciate the full effect of nature. 
The editing also adds a nice touch to this film. Hutton solely uses the fade out technique to transition between scenes. With the screen fading to black every time the image changes it gives the viewer the impression of blinking or closing one's eyes in sleep. Each time the eye closes, the location changes which gives the sense of dreaming or traveling through locations in the blink of an eye.
Robert Todd
(Fable, Stable, Interplay, Bliss, After Morning, Groundplay, & Golden Hour)
It was very interesting to have a director in class and see his interpretation of his own films and the creative process he went through to make them. However, I was not a huge fan of Todd's work. While most of it was aesthetically pleasing, I felt that it lacked real depth and did not evoke a response in me as a viewer. The one film I did like that he showed was "Bliss." That film has a great ominous feel that was built up with the dietetic sound and the images of the rolling storm clouds. The shots of the people walking along the beach ignoring the storm brewing behind them shows how unaware people are of power of nature and the world around them in general. "Bliss" was also one of the shorter films Todd showed. I felt that many of the others just ran too long with no important purpose.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Enter the Void

So the theme of cinema this week was montage and mind control. Some veered a little more to one side than the other and all used different techniques (as always) to get their feelings across.
Since I ended the last (avant garde) post about Kenneth Anger, that's where I'll start today.
1. Scorpio Rising, Kenneth Anger (1964)
With Scorpio Rising, Anger uses montage to tell a story about a biker and the world he inhabits. An important technique he uses to tell this story is setting. Setting helps to establish the character. In the opening scene, Anger uses the setting of the garage to establish the Scorpio's masculinity. He is seen surrounded by tools and parts of motorcycles and clearly feels comfortable in this environment. This image of masculinity is juxtaposed with the pop music. Anger uses this music to call attention to the images on the screen. He choose the songs specifically for their lyrics and how they will work with the images displayed on screen. In one part of the film, as the cyclist is getting ready for the night we can hear the threatening lyrics "my boyfriend's back and there's gonna be trouble..." playing. This synchronicity between image and lyric occurs throughout the film. Anger edited the film so that the "punch shot" will match up with the "central phrases" of the song lyrics  (Sitney 104).
Later on, we see Scorpio in another setting he is equally comfortable in: his bedroom. The walls adorned with pictures of James Dean and Elvis and the TV playing The Wild One with Marlon Brando.This is one of the first examples of the idea of an idol as shown throughout the film. Idols are shown in various forms from the repetition of the skull and scorpion representing the gang to the actual celebrity idols of Dean and Brando. These representations of idols show how culture has moved away from worshiping God or other religious ideas and has placed undo importance on commodities.
2. Invocation of My Demon Brother, Kenneth Anger (1969)This film leans more towards the mind control side of the spectrum. Here Anger uses sound to get his point across. The music was a droning sound made by Mick Jagger and I felt like it was drilling a hole into my skull. There was a definite trance element that came into play that comes from the sound mixed with the images.
The images themselves are intermixed pictures of war, sex, religion, drugs, and destruction. The message here is about the aestheticism of violence in popular culture and what it does to culture as a whole. The images of soldiers exiting helicopters are contrasted with those of a man preaching on a pulpit and the of the albino man who began the film. The film is seen through his eyes; he witnesses the violence and corruption of the world. The film is not only our brainwashing, but his as well.
3. Cat's Cradle, Stan Brakhage (1959)
This film was on the side of the montage, but unlike the films of Anger, there is less of a narrative structure. Brakhage is appreciating the small details of life and spends time showing them all. I felt like the cuts between images occur too quickly; he does not allow for a connection to be created between the images.
These quick cuts reminded me of other films I have seen in which the director is trying to portray the effects of drugs on a character. I do not believe this was Brakhage's intention however I feel like that is the response gained from the quick moving images and lack of sound.
4. Gently Down the Stream, Su Friedrich (1981)
This was one of my favorite films of this week. It was simple, but it worked so well. The words scratched onto the film read very much like a poem. The film uses montage, but this time it includes words along with the images. It gives the film a much different feeling because the viewer has to pay attention and read what is going on as well as look at the images. The words carry so much meaning, but when paired with the images they are given even more. One of the lines that stood out to me was "Which is the original?" To me, that comments on the notion of cinema and art in general and how nothing can ever really be original. Friedrich and these other film makers are trying to change this notion and create completely new forms.
The images of water scenes such as swimmers and people using rowing machines all tie the words together nicely. It adds a flow and calmness to the words and helps to make it more of a story.
5. Black and White Trypps #3, Ben Russell (2007)
This film uses both the montage and mind control aspect. In the sense of mind control, it immerses the viewer completely in the act of viewing a live concert. It is a film that anyone who has ever been to a concert can relate to. The film captures the heightened, almost animalistic feelings caused by fans and their love for the music and band. These people are reveling in their idols, similarly to Scorpio in Scorpio Rising.
In terms of montage, the film focuses on the different concert goers and their responses to the music. The camera tries not to remain on one individual for too long. The images create a semblance of a story of these people, brought together by their love of music and the primal pleasure that comes with seeing a band live. The unconventional, narrow framing helps focus the viewer's eye on a specific image. In such a location as a concert, it is extremely helpful to be told where to focus your attention.
6. Whispering Pines, Shana Moulton #6-8 (2006)
I also liked this film because of the kitschy colors and surprising twists. This film falls into both categories as well because it uses images to tell a story as well as to play with the viewers. The effects of the film are purposefully low budget; you can tell Moulton is not in the scene. Most of the time it seems like an episode of Blue's Clues, the actor is the only real thing in the room and is surrounded by a green screen location. This effect adds an ethereal quality to a mundane beginning of the film. Also, through the way she films, Moulton is making a statement about society. She is the only real thing in this film. Even when she takes the ladder to the party, the viewer cannot see the other party goers faces. They do not seem like real people, only projections. Moulton seems to realize that herself when she ends up in crying in the corner. The only way to return to her world is by throwing up (literally) everything inside of her.
Source: Sitney, P. Adams. "Magnus." Visionary Film: the American Avant-Garde, 1943-2000. 3rd Ed. University Press: Oxford, 2002. 3-15 and 89-119.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

I Think You Should Know Thursday

This song is a wonderful duet by two of my favorite female artists Sara Bareillis and Ingrid Michaelson. Alone their voices are amazing, but put them together and it is pure magic. I feel like the song really captures the true beauty and fragility that is nature. Living in New York most people have a love/hate relationship with the cold and snow. I for one have come to embrace winter in all its frigid wonder. I could never live in a place without four seasons; without winter, I would have no appreciation for summer.
And I promise, not all the songs I think you should know are about winter/cold/dying. Each song selected represents how I'm feeling that particular Thursday/ a song that's been stuck in my head and I feel the need to share.

"They say that things just cannot grow
beneath the winter snow,
or so I have been told."

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Dream A Little Dream of Me

So this week's adventures into avant garde went slightly better. I think I'm starting to grasp the concepts of the films (a bit) better and I'm starting to like them more as well. The theme of this week was psychodrama and surrealism.
So again, my review/thoughts (in order of viewing this time):
1. "Symphonie Diagonal," Viking Eggeling (1924)
This movie reminded me of what "Fantasia" might have looked like if it was made in the 1920's and without music. The images are compelling in and of themselves, but for me I feel like music is necessary to evoke a certain response. I'm not quite sure what to think when shown this film of geometric shapes dancing across the screen. I do feel that the shapes start out complex and then break down to singular lines, their simplest forms. I think that's what Eggeling was trying to do with the film; he was breaking cinema into its most basic form. In this short, there is no need for narrative or other techniques; the film can exist completely on its own as a look at form and elemental parts.
2. "Rhymthus 21," Hans Richter (1921)
The same thing that goes for Eggeling goes for Richter. He wanted to break cinema down and show it at its most simplest form. However, I feel like the images that Richter uses are slightly more interesting. Maybe this has to do with the fact that shapes are more familiar and presented in a more interesting manner. The effect can be quiet hypnotizing at times. Also about half way through the film (minute 1:28 to be exact), I realized that this film reminded me of an opening sequence of another movie: Monsters INC.  Monsters INC uses colors and music but I feel like the shapes and the way they move are reminiscent of each other.
 The final four films viewed in class all had the similar theme of dreaming executed in a number of different ways. The diverse techniques and styles express not only the director's own unique perspectives, but also the type of dream-like state they want the viewer to experience.
3.) "Un Chein Andalou," Luis Bunel & Salvidor Dali (1929)
In "Un Chien Andalou" Bunuel and Dali have created a dream that means something different to each individual. The film was created in the style of the exquisite corps, with each piece created separately and with no relation to each other. Any image connected to a "remembrance," "cultural pattern," or "conscious association" was immediately disregarded because the directors did not want images that were previously tied to any feelings, thoguhts, or ideas (Bunuel qtd. in Sitney 4). The association comes only from the viewer of the film and the connection they make with the images on the screen and their own personal life.I found myself trying to create a narrative out of the images despite the fact that they were disjointed. I think that Hollywood cinema has indoctrinated us so much that we crave narrative structure, it is what we expect in seeing a film.
This film does not have to follow a narrative structure or any conventional cinematic forms because it takes place with in the world of the dream. It can play with time and space and image because in a dream these things are often distorted. Also, the film pokes fun at conventional cinema by using title cards displaying common phrases such as "once upon a time" and "eight years later." These lure the audience into thinking that perhaps this film may share something in common with films that they are used to seeing. However, this is not the case. The directors use these cards to show time and how it changes throughout the film. Many times, the card does not signal a change in time but a change in scene, almost like hitting a reset button.

4.) "Meshes of the Afternoon," Maya Deren (1943)
Deren also plays with time, but over all there is more of a structure and narrative flow in her film. We talked a lot in class about the reoccurring symbols of the flower, the phone, the key, the knife, and the mirror and what part they play in the film. Some saw them as symbols (the key for freedom and the mirror for the inner self etc), while others saw them as entities that exist separately from the cyclical form of the film. I see these objects as markers of time and space in a film which takes a liberal use of both.The objects show the viewer where in the dream they are in relation to the other dreams. There is always something on the staircase, but depending on what level of the dream you are viewing it could be anything from the phone to the knife that ends up there. I think these objects just gauge the time and show that since they moved they must be in a new location because of what happened in the previous dream.
The layers of dreams and their relation to each other made me wonder if Chris Nolan found inspiration in Deren's films in his creation of "Inception" and the multilayered dream-state. 
5.) "At Land," Maya Deren (1944)

This was by far my favorite film of the group. Deren's editing, specifically her cuts between scenes creates an effortless dream that switches from a dinner party to the beach with ease. The actress in the film finds herself crawling across a dinning room table, surrounded and ignored by the fancily dressed guests. This image is juxtaposed with that of the same woman crawling and climbing through grass. These images seem to suggest that the woman does not belong in the world of the dinner party, she is exploring unfamiliar territory. The way the scenes were shot it seems almost as if the one party of the scene was reality, while the other was the imagination of the character.
One time in the film, the actress finds herself in a room framed by doors and unable to escape. This is showing the close mindedness of society and her inability to escape. The only way the woman can find freedom is through nature and a return to the sea where she belongs. The chess piece she knocks off the table is able to do this because it returns to the natural world, escaping the confines of society. I also think that the people at the dinner party stand for more than just the confines of society. They represent the ideas of "conventional" cinema that looks down at abstract cinema as something "experimental" and not for the masses.
6.) "Fireworks," Kenneth Anger (1947)
 Anger's film is more of a social commentary revealed through a dream rather than something to build your own opinion on. In the beginning the voice-over narration explains that this film documents desires that can only come about at night. "These imaginary displays," the narration says, "provide a temporary release." This is the first film of the bunch to directly express its aims and to explain what is being viewed. I found this helpful because it was easier to follow and see the point that the director was trying to make.
The images of Anger's film are much more substantial because they are paired with a message and a desire for social change. The violent scenes and disturbing images are much more powerful because they seem less like a dream. Anger himself says that the film was inspired by his feelings on "being seventeen, the United States Navy, American Christmas, and the Fourth of July" (Sitney 91).

Sitney, P. Adams. "Magnus" & "Meshes of the Afternoon." Visionary Film: the American Avant-Garde, 1943-2000. 3rd Ed. University Press: Oxford, 2002. 3-15 and 89-119.