Sigourney Weavers face.

Yesterday as I waited to be served at an electronic store I watched a nearby HD television that was looping the DVD menu for Avatar. Readers of my blog will already be familiar with my distaste toward James Cameron’s film and as I watched ridiculous looking blue creatures running across tree trunks and space craft flying over impossible waterfalls I could hardly suppress my smirk.

And then suddenly I had a revelation. I was truly taken aback. There for less than 3 seconds was Sigourney Weavers face in the most extraordinary detail I have ever witnessed. No longer feeling anxious about when I was to be served I instead felt anxious waiting for this brief image to return to the screen. I was able to watch it four more times and each time the effect was just as significant.

I realised that I was experiencing the “irrational power of the photograph to bear away our faith” (Bazin, 14). Although Bazin does not believe that the quality of the image is the important thing, suggesting “No matter how fuzzy, distorted, or discoloured, no matter how lacking in documentary value the image may be, it shares, by virtue of the very process of its becoming, the being of the model of which it is the reproduction; it is the model.” There is something to be said for the sheer sublime quality of the high definition image. For the first time in my lifetime I was confronted with an image with the same visual quality as my own reflection.

 

Advertisements

Notes on Notes on Cinematography

Last year Sight and Sound polled a multitude of film Critics on what were the seminal film texts. Before getting the issue I had guessed that Andre Bazin would almost certainly rank toward the top, as would Andrew Sarris. Sure enough the most commonly picked texts were Bazin’s dual ‘What is Cinema?’ texts, Sarris’ ‘The American Cinema’, David Thomson’s mammoth achievement ‘A Biographical Dictionary of Film’, as well as Francois Truffaut’s ‘Hitchcock’, a transcription of the French directors interviews with the British master.

However there was another book at the top and it was one that surprised me greatly. It was Robert Bresson’s ‘Notes on Cinematography’, a collection of notes, ideas and general thoughts on cinema that culminate in somewhat of a manifesto in many ways. I remember reading excerpts from it at University, most notably Bresson’s quotes on actors, whom he referred to as ‘models’. They were peculiar, often ambiguous notes that made a great deal more sense once I was familiar with Bresson’s cinema.

Bresson is a master, a director I admire greatly. He was uncompromising and his films never strike a false note in my opinion. Bresson’s style was rigid in its simplicity and his films are deft, careful creations. Like many film directors work I am often most drawn to my first encounter with it. In my case A Man Escaped is my favourite of his pictures. A terse escape movie it boasts a superb climax and creates tension through its quietness.

Today, not for any reason in particular I dusted off ‘Notes on Cinematography’ and devoted my full attention to it. It is a truly fantastic read which is much like Bresson’s films in its care, precision of statement, and truthfulness. It is endlessly quotable and any number of its truisms could form a manifesto for any idealistic young director.

Here is some food for thought…

Shooting. Put oneself into a state of intense ignorance and curiosity, and yet see things in advance.

Let it be the intimate union of the images that charges them with emotion.

What no human eye is capable of catching, no pencil, brush, pen of pinning down, your camera catches without knowing what it is, and pins its down with a machine’s scrupulous indifference.

My movie is born first in my head, dies on paper; is resuscitated by the living persons and real objects I use, which are killed on film but, placed in a certain order and projected onto a screen, come to life again like flowers in water.

Each statement is so simple and possesses a clarity that renders it nothing short of a revelation.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. Having now read it, it appears obvious why it is a critical favourite. It justifies and encourages everything about cinema that is ideal. Perhaps then it is idealistic, but show me a single manifesto that isn’t.

This is a great collection of writing by a great film director and at a meagre 75 pages it can be read very quickly. Furthermore, it’s the type of book that you can pick up and read from any page. Each sentence is stimulating and I’m hell bent on committing them to memory. Read it today if you can, and if you can’t go watch A Man Escaped.

My Xmas Wishlist

Friends! After an appallingly meagre output this year I probably don’t deserve a present. However, with a new computer in tow I endeavor to improve my blog batting average.

Truth be told, I’ve barely watched any movies of late, although like just about everyone else I did see The Social Network (Verdict: Superb). The reason I’ve been avoiding my first love is because I’ve been indulging my second; Television. And how about that show Deadwood? Good grief, what a stellar effort in just about every way. And HBO canned it! Travesty. I almost can’t fault the damn thing, except that her indoors has shifted her obsession from Eric Northman to Seth Bullock. What I wouldn’t give to have a wingman like Charlie Utter.

Now that I have filled my HBO quota for the time being I’m about to end my movie drought by watching Bob Rafelson’s The King of Marvin Gardens. And lo and behold it’s available in the most exciting Criterion collection release of recent times.

Can you believe this? All these pictures, including Jack Nicholson’s previously unreleased directorial debut Drive, He Said all in the same set with screeds of extras. Only Criterion could have done this and released it just in time for Xmas. So it should be fairly obvious what I’d like to see under the tree with my name on it.

When I do get this set (and I will get it so help me God) expect to see the odd post detailing my progress through the set. In the meantime go and watch Deadwood if you haven’t already. You’ll be growing a moustache in no time.

The 10 foot blue man, the exploding man, and the little gold man.

The legitimacy of the Academy Awards is hardly a new topic of discussion. In fact, lamenting the travesties and cop-outs perpetrated by the Academy over the years has reduced many critics and commentators (myself included) to angry rants. The absurd contradiction is that we spout our disgust at the results of an award ceremony we often claim is meaningless anyway. The point is the Oscars aren’t meaningless. Whether we like it or not they are the most popular and preeminent celebration of film in the world today, and for the common movie going public the small statue is the mark of a quality film.

However, it seems to me that the validity of the Oscars has never been as questionable as it is right now. This year’s supersized Oscars is a curious beast. Up scaling the best picture nominations from five to ten would have been all right had Hollywood churned out ten films worthy of best picture accolades. I foolishly assumed that this extension would mean Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, arguably one of the finest films in many years would be nominated, yet sadly it is once again relegated to the Foreign Language film category. Instead sub-par efforts like Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds make up the numbers.

The battle for best picture is apparently a two-horse race and one of the most interesting in recent years for the Hollywood hype machine. It’s a battle of antinomies, the massive, multimillion-dollar epic versus the small budget, hard-bitten war film. The most sophisticated visual effects versus the staple in-camera explosion. For directors Kathryn Bigelow and James Cameron it’s a battle of the exes, not to mention the sexes, with Bigelow potentially becoming the first female to ever receive the best director award. It’s a battle of mammoth popular success against a low-grossing film of significant critical acclaim. Which film triumphs will speak great volumes about the state of popular cinema today.

In a recent, provocatively titled piece, David Thomson has drawn a very deep line in the sand regarding Avatar. Whilst his article ‘Ozu v Avatar – this really is what cinema has come down to’ focuses on the importance of family in cinema, Thomson is perhaps guilty of exaggerating the divide by taking such extremes. The battle between Avatar and The Hurt Locker is really a far more simple case: one of quality of subject against quality of spectacle.

Avatar may contain some of the most advanced and incredible computer generated imagery in the history of cinema. But it also boasts a screenplay so fraught with clichés both in plot and dialogue, hung on a story so basic, that it could easily have been told in a quarter of the films marathon running time. Its mediocre acting performances are less to do with the skill of the actors themselves but rather the severely limited character development, devoid of any real depth or originality. Put bluntly, the massive success of Avatar is not due to the quality of the sum of its parts.

The Hurt Locker on the other hand is a taut, tough, action film directed with great prowess. Its visceral and tense episodes remind us of the ease at which good direction can stir affect in the stomachs of the audience. It has been praised for depicting the Iraq war without politics, yet the penultimate scene is one the most apt metaphors for the war itself that I have seen this side of Generation Kill. Its performances are solid, its narrative pared down to necessity. Whilst by no means a masterpiece, it is easily the better film in my opinion. It is a whole film, not one that relies on only one aspect of its production.

Whilst Avatar is no doubt advancing the art of cinema, my problem is that in this case it has come at the compromise of story and character, the two most crucial staples not only of film but of all narrative based art. A best picture award for Avatar would be sadder than a thousand Halle Berry acceptance speeches. It would be the justification of spectacle over subject and would confirm my worst fear; that story and character are becoming more marginal than ever before.

Curlz is Shit.

A documentary about a typeface sounds pretty boring I know; yet for me at least, Helvetica was anything but boring. Maybe it is because I come from a town with a prestigious design school, and some of my good friends are graphic designers, or maybe it is because once I saw this film I began to realise Helvetica was everywhere.

Example. I paused Helvetica to get up and get a cup of coffee. While I waited for the jug to boil low and behold there it was in the flyer for a well-known supermarket. Afterwards, on a drive into town I saw it everywhere, from the signage of major chain stores, to the small name on the side of a plumbers van door, it’s even on road signs. It was like putting on a pair of Hoffman Glasses from John Carpenter’s They Live and suddenly being able to see what had always been all around me.

The documentary is good at balancing views on Helvetica. Some love it while others hate it. Most interestingly however is that the film more widely looks at the graphic design industry and the various changes it has gone through from modernism through to its bastard child post-modernism. There are interviews with radical dudes like Sagmeister and Wim Crouwel, as well as a look at the process of type design by Matthew Carter, which is particularly fascinating. Helvetica also boasts a good soundtrack with tracks by Fourtet, Caribou and Battles and flies by at a suitably brief 80 minutes.

Anyway, there are two other reasons for this post. One is to apologise to type fiends for my unwitting use of the lame Helvetica clone Arial. Upon attempting to remedy this I just discovered WordPress won’t let me so I’ll continue to be an Arial laughing stock (at least I hope this type is actually Arial, if it’s not then nail me to a capital T). Shit. All my design friends must have been secretly scoffing at me for months. Secondly, speaking of design friends, one of the most radical I know is my old school chum Tyrone Ohia. He has a wild bonaza of a blog called Te Blog, where he spends quite a lot of time looking at type and book design. Check it out. His two-part evaluation of a jovial publication called Camping and Cooking is a joy.

I will confess I like Helvetica (the film) as well as Helvetica (the typeface). As one interviewee explains there seems to be something about it that is pleasing to the eye for some almost intangible reason. Having said that, it’s also the font of choice for those goddamn corporations that we all know do nothing but ruin society. Someone should make a documentary about that. Or maybe just a sequel to Helvetica about how shit Curlz is. I know I’d champion that film.

There are those who kill violently!

When I was about 12 I remember a notorious VHS doing the rounds at my school. It was called Driller Killer, a title that always left little to the imagination. I was never cool enough to receive this VHS, I only ever saw it exchanged in the bushes by the tyre wall. It would not be until now that I would discover Driller Killer is actually the second feature film made by the maverick American director Abel Ferrara after his debut porn film 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy.

Driller Killer is a great picture. Ferrara and his prominent jaw play the central role of the brilliantly named Reno Miller, a struggling artist who lives with his two girlfriends at a derelict apartment in an equally derelict part of NYC. Driven mad by his latest painiting, particuary the menacing eye of a Buffalo that dominates the piece, Miller transforms into the manic driller killer with the help of a radical utility belt he buys at the local hardware store. What follows are some superb and terrifying scenes of murder set against a vivid, hellish vision of New York comparable to the mean streets of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.

The more I read about Ferrara the more I become intrigued. Not only did begin in porno (always interesting) after Driller Killer he would go on to make his most well known films Bad Lieutenant and King of New York. What interests me however is his William Gibson adaptation New Rose Hotel (based on a superb short story in Burning Chrome) and his pseudo-remake of Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Go Go Tales. With my appetite whetted by Driller Killer these two films are very high on my ‘to watch’ list and I’d be fascinated to hear from anyone who has seen them.

Anyway, what actually prompted this post is the ridiculous fact that you can download Driller Killer for free! And it’s legal! Driller Killer is not owned by anybody and resides along with other great pictures like Roger Corman’s The Terror and John Huston’s Beat the Devil, in the public domain. Driller Killer can be downloaded as a nifty .avi file here. At a brief and blistering 90 minutes it’s worth a look. After the perplexing and utterly bizarre opening scene you’ll be hooked. If not it’s worth continuing for the sounds of Tony Coca-Cola and the Roosters, a punk band who feature heavily on the soundtrack.

By the way, I reckon Driller Killer has a great poster and possibly the best tag-line I’ve ever read.