Wednesday, August 26, 2009

On Bravaura Storytelling


District 9 is a film spilling over with anarchy and nihilism, though maybe the filmmaker’s didn’t know it.

The director is Neil Blomkamp, a first-time feature director and native of South Africa who made the film with the ‘small budget’ of $30 million, much of it on loan from producer Peter Jackson. Jackson let the director cut loose, and there are as many explosions, gun-battles and shaking cameras as one could squeeze in to such a film, though all are framed by an uncommonly clever story. A massive alien spaceship has been hovering over Johannesburg for over twenty years, while it’s crew, comprised of thousands of insect-like, tentacled aliens have occupied the ghettos of the city. By 2010, the government and residents of the city have become fed up with the aliens and a team is created to deport them from their current occupation in to a designated site called District 9. The team is led by Wikus (Sharlto Copley), an irritating, arrogantly jovial man who may have been hired for the job simply because he is married to the daughter (Tania Haywood) of a top government figure. Naturally, the aliens are uncooperative and Wikus is not the right man for the job; but once he accidentally swallows a brown alien substance found while raiding one of their shacks, he slowly begins to transform in to one of the aliens (known as ‘Prawns’) himself, and becomes a target of the government. While on the lam, he is forced to rely on the alien in whose shack he found the substance, and who claims he can turn Wikus back to normal.

(Map of District 10, Johannesburg, South Africa)

One of the most memorable snippets of the film is one that occurs by-way of Blomkamps storytelling form of choice; a mixture of straight documentary, sequestering the action-packed plight of the rest of the story. The snippet is in a documentary segment near the beginning, in which a T.V commentator is talking about the plan to take care of the aliens, and mentions the opposition of human rights groups. There is a quick shot of activists holding signs and shouting in the streets, and in the context of this story it seems completely zany, but it is meant to be taken at face value. Because District 9 is almost a merely inspired, bombastic science fiction film that adheres to the pulpiest aspects of the genre, except for one thing; it’s an allegory of Apartheid. Blomkamp deserves credit for choosing such an ignored subject of cinema and framing it in such a peculiar way, but the internal flaw of the allegory is that those were Humans and these are Aliens. By way of it’s documentary realism, the film is asking us to remove ourselves from entertainment and seriously consider: What if Aliens landed here on Earth? It’s own answer to the question only begins with the shot of human rights activists, and although hilariously accurate, Blomkamp doesn’t want us to think it’s hilarious; it is just dead accurate. These people on the margins, these protestors, have the right idea about how to live with these creatures, while the majority of South Africans are prejudiced and the totalitarian government simply has it’s own agenda. But when I considered what would happen if aliens really landed on earth, I quickly realized that I would fully support a plan to get them out of here as quickly as possible. The aliens in this film are mostly portrayed as brutish and not very intelligent, have been hanging around for over twenty years, and posses weapons; some of them kill. With all this considered, a program to put them far away from human civilization looks reasonable enough. That one alien (and his cute son) do gain our sympathy in the film, as we spend more time with them, does not save the overall allegory. Blacks are people and are entitled to human liberties; aliens are intruders, and their predicament makes human rights activists look silly.

Yet what ensues is far more, even, than a socially conscious sci-fi action film. District 9 contains, as one other critic put it, ‘bravura storytelling.’ This is ultimately the emotional sum of its parts. On one hand, it’s story is indebted to the stories of trade paperback science fiction magazines of old that have now been consigned to used bookstores and special collections. Yet those stories did not utilize grainy surveillance footage, CGI-created characters, or T.V imagery; in these respects, the story is indebted to modern technologies. Also thrown in to the mix are the slow-motion shots that occur in films when a character is getting ready to take care of business, and a token baddie, ordered to capture Wikus, who comes in to the film late and acts as if he’s at a frat party the entire time. Given this intense mixture, Blomkamps storytelling approach involves both caricatures and fleshed-out characters, genre clichés and inspired visual sensibility. 

All bravaura storytelling encompasses both talent and fault, and there are several major talents at work here; one is the lead actor Sharlton Copley, who manages to hold every scene he’s in back from all the  CGI and gun-battles and misguided satire. He is a true performer who does not need to be an action hero to make us keep our eyes on him, even in spite of his ridiculousness. And the cinematography, by newcomer Trent Opaloch, can be a real visceral wrench; watch as he cuts back and forth between Tania being assured by her father that her husband is dying and she has to ‘let go,’ and shots of Wikus being wheeled, screaming, in to a spooky government operating room where his surgeons intend to cut his heart out. But bravura storytelling needs to be anchored in fundamental storytelling, and District 9 fails to follow through on several of its fundamentals. All allegories must be logically reconciled with that which they represent in reality; all clichés and caricatures will not necessarily be mitigated by the audaciousness of other aspects; and all those protestors may be where the actual satire resides.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

I Met a Murderer

In 1939, the forgotten English filmmaker Roy Kellino made a home movie with his then-wife, Pamela Kellino (later Pamela Mason) and an unknown actor in his late 20’s, James Mason. Kellino shot the film himself, in the farmlands of Northern England; he and Kellino and Mason collaborated on the story. The result was an eighty-minute thriller called I Met a Murderer (1939).

The film, which screened at Film Forum as part of its Brit Noir series, must be the WASPiest B-Movie ever made; replete with images of farm dogs running over the hills, farmers carrying rifles and pipes, wooden bridges crossing over brooks and stone-leaden architecture. It is also, for its time a conventional film. Conventional here is used in the best sense of the word; it adheres to various melodramatic traits of studio films of the time (and to an extent, today). It features an orchestral music score almost throughout the entire film, and has customary close-ups of the actor’s faces at the right moments. It’s story is one of extreme formula; a man-on-the-run story that Hitchcock was riding to the hilt at the time. In this particular version, Mason plays a dutiful, hardworking farmer with a wife who can’t stand him or his farm anymore. In retaliation against his strict rules and treatment of a somewhat dim farmhand, she shoots his beloved dog. In retaliation, he shoots her. Although he plans the stay on the farm, his neighbor’s daughter is finds the spot (not very inconspicuous) where he has buried his wife and starts digging. The last shot of Mark we get is of him is a distant fade of him jumping a wooden fence and running away from his farm. From that point on, he is on the run from Scotland Yard, but along the way he meets another wayward soul named Jo—a novelist of all things-- played by one of the most gorgeous women to appear on the English-speaking screen, Pamela Kellino (later, Mason). Jo acts as if she wants to aimlessly frolic and vaguely seduce Mark. But Jo comes to be revealed as a most unusual femme fatal who knows exactly what his predicament is, and is using him as fodder for her own imagination.

I Met a Murderer feels like it is a series of sequential ideas for a story shouted out by friends on a long car trip. Yet it still visually adheres to the story; first in the wide-open vistas of Mark’s farm, then in the slow pans and dolly’s through the countryside as Mark and Jo run from the law. But within this form, there are various stylizations that would not appear in mainstream films for several more decades; the camera zips from an object to a characters face at intense moments; animals are featured prominently as things that humans use Each scene starts with a conventional establishing shot before delving in to any specifics, but this is because the locals ask for it; this region of England, blanketed by hills and lapses of forest, by mellow streams and farm after farm is the least typical place to set a chase film. Its sheer beauty does not need color to be admired, and rural set mysteries or chase films such as Fargo or Badlands come to mind from time to time. As with those films, Murderer uses the landscapes as one with the psychology of the characters, though to a far more subtle degree. This is unusual for such a low-budget, often campy film, and is perhaps Murderer’s most admirable attribute.

Unfortunately, what tends to cut into the film’s visual obsessions is its awkwardness. In the scene where Mark and Jo first meet, on a rainy night under an overpass, she offers him a cigarette, but takes none out of her pocket; he offers her one of his own, but she says she does not smoke; she has been standing in a tentative position, as if over-excited; then we see a sudden close-up of her in which she seems to be standing rigid position and the background looks different. The awkwardness in this scene stems from the visual, the written and the actor’s gestures, and it glares elsewhere in the film; Jo’s hairstyle, for example, seems to change from shot to shot. The exposure is not always good (the film was shot entirely on location, rare for it’s time) and frames are missing from the print. Not all of these faults are necessarily faults of the filmmakers, and much of the time it is hard to care anyway. In one scene, Jo and Mark are pulled over by two policemen for speeding. Jo gets out of the car and seductively apologizes to the officers for her mistake. The affect she has on them is the same affect she has on the audience; in clear view of all the errors, we just let it go.

(James Mason, I Met a Murderer; Director Roy Kellino.)

I Met a Murderer is an imperfect yet genuinely independent film from a long time ago that bears interesting similarities with the low-budget Indies of today. As with many Indies today, it is overstuffed with ideas, imperfectly acted, imperfectly shot, but endearing nonetheless. This appears to be the ideal feel for an independent filmmaker’s debut; Jarmusch captured it with his early features, Wes Anderson captured it in Bottle Rocket, and even a movie like Napoleon Dynamite was greeted the-imperfect-little-film-that-could. But unlike those movies, I Met a Murderer did not accept any particular niche audience that it will appeal to. It did not take the quirks of previous movies and update them for it’s own style, either. Murderer comes from a time when there was no such thing as niches in a large-scale sense and the main duty of a filmmaker was to tell an interesting story and tell it so people could understand it. This is probably the ultimate convention Murderer adhered to, and in this way it can both be labeled a ‘B-Movie’ and is just an entertaining story. If more independent filmmakers simply returned to conventions these days and stuck to their stories rather than their quirks, perhaps we could have a real independent film resurgence. Convention is the lifeblood of storytelling. 

(Pamela Mason)

Friday, August 14, 2009

Nostalgia and How to Lighten up about It: Funny People

The opening of Judd Apatow’s new comedy Funny People is, in relation to what follows, the most moving part of any Apatow movie. It consists of home video footage of Adam Sandler making prank calls while his roommates participate and try to stifle laughter. That the footage is probably authentic-- it may be real off-the-cuff footage of Sandler joking around before his true days of fame-- highlights both the sentimentality and nostalgia of this film.

            We are led in to the rest of the film by way of Sandler’s character, a forty-something standup comic George Simmons, being informed that he has an aggressive form of Leukemia and that his prospects of survival are grim. We see him looking through pictures of an old girlfriend (Leslie Mann) and calling her to tell her he is ‘sorry about everything,’ stopping short of saying a word about his illness. This is a man who has stopped short of everything in life barring a good joke; he did not get married, he did not keep in touch with his family, and he likes being around people only if they serve his needs. He stopped short of having friends. 

There are already several firsts for Apatow and crew less than a half hour in to this too-long film: for once, Apatow is establishing a character and a mood without resorting to any blaring quirks or profiling. Simmons is simply another beloved celebrity who lives in a beautiful house in an arrogant, bitter world of his own invention. Subsequently, this is also the first time Adam Sandler has given a good performance. Under his freakish man-child façade there has always been a layer of pathology and despair, and Sandler has built a character with these qualities while nonetheless being witty and effortlessly hilarious. Humphrey Bogart would have played a character like George Simmons had he been wise to the world of standup comedy.

            Ira Wright, too, is a character fashioned from despair. Seth Rogen plays him as an eager and neurotic jewish standup comic, albeit one who is realizing with dismay that has a long way to go before he gets solid laughs. When George Simmons sees him at a standup venue he decides he likes his jokes enough to hire him to write jokes and generally take care of him for $15,000 a week. Ira is flattered, although we know that Simmons really just needs someone to project his loneliness on to. Eventually, though, even we are confounded; Simmons confides to Ira before anybody else that he is dying of cancer and comes to appreciate Ira’s devotion, as well as his genuine talent for writing jokes. Ira comes to need Simmons, too; for one, to escape from his self-centered roommates (Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman) and for two, to learn how to pick up girls.

            All the films Apatow has produced or directed hinge on one character who is a good, earnest person and everybody around him acting lowlier than they should. This, too, is given a slight change-up in Funny People; there are two earnest characters, one who is simply the type of guy we would not think of as such if we didn’t get to know him. Also, all characters do at least one selfish thing—Ira neglects to tell one roommate that Simmons also wanted to hire him—and at least one decent thing— a snotty female acquaintance (Aubrey Plaza) admits that she was wrong to sleep with Ira’s roommate days before they were supposed to go on a date.

            Apatow’s movies are the also the most modern movies being made today. They are packed with sounds of cell-phones interrupting conversations and meaningless apologies. They are leaden with images of corporate logos casually sticking around everywhere and of guys watching T.V or smoking pot or drinking to stave off boredom and awkwardness. They are also modern in the sense that they want to appeal to a populist sense of humor while also dealing with real issues facing people today. It is here where certain intentions of Funny People come in to friction with each other; Apatow wants to make the epitome of movies that work within the Hollywood system and are also ‘smart’; movies that are both down-to-earth and feature one outrageous joke after another. But because of this approach we are treated to scenes in which George, after finding that he has gone in to remission from cancer, has a party featuring cameos from every celebrity imaginable, or later scenes of marital strain between George’s old girlfriend, Laura (Leslie Mann) and her husband (Eric Bana) in which the kids remain unaffected by their parents plight to a cynical degree. The elaborate and convulsive plot does not help to reign in the obscene jokes or the nudging and winking for the sake of some more plausibility. Those who would say that these movies are not supposed to be plausible, only funny, are wrong in this case; Funny People strives to be a deeply humanistic, believable movie, but there are too many populist obligations that get in the way. There has to be more celebrities, more profanely shouted sex jokes and a last minute reconciliation. It’s the rules.

            But Funny People still tries more new things than any previous Apatow film has done, or even than most mainstream comedies do. All of his movies purport to be character driven, but movies like The 40 Year Old Virgin and Superbad are really impulse-driven. Funny People is genuinely a movie about funny and complicated people. Apatow and his actors could still learn a few things about performance-driven humor, from Mike Leigh, for example. But his new film is daring in its own way and if that confuses his regular audience then that might just confirm how compassionate a storyteller he really is.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Perils of Piracy

In the July issue of Sight and Sound, Nick Roddick writes; '...there is a whole generation who remain unconvinced that downloading commercially produced movies and music remains less serious than, say, scrumping apples in a more innocent age.' While this was probably intended as a humorous comparison, Roddick goes on to let us know that in the Victorian Age children were jailed for scrumping apples. Would children also be jailed for tearing pages from the serialized copies of Charles Dicken's novels until they accumulate the entire manuscript for free? Of course they would have, and that is a more accurate-- albeit more haphazard-- comparison for downloading movies. 
Nick Roddick would agree that downloading movies is problematic to say the least and that steps taken to persecute individuals doing the downloading need to be re-organized. But he does not get at why downloading movies could be considered a sin in the first place. Just as it would be a sin-- a violation of media form, let's call it-- to put together torn pages of Dicken's books and do what you would with the full manuscript, it is a violation of media form to even watch movies on a computer, with your mouse jutting in to the picture at the slightest movement, the space bar pausing the film to allow for the pizza to be ordered, Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson's merging faces interrupted by an Instant Message. The creators would never have wanted to see their work this way, and your eyes are being robbed to boot. If one saw the pictures on a big screen in a darkened room, only then are they achieving the full experience of the film, even if they don't know it. 
As is obvious, the comparisons to Dickens have ended. Very well, and all the more reason to regard films as a unique 20th century media form reliant on very specific technology. But these are all abstract arguments, I know, and they won't persuade the majority of people downloading movies. So here is a more practical argument: downloading movies hurts small production companies and distributors. A major company such as Dreamworks can afford to lose some money off of the illegal downloads of Tropic Thunder, but the executives at Gigantic Pictures might tremble is they heard of even a handful of illegal downloads of Goodbye Solo. There are always people who will still see the movies in a theater, and those who will buy it on DVD, but we can't draw such clear lines. What if someone sees it in a theater and then goes home and downloads it? What if someone buys the DVD, rips the movie from it, and puts it online? The world of film-watching has become a dismayingly double-crossing place.
Most people would still say that sending someone to jail for a few illegal downloads is too much, and I would agree. I would fully stand behind an initiative to cut down admission prices to theaters, and I would see nothing wrong with a movie being downloaded with the consent, or express wish, of the filmmaker. But I have no qualms with a fine, or a series of fines that increase with each illegal download. As of now, Great Britain is using the ultimatum that users access to the internet will be cut off if they continue downloading movies for twelve months after they have been asked to stop. France tried enacting a similar plan, though it was recently voted unconstitutional. The legitimacy and effectiveness of these plans is debatable; should we simply leave the policy up to the companies? For now, I stand with the small distributors, their small films and their struggling filmmakers who deserve to make their cents worth from what they spent months toiling on. Although I stand against every bad movie that a company like Dreamworks puts out each year, by the same logic, I stand with them on this issue too.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Goofing Off

[This is my second major essay. I do not consider it entirely complete. I hope to add more images soon, but I need permissions.}

Cinema might be the only medium that requires a great deal of fun to succeed. Fun in the sense that the discipline is already there; there is a certain amount of film or tape to be used, a certain continuity that must be retained and a certain amount of time one has. The fun must merely occur within this framework.

            Goofing off is a form of play that should be condoned in most situations, but is acceptable, even endearing, in others. It is either a creative act at all times or a time-waster at all times. It is almost always acceptable after a bout of hard work, as a way of letting off steam. It is thought to be more acceptable in individuals who have already proven themselves tremendously in their respective fields, whereas if one spends his entire career either sleeping on the job or making prank calls, then he is a complete goofball. Someone who works hard at his job and occasionally cracks a joke with the boss is simply a disciplined worker with a human side.

Filmmakers are not spared these distinctions. Ed Wood was a goofball; Orson Welles showed he had a human side in F for Fake. One of the main differences is that most filmmakers are well-intentioned goofballs; Ed Wood thought he was making good films, he just wasn’t. Another difference is that when a great director or actor goofs-off their goofing off is supposed to retain eloquence and artfulness. Brando worked his heart out in A Streetcar Named Desire, The Godfather, Last Tango in Paris and Burn, then spent most of the rest of his career fooling around in films such as Apocalypse Now, The Island of Dr. Moreau and The Score. These performances were in fact just goofy-creepy or goofy-silly; still, Brando is in the minds of many an actor who could transcend the material he was given. 

The double standards by which we view goofing-off are understandable in life, but not in filmmaking. In films, it is important that the director, actors and crew take the film seriously by actively goofing off. Filmmaking, like goofing-off, is a form of play that is also very hard work. By this measure, a finished film should not simply be half disciplined structure and half anarchic silliness. Ideally, the two should be indistinguishable.

            If we step back and look at cinema as a whole, we can easily see the ways in which it is a goofy and ridiculous medium. Who would spend an amount of money greater than the cost of three or more large houses, gather a massive amount of equipment that wastes a wide variety of natural resources and then try to alter the natural environment of the shoot itself, simply to create a product that is only light projected on to a screen, and will probably be forgotten anyway? Why couldn’t they just write it instead, or paint it, or sing it? The silliness is there, but the overall resemblance of filmmaking to goofing off does not trivialize the importance of filmmaking. On the contrary: filmmakers should make all this effort and still act silly during the shoot itself. For this is one of the only ways to capture spontaneous moments, fleeting images, unexpected but perfect reactions from actors or extras, or incidental wildlife which heighten the mood of the film and give it a new texture. Perhaps these spontaneous or improvised moments, achieved by goofing off, will be the ones viewers remember best.

 The films that are remembered for this particular sensibility are equally about goofing off as they were created by the act of it. Many of these films, unsurprisingly, are also comedies. Buster Keaton’s early films, including features such as Our Hospitality (1924) and shorts such as Cops (1922), were all expertly staged feats of silliness. Witnessing Keaton swing across a waterfall is to witness an act that is both sincere and ridiculous. More contemporary comedies, generally the slapstick ones-- i.e. Animal House, Dazed and Confused-- have plots that hinge on the outrageous behavior of the characters from scene to scene. John Belushi’s drunken antics and a group of teenager’s destruction of mailboxes are not condonable in real life, or on any other job; in movies, we know we aren’t supposed to approve, but they are still bliss. An unclassifiable, yet comic movie such as W.R: Mysteries of the Organism (1971) works basically the same way. A joyous image of cinematic goofiness comes in one scene when the singer Tuli Kupferberg, having been stalked around the streets of New York carrying a machine gun for some time, stands on a bridge passing over a highway and masturbates his gun, while jumping up and down, his grin widening. W.R is a different beast from Animal House and Dazed and Confused, far more of a critique than a comedy. But the scene is both unnerving and funny, which we laugh at despite our instincts that tell us we should be repelled, or scornful; a typical goof-off scene. These mixed instincts are at the heart of the appreciation of goofing off, in life and in films. Keaton, Animal House, Dazed and Confused and W.R each deliver this mixture, simply by making us watch the way the people on screen behave. In this sense, they are quintessential goof-off movies, but in another sense, that is all they do. They may be funny and their goofiness may be subversive on the most basic level, but it is only scratching the surface of that subversion.

For goofing off to be taken seriously as art, then, we have to look at the films that take the subversion a step further. These are films that use goofing off to disrupt our emotions entirely, rather than conceal the disruption with humor, as we would expect. This is similar to developing a negative image of a smiling mother holding her newborn son; we don’t want the scene to behave this way, but the effect is nonetheless fascinating. Stan Brakhage knew this when he produced Desistfilm (1954), a fine and unsettling eight-minute piece of goof-off art. Watch as a group of kids smoke, dance, make out, play with fire and have a very perverse type of fun in some cabin presumably in the woods. The camera wiggles, pulls in and out and moves in step with what the kids are doing at all moments; the sound goes from an annoying buzz to a mash-up of rock music and shouting; even the crew is participating in the foolishness. At the film’s end, a group of boys run around the back of the house to spy on their friend making out, intoxicated, with a pretty girl in a bedroom. The two lovers turn to the window and see the sniggering teenage faces lined up, watching them. With this ending, Desistfilm becomes a film about the limits of goofing off. If we were to witness this scene from the perspective of the teenagers doing the spying, we would probably feel a sensation close to how Animal House or Dazed and Confused let us feel; scornful yet appreciative, a sneer crossed with a laugh. But if we were the boy and the girl being spied on, we would feel humiliated and enraged at our friend’s behavior. The last shot is from the point of view of the boy and the girl, yet Brakhage brings us beyond their feelings; the film has hypnotized us to the extent that we feel repulsed and disturbed by the teenage faces laughing in the dark. We can empathize with the two lovers from the standpoint of feeling even more violated than them, and far crazier. Desistfilm is a film about goofing off, made by goof-off methods, that manages to hypnotize us in to an anxious and violated state.

Like Desistfilm, Werner Herzog’s Even Dwarves Started Small (1970) is a goof-off film that goes for the negative image effect, with stunning results. It may also be the only feature film that is pure goof-off cinema. There is not a single scene where characters are not destroying something for the sake of it, torturing someone or some animal for their own amusement or creating general mayhem and panic for the purpose of having a laugh. That every character is a dwarf does not exactly help. The film is a plotless vision of anarchic rebellion, set on a desert island; the only starting point is that of the dwarf’s intention of breaking out of their prison (or is it a mental hospital?) they have been locked in by it’s cruel director (also a dwarf). As soon as they break out they lay waste, first to the building, then to the director, then to the rest of the island.

This is only fun to watch because of the same hypnotic effect that runs through Desistfilm. This hypnotic effect works through the active participation of the crew and their proceedings. The camera follows the dwarves everywhere, runs with them, shakes with them, and effectively laughs with them. The music veers from bizarre ditty to Popol Vuh’s trance-electronica; none of it is standard, none of it is formal or well behaved. But some of the acts these dwarves do—tie a monkey to a wooden cross and parade around with it, drive a flaming car around in circles—cause us to feel violated once again.

 In the case of this film, it is helpful to know some background on how it was made in order to understand how seriously the crew took the silliness: Herzog recounted, in his book Herzog on Herzog, how one of the actors climbed up on the roof of the flaming car that was driving around in circles, and at one point fell off. He was run over, but got back up, unscathed. Herzog also recounted how he promised the actors that if they pulled through with the shoot, he would jump in to a field of cacti at the end of shooting—a promise he fulfilled. These physical risks took goofing-off to a greater extreme than most filmmakers would be willing to go, but they took them because of a complete reverence to making the film.

Goofing off always takes an anarchic form, from which it can never be removed. Yet even in it’s anarchic form it can serve the purposes of persistence and respect. A dwarf fell off a car and got back up; Herzog jumped in to the cacti bush as a token of gratitude to his cast and crew. The particular acts of goofing off in Dwarves were also always highly physical in nature; physical goofery is, of course, the most blatant form of goofing off for a visual medium. At the same time, few filmmakers have executed their films through such purely physical means in the way Herzog does in Dwarves; Keaton is perhaps the only filmmaker to top him in this respect. (But in Keaton’s films, we are allowed to rationalize his physical goofery as comedy; in Even Dwarves Started Small, no rationalization is permitted.)

   Goofing off, whether it is comedic or negative image, is always hastened to either extreme by the cinematography. Both Dwarves and Desistfilm are shot in desolate black and white, undoubtedly heightening the sense of menace we get from their silliness. Keaton’s films were shot in a lighter, sprightlier Black and White and contain technically smooth camerawork; the static shots and precise pans contribute to the deadpan comedy of Keaton’s silliness.  In W.R, on the other hand, director Dusan Makavejev specifically made sure to shoot the goof-off scenes with Tuli Kupferberg with a low grade film stock— 16mm—and in handheld, documentary fashion. Dwarves and Desistfilm also contain extensive handheld camerawork, but to an entirely different effect. (Handheld cameras are a frequent by-product of all goof-off cinema.) Dazed and Confused and Animal House contain bright colors and extensive use of music; these are elements that add to the goof-off spirit of the movies.

All of these films—as with all acts of goofing off—are more about spirit than technique anyway. So it appears—though there are exceptions—that the films that contain no goofing off at all are the one’s which contain an overload of technique. This is not to suggest that highly technical films are not enjoyable, and in terms of their technique they may be astounding. But one always gets the sense—and if the film otherwise works for them, fights it down—that they lack something vital.

 Stanley Kubrick is the greatest perpetrator of anti-goof-off films.  Several of his early films-- including his best, Dr. Strangelove-- do contain a healthy amount of goofing-off. But his later films, especially 2001: A Space Odyssey, Barry Lyndon and Eyes Wide Shut are all straight-laced recitation of dialogue, rigid tracking shots and gaudy colors. They are beautiful to look at, but they contain little to no silliness. A Clockwork Orange could have easily used some negative-image goofery, as could Eyes Wide Shut, but the scenes of rape and pillage in the former and the orgy scenes in the latter look all too rehearsed and rely too much on fancy camerawork to take the opportunity to show any improvisation or physical daring. Only in Full Metal Jacket did Kubrick permit actor R. Lee Ermy to improvise his dialogue, sending of shaft of goof-off light in to the scenes when Ermy berates his trainees in boot camp; otherwise, the film is drowned in technical formalities. Terrence Malick is another outstanding technical director who has never known how to goof off. His films suggest influence from classical and neo-classical painting in their imagery. In other respects, they scream film history; in the way a tense scene in a forest turns in to a sudden montage in Badlands, or the way an idiosyncratic voice-over is employed at perfectly timed intervals in both Badlands and Days of Heaven. Both of these films have vague, idyllic plots that can best be described as being about anti-heroes trying to make their way in the world. One would think that this simplicity in storytelling would allow for plentiful fun, but I, for one, cannot detect any.

The films of Malick and Kubrick are too often solemn feats of technique that feel as though they are anti-feeling and intentionally lifeless. For that matter, films that rely too heavily on a message are also anti-goof-off. Eisenstein’s soviet propaganda films; Godard’s unwatchable late 60’s Marxist-discourse films such as La Gai Savoir; Fahrenheit 9/11; Crash (Paul Haggis’s film from 2006) are all examples of message or agenda films that shut out any saving grace of silliness. Goofing off could provide a level of exhilaration and a stylization to the story that cinemagoers badly thirst for in these films, but only sometimes do the directors achieve this (Godard and Moore were able to mitigate the dogma of some of their earlier films with scenes of goofing-off, but then their worst instincts took over).

There are various methods directors employ that can lead to anti-goof off final products. These types of directors tend to work in Hollywood. Storyboards can give the film a high risk of non-goofiness. The use of storyboards is considered a standard practice in Hollywood and many film schools, but some filmmakers argue that drawing detailed storyboards for each scene kills spontaneity and on-the-spot creativity. A master craftsman such as Alfred Hitchcock, who clearly had a sense of humor, appears to have relied too heavily on storyboards for some of his films. There are even scenes in Vertigo and Psycho that seem too perfectly laid out, until they are saved in the next scene by Barbara Bel Geddes or Anthony Perkins. And one can be the goofiest director in the world, but if he works in Hollywood, he may not be permitted to put any silliness in his films, if they are melodramas or action movies. Hollywood  likes goofing off in comedy films, but hates goofing off in biopics, courtroom dramas, political thrillers and most action films (The Dark Knight, badly in need of it, doesn’t contain a shred of goofiness). Simply put, Hollywood has always taken the conventional view of goofing off: that it is a practice reserved for comedy, or for endearing and cutesy behavior in throwaway films. Out of this conventional behavior, it has created more conventions which manifest themselves in predictable jokes, music cues and sentimental voice-overs. Hollywood has yet to take in to account the negative-image side of goofing off, and it does not even do comedy very well.

Whether it be comedic or negative-image, filmic goofing off is anarchy, improvisation, spontaneity and frantic communication with the pretext of cameras being present. Goofing off is a form of interaction between the crew and actors, because it lets everybody have fun with their respective tools; an actor’s gestures, a cameraman’s camera, a Foley artist’s boom-mike. Goofing off is to a serious drama what a glass of red wine is to a human’s body; it is flavorful, makes everything a little tipsy and is good for the heart. But goofing off does not have to be only comedic or negative-image; these are only the most common forms. There are masters of goofing off like Mike Leigh, who makes films that are not necessarily comedic and not necessarily dark and assaultive. Mike Leigh has made many naturalistic dramas about the lives of urban families that were created through processes of improvisatory acting that determined the eventual script. This is a quite sincere form of goofing off and it manages to work without ever being completely rambunctious or sinister and experimental. Even an aggressive miserabalist film such as Naked (1993) I would hesitate to call negative-image. Leigh’s films are ultimately about both the individual in relation to the collective. Goofing-off always comes from the individual and somehow affects the world around them. It is a gesture of devotion to the film and Leigh’s actors are the primary goof-offers in his films. (Leigh has called himself a political filmmaker, because his films are all about how people make sense of the world around them and their places in society. Is goofing off also political?)

            Several years ago, I was making a film with a filmmaker friend with whom I had been taking a class. We were working with Black and White 16mm film on his final project, which would be called Early to Dead, Early to Rise. The goal was to make a zombie movie in the style of 50’s sci-fi or horror flicks: due to the sound of the glass harmonica, one of Benjamin Franklin’s greatest inventions, zombies had risen up and were devouring all the books in the world, in an attempt to gain knowledge. Only Ben Franklin, who himself would soon rise from the dead, could quell their uprising. The conceit was so goofy already that we didn’t need to do much more than point, shoot and recite our lines. But we got extravagantly in to it, taking hours to apply makeup to each of our faces (most of the crew also played zombies), dressing in the most ragged clothing we could find, finding specific books to make a point of the zombie’s cravings. The film took some time to complete, with roughly half of it being shot over the course of several other days on which I was not present. However during the day I was there, I remember the splendid goofing off that transpired, as we set up shots down by the reservoir in the outer Boston neighborhood we were shooting in, all us zombies closing in on the hero of the story. Then back at the house nearby, more goofing off, as one of the zombies broke in to the house and the hero tossed books at him to stave him off, and I voice-acted the terrified girlfriend of the hero. None of this was truly outrageous, or even remotely dangerous; all of it will sound like just another story where ‘you had to be there’ in any other context. But this is because it was not the actions themselves that imparted the exhilaration of goofing off, but the simple feeling that we were making a movie, we were passing the time in a way that was creative and silly; we felt like professional children. This is the most essential way goofing off can affect the makers of a film; it is a personal satisfaction that does not need to be explained and it is an affirmation of life. This feeling will hopefully bleed through the film, becoming relevant to the effects comedic or negative image-goofing off has on an audience. But is also a tremendous benefit of making films, and it can well up on any film set, be it a film about murderous outlaws, a film about dwarves, or a low-budget film about zombies shot by college students on some otherwise insignificant spring afternoon.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Somers Town

The best image in Somers Town, shot in black and white, comes somewhere past halfway through the film, when Tomo (Thomas Turgoose) and Marek (Piotr Jagiello), have arrived at their favorite diner to find that the French waitress Maria (Elisa Lasowski), who they share a lustful affection for, has gone back to Paris for some time. They have wheeled their salvaged wheelchair all the way over, and decorated it with flowers and sparkling ribbons just for her, and the diner’s owner is just closing up when he tells them the news. They turn around after Tomo dismally remarks that it ‘…doesn’t matter anymore,’ and are pushing their sad wheelchair around the block as the manager pulls a lever that brings the metal garage door to the diner all the way closed. The motion of the door closing and the figures of the boys waddling down the sidewalk in teenage disappointment is the best merging of motion in the entire film, and makes the shot one of the better small moments in this film which relies on small moments to function.

            Tomo is a boy from the Midlands who boards a train to London at the beginning of the film. We do not know and never find out precisely what home life he is trying to escape from, but we can be sure it was a sufficiently bad situation for Tomo to resort to travelling to the city with no money and the intention to steal and drink to get by. A sympathetic Scottish woman he meets on the train tries to help him out, but she disappears from the film with Tomo’s rejection of her offer to buy him a train ticket home. Tomo manages to nab a case of beer from a liquor store, but it is stolen by a group of punks who beat him up in the middle of the night. But just as Tomo’s story is starting to resemble a version of Naked for the pubescent teen set, he meets Marek. Marek is a Polish immigrant living with his construction worker father in a small flat somewhere in London. He loves photography, understands English well, but is still learning to read it; his father is a hardworking, hard-drinking macho character who is trying to escape a past of his own. The two meet entirely intentionally on the part of Tomo; he sits down next to Marek in the café they will return to again and again, and takes one his photos of Maria out of his hand.  Tomo chides Marek, asking who the girl is, and a chase resulting in Tomo finally giving back the picture. The two soon become friendly with each other and make it their ultimate goal to woo Maria, who is the subject of many of Marek’s pictures.

 Somers Town is casual and relaxing to watch, but casual here does not mean improvised.  The film intercuts between Tomo’s wanderings and Marek’s home life in a very deliberate way to show the ways in which Tomo is homeless yet nationally at home, while with Marek it is the other way around. Visually, it follows the rules of Ozu’s cinema; keep the camera steady—with several notable exceptions—but don’t add any unnecessary elements in to the scene; keep the scenery controlled, but still realistic and not at all showy. Essentially, the scenery in Somers Town serves the characters. In one shot, for example, Marek and Tomo, shielded by vertical glass windows, are running up the stairs to Marek’s flat to get drunk and cause mayhem; a sign on the right says that children are prohibited from playing in the area. There are several variations on this shot later on, revealing Meadow’s and his DP, Natasha Braier, as crafty storytellers and rather matter-of-fact Ozu’s.                               

            Yet the filmmakers should be faulted for some deliberateness that falls in to sentimentality. The use of a song by the singer Gavin Clark does not do the film any good, and mars one scene, which should have been beautiful in which Tomo and Marek push Maria home in the wheelchair. As they move through parks and across bridges, the scene comes to resemble something from a nostalgic (albeit well-done) video one is meant to watch at their High School graduation; it betrays the naturalistic sentiment of the rest of the film. The same song plays at the end, in a particularly suspect scene which finds the two boys in Paris and the film in color. We know they would end up in Paris, but do we need to see it? If the rest of the film relies on two people in limbo with only dim aspirations, should the film make the large jump from that stage to total gratification?

 It seems inappropriate, but it still puts a smile on one’s face. One of its most basic goals being to put a smile on your face, Somers Town accomplishes this very well. Like last years superb English film Happy Go-Lucky, it pulls the despair of the older, realist British cinema in to the sunshine realm and comes up with a remarkable compromise. Could this be the start of another trend of English cinema? If it is, enjoy the smiles.