Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Motion Studies: The Horror?

(Medal of Honor)
            Inside every filmmaker is a sucker for critique. Danish documentarian Janus Metz Pedersen’s film Armadillo exposes him as a sucker in two shots of parallel motion that would be inexcusable if they weren’t so crafty.
            Two Danish soldiers, stationed in Afghanistan, play the same computer game while sitting across from one another in a tank. It is a shoot-em-up; something along the lines of Medal of Honor. They grimace in the grainy dark (this being shot on a jerky prosumer camera), and snicker at the bad guys they shoot down. We move to a shot trained on the computer screen. The soldier—from a point-of-view perspective, only his gun visible—moves down a dirt road. The dark and desolate landscape is cartoonish, but the gun blasts look real enough. They come in quick succession. The Nazi’s cry out and fall dead. The player moves on past them without a grunt. The two soldiers are absorbed in their  pixelated shoot-outs and have forgotten about the darkness that surrounds them. But they have not forgotten they are in a real life war zone; incredibly, it seems their game is a way of giving that zone some visual validity.
            So when one player tosses a grenade in to an already bombed-out building, one would think that Pedersen has two reasonable choices. He can a) continue to train his camera on the computer screen, or b) Cut to a different scene and location entirely.  Instead, he takes the heavy-handed c choice, which is to cut from the animated explosion on screen to a blurred neon tank screen showing an actual grenade detonating in the desert. His critique is ruined because he pushed it so far.
           But then, once both explosions are through, there still remains parallel action. Parallel action is one of the driving urges of cinema. We see one action, blink an eye, and see a similar action in a different spot. Fortunately, filmmakers love this use of parallels more than they love critique. Pedersen is an irritating anti-war intellectual, but he is principled about his moving imagery. By the logic of film, who can fault him, or his flying grenades?

Friday, April 15, 2011

Motion Studies: The second volt

(Le Quattro Volte/ Kino International, 2010)
            Black, with a few rural noises. We know there will be a cut. There has to be a cut. In just several more seconds—
            (If Le Quattro Volte were not so serene, it would dole out more images like the one that follows. But to director  Michelangelo Frammartino, serenity is mitigated with shock so that we might understand serenity better. Shock value is never an inherently bad thing; nor is being shocked a feeling to scorn in our movie-going selves. Especially when it is a shock at something gross and life affirming.)
            Such as a female goat’s rear end, discharging a slimy, bloodied, tumbling baby goat that thuds on the hay-covered barn floor. It looks like a sack of life; its legs announcing themselves to the floor, its clobbered-together form intending to get on in this daylight. The Mother stands motionless; the baby goat bays. Its voice sounds nearly human. The Mother is colored a shade of brown, the baby is white. The slime from its body drips on the hay, the baby contorts its figure, it  starts to clobber across the floor. The Mother moves away. The baby is rising up from the slime, the blood, the hay, and will set about its mission—
            The gaze of the camera is steady as a doctor’s eye. There has been a cut.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Sidney Lumet; 1924-2011

            Pacino: “Is there any special country you want to go to?”
            Cazale: “…Wyoming.”
            -Dog Day Afternoon, 1975

            “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!”
            -Network, 1976

            Policemen, bank robbers, pundits, judges, jury, wizards, Manhattanites:
            Sidney Lumet evidently made such films about such characters not because they would change the world, or because they had any cultural significance, but because “…I like it and it’s a wonderful way to spend your life.”

Friday, April 8, 2011

No more. Please.

(Josh Radnor and Michael Aligieri in Happy Thank You More Please/Anchor Bay films)
            Motion Studies are not supposed to be holistic; they only concern themselves with a piece of something larger. But with a film like the recent Happy Thank You More Please, an exception must be made.
            Writer-Director-Star Josh Radnor’s film contains one image of protagonist Sam (Radnor) sitting on the stoop of his apartment building, drinking a Brooklyn Lager from the bottle. Beside him sits a mysterious black child named Rasheen (Michael Algieri) he has taken in (technically kidnapped) for a week, sipping from a coke can. It is a sunny day. Everything in the frame is somehow bright; the homey brown of the apartment steps and the beer bottle, the redness of the coke can, the fashionable blue and white neo-bohemian attire Sam never sheds, the darkness of Rasheen’s skin. Even the blackness of Sam’s trimmed beard, a vision of endearing scruffiness is “bright.” Variations of this image are repeated several times in the film, always involving a conversation, always playing on the theme of hapless friendship. But the brightness within this shot is really a grasp towards some idea of sophistication. So it must be here where it all turns dark.
            The brightness—both intellectual and visual—of every frame in Happy Thank You More Please destroys its own ambition. It means to illuminate, by way of a series of serio-comic gestures, the lives of young, smart people who don’t have their lives figured out yet, but who are on their way towards some sort of inner enlightenment. Its brightness also illuminates an already enlightened people who are ready to become more enlightened; who show a forthright cluelessness about the world as it exists outside of thrift stores and trust funds; who expect sympathy and even gratitude. Such brightness, when it shines on characters meant to be taken at face value, rather than ironically, shows that there is nothing really at stake amongst these comfortable lives. Yet not only is this not the stuff of drama or comedy; it is not the stuff of movement.
            Which brings up the one significant piece of motion within the shot of Sam and Rasheen drinking their beverages. Sam’s beer bottle swings up to his mouth, then casually back down to his legs, while he talks to Rasheen about his goals in life and art and not much else. The eye moves to nothing more than a bottle of beer, clearly labeled as Brooklyn Lager. Whether or not this counts as product placement is secondary; it is motion that doesn’t even try, that relies on cheap meaning and flashing amusement to passively exist. Radnor’s motion exists in a vacuum of indie music and brownstones. It whimpers rather than command his camera.
(Brooklyn Lager)

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Motion Studies: some other Svankmajer objects

(Darkness/Light/Darkness (Tma/Svetlo/Tma)/1989)
       Take four seconds of film. Make that four seconds of two clay arms in a small room, one with eyeballs embedded in two fingertips, examining each other in fright under a low-hanging lamp. Jan Svankmajer explores the territory where actual people are visually discarded for the paranoid lives of objects. But in Darkness/Light/Darkness, possibly his finest short film, four seconds of two frenetic, and utterly alive arms will bring out our most human impulses. We’re forced to laugh, because we don’t know where this absurdity is headed and besides, those bulging eyeballs look goofy. But we’re also kept on our toes, because the film is so evidently many chopped up pieces crashing together. Svankmajer won’t let us forget it.
            Stop-Motion animation allows the filmmaker to break film down to its tiny grains. Its grains are frames that jerk past our vision and are gone; but jerking the film along is only the most inherent purpose of stop-motion. It allows the filmmaker to work freely with his physical subjects. In this sense there has never been a freer, or broader filmmaker than Svankmajer. Midway through these four seconds, the eyeless arm lunges at the other arm, which backs against the wall. The appeal of this content is that we will never fathom, in our waking existence, dislocated arms locked in confrontation. But the aesthetic appeal is that we have never seen such outrageous, obvious technical fakery. That stop motion never convinces us of being real motion makes it cinema incarnate. Cinema never really moved. If we see it breaking down in its tracks—object by object, jerk by jerk—then we can see it for the glorious, disturbing lie that it is. This gives stop motion the freedom to write off any real-life logic necessary for a real life feature. This form might be called surrealist, because it is. But it also makes stop motion the most legitimately cinematic animation technique available.
Yet Svankmajer does more than expose the lies of moving images. He goes beyond writing off logic. For within the surrealism of two arms inspecting one another and scurrying around on the floor comes the most logical storyline leading to the most logical possible conclusion. Svankmajer is the only logical surrealist; watch closely in the center of the shot. Behind a tiny, darkened window, a pair of ears flaps outside…