Racking Focus

I'm at least sixty years behind the curve. Bear with me.

Best Picture’s Long-Lost Cousin: the Best Picture

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'Wings' may have won the "Best Picture" Academy Award in 1929 but it wasn't the only film to do so.

The general consensus for this year’s Academy Awards is that the “Best Picture” category boils down to two films – Avatar and The Hurt Locker. Among that consensus there’s a great many people who feel The Hurt Locker will win; but if you’re curious to know how the Academy will vote look no further than the 1929 and 1930 Academy Awards ceremonies.

That first ceremony saw two Best Picture awards handed out – one to William Wellman’s Wings for “Best Picture, Production” and one for F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise for “Best Picture, Unique and Artistic Production.” The Academy’s original goal was to honor the mainstream, popular films that did well at the box office and the smaller, more experimental films that received less coverage but played just as important a role in the development of the medium. The practice of handing out two Best Picture awards was quickly done away with and by the following year the voters chose to acknowledge just one film as “Best Picture” – MGM’s The Broadway Melody.

One could point to the fact that Wellman was “one of Hollywood’s” while Murnau was a foreigner in the Academy’s subsequent decision in 1930, choosing to recognize their own as opposed to outsiders, but the results of future awards ceremonies would point towards a favoring of middlebrow films with wide popularity over more refined films with more of a niche audience.

Ironic that this year marks the first time the Academy has expanded their Best Picture category to ten nominees in what was purported to be an act of shining a light on films that may have slipped past the public’s view. While that may have been the intention it certainly wasn’t the outcome. Of the five “extra” nominees (Warner Brothers’ The Blind Side, Tristar’s District 9, Disney’s Up, Focus Features’ A Serious Man, Sony Pictures Classics’ An Education)*, three of them finished in the top 27 at the box office in 2009, with two of them finishing in the top 8. Even with the opportunity to acknowledge more innovative, limited-appeal films the Academy, once again, erred on the side of commerce and popularity.

So for those of you believing The Hurt Locker will walk away with this year’s “Best Picture” Oscar, don’t be surprised to see James Cameron up on the stage when the night wraps up. All one needs to do is look to the origins of the “Best Picture” category to see the proof.

*Determining the five “extra” nominees was done by matching up the five “Best Director” nominees with the five “Best Picture” nominees. The remaining five films are the five “extra” nominees for Best Picture. The trend for “Best Director” nominees to come from “Best Picture” nominees has been in place for decades.

Explaining the “Sideways World” of LOST’s Season 6

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There seems to be some confusion out there about what exactly is going on with the current season of LOST and the new “sideways world” that’s taking place off the island. I have no inside info but I’ll attempt to explain it from my limited understanding. Perhaps I’m right, perhaps I’m wrong. But, at least in my mind, it makes sense. Here goes ….

One of the many things that was wrong with season 5 of LOST was the opportunity the writing staff had to take their own stab at causality (with Sayid shooting young Ben Lynus) and them dodging the proverbial bullet by having him survive. Seeing their take on causality and how it would affect the world of LOST was something I had been looking forward to for quite some time. That dodging of that topic almost got me to stop watching. Almost.

Conventional thought on causality has mostly been somewhat linear (even for something as anachronistically strucutred as time travel) — something happens that changes a prior event and the permutations affect everything occurring after that event. What’s interesting about the story in LOST is that it deals so much with destiny –  a predetermined set of events that have been in motion long before they actually occur. We’ve been told (or it has been suggested) that the Oceanic 815 survivors were actually destined to be on the island. If that’s the case, there had to have been many events prior to them getting to the island that would put them in a position to be there. We’ve been seeing a large portion of these events throughout the first 5 seasons of the show, almost always told in flashback.

The extent of these events is actually somewhat mind boggling when you think about it. It’s not just the direct and immediate events that placed them on that plane in Sydney, it’s also the people that were in their lives, the people that helped those other people be in their lives, and an almost infinite list of events that would eventually cause them to be boarding that flight. If one were to get be literal about the science involved we’re actually talking about each individual person’s entire life. Every aspect of it eventually led to them crashing on the island. It’s a rather daunting concept to wrap one’s mind around but everything about quantum physics and time travel is a rather daunting concept to wrap one’s mind around.

Still with me? Good.

Now that we’ve conceded this point, let’s reexamine what we’re talking about. A hydrogen bomb was detonated at the core of the island’s immense energy, causing the island to be destroyed at a point in time long before some of the Losties were even born. Therefore, the island is no longer there for them to crash on. Their destiny (crashing on the island) now ceases to exist (the island no longer exists) and everything and everyone in their lives that was there (the flashbacks we saw in seasons 1-5) — no matter how small or insignificant those events’ and peoples’ roles may seem — are no longer needed or provided, depending on how you look at it. Therefore, an entirely new life filled with entirely new people and events have been put in motion and we’re picking those lives up at the point of the fateful crash (that now doesn’t happen).

Typically, in previous time traveling stories, the act of traveling back in time or in any way “correcting” or “altering” a chain of events has then affected everything that follows the time traveled back to or the event that has been “corrected” or “altered.” While this still holds true in the current framework of LOST, because the event that was changed was a predetermined one of destiny it has also affected things that occurred prior to the “corrected” event — in this case, the island ceases to exist. This is the reason why the lives of the Losties back in the real world seem to have different pasts than the ones that crashed on the island.

Note, this doesn’t mean that every aspect of their lives is different; Kate is still wanted for murder, Jack is still dealing with the death of his father, etc. But it explains why there is a different past that led them to each of those points. It’s actually a rather inventive and original take on the conventional time travel story.

Written by Harry Lime

February 26, 2010 at 12:06 am

‘Thief’ and the Linguistics of Michael Mann

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I’ve said it before but it warrants repeating — Michael Mann is the most cerebral filmmaker working in Hollywood today. He immerses himself in research about the characters, the careers and lifestyles of his film’s subjects. He doesn’t approach a story from the outside but, rather, exhausts all resources to inject himself into the subject and then creates the story. His films are littered with details, many of which gloss right past the viewer. A lesser filmmaker would make it a point to cut to such details, making sure the audience is bluntly aware of them and to point out just how much the filmmaker knows, but not Mann. You’re either on board and an active viewer or you’re not. The level of involvment is entirely up to the viewer. The next time you watch Miami Vice, pay close attention to the shot of Tubbs and his girlfriend Trudy asleep in their bed together. You’ll notice all of Trudy’s fingernails carefully manicured and grown, except for her trigger finger, which has been filed down.

That level of thought and detail is also present in the linguistics of all his characters. That’s not a comment about the quality of his dialogue, although he is certainly a talented dialogue writer. I’m referring more specifically to the morphology and syntax of his characters; the actual words they choose to construct their sentences and the social reasons those choices were made. It’s one thing to write clever, interesting dialogue. It’s another thing to get inside the heads of the characters and understand exactly the whys and hows of what they speak.

The best example of this is in his first feature Thief (1981). It’s a story about Frank (James Caan), an ex-con who’s lost eleven years of his life in prison and is desperately trying to make up for it. He’s a torn and tragic soul; struggling to obtain all the things he wants his life to be and simultaneously acknowledging that he can never reach them. The time he’s lost isn’t marked just by years but also by his lacking of development and the crucial formative periods of our lives when we learn how to communicate “appropriately” in our given social environment. During the period of time when most people are out in the world learning about professional and personal relationships and the best way to communicate in them, Frank was in prison.

In prison there’s no reasoning or rationale, there’s simply what is and what isn’t. Frank’s entire set of communication skills are based around this premise. If something is going to happen, might as well just get right into it. There’s no evaluating or pondering, talking about things isn’t going to change the circumstances; everything is black or white.

This is the mindset he has when approaching his new girlfriend Jessie (Tuesday Weld), an almost total stranger. When Frank is two hours late for their dinner date he has to hunt her down at a bar. Upon finding her, Frank isn’t apologetic, he isn’t compassionate and understanding. Most people would know that they’re in for an ear full and approach the situation with a bit of humility. Whether they were truly sorry or not, they’d play the role because that is what they are supposed to do. In Frank’s mind, there’s a perfectly valid reason for his tardiness. He feels that once he explains that reason to Jessie that all will be forgotten and the night can move on. Since that’s the case, there’s no need to play games with the semantics of the conversation.

Frank: Let’s go, I got my car parked out in the red.

Jessie: What the hell are you doing here?

Frank: Finding you.

Jessie: Get away from me, you are two hours late. I do not need this, I do not need to be humiliated.

Frank: Wait a minute, I want to talk to you.

Jessie: No.

Frank: I will take you for coffee and explain. What’s the big god damn deal?

Jessie: You take me anywhere, that’s a big laugh.

Frank: Look, maybe there is a reason. Did you ever think of that?

Jessie: I don’t know the reason. I don’t want to hear the reason. There is no reason. That’s it.

Frank: Look, you were looking forward to this. [Frank lifts Jessie off the bar stool and drags her out of the bar.]

Frank’s life is a constant race to catch the dangling carrot in front of him. He has neither the time nor the inclination to feign emotions for the sake of interpersonal communication. There was a perfectly good reason why he was late and once that is explained it should be the end of the conversation. But that’s not how most people operate. Instead of realizing this, Frank becomes indignant in the car.

Frank: Look, in what I do there are sometimes pressures. What the hell do you think that I do? C’mon, c’mon. C’mon! Every morning I walk in for five months, say hi, what the hell do you think that I do?

Jessie: You sell little fucking cars, that’s what you do.

Frank: I wear $150 slacks. I wear silk shirts. I wear $800 suits. I wear a gold watch. I wear a perfect, D-flawless three karat ring. I change cars the way other guys change their fucking shoes! I’m a thief. I’ve been in prison, alright?

Jessie: So what. I don’t care.

Frank: So what?

Jessie: Don’t tell me.

Frank: So what? I never even told my wife that!

Jessie: I don’t care!

Frank: Who is now gone. Did I ever come on to you?

Jessie: No.

Frank: You see?

Jessie: See? See what?

Frank: See, I am a straight arrow. I am a true blue kind of a guy. I’ve been cool. I am now unmarried, so let’s cut the mini-moves and the bullshit and get on with this big romance!

This is an atypical example of the typical “getting to know you” scene. Frank doesn’t court women, he chooses them and they are then expected to keep up. Frank has chosen Jessie and it’s now clear that she is, in at least some fashion, attracted to Frank. Frank knows this and in his mind they can dispense with the time-consuming process of feeling each other out. He knows what he needs to know so they should just get right down to it. But inside this scene is much more. Frank is essentially condensing the first 6 months of every relationship into a few lines. He’s telling Jessie, as best he can, all about himself — who he is, how he dresses, how he conducts himself, his personal and professional history, his past relationships and what he does for a living. To Frank, getting to know someone is just a simple exchange of facts. He doesn’t have time to bullshit or play games and he projects that characteristic onto Jessie. “Here’s who I am in a few sentences, now you tell me.” It’s not that Frank doesn’t want to experience romance, he simply doesn’t have time to. It’ll be just fine with him to acquire a romance, like one would acquire an 18-volt cordless drill.

If you’re starting to feel like Frank doesn’t respect Jessie you’re both right and wrong. Frank was state-raised, bouncing in and out of foster homes. He drifted into a life of crime and then spent more than a third of his life in prison. No one ever concerned themselves with Frank’s interpersonal needs. Frank’s not bitter about that, he simply isn’t aware that it (or the lacking of it) exists. People in his life can be separated into two categories — those that were “true blue” with him and those that attempted to do him harm. This scene is his attempt at expressing to Jessie that he’ll be “true blue” with her. He won’t abuse her, physically or verbally, he won’t cheat on her, and he’ll provide her with every tangible thing she ever desires. In that regard, Frank respects her. This scene is about Frank being vulnerable and letting Jessie know all the good things he’ll do for her, but it’s wrapped in the context of an argument. Mann will juxtapose this scene with the next (an absolutely brilliant, classic scene that takes place in a diner) where Frank will essentially outline to Jessie all the things he won’t be able to provide her and all the ways he doesn’t respect her, wrapped in the context of a heartfelt, warm conversation.

It would appear that the above scene is all about Frank opening up. Even his body language suggests that he’s opening up, and, in a sense, he is. Frank is essentially telling Jessie all the ways he’s going to disrespect her. In the beginning of the scene Jessie talk about her ex-husband who was a drug runner and is now dead. Frank tells her “he was an asshole. He put you in a box.” Later in the scene Frank reveals to her his “life” – a child-like collage he made in prison of various pictures he cut out from newspapers and magazines. He points to the female figure in the upper-left corner of his paper creation and says “that would be you.” Frank is doing exactly what Jessie’s ex-husband did, he’s putting her neatly into a box in the exact spot he wants her to be in and in the space he predetermined her to be. He’s not going to be there for her emotionally. He won’t be able to grow, be it alone or together with her in their relationship. His life has exact boundaries of what is allowed inside and it’s Jessie’s turn to take her place in that corner of his life. Frank is willing to allow her to occupy that role and he’s more than happy to provide for her physically but, in the end, with Frank, “nothin’ means nothin’.” There would be malice involved if Frank was conscious of it all but he genuinely believes this is how things are and, in his own way, he’s being upfront and honest.

The overriding theme is speed and the lack of time. Everything must be sped up in a failed attempt to “catch up.” Hell, Frank even avoids having to wait the requisite nine monthsto have a child by adopting one. That sense of a lack of time is what propels his interpersonal communicative traits both in his above-mentioned personal life and also in his professional life. The language Frank uses for business is slightly different but done with with that same sense of “making up for lost time.” All of the dialogue between himself and his associate Barry (James Belushi) is a series of dispatches containing only pertinent and relevant facts and information. There’s no small talk, no chit chat. Even after completing the safe cracking in the film’s big heist scene there are no words of congratulations or celebration. There is only what Frank is doing and what he intends to do.

When dealing with his business associates — be it Barry, his fence, or Leo (Robert Prosky) his new boss — there are almost never any contractions used by Frank. “Can’t” is can not. “What’s” is what is. This is not an insignificant choice and it’s done precisely so that Frank doesn’t have to repeat himself. There is a large difference between the two sentences “I’m gonna tell you what’s up” and “I am going to tell you what is up,” especially in a place like prison. The latter implies that what is to follow is not just a casual passing of news but a declaration of facts, consequences, and intentions. There’s more weight given to the second sentence and the listener knows that what they are about to be told is important. While contractions trim sentences down they also remove much of the intensity of the desired effect and, therefore, open Frank up to the possibility of having to repeat or explain either himself or what he’s saying. Two things Frank doesn’t have time to do. It’s not often you see a film’s themes and story taken to the laborious extreme of also being expressed through linguistics.

172,800. That’s how many frames of film there are in a 2-hour movie. That’s 19,843 square feet to tell a story. There are filmmakers who look at that and see a daunting number, wondering how they’re going to fill it. Then there are filmmakers who look at that and see a daunting task, wondering how they’re going to squeeze everything they have to say into that small of a space. Michael Mann is one of those filmmakers.

Written by Harry Lime

January 21, 2010 at 11:45 am

MacReady is Dead

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I have a profoundly incompetent memory. Whatever it is — names, dates, numbers, facts, details — is completely lost on me. This is quite problematic in most scenarios but one of the few good things about it is the freshness I’m able to see films I love with on repeated viewings. Because of this, I’m one of those people that watches and rewatches films over and over again. With repeated viewings certain nuances reveal themselves. One such nuance involves the ending to John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing.’

* If you haven’t seen it, rent it. It’s a fantastic remake (rare, but they do exist) of Howard Hawks 1951 film by the same name. For the sake of this entry I’ll assume you’ve seen it if you’re still reading.

The final scene of the film consists of an exhausted MacReady (Kurt Russell) and Childs (Keith David) meeting up amidst their destroyed Antarctic scientific station, having just killed “the thing.” MacReady offers Childs a swig from his bottle of whiskey and the two discuss their next move while they both simultaneously eye each other for clues as to whether or not either of them have been infected. Fade to black.

At first glance, it’s a rather open-ended conclusion to the story. Do they survive? They have, to this point. Although the existing weather conditions and their lack of resources and supplies would suggest the clock is ticking for both of them. But, if one were to pay closer attention to the entirety of the film and bothered to connect the dots on that particular whiskey bottle, we’d know the end of the film isn’t nearly as promising for our hero.

Setting aside a studio’s willingness to bend or break every rule in the book of convention in order to find some way – any way – to bring back the hero of a successful film in order to franchise it, Carpenter at least attempts to cleverly suggest that our hero will die and “the thing” will survive. Childs (and, possibly, MacReady) get infected in the final scene of the film. Follow the bouncing ball and I’ll explain.

The first time we see MacReady he’s sipping on his whiskey and getting increasingly frustrated at a computer chess game. Around this time, our intial carrier of the virus — the wolf — is making its way into the American camp with the Norwegian scientists in hot pursuit with guns ablaze. As all the members of the American station shuffle outside to see what all the commotion is about the wolf runs directly to Bennings (Peter Maloney) and licks his face. Bennings has now been infected.

After the Norwegian shoots Bennings and is then shot himself, MacReady, whiskey bottle in hand, runs up to him to see if he’s alright. Bennings takes a swig from the bottle and the whiskey bottle has now been infected. The bottle lays low for the remainder of the film while the action unfolds but resurfaces in that last scene, in the hands of MacReady and, shortly after, in the mouth of Childs. Childs is now infected. Fade to black.

Earth shattering? No. But certainly a fun exercise to do the next time you rewatch this movie and, make no mistake about it, this film is worth rewatching.

Written by Harry Lime

January 20, 2010 at 10:28 am

The 10 Best DVD Audio Commentaries

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 By far, the best thing that came along with the technological jump from VHS tapes to Laserdisc and DVD discs has been the audio commentary. There’s nothing complicated about it, just an additional audio track that plays instead of the film’s intended sound track with commentary from someone affiliated with the film. Typically, the speaker is the film’s director but it can vary. With many older films the commentator will be a film critic, historian or author. You can also hear from actors, editors, cinematographers and writers. On the special edition DVD release of HIGH NOON there’s a commentary track from family members of the film’s composer, writer and director. Each track is unique and provides the viewer with a different perspective on the film they believe they’ve come to know.

Needless to say, there are good commentary tracks and bad ones. A good commentary track offers the listener insight into the production of the film, the genesis of it, and its influences. But to be honest, a particular commentary’s value will change from viewer to viewer, depending on what kind of experience they’re looking for. The tracks often get overlooked, at least it appears that way to me. And while an excellent commentary track won’t make a bad film good it can elevate your appreciation for a film profoundly. So if there’s a film you like and the DVD has an audio commentary track on it, give it a listen. It’s like having the filmmaker over to your house for a few hours to fill you in on all that you might have missed with your favorite film.

This list is loose and subject to change. Having said that, I’ve listened to more audio commentary tracks than anyone else I know so I feel my opinion has some weight.

The end mark of a classic shot from Citizen Kane

1. Roger Ebert on ‘Citizen Kane’

I really can’t say enough about this. I must have listened to it at least a dozen times by now and it continues to provide a wealth of information not just on the particular film or the circumstances surrounding its release but it’s also an excellent piece for anyone interested in learning how to watch a film. Pound for pound, this track is more informative than any book on film I’ve ever read. From the opening title sequence Ebert is off and running, almost struggling to get all that he has to say about the film in within the alotted amount of time he has. One gets the feeling that if the credits lasted an additional 4 hours he’d have no problem filling that time with insight, anecdotes, production details and other gems concerning ‘Citizen Kane.’ Perhaps you’ve seen the film and wondered what all the hype was about? Watch it with the Ebert track on and you’ll get a detailed look into the construction of the film, its influence and its importance in cinema history.

An aside: Ebert also provides a superb audio commentary track on the double-disc DVD release of ‘Casablanca.’ That track alone could sit at #3 on my list for many of the same reasons his ‘Citizen Kane’ track sits at #1. So while I don’t list it here, please be advised that it exists and I couldn’t possibly reccommend it enough.

2. Kenneth Loring on ‘Blood Simple’

I won’t spoil the fun for you but I will say this: always be aware of who you’re dealing with. In this case, it’s the Coens and if there’s one thing the Coens love to do it’s to flip genre on its head and play with convention. This is a brilliant use of the commentary and the first (and possibly only) use like it I’ve come across. The only example I can think of that doesn’t so much augment the film it accompanies but actually changes the entire tone and genre. I’ve actually gotten into rather heated debates about this commentary and if you’ve heard it then you know exactly what I’m talking about. I’ll leave it at that. Listen, and enjoy.

3. Francis Ford Coppola on ‘Apocalypse Now’

Coppola is probably the best among filmmakers at providing his fans with a rich and informative audio commentary track. While many filmmakers shy away from digging too deep into their own films and discussing context, Coppola just lets it all fly. His commentaries, and there are many great ones by him including The Godfather trilogy, The Conversation, The Outsiders, Rumble Fish, and Patton, are void of inhibition or agenda. He simply sits down and goes through each film with you without any regard for how much or what he’s “giving away.” I’ve listed ‘Apocalypse Now’ here at #3 because the film has one of the more fascinating productions in the history of film but all of his commentaries are outstanding.

#4 Michael Mann & James Caan on ‘Thief’

Perhaps my love for this film has skewed my viewpoint somewhat but even accounting for that this commentary track still stands as excellent example. This is Mann’s only audio commentary and that’s probably due to the fact that enough time had passed from the release of the film to the DVD issue that he felt comfortable enough discussing it. Mann is one of the more cerebral filmmakers working today and while much of the track is spent recounting production experience there are great moments when Mann opens up and discusses the intricasies of the story and the character of Frank that are outstanding. His films are literally constructed with enormous detail and this track provides an excellent opportunity for the viewer to get a glimpse of how that happens.

#5 Stephen Prince on ‘Red Beard’

The Criterion Collection is responsible for bringing forgotten or hard-to-find films to the forefront and giving them the DVD release they deserve. Frequently, they issue audio commentaries with their DVD releases and many of those consist of biographers for the particular filmmaker or actor prevalent in the film. While they’re almost always interesting they can sometimes fall into too much discussion about the particular man/woman and get away from the film itself. Luckily, that’s not the case with many of Kurosawa’s commentaries. Stephen Prince is a film scholar and does an outstanding job pointing out Kurosawa’s style and technique. From his use of multiple cameras, his composition, the lenses he used and why, as well as the indelible metaphors he used. One could get more out of all the Kurosawa commentaries than out of many film school classes and the authors of those commentaries deserve all of that credit.

* See also: Donald Richie on ‘Rashomon’ & David Desser; Joan Mellen; Stephen Prince; Tony Rayns; Donald Richie on ‘Seven Samurai’

#6 PT Anderson on ‘Sydney’

PT Anderson is a brilliant filmmaker who emersed himself in audio commentary tracks from laserdiscs. In his ‘Sydney’ (aka ‘Hard Eight’) commentary (accompanied by Phillip Baker Hall) he unleashes a fury of discussion about his film, the process of writing it, the Sundance Lab, his struggles with financiers and the influences on the genesis of the story. It’s done by someone who loves audio commentaries and, therefore, knows exactly what makes a good one. He provides two more tracks on the DVD release of his second film, ‘Boogie Nights’, both of which are also excellent for different reasons, but that would appear to be where it ends. Luckily, he’s given us great examples of an audio commentary on his first two films.

#7 Rudy Behlmer on ‘Notorious’

All great filmmakers deserve at least one great audio commentary and Behlmer provides it for Hitchcock. While the Criterion Collection DVD of the film is now out of print you can still find a used copy by searching sites like amazon and ebay. It’s a great commentary on Hitchcock’s technique as well as some excellent anecdotes about the man, the film and Hollywood at the time. A must for any Hitchcock fan.

#8 Sam Mendes, Alan Ball & Conrad Hall on ‘American Beauty’

Mendes provides a great running commentary on his film but the highlights of it all are the discussions on and by Conrad Hall and his work. The commentary is a virtual Cinematography 101 and does an excellent job of outlining Hall’s genious. Conrad Hall also contributes on a great audio commentary track on the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid DVD.

#9 Martin Scorsese on ‘Mean Streets’

One can’t help but be enamored by listening to Scorsese talk about his films and he provides great insight into films of his that he provides and audio track for. The only thing that keeps them from being higher on the list is that his tracks are almost always intercut with those of another speaker, typically his great editor Thelma Schoonmaker.

#10 Anton Kaes & Eric Rentschler on ‘M’

A brilliant and timeless film gets the royal treatment from Criterion along with a great audio commentary by these two film scholars. Fantastic insight into the film, Fritz Lang and German cinema. Another commentary well worth the price of the DVD.

Written by Harry Lime

November 24, 2009 at 5:44 pm

No Thanks, I Saw the Trailer

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I love movies but I can’t stand movie trailers. I’ve gotten to the point that I actively try to avoid all contact with the trailer to a movie I might be interested in. Trailers just tend to give away too many key aspects to a film’s storyline, ruining any surprise that may have occurred.

I don’t blame those that cut them together; it’s a tough job. You have to create something that will draw interest in the film yet at the same time you need (or hope) the audience to forget much of what you show them. That can’t be an easy task. The most interesting parts of a film are usually the most dramatic — the protagonist confronts the antagonist, an interesting plot twist is revealed, etc. It only makes sense that clips from those scenes will be used in a film’s trailer to entice the viewing audience to spend their money. The problem is that, too often, those trailers reveal too much of the story so that when you do sit down to enjoy the film you’ve already been given crucial information that you shouldn’t have.

Sometimes it’s not even specific details they give away. Take, for example, this TV spot for the film The Perfect Getaway. While it doesn’t necessarily show you anything that would blow the cover of a plot twist it does tell you that there is a plot twist. That’s not so much a statement as a challenge. All I’m going to be thinking about as I watch the film is “where is the twist?” and “how are they setting me up?” With that in mind, it’s not hard to tell that Steve Zahn and Milla Jovovich are the actual murderers. For a film that is so dependent on the surprise ending, they really didn’t make it much of a surprise by letting the viewer in on it.

Then there are the trailers that completely misguide the viewer. The trailers for Inglorious Basterds amp the viewer up for a action-packed WWII film about a group of American troops blazing through the German countryside killing Nazi soldiers with extreme prejudice. Not only is that not what the film is about but it’s also not what we see. They even go so far as to include high-action clips from scenes that never made it to the final cut of the film. If you waked into that movie expecting a ot of action (as the trailers promised) you were probably disappointed.

Take a look at this TV spot for the film THE BOX. The ad establishes the premise, a couple is presented with a decision — press the button and receive one million dollars but if they do a person somewhere in the world will die. Sounds intriguing. I haven’t seen the film (in fact, it isn’t even being released for another couple of weeks) and I haven’t read the script but just from that thirty-second spot I can safely presume that the initial moral dilemma becomes much more complicated when it turns out that the person to die is somehow related to them. I’m fairly certain this is a plot twist the filmmakers would like the audience to not know about before viewing the film. They’re banking on the idea that those quick pieces of information exposed in the TV spot will be forgotten once the film starts. Oh well.

My solution? I propose a trailer rating system. I’m not referring to the green cards you see in the theater before each trailer notifying you that “The folowing preview has been APPROVED FOR ALL AUDIENCES by the MPAA. The film has been rated [fill in the blank].” That’s just a rating to let you know there’s no naughty words or expoding faces in the upcoming trailer. I’m talking about a leveled rating system to inform the viewer how much of the story is given away and/or some sort of notification system to let people know “hey, if you have a small idea of how we like to set things up, you probably don’t want to watch this or you’ll be able to figure out the entire story just from these 2 minutes.” Break it down into tiers, based on the knowledge of the viewer.

US1990/NF - The US1990/NF (no foreign) rating is the bottom of the barrel. These trailers are safe for people whose cinematic repertoire resides almost solely in 1990-present American films, with no foreign films being viewed. These trailers will blatantly expose integral story facts — who the killer is, where the treasure is buried, how the puzzle is solved, etc. These trailers use absolutely no discretion and are intended for people who wouldn’t be able to figure out a plot twist if it fell out of the sky, landed on their nose and started to wiggle around. These trailers should only be viewed by teens who have suffered massive head trauma, young children, fans of Michael Bay and anyone who owns at east one Marlon Wayans film on DVD.

US1977/HoF - The US1977/HoF (heard of foreign) rating is for people that believe cinema started with STAR WARS. These trailers are for people that compare everything to STAR WARS and refer to THE FUGITIVE as “the one where Han Solo was a doctor.” These trailers are littered with spoilers and will almost always contain every redeeming part of the film squeezed into two minutes. If you’ve ever gotten into an expletive-ladened argument on a message board over who was better — Frodo or Luke Skywalker — then these trailers are safe for you to view. These trailers are usually accompanied by the latest “dope track” from the musician that is starring in the film. Also, if you’ve ever dressed up in character costume for the viewing of a film in public, these trailers are safe for you. Bonus points if it was a midnight showing of said film.

US1960/AANF – The US1960/AANF (Academy Award nominated foreign) rating is for people who have seen and enjoyed some of the treasures from the 1960s as well as the spattering of foreign films that cause enough buzz in the States to garner some press. You’re capable of being discriminating when it comes to using trailers to select which films you watch but the blatant tip-offs will often be forgotten once the lights go down. Every once in a while you can see a plot twist coming and pride yourself on knowing that Jeff Daniels’ character in ‘Blood Work’ was the killer 40 minutes into the film. You enjoy black & white films from the States but the combination of black & white and a foreign language is just a wee bit too much for you to overcome when viewing a film. Once in a while, after a few drinks, you refer to the 1960s as “the olden days.”

US1930/FB&W – The US1930/FB&W (foreign black & white) rating is for people that only require sound. You enjoy John Ford, Howard Hawks and celebrate Akira Kurosawa’s entire catalogue. You once got into an expeltive-ladened argument on an Internet message board about Andy Devine and you knew Jeff Daniels’ character in ‘Blood Work’ was the killer just 15 minutes into the film. You claim to have correctly predicted the true identity of Kaiser Soze, although you don’t have any witnesses to back that up. You also claim to actually know which came first — the chicken or the egg. These trailers are nothing more than a title card with the names of the actors, director and screenwriter, accompanied by a two sentence description of the plot.

AllFilmsF&D – The AllFilmsF&D (foreign and domestic) rating is for that rare person who has seen or is desperately trying to see “everything.” You named your dog Charles Pathe. You’ve actually seen a film starring Lillian Russell. You have copious amounts of opinions but they’re all cinema-related and no one wants to hear them. You correctly predicted the ending to ‘The Pride of the Yankees’ …. in 1937. You don’t watch films as much as you allow films to be screened in your presence. These trailers are just a blank screen and simply afford you the opportunity to use your psychic powers to view the movie before it even enters production. You’ve never seen ‘Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.’

Written by Harry Lime

October 20, 2009 at 3:53 am

Internet Sought in Television Death

with 2 comments

Television is dead. In fact, according to some people, you should just cancel your cable/satellite subscription now and toss your TV set out your window. More and more people are watching television programming on the Internet for free and without commercial interruption. As television viewership drops, so will the ad revenue. Without that ad revenue networks and cable stations are left searching for an answer to their biggest problem – how to make money showing their programming online? But the biggest problem in this whole equation is that they view streaming TV shows on the Internet as a problem.

I’m not suggesting this is a story without casualties. Make no mistake about it, the previous business model used by television for decades is sucking in its last few breathes. But instead of screaming bloody murder to the heavens they ought to be focusing on how this transition will free them up and give them the opportunity to make even more money. If they handle things properly they should be able to produce better, more popular programs and provide more efficient and lucrative ad space for their sponsors.

But before I delve into how TV can come out on top of all this I need to point out a few things that we all must concede:

  1. The technology exists, it’s just not widespread. The same cable that feeds television into your home is also the cable that connects you to broadband Internet. We’re not talking about a complete overhaul of the current infrastructure we’re just talking about the natural progression of improved bit rates, download/streaming speeds and other technical crap I would struggle to speak about just in laymen’s terms.
  2. No, I’m not talking about you watching all your television programming and movies on a thirteen-inch laptop screen. I’m taking about the newer “television” that will be more like a high-performance monitor that gives you the same quality picture and sound through the Internet that our current big-screen HD TVs already do. In fact, some of you can already hook your computer or laptop up to your HD TV and use it as a monitor. NetFlix has already installed their software on multiple models of TVs, Blu-Ray DVD players and gaming systems so that they’re fully equipped to stream movies straight to your television.
  3. The ability to stream live programs already exists and will only improve.

So we can agree that not only does the technology already exist but it the coming years it will improve. What those technological advances will do is make the current group of consumers viewing programming online grow and take a niche activity and make it global. Sounds pretty good, right? No more cable/satellite bills, everything will be viewed for free online. Well, free for us, but your favorite shows aren’t non-profits. The reason they’re produced is because of the ad revenue. The better the show, the more viewers it acquires. The more viewers a show has the more money the distributer can charge for ad space during that program. But therein lays the problem.

As it stands right now, commercials are 100% avoidable. You can go online right now and watch any episode from any season of any television you show you desire completely commercial free, all at DVD quality. It takes a little bit of “inside information” (basically just knowing which sites to visit) but it’s all right there, waiting for you to view it. This is not a good thing for the television industry. Watching television has never been free. The price – even before cable and satellite services – has always been those blocks of time during a show when sponsors told you about their products.

So if all of this is available right now, what do the networks and cable channels do? First, they have to embrace it. This isn’t a leaking sieve that they need to fumble their finger into, it’s an opportunity to blow up the old model, keep what they want and reinvent the portions they wish they could change. It’s happening already, with or without them, they might as well get on board now before they lose too much ground. I’m not talking about Hulu, either. Hulu is a band-aid with poor adhesive.

The current scheduling model for a television channel is restrictive and smothering. Because of that, they have to be conservative and careful about what shows are produced and what they can get in return for them. But what if you eliminate the existence of prioritized time slots? You’re no longer tied to committing certain shows at certain spots and rolling the dice that they pay off. You’re now able to tailor programming directly to your audience and not to your audience’s personal schedule.

If you think there’s no good quality programming available these days, don’t blame the people that are producing and distributing that content. They’re essentially testing the hell out of the current audience and trying to provide save, easily digestible shows for the limited spots they have available for their target demographic. If you take those time constraints away it opens up a world of opportunities for other shows to get produced. There are only so many slots for 30-minute sitcoms, 60-minute character dramas, talk shows, game shows, news magazines, etc. There are more good ideas for quality television programming out there than there are allocated time slots to view them. With limited time restraints for broadcasting programs those that make the decisions on what you see have to be much more careful and reserved.

Shows are slaves to their time slot. Viewers have relatively specific habits. Younger crowds tend to be out and about on Friday and Saturday night. Children are in school during the daytime. There’s a reason soap operas plaster every network during the day. You could take a great show, put it in a horrible time slot and it will die a quick and painful death. What you’re left with are the networks and cable channels best guesses for who will be watching television at any given time. By moving and producing content to the web they’re freeing themselves to fully cater to the a la carte viewing experience.

Moving material to the web also gives it increased exposure. Instead of having to be in front of your television at 8pm on Wednesday to see the show you like you are now free to view it whenever you like – later that evening, on the train commute to work in the morning, on your lunch break, etc. Distributers are no longer crippled by the personal schedule of their viewing audience. Instead of collecting 1 million viewers during their designated weekly time slot, they can garner many more over the course of that entire week. Better exposure, more views.

This brings us to the ads. As it stands right now, television commercials are like free throws in a basketball game: there are a limited amount of them and each one is an opportunity to increase their chances of winning. If anyone out there thinks that the current two minute block of four 30-second commercials is an accurate and effective use of their ad space they’re living a lie. Much has been made about the effect the introduction of the Digital Video Recorder (DVR) has had on commercial viewership by allowing viewers to completely bypass commercials when watching their favorite programs. What those people fail to realize is that commercials have been bypassed for years; it just wasn’t done by an electronic box. My buddy Creel can change channels as soon a program goes to commercial and literally hit the return of the show within 5 seconds; it’s quite a talent and one I’m sure is shared by many. The networks and ad agencies are essentially electing to put Shaquille O’Neal on the free throw line and cross their fingers in the hopes he can hit just one of his two free throw attempts.

What they need to do is shorten the duration of the typical commercial to 15 seconds and limit the number shown to two per break. That’s easier said than done because ad agencies are almost as stubborn and short-sighted as newspapers. The great thing about online viewership is that those viewers have made a more dedicated commitment to the program they’re watching. They’ve visited your site, clicked on the show and are committed to giving you that block of their time, at least more so than by simply tuning into your channel. Reducing ad time increases that ad’s viewership. No one is going to click off the show’s site because it’ll take longer for them to travel to another site, find another show and open that dedicated window than it would for them to just watch two 15-second commercials. Not to mention that there’s no way for someone to leave a program 7 minutes in and return to the 8 minute mark, they’d essentially have to start watching the show all over again. Essentially, you’re eliminating the viewer’s ability to change the channel. Hell, this is an ad agency’s dream come true – dedicated, inescapable viewership for what they’re promoting.

Another massive advantage Internet ads have is their future ability to customize the ads shown to the particular viewer. Sites will be able to instantly pull viewer information – age, sex, race, financial standing, personal viewing tendencies, sites visited, spending habits, etc. – off the IP address of the person watching the program and they’ll have the ability to target audiences like never before. Have you been checking out car makes and models online? Well check out the new Lexus. Did you order Pizza Hut online last weekend for the game? They’re currently running a special. Companies could actually produce multiple versions of an ad and have the most accurate, almost personalized ad shown to the viewer. Instead of carpet-bombing an entire countryside with tons of explosives they’ll be able to hit their target audience with near sniper precision, reaching demographics inside other demographics.

Instead of selling a 30-second block to be shown during a particular show’s time slot, distributers can now sell the rights to a show for its initial release. The season premiere of LOST goes live next Tuesday at 8pm on ABC.com? A company can now purchase the ad space to that show for the first night, the following 12 hours, the first week or the coming month; all with the ability to update that ad space with different commercials as time progresses. Look, if a 2 minute YouTube video of someone in Arkansas playing a song they created on their keyboard can get 750,000 views over the course of a year, what could a popular television program garner? All of a sudden, ad space has shelf life it never dreamed of all while maintaining the ability to stay current and fresh in its presentation and message.

All of this also has a positive effect on the quality of the shows you’re viewing. By reducing the commercial breaks you improve the general flow of a program. Instead of the typical teaser/4-act structure that have forced an hour-long show to compartmentalize their content to ensure they leave the audience with a hook to get them to come back after the 2-minute commercial break they can loosen that stranglehold on the narrative and open it up to allow the story and characters to breathe.

We all like to make like we can’t stand commercials and advertisements but the fact of the matter is that we need them as much as they need us. We rely on those commercials to tell us what is coming down the pipeline; be it a new program, a new film, a new product or a new service. We’re a global community of consumers and we love it. People enjoy buying into the hype as much as the hype enjoys being bought into. As long as there’s a demand for television programs there will be a demand for commercials. Eventually we’ll see an independent site pop up that can show you what’s on every channel at the current moment with a small screen of streaming video, as well as how many people are tuned in, sort of like a high-end TV Guide (hello? TV Guide? Are you reading this?). You’ll have the choice to either tune in to what’s paying at the moment, start the show from the beginning, watch a different episode of that show, etc. This isn’t a death sentence for television, it’s a gift. They just don’t know it yet.

Written by Harry Lime

October 16, 2009 at 9:07 pm

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