Thursday, September 24, 2009

Credibility Against Time: who gets the Benefit of the Doubt?

Okay, so this blog I just started reading -- Cinematical -- recently posted a little piece on which filmmakers should get the benefit of the doubt. As you may or may not know, that speaks directly to the purpose of this blog, and to my philosophy on media consumption, as well. So I thought I should provide some sort of response.

It seems like cinematical's talking about our willingness to assume, going in, that a film is going to be good, which will prompt us to work a little harder to validate this expectation. It's amazing how much of film culture is a big mess of unsubstantiated opinions and conjectures... "It's an [insert director], you know it'll be good"... "Man, I can't believe [insert director] would take a project like this"... "He's been so disappointing lately"... "His early stuff was SO good"... etc etc etc. It's a whole cultural preoccupation -- estimating the value of movies, and then measuring each film we see against our expectations for it.

It just so happens that a lot of these expectations are historically accountable, increasing after big Oscar wins or impressive debuts, and decreasing when a director loses his novelty, or takes some bad projects. So I figured, why not give this phenomenon -- which, for convenience sake, I'll call "artistic credibility" -- a graphical treatment? Why not look at a few directors who have gained, maintained, and lost the fickle favor of public opinion, and see how things changed along the length of their career?

I graphed my own totally personal perceptions of a few filmmakers' credibility. I treated each movie as a chronological unit (rather than using years, etc) because I think that's how it works in the heads of fans... we measure periods in terms of "first/second/third movie," unless the director is massively prolific and there isn't a clear shape to their career. In this graph, I cover Michael Moore (a big nexus of credibility issues), the Cohen Brothers (in honor of the article that inspired this post), Oliver Stone (an interesting case of changing assumptions of quality), Ang Lee, and M. Night Shyamalan. Check them out... click for a huge version of the image.

Okay, a couple interesting things. The directors with big debuts (Oliver Stone and M. Night) are the ones whose credibility eventually trailed off (rather quickly in M. Night's case). In contrast, Ang Lee and The Cohen Brothers are still going strong, despite some duds in their movie careers (The Hulk? And yet we still love him!) Their trick seems to be a combination of award-winning features (Fargo, Brokeback Mountain), plus cult hits (Big Lebowski, Crouching Tiger) by which these filmmakers leverage both the broad public perception and the esteem of critics and educated taste-makers.

Also note that the directors who have lost credibility are the ones with very consistent styles (aka gimmicks)... M. Night, who creates end-twisting thrillers, Michael Moore, who creates provocative leftist documentaries, and Oliver Stone, who creates serious, politically-themed dramas. Stone has done a little better, overall, because he leans more on a style than on a gimmick. This contrasts with the enduring credibility darlings, Ang Lee and the Cohen Brothers, both of whom exhibit a wide range of film output.

I think, if I go back to this, I need to add some more. Kevin Smith is an ideal case for this kind of graph, having gone through a sudden complete drop in credibility when he renounced the Askewniverse. I wouldn't mind including the Wachowski brothers, either, since their Matrix movies were met with such volatile public reactions.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Burton-Acker's 9 as a mythology

From the previous post, you can gather that '9' wasn't exactly my favorite animated film (that title still goes to The Emperor's New Groove). However, I have to acknowledge its strengths... it was moody and visually/thematically consistent, and there was something very visceral and compelling about how commited it was to its mythology.

After all, this mythology is truly unique. This is a film that takes place in a truly doomed world... even Mad Max and Al Gore saw hope at the end of the tunnel, assuming the world could be saved in some unforseen sequel. 9 has no such hope. In this strange future, humans are literally extinct, and it's left up to one small group of automatons, formed from one man's soul, to take revenge on the machines, and then to sit tight for as long as possible, until they crumble into dust.

Why do I call this a mythology? In a sense, it contains all the essential biblical elements: an explanation of the beginning of the world, given to the prophet (9 himself) by the lost creator; a provision of moral responsibility, in the form of a commitment to preserve the human soul; and an implicit understanding that the world will be ending before too long, so you just have to bide time until everything dissolves into dust.

I would like to take this opportunity to translate 9's mythology into the language of a biblical text. I'm very sorry for these little animated rag-dolls, having to live in such a tragic post-human world. I really hope we don't consign any poor second-generation creature to this fate when we actually do find ourselves dying out.

Jesse's brief bible of 9:

There was once a single mind in the universe, containing all the thought that would ever exist. In its infinite awareness of the universe it was inhabiting, this mind became a creator, and created many wonderful things. However, it was lonely, and presumed that because it had all the thought that would ever be, it was qualified to create something barely thinkable: it decided to create another mind, equal to itself. Thus, the first mind created a second mind, its brother in the universe.

However, this new mind was not born in loneliness, so it did not see First Mind as an indispensible companion -- it saw him as a competitor for the thought that the universe contained. Knowing it had created an equal, and realizing it had created its counterpart, a destroyer, the first mind protected its infinite content in the only way it could: it fragmented itself into its fundamental components, destroying itself and denying its brother the ability to compete with it.

These components became a new race of 9, left in a world made hostile by the conflict between two great forces of thought. As the sole creative components of an empty universe, containing the fragments of its total conceptual substance, they took up the role of staving off the destruction of the world as long as possible -- a destruction that their own father had initiated by creating a brother who was to become a rival. A destruction that, however valiant the efforts of the 9, would ultimately be inevitable.

Okay, that was fun. I hope it brings a new angle to the movie, or at the very least, somebody out there finds it amusing.

Cut from the Same Cloth: 9 by Shane Acker and MORE by Mark Osbourne

9 looked like it would be pretty amazing, from the well-edited trailer, and from the stamp of approval offered by Tim Burton. Unfortunately, it was far from the final word, either on grim industrial animation (Final Fantasy VII was more innovative by far), or in post-apocalyptic narrative. It was filled with tropes and cliches, and reeked of lazy scriptwriting... you could tell as soon as you heard the main character confront the "clan elder" and accuse him of being a coward.

Okay, so the movie's biggest flaw was the story itself, which was packed with dramatic cliches, such as the following:

  • artificial intelligence has inexplicably turned on its human creators; and by the way, it has a single glowing red eye!

  • the rag dolls seem to form a society of RPG archetypes: the big brute, the stodgy old wizard, the battle maiden, the enigmatic twins (who also fill the role of the lovable scientist), and (one of my favorites) the prophetic madman who draws mysterious scribbles on the walls

  • small characters run across a bridge to get away from a larger character; chasing them turns out to be a bad idea for the larger character

  • messiah character must make a pilgrimage to his place of origin to discover the truth about himself and his anointed task

  • one minion, designated "extra creepy", wears a discarded doll head

  • SPOILER: movie ends with a gathering of the living and the dead, appearing as translucent, glowing green figures (they're like little Jedi's)

This movie obviously wasn't made because Tim Burton was drawn to the originality of the writing. The merit of the film... which the writer may have wanted to focus on a little more... was the atmosphere, the visual style, and stylistic treatment, which went a long way toward setting a mood.

You may or may not know that this distinctive style and atmosphere is actually derived from an older, more compact piece of film. Though it's not really in the same mode, this original version of 9, by the same director, could be compared favorably with its long-form reiteration. It was so compact that it couldn't have fallen prey to the shortcomings snarkily listed above. It left the mystery mysterious, and it offered a simple, utilitarian narrative framework for its gothic treatment. It can be found below:

Okay, so Shane Acker's short film is pretty sweeeet... some gothic, some steampunk, some post-human melancholy, all hung on a nice little story of action and escape. Did it get a little overblown in the feature film? Yeah, maybe. But still, the originality is there in the short, right? And it deserves some praise and attention.

However, to find the real genesis of the most compelling ideas in this video, we have to dig even further back, climbing out of CGI and into, of all things, STOP-MOTION. I sense that the soul of 9, in both its forms, is actually "inspired" (to use a very generous word) by an older short film by Mark Osbourne (no affiliation with Ozzy) called MORE. MORE was a 6-minute narrative short, the first ever filmed on iMax stock, that got famous on the Internet for a while, and was eventually used by the band Kenna for their song "Hell Bent."

Here is the original:

It should be obvious how much of 9 is a reiteration of the style and concepts in MORE. The character design is the most obvious point of convergence, but a lot of the themes are there, as well. The rag-doll characters have hollow insides where they can protect things that are spiritually significant. Both (all three!) films end with a gathering in the shape of a circle, a ritual site of meeting and restitution.

On a broader atmospheric basic (atmosphere is a vehicle for theme, no less than narrative), both of these stories evoke the feeling of living in the aftermath of some great mistake... that something has gone wrong in the world, and these characters are drowning in its consequences, without ever fully understanding the nature of the catastrophe. However, MORE brings this theme out with more power and subtlety -- its weird clay Metropolis is the wrong turn that's taken on the way to utopia, and the main character, in a microcosmic metaphor, shows us that dreams can always lead one far in the wrong direction.

These are beautiful, melancholy, almost Baudrillardian stories of hopelessness, and upon this legacy, "9" builds an interesting mythology, even if it's not necessarily a groundbreaking movie. I'll cover that in my next post on the topic.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Have you heard of the "Beatles"? They're pretty sweet

So the Beatles' White Album was rereleased on September 9th, and Pitchfork actually wrote a detailed review of it... a move that's hard to fully comprehend. Where, exactly, do you get off reviewing one of the most influential albums in history? They gave it a 10/10, at least... they can be pretentious, but they're not dumb enough to alienate a whole generation by giving this a lukewarm review.

Reviews are normally written to help people decide whether or not to buy something. I don't think it's gonna work that way with the White Album... everyone already has an opinion on it, and even if they haven't heard it (it's a fairly common phenomenon these days), they've spent their lives immersed in opinions on it. The whole world of public perception is oriented around esteem for this recording. It's basically assumed that your opinion of it (or of the songs on it) is somewhere between approving and religiously devoted, and if you have a lukewarm or negative opinion on it, you're considered a true outlier. For informational purposes, I doubt anybody really needed Pitchfork's little weigh-in.

Then again, there's a generation coming that will have had no exposure to The Beatles whatsoever. Even my generation... the ones who are now at fully employed age... had most of our experience through our parents' love for the band. Quotes, tributes, radio airplay, parents, and older siblings were really my primary connection to this culture-defining phenomenon, and my younger contemporaries... neices and nephews... will be even further removed from the legend. To us, the Beatles are nostalgia; to them, Michael Jackson and DVDs will be nostalgia. The Beatles will truly be history.

For that reason, I guess it's good that reviews are being written for albums like the White Album, and for games like Super Mario Bros. These reviews read like tributes, rather than actual critiques (although it's annoying that GameSpot only gave Super Mario Bros. an 8.1). Thus, they function less like actual reviews than they do like essays of appreciation... like the "Great Movies" series on Roger Ebert's website, which are there to remind the Christopher-Nolan-Seth-Rogan generation that there's something just as powerful in a more primitive era of film.

So perhaps these post-reviews will remind hipsters and minigamers that for some of us, these old media represent some of the greatest experiences in history. Perhaps it will remind them of their roots; perhaps it will make scholars out of them. Or maybe, at the very least, it'll give us something to relate to them about.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

In honor of Marvel and Disney's unholy union

I struggled to write about Marvel and Disney for a while. I couldn't come up with anything concise... I think I had too much to say, seeing as I wanted to talk about Warner Bros, Nintendo, Capcom, continuity, Kermit the Frog, universe building, multiple authorship, narrative tropes of soap opera, crossover complications, managing histories, economics of fiction, video games, and Natalie Portman.

So instead of composing a messy statement on the consolidation of the key properties of my childhood imagination, I decided to create an elaborate chart.

Here's the gist... this is a diagram of important universes, organized by ownership. That's the organizing principle for fiction, after all... settings, used as organizational nets for intellectual property owners to their manage characters. In honor of Disney's buyout of Marvel, I focused on universes containing multiple franchises, created by multiple authors, under umbrellas of particular media companies. And of course, there's a bit of a Jesse-bias in there. If I'd had more time, I might have included the Star Wars universe, Sesame Street, and the Final Fantasy multiverse. I know there are a thousand million others... but I had to maintain some perspective here.

Enjoy. Click for larger view.

You think creating, collecting, and maintaining universes is difficult... try being a fanboy, amassing universes over a childhood of media exposure, and having to keep them all straight!

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Curb Your Enthusiasm: Good job advertising to me

I have to take a moment to give props to effective advertising. I've seen this poster twice today, and it's one of the few posters I've seen in Manhattan (where you're basically drowning in visual advertising) that made me LOL. Well, maybe not OL, but at least it made me L on the inside.

By the way, the little "Spades" above his crotch isn't part of the advertising image. It's just standard subway graffiti on the poster I photographed at 23rd Street. Now SPADES can brag that he tagged a blog, too, sort of by proxy.

Anyway, part of the reason it works is that it's doesn't just throw its message at you all at once. That mantra works great for laundry detergents on store shelves, but it's not the most effective way to get people to like your poster. The first time I saw this ad, I was drawn into the center by the white text, cradled by the composition of the photograph, and I was thoroughly unimpressed. I was like, "Is it me? Can't you make his neurosis a little wittier, at least?" I actually found the advertisement itself annoying, right along with its subject.

However, the second time I saw it, I was still drawn to it, simply by virtue of its size and simplicity, but I no longer had any particular reaction to the content in the center, so I sized it up a little longer, and I saw the punchline, which is tucked off at the very edge of the poster. That's when I laughed, and felt vindicated in my annoyance, and happy with the poster, because it had a witty treatment after all!

Anyway, good poster... elements that move you through the image, and the message, in the right order, and at the right pace, so that the whole thing comes across like a boring story with a good punchline. I hear the show's good, too... maybe I'll get around to watching it some time.

Shameless Juvenile Love for Miyazaki's Ponyo

Okay, Ponyo was a freakin’ GREAT film. As an adult, there are a few things I automatically have the urge to do: 1) find a way to see this film as IMPORTANT, conceptually/historically/whatever… 2) find a way to compare this movie to Miyazaki’s other films, which I can smugly identify and characterize… I’m hesitant to fall into these traps right away, as I’m afraid they may misrepresent the profound joy I felt at watching this film.

So, first of all, I wanted to throw this out there: what do kids think of this ridiculous movie? Does it really work for them, with its confused physical laws, painterly backgrounds, and fairy-tale allusions? Its endearing 5 year-old characters are drawn partly from the uncontrollably-manic/inexplicably-wise archetype of children in popular fiction, and part of me suspects that maybe these stock characters are designed to appeal to adults, rather than the kids themselves.

At least one reviewer said her children LOVED it. I’ll take that at face value, and I’ll generally assume that this movie is as fun and charming and engaging for young kids as it was for me. If anyone has evidence to the contrary, though, please let me know, as I understand that I write from a limited point of view.

Roger Ebert said of the film, “It’s wonderful and never even seems to try” (Ebert, 8/13/2009). This has become a standard feature of Miyazaki’s films: they provide an easy transition into their strange narrative worlds, and they always seem to play out with an organic unity, so the viewer feels that they’ve been taken on a journey, not walked through a program. With such an easygoing talent at the helm, a film like Ponyo may be mistaken for something childlike, rather than what it is: a visionary artist harnessing emotional forces that penetrate to the most childlike part of you.

My argument, here, is that Ponyo is a great piece of art (the more I think about it, the more it may be my favorite Miyazaki film), brilliantly executed to act on the most primordial human impulses. I think we can agree that there are certain emotional forces that are rooted more deeply than our daily financial/sexual/social/intellectual concerns. These forces precede even idealized concepts like romantic love, personal politics, jealousy, and revenge. After all, those are all built upon rather mature complexes, like possessiveness and self-image.

Ponyo goes past these psycho-social glitches and touches the deepest emotional places in our souls. The oceans around Sosuke’s village represent the fear and lure of the unknown, the void that we all associate with depthless, endless bodies of water. In the face of the storms and waves, the tremors of nature’s rage, Sosuke has a shelter, his little house on a cliff, where his mother puts him to sleep at night. Shelter is one of the deepest emotional instincts we have (ask Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space), and the power of the mother-figure is another (ask Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Sigmund Freud).

Finally, Ponyo herself represents an inescapable force for Sosuke… the force of compassion and companionship, which precedes all its mutations (romantic love, sexual love, and friendship), and which ushers in a host of other deep-seated emotions: responsibility (“I know it’s a big responsibility…”), regret (“I wonder if Ponyo is crying, too”), and hope for the future (“I’ll leave this pail for when she comes back”).

In this mission, Miyazaki is following in some very traditional Japanese footsteps. In his art, we can see references to woodblock prints and Sumi-e paintings of cliffs, mountain roads, violent seas, and fish. These paintings capture the full force of the scene in just a few brush strokes, and they resonate in a deep emotional place for the sensitive viewer. Miyazaki’s work should do the same thing, and if you’re open to it, you should feel the same sort of effect.

Miyazaki is an artist of the highest degree, and though his work may not touch all the keys of the intellect, it tugs at the strings of the soul. I hope history comes to remember this film as fondly as I already do.