Saturday, February 26, 2011

Vast Empty Spaces in "The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea"

The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea was a simple, well-shot, well-paced movie with a lot of big ideas going on under the surface -- just the type of movie I like, although I must admit, this one was a bit grim and tragic to really make for an enjoyable Friday night. It's adapted from a book by Japanese author Yukio Mishima, and it stars Kris Kristofferson, who was also by far the most convincing actor in the cast. If nothing else, you can watch it to be dreamily captivated by the endless sea-scapes and ancient pastures of England.

You can also watch it for the sense of longing and frustrated desire that permeates the whole film, and that allows us to understand why the children in this gray world are so hollow and spiritually impoverished. It's both a celebration of hope and a warning about its dangers, a call to dissolution into the vast silent emptiness of the sea and a warning against making impossible spiritual demands of oneself and one's idols, who, in the end, are mere human beings, just like all of us.

The "call to dissolution" is a rather zen theme, expressed every time a character gazes out into the ocean and waxes poetic about the romantic call of the waves. Jim feels it, and has already worked through it; now Jonathan is feeling it, and he is placing misguided faith in Jim to stay true to its pursuit. The ocean is the silent, echoic, empty spiritual resonance that flows through all of us, the Platonic world of forms, the Kantian noumenal world, the free, open space of unbound existence. Jim says the sea is always changing, and once he left the grounded world of earth and society, he began to feel like he didn't belong anywhere. This is because he left the world of the body and entered a vast spiritual outland where things of the flesh aren't welcome.

The empty, transcendent world of the sea contrasts sharply with the corrupt, corporeal world that the chief has created for his schoolboy friends. In this world, all purpose flows from the physical nature of things, and we are all bodies, first and foremost. He finds the "true nature" of each being in its heart, the literal physical organ, and he sees every beings true nature as flowing from its physical form, its anatomical makeup, the bitter, earthbound "perfect order of things" (which is not a spiritual order in any way, because the Chief is spiritually dead and rotting).

There's something rather Catch-22 about the whole exercise. The Chief, like Yossarian, has realized that "man is matter," and he's concluded that morality, hope, transcendence, etc. are just inventions by "grown-ups" (i.e. society) to control peoples' behavior and keep the weak under the thumbs of the strong. He's a uniquely Nietzschian character in this regard, and even fascist, because his base materialism has led him to a different sort of purism... the purism of tyrants and libertines, of self-righteous cruelty and entitlement. So he departs from Yossarian's sympathetic pragmatism (sort of anti-social, but still benign) and becomes nihilistic, believing in nothing but himself, and others only to the extent that they serve him.

Of course, you could read mountains of oedipal subtexts in this film, as Jonathan turns his boyhood gaze upon his widowed mother. This is one possible explanation for Jonathan's unreasonable philosophical expectations for Jim: he wants Jim to be a symbol of all the higher ideals that imbue a strong father figure, and when Jim opts to return to land and get married, Johnathan sees it as a sort of castration. The subsequent murder of the father is Jonathan's pathalogical act of retribution.

Have I made this movie seem a bit heavy? Yeah, it's a little heavy, not much of a party movie at all. But the tone is truly unique, and for all its disturbing twists, it's also a very calm, introspective film with a lot of gorgeous scenery and moments of sublime transcendence. If you're looking for something serious to watch leading up to the Oscars, it wouldn't be a bad one to see, and it's on Netflix Instant. Go check it out.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Animation in so many myriad forms

Wasn't there a time when we didn't have to specify that an animated film was "traditionally" animated? It's been a fairly gradual process, normalizing 3-D animation to the point where it's the dominant form. But it's still worth noting: animation is now process-agnostic, no longer "manual-normative," so it's always useful to specify whether it's traditional animation, 3-D animation, or rotoscoping, which is sort of the outlier type at this point.

I saw this incredible film recently, and it strikes me that it came out right around when 2-D animation was losing its assumed priority over the genre.

It's nice to see, in Iron Giant and others, that the computer has also proven an asset to 2-D animation. I saw another incredible animated film recently, the re-edit and re-issue of Neon Genesis Evangelion (a series that's still ongoing), and although the traditional animation is incredible -- some of the best and most inventive visuals ever put to screen -- the 3-D contributions occasionally sucked out some of the personality. It makes the use of 3-D in Iron Giant even more amazing, retrospectively.

As traditional and 3-D animation methods merge and move forward, traditional animation is slowly going the way of vinyl and vintage cameras -- it's becoming a technology for afficianados and loyalists, whose unique strengths and characteristics are being swallowed up in nostalgia. Luckily, as we've seen with so many other technologies, there will always a community of purists that keep it alive.

In fact, some of them have surfaced in my blog reader recently! Watch their shorts below. They're super-awesome.

How different the feeling is, the tactile quality, in traditional animation. The tension and responsiveness of these shapes is so palpable -- it's something that 3-D animation has tried to emulate for a while, but has it ever quite made it? Is it possible to reach the same drama of exaggeration and intensity with volumes and textures that you can get with the simple lines and shapes of that Medusa short?

Of course, in certain cases, 3-D animation seems to be going in the opposite direction -- away from exaggeration, away from the hyperactive visual dynamics of cartoons. In particular, I'm thinking of a process that's apparent in Wall-E, and that can be traced back to Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, where the animation is pushed toward real-world conventions. Sure, there may be some uncanny valley issues, especially in Zemeckis movies and that Final Fantasy film, but in these special cases, it's really about simulating aspects of the real world as closely as possible, rather than exaggerating them. In the case of Wall-E, the brilliant cinematographer Roger Deakins was called in to consult on the shots. This creative decision had a subtle but important effect: it grounded the "camera" in real-world shooting conventions, extracting it from the normal disembodied swooping around that the camera tends to do in a 3-D picture.

And of course, Final Fantasy, as weird as it might have been, was one of the first uses of motion-capture to create realistic character movements, and it was one of the most ambitious applications of lighting and atmosphere in any 3-D animated feature, before or since.

I don't really have the ambition at the moment, but you could create a pretty great Venn Diagram thing, showing the overlapping of live action, 3-D animation, and 2-D animation. Films like Cool World and Roger Rabbit would be in that deserted space between 2-D and live action, and films that used 3-D motion capture for tons of effects -- King Kong, Avatar, etc -- would be between 3-D and live action.

If this stuff is interesting, you could definitely stand to check out a couple blogs:

The Seven Golden Camels is a blog by Mark Kennedy, a guy who's storyboarded and pre-produced with some big names in animation.

AnimationHOORAY is an animation blog that knows how to fish out great independent and student animation work.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Jargon in Primer (2004), Brick (2005), and Emperor of the North (1973)

Having seen Emperor of the North (Robert Aldrich, 1973) recently, I was thinking a little about the use of jargon to lend linguistic texture to films. Emperor was full of depression-era shit-talk... now, I realize the 70's was far removed from the 30's, but the 00's is even farther removed, so provisionally, I trust Emperor's rendition of 30's vocabulary. Some of it is pretty brilliant, and the slight bit of effort it takes to translate this language makes it extremely engaging. Apart from the epic final fight scene, I'd say the scenes I remember best are the ones where A-no.-1 (Lee Marvin) is rattling off cryptic advice and insults to Cigaret (Keith Carradine).

I love IMDB's quotes section:

"You ain't stopping at this hotel, kid. My hotel! The stars at night, I put 'em there. And I know the presidents, all of them. And I go where I damn well please. Even the chairman of the New York Central can't do it better. My road, kid, and I don't give lessons and I don't take partners. Your ass don't ride this train!"

This quote doesn't even come close to some of the other dialog. I could copy and paste the whole final speech, hollered back from the train as it disappears up the mountain, but I almost feel like I would be ruining it. It just sounds so much better spoken than it comes off written.

There are other movies that have this kind of jargon, used to similar effect. One of the most important examples is Shane Carruth's Primer, an intense, claustrophobic time-travel film released in 2004. One of the novelties of Primer is that Carruth doesn't dumb down any of the technical jargon for his audience, and the engineering and theoretical math comes across (to the layman, at least) as abstract, finely-textured gibberish. Again, it's some of the most memorable stuff from the film: those early nerds-at-work scenes where the protagonists are sussing out the mysteries of the universe in one of their basements. The cryptic language is immersive and engaging.

I think Rian Johnson's 2005 film Brick is worth comparing. Brick was written in jargon, as well -- an approximation of 1930's noir patter, anachronistically displaced into a present-day California high school. Now, I loved the film. It was sharp and intelligent and cynical and daring, a serious and self-assured indie film project. However, the jargon just didn't quite work for me, and in retrospect, the scenes that were heavy on stylized dialog (Brendan meeting with The Brain in the library, for instance) don't really feel like the film's greatest assets.

It's hard to explain this phenomenon, except to say that the stylization of the dialog was a mismatch for the gritty, neo-realist feel of the rest of the film. There's something so lucid and transparent about that desaturated video footage. Indeed, the dialog worked wonders when it spoke directly to the nature of the character and the situation: Brendan's short, muscular challenges to his adversaries, his talk with the principal, and The Pin's talk about J.R.R. Tolkien on the beach.

In my estimation, that talk with The Pin is tied for best exchange in the film; the other contender is this little bit, between Brendan and Laura Dannon:

LAURA: "You think nobody sees you. Eating lunch behind the portables. Loving some girl like she's all there is, anywhere, to you. I've always seen you. Or maybe I liked Emily. Maybe I see what you're trying to do for her, trying to help her, and I don't know anybody who would do that for me."

BRENDAN: "You are dangerous."

With very little bullshit, this gets across a whole range of information: Brendan's heroic character, despite his apparent clinginess and self-exile; Laura's role as a sweet-talker and temptress; the very important fact that in this world, every relationship needs to be regarded with suspicion. It does all this, and even makes reference to one of the classic noirs in a very effective, natural way. And like I said, much less jargony and cryptic than so much of the other dialog in the film.

So it's all about texture, and that subtle relationship between the texture of the film and the texture of the language. I'm sure there are lots of other movies that exploit language effectively, to engage the viewer in an active process of decoding, thereby improving the experience of the film world. I'll mention more if I can think of them.