How Special Effects Work #5: Mary Pickford Kisses Herself


This is the latest in a long-running, very occasional series of posts about special effects but this is the first time (I can’t promise it will be the last) where my starting point is a trick I can’t explain. Of course, I know that the shot (see above) from Little Lord Fauntleroy, in which Mary Pickford, playing two roles, appears to kiss herself, was created using a double exposure, but I don’t know exactly how they got it to look so seamless. I would be grateful for any inside information, and interested in any speculative theories, about how this magnificent special effect was achieved. Much of this post was derived from out-takes of research for a chapter on special/visual effects in the silent era, for a forthcoming volume of the Behind the Silver Screen series from Rutgers University Press, which should be available some time next year. Continue reading

Naomi Watts Watch: Diana


I don’t sleep well on planes. But I don’t like watching films on those tiny dim screens they give you on long flights. So, I only watch films that I wouldn’t normally go out of my way to see: anything else, I wait for an opportunity to watch it under better conditions. That’s why, on a recent return journey from the Philippines, I ended up, bleary-eyed between timezones, watching Diana. I had twelve hours to kill, and this movie barely maimed two of them. Regular readers of this blog will know that I really like Naomi Watts, but following her acting career is like supporting your local, lower-league football team: the loyalty is taken for granted, and you know from past glories that there is greatness there, but you have to watch a number of crushing, humiliating defeats every once in a while. Continue reading

The Noir Instinct


Humphrey Bogart The Maltese Falcon[I recently completed an essay on film noir references/influences in the Ghost in the Shell franchise, for inclusion in a forthcoming book on noir in East Asian cinema. In the introduction, I wrote a lengthy section arguing that film noir is almost entirely a critical construct, brought to life by the convenient way in which it helps us to group together a disparate group of films and analyse them under a similar brand as if they represent some collective response to their social contexts. Much of this lengthy introduction was not really necessary, as the book’s authors had already built most of the terminological discussion into their introductory chapter. In the final version, then, most of what follows has been cut out so that my chapter cuts more quickly to the case, but I thought the longer version, despite being disjointed in places, might be of some interest as a standalone blogpost. I’ve added a few bits of new text to clarify some points, make it all less formal, and to round off the argument at the end.] 

For as long as I’ve been teaching and researching film, the term ‘film noir’ has been cropping up regularly, often applied loosely as an adjectival phrase in students’ essays (‘in a film noir style’, ‘noirish lighting’ etc.). One could easily get the impression that everyone knows what ‘noir’ is, and that everybody agrees on what it is, and that we’re all referring to the same thing when we say ‘noir’. To an extent, that’s true. It would be disingenuous to suggest that I didn’t know what you were referring to whenever you drop a couple of ‘noirs’ into the conversation. The difficulty of studying film noir is in the capaciousness of its definitions, the heterogeneity of an object of study that is supposed to describe a generic coherence. There are just so many films labeled as noir, and so many differences between them. Steve Neale has described the peculiar tenacity of ‘noir’ as a word rather than as a recognizable genre, calling it ‘a phenomenon whose unity and coherence are presumed in the single term used to label them rather than demonstrated through any systematic, empirical analysis’.[i] The invocation of the word therefore operates talismanically: once it is uttered in reference to a particular film, noir becomes a constructing force that grafts its interpretive codes onto the film text. Continue reading

Chris Morris: Graphics Content


Chris Morris in Brass EyeNo Known Cure[This is an edited extract from “‘Only This Can Make it a News’: The Language of News Media”, in James Leggott & Jamie Sexton (eds.) No Known Cure: The Comedy of Chris Morris. London: BFI/Palgrave, 2013. In this essay I analyse the use of graphics, idents, and title sequences in the news parodies of satirist Chris Morris. In this section, I discuss the title sequences that begin The Day Today and Brass Eye.]

Station logos and programme insignia serve connotative as well as nominative functions; they iconically refer to the names of things, but their designs also activate meaningful associations for viewers. The graphic design template of each show is firmly established in their title sequences. John Ellis has analysed the Day Today title sequence, noting that it is characterised by ‘a sense of excess of meaning, of heady overstatement within familiar forms’; it exaggerates the tropes and clichés of the opening of a news show.[i]

A montage of library footage filtered through digital surface simulations show the multiple foci of the programme (politics, war, celebrities, sport) in a mixed arena of metallic, granite and liquid structures that fluctuate between solidity and fluidity: the design connotes encyclopedic versatility, the image speaks of confusion. Continue reading

Spectacular Attractions Update


Ghost in the Shell Matoko KusanagiRegular readers, or anyone who has stopped by expecting some recent posts, will have noticed that things have been slow around here this past year. This is for a number of reasons: last summer, my second daughter was born, and having two young children around the house is very distracting, and leaves little time for thinking coherent thoughts, let alone writing them down (kudos to all the writers who do actually manage this – it’s not as if all parents stop being able to write). I’ve also been working, teaching courses at Webster University, a graduate seminar at Leiden University, and last month I started a new job as a projects office for LIBER Europe, the Association of European Research Libraries. Continue reading

345-Word Reviews: Only God Forgives


Only God Forgives Ryan GoslingFollowing the popular and critical success of Drive, Ryan Gosling reteams with director Nicolas Winding Refn for a film that is both more and less of the same: more vengeance, torture, blows to the head, and less movement, less dialogue, less significance. From its stately depiction of a neon-and-bokeh Bangkok (shot by Eyes Wide Shut‘s Larry Smith), to its hyper-Freudian, return-to-the-womb conclusion (cribbed from George Bataille’s Ma mère), Only God Forgives is a great-looking but stilted drama, painfully obvious, studiously enigmatic, and boringly sadistic.  Continue reading

The Spielberg Hundred #005: The Magic of Special Effects


This is the complete screen recording of a paper I gave last month at a conference in Montreal, The Magic of Special Effects: Cinema, Technology, Reception, 10 November 2013. Aside from the final plenary talk by Tom Gunning, I was the last speaker at this intensive, 6-day conference, so I will plead a little bit of fatigue and befrazzlement; I mostly resisted the urge to rewrite my paper over the course of the week as I heard so many stimulating ideas from the other speakers, but I will no doubt feed some of that stimulation back into the next draft of my paper. What I presented was an early sketch of my chapter on Spielberg for a forthcoming book, and thanks to helpful comments and questions from other delegates, I have a better idea of what I need to do to develop it into a longer, stronger essay. I hope you enjoy this snapshot of a work-in-progress, but let me know in the comments section if you have suggestions for improvement. Although the finished chapter will explore in more historical depth the relationship between Spielberg and Industrial Light and Magic, what I presented here is an attempt to characterise what Spielberg does with visual effects set-pieces, and how the audience is embedded in a “spectacular venue” for the presentation of marvellous things. 

Gravity: The Weight of Water


Gravity Sandra Bullock

[This post contains spoilers for Gravity, but since I seem to be the last person in the universe to see the film, that shouldn’t be too much of a problem…]

By the time I got around to seeing Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, so much had already been said. It received rapturous reviews, then a bunch of criticisms of its scientific plausibility, then prompted, or at least chimed with, talk about space debris, roused the obligatory Oscar “buzz” (i.e. somebody somewhere thought it might win a couple of awards), and generally came on like an end-of-year blockbuster that showed the summer how thrills and spectacle should have been handled. So, while I feel like I want to write a little something about the film, I’m not too keen to burden you with a retread of opinions you might already have found elsewhere.

Continue reading

The Spielberg Hundred #004: Gigolo Joe’s Jukebox


Gigolo Joe and Gigolo Jane in Spielberg's A.I. Artificial IntelligenceI recently rewatched Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence. It’s a troubling piece of work, one that I’ll return to in later posts, I’m sure. Its growing reputation amongst critics, audiences and Spielberg scholars has muted a lot of the ambivalence that greeted it upon initial release. This time around, and because I’m looking for unusual angles on Spielberg’s work for these 100 blog posts, one of the things that has stayed with me are the times played on Gigolo Joe’s internal jukebox. To explain, in case you’re unfamiliar, Gigolo Joe is a love-model mecha (a robot prostitute) played by Jude Law. He provides a sexy service to his female customers (we’re never told whether or not he accepts male clients), though his techniques are left to our imagination, and we’re never told exactly what he’s “got down there”. I don’t think Spielberg is terribly secure talking about sex, and he’s certainly not keen on showing it. Continue reading