If you find Roland Emmerich’s movies too slow and subtle, then San Andreas might be for you, a b-for-bloated B-movie in which no sequence of dialogue is allowed to go uninterrupted by the shaking of the Earth, as if the cast were being warned to keep all conversations brief and cut to the spectacle. With none of the calculated, faux-shitty incompetence of a Sharknado, and none of the self-deprecating humour or satirical mischief of a 2012, this is a genre film stripped down to the basics.
When an earthquake divorces San Francisco from the mainland and pummels it with an escalating series of aftershocks, tsunamis and plummeting house prices, San Andreas compiles a bunch of Fisher-Price symbolism and fortune-cookie plotting: from the start, you know that the estranged couple will be reunited, her smarmy executive new boyfriend will die a deserving, cowardly death, and The Rock will get to save his one surviving daughter and heal past wounds, because the biggest myth of the Hollywood disaster movie is that natural disasters, rather than randomly annihilating them, bring families together.
This pro-family message is just a pose. For the most part, San Andreas couldn’t give a fuck about any families other than the pretty one in its plot synopsis. We’re expected to cheer when Ioan Gruffudd gets his comeuppance, swatted by a container ship, ignoring the thousands of innocents standing alongside him on the Golden Gate Bridge as it takes the full force of the same preposterously large wave that The Rock surfs across in a commandeered boat, the latest in a string of vehicles he uses to fly over or zoom past the masses he might have been duty-bound to protect, seeking out instead his needle daughter in the Frisco haystack. This family of survivalists keeps all the best information to themselves and repeatedly ignore the plight of others around them. The resilience of the heroes is in inverse proportion to the frangibility of the background extras. The message to the earthquake dead in this film is that they didn’t try, fight, or drive hard enough. [That’s not entirely fair, because the signature image of this film is of men with injured girls in their arms, because some types of saving will always be more OK than others.]
I had to ask myself some personal questions recently, when it occurred to me that I had put Under the Skin and Holy Motors on consecutive weeks of a Film Appreciation course. I love both films, but I can see how they would be divisive in similar ways: I wanted to end the course with a couple of contentious films that would challenge students’ ideas about what cinema should do, and these are fairly accessible examples of feature-length experiments in narration, identification, performance and genre, all ideas that had been pertinent to the course (Holy Motors was also the set film for a week on cinephilia, since it strikes me as a film which targets the prone and yearning minds of a certain kind of viewer pining for an old-fashioned form of passionate and philosophical film about film). It’s also a good exercise to ask students to explain opaque films with reference to what they do know about film form, style and technique, showing how this kind of analysis can unlock and illuminate the meanings they have been used to communicate.
What’s with the current trend for movie posters where the hero (and sometimes the villain) gazes moodily away from the viewer? It’s as if Robocop can’t meet our gaze, or Brad Pitt is ashamed to look us in the eye, or Dwayne Johnson doesn’t want us to see him in his Hercules outfit. It could represent something of the of the recent cliche of the tormented hero, the agonising responsibilities of being responsible for other people’s lives, or just a general lazy me-too-ism of graphic design. But like the trope of turning one’s back from a couple of years ago, this trend looks like it will run for a while. I look forward to this little motif hitting peak shoegaze around about the time of the pre-release publicity posters for Superman vs Batman. They’ll both be shiftily averting their eyes from us. I plan to return the favour.
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 →
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 →
[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 →
[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 →
Regular 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 →
Following 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 →