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

More Old Posts…


I’m still away from the usual work routine (and embroiled in a different one), so Spectacular Attractions is still on a bit of a hiatus. To tide you over, because you clearly have nothing better to do (don’t argue – you’re here aren’t you?), I’ve prepared a few weeks’ worth of Picture of the Week (I hope youenjoy the galleries of delightful, garish posters I’ve handpicked for your entertainment) and another set of posts you may have missed from the early days of my blogging experiences. Sometimes, old pieces get buried in the ever-rolling blogosphere, but you can always browse the index if you get the chance to play catch-up.

Metaphors are Attacking Tokyo!: A short(ish) piece on the use of allegory in Ishiro Honda’s seminal monster movie, analysing the special effects and monster suits that seem to convey so much meaning to so many viewers and critics. Is it really just as simple as “Godzilla = Atomic Threat”?

Precious: The racial politics of Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire are calibrated to get a strong reaction from just about everybody, and for various reasons. Is it just button-pushing issue-of-week posturing, or a truly radical portrayal of race, class and America’s education system?

Vengeance is Mine: Propelled by the grim fascination of watching a ruthless serial killer going about his business, Shohei Imamura’s brutal drama is just as concerned with the legacy of pain and shame he leaves behind for his family to deal with, as demonstrated in this analysis of the film’s closing sequence.

Begone Dull Care: Norman McLaren Randomised: I’ve always enjoyed writing the “Randomised” series of posts, and some of them have been seen by thousands of visitors to the site. Others have gone largely unnoticed, such as this attempt to randomise the frenetic abstract stylings of Norman McLaren’s exhilarating jazz masterpiece.

Elephant: Alan Clarke’s violent series of dispassionate kills is one of the most pummelling, thrilling and extraordinary cinematic experiences you can have. All the violence, none of the context. Relentless, unforgettable.

Pantomiming Chaplin’s CIty Lights: A beauteous highpoint of 20th-century popular culture, City Lights is filled with marvellous physical dexterity, and this article analyses some of the mannerisms, gestures and slapstickery that help to pull off this amazing cinematic feat.

Ohayô / Good Morning: An Introduction to Yasujiro Ozu: If you’ve never seen a film by Yasujiro Ozu, you might need a bit of steering towards a few ideas that will make them easier to understand and cross-reference. This article was written as a digest of some thinking about some of Ozu’s films for some of my second-year students who were encountering him for the first time.

Twentynine Palms: Did I hate Bruno Dumont’s erotic, vicious, rapey road movie? Even after writing this piece about it, I wasn’t sure. Perhaps you can help me decide….

Random Round Up April 2009


Another in my occasional series of random round-ups, which basically allows me to throw together a barely connected bunch of references and links without having to take too much care over structure and coherence. Hey, I don’t want regular readers to get spoiled…

Miru Kim - Revere Sugar Refinery, Brooklyn

Miru Kim takes amazing photos of herself naked in public, mostly in her hometown of New York. Sounds sensationalist and lurid, but these images are delicately affecting, as in the above picture of the artist crouched in the Revere Sugar Refinery in Brooklyn. You can hear her delivering a short lecture on her work at the TED conference from December 2008 here. It’s a fascinating tale of “guerrilla historians” capturing derelict, hidden or underground urban spaces, and looking for “the unconscious of the city”. The fragile incongruence, not to mention the extreme vulnerability, of her body in these spaces is designed to humanise them, though you might just as easily see in them a haunting revelation of the leftovers of industrialisation, barely equipped to support human life.

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I’ve been keeping up with 30 Rock, Tina Fey’s light-touch sitcom, now in its third season: it’s extraordinary how US TV producers can knock out episodes of this quality so fast and so consistently. In less than three years, they’ve produced more than fifty large doses of prime comedy, populated with an effortlessly nuanced set of stock characters. My personal favourite is Tracy Jordan, a barely concealed exaggeration of actor Tracy Morgan’s downspiralling public image. Shamelessly plugging a back catalogue of movie roles that even Eddie Murphy might shy away from, he points to some uncomfortable truths about the job opportunities available to black film stars, ploughing through a dignity-free c.v. of drag-and-disguise character comedies, including Honky Grandma be Trippin’, Fat Bitch (in which he places a plus-sized Rottweiler), Black Cop/White Cop, and the immortal Who Dat Ninga, which I can’t even type without laughing. You can see a compilation of Tracy’s adorably monomaniacal best bits here.

Penelope Cruz in Volver

At the House of Mirth and Movies, in one of the most generous feats of blogging of recent months, Justine Smith has compiled a Female Film Canon, citing 100 of her favourite films about female protagonists and their experiences. Pay her a visit, thank her for the hard work.

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A new and terrifying blog appeared on my radar this month, in the form of Kindertrauma, a funnier-than-it-sounds exploration of the films, characters, toys and images that scared you when you were a kid (though it mostly assumes that you’re in your thirties). Emphatically unsuitable for coulrophobes. If you fit the site’s target demographic, you’ll be relieved to find that you’re not the only one whose skin crawled to the same beat.

Isabella Rossellini in Green Porno

Wondering what Isabella Rossellini’s been up to lately? Well, you may or may not be surprised to find that she’s been making a series of short films about animal sex to air on the Sundance channel. I know – at least two of my dreams just came true. You can watch the films, entitled Green Porno (clicking from this website will save you the indignity of a Google search), here. The real pleasure comes from watching the star of Blue Velvet dress up and act out the, er… facts. And you might learn something. I particularly recommend the Starfish episode.

Extreme Ice Survey

Finally, in this most random of random round-ups, a diversion for the last stragglers who need convincing about the breakneck pace of climate change. James Balog runs the Extreme Ice Survey; you can hear an extensive interview with him on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air show with Terry Gross, where he explains how he set up twenty-six timelapse cameras to record the melting of glaciers and icebergs. The Earth moves at its own pace, and this kind of photography cuts through the time barrier to allow us to conceive of its changing landscapes; cameras augment the human senses, and hopefully in this case they can help to compel the mind. The astonishing beauty of such awesome destruction is a daunting sight to take in.

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OK, one last thing. Lars von Trier has made a horror film in which Willem Dafoe shags Charlotte Gainsbourg in the roots of a tree. Don’t tell me you’re surprised.

Rise of the Random Round-Up


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Not sure why I got “a bit peeved” this week by the surplus of “Rise of the…” movie titles going around. I guess we transfer our proper irritations onto trivial stuff:

  • Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)
  • Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007)
  • Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2007)
  • Van Wilder 2: The Rise of Taj (2007)
  • The Scorpion King 2: Rise of a Warrior (2008)
  • No Man’s Land: The Rise of Reeker (2008)
  • Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (2009)
  • G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009)
  • The Mummy 4: Rise of the Aztec (2010)

What is that winds me up about these titles? Is it the pretentious overfamiliar self-importance that they imply (should I already know or care what Cobra, Lycans, Reeker and Leslie Vernon are?), with the scent of a grandiose origin story or character arc? Yeah, let’s stick with that as an explanation and move on to cooler stuff.

Bob Rehak over at Graphic Engine is talking about a viral video clip (originally broadcast as part of a Discovery Channel documentary) of planet Earth being obliterated by an asteroid. Bob notes the similarity between this clip and the Genesis sequence from Star Trek II, one of the first uses of CGI in a narrative feature film. Each is a flyby of planetary destruction or creation respectively, both allowing an awesome and impossible disembodied perspective on events that are usually just too big to take in. There seems to be a real desire, most persistently granted by Roland Emmerich (whose 2012 will again see him trashing the globe with giant tidal waves or some such), to imagine disaster from a distance, to take up the kind of omniscient perspective that we thought new media would create, instead of extra noise and confusion. Bob, in a particularly deft turn of phrase, calls the asteroid video “a peepshow of the gods”, noting that:

The clip is mercifully blind to the suffering of life on the ground (or for that matter in the air and sea); its only intimations of pain are displaced, oddly, onto architecture, with Big Ben and the Parthenon in flames.

Damn right. I guess it lets you imagine your own insignificance in the face of such cosmic ass-kickery, but it’s noteworthy how often the gravity of global annihilation is “felt” via the toppling of famous buildings.

Olly Moss is currently seeking full-time employment in graphic design or illustration. Go on, give him a job. He did these wonderful alternative movie posters:

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They probably work best for savvy viewers who already know the films and can summon up images or themes from the films from these minimalist graphic prompts. If you have a spare five minutes, there are far worse things you could do than check out the rest of Olly’s portfolio.

Those posters are a far cry from the cascade of unmitigated crap that you’ll find in the Criterion Forum‘s endlessly compelling threads that gather together the worst DVD covers ever. Once those highbrow Criterion types need a break from the Bela Tarr marathon, they seem to devote considerable energy on really, really bad cover art. I could fill up several blogs with this joyful celebration of irredeemable tat, but here’s a sample:

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Apparently there are more comedy chimp movies than I was aware of.

scanner-darkly-7With thanks to Film Studies for Free for the heads-up, Kim Louise Walden has written an excellent article on rotoscoping and how digital animation techniques might affect human performances and how we view them. More than a few of my students have found it deceptively tricky to write about Linklater’s Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly. They’re films that seem to yield a wealth of meaning through their distinctive form, but once you’ve noted that they are “a bit dreamlike”, you have to dig deeper to say anything substantial:

Rotoscoped animation is more akin to Bertolt Brecht’s “alienating effect” than Stanislaskian empathy, as the viewer is always aware of the layering effect and so are prevented from being immersed in the actors’ performances. Brecht advocated an approach to theatrical performance that sought to create a gap between the performance and the audience in order to distance the audience and thereby prompt the spectator to question the very nature of theatrical construction. I would assert that the processing of performance by rotoscoping technologies provides the required disruption to create a distance between text and spectator even though it is generated by the technologies of animation rather than the performers themselves.

I like it because I agree with it. I’m shallow like that. It chimes with my own thoughts on animation, special effects and performance, the ways in which imaging technologies divert dominant narratives with their own formal baggage, even when their allocated task might be to disappear in a puff of photoreal smoke.

Not long ago, I added a “podcasts” section to the ever-expanding list of links on this blog. I’m still on the lookout for great film-related podcasts, so any suggestions will be gratefully received. There are lots of amateur review sites where I’m reliably informed whether or not a movie “sucks” or “rocks”, but if there are any that offer interesting commentary or thoughtful discussion, I’d love to hear about it. I just discovered the pleasures of Old Time Radio (Mmm…. zeitgeist….). Want to listen to an old Batman serial from 1950? Hear episodes of the Bob Hope show? Right now, Boris Karloff is reading me the story of Chung Ling Soo.

image_04This is quite an old article, but you shouldn’t miss out on Michael C. LaBarbera’s deft destruction of all my childhood nightmares. A professor of organismal biology and anatomy at the University of Chicago, he demonstrates that a giant octopus could never pull down the Golden Gate Bridge without busting some serious guts, hence the ease with which the big lug can be dispatched:

The evidence clearly points to the poor cephalopod suffering a sudden and massive cerebral hemorrhage from this excess pressure just as it rips down the Golden Gate Bridge. The subsequent passivity of the giant octopus now makes perfect sense–its higher faculties were gone and the only responses it made were due to peripheral reflexes, grabbing the submarine in response to tactile stimulation, twitching when hit with the diver’s spear. Rather takes the edge off the human’s “heroic” actions at the end of the movie, doesn’t it?

If you don’t want to hear about Mothra’s battles with wind resistance, I suggest you give it a wide berth.

In case you’re not already fed up of hearing about how great There Will be Blood is (hey, it’s not a patch on Most Valuable Primate, but it’ll pass the time until my MVP boxset arrives…), check out Jason Sperb’s fine photo essay. It’ll illuminate the film for you in a matter of seconds. In Paul Thomas Anderson’s films, for example, “heads are constantly under siege”.

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Edwin Mak at Faster than Instant Noodles (hey, that’s pretty fast!) has written a thoughtful post about global distribution and exhibition, considering the impact and influences of cinephilic communities and digital technology:

Since digital media destroyed traditional topologies of film distribution and exhibition, the film industry has––and still is––struggling to make sense of it all. And by the phrase make sense, what is merely hinted at is a world in itself stricken with familiar considerations.

Finally, wherever you stand on the “I hate/love Slumdog Millionaire” sliding scale (it generated goodwill and critical backlash with remarkable speed a couple of weeks back), you can’t ignore David Bordwell’s measured and constructive response:

The Slumdog project is an effort at crossover, and like all crossovers it can be criticized from either side. And it invites accusations of imperialism. A British director and writer use British and American money to make a film about Mumbai life. The film evokes popular Indian cinema in circumscribed ways. It gets a degree of worldwide theatrical circulation that few mainstream Indian films find. This last circumstance is unfair, I agree; I’ve long lamented that significant work from other nations is often ignored in mainstream US culture (and it’s one reason I do the sort of research I do). But I also believe that creators from one culture can do good work in portraying another one. No one protests that that Milos Forman and Roman Polanski, from Communist societies, made One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Chinatown. No one sees anything intrinsically objectionable in the Pang brothers or Kitano Takeshi coming to America to make films. Most of us would have been happy had Kurosawa had a chance to make Runaway Train here. Conversely, Clint Eastwood receives praise for Letters from Iwo Jima.

Just as there is no single and correct “Indian” or “American” or “French” point of view on anything, we shouldn’t deny the possibility that outsiders can present a useful perspective on a culture. This doesn’t make Slumdog automatically a good film. It simply suggests that we shouldn’t dismiss it based on easy labels or the passports of its creators.