Under the Skin Randomised

Scarlett Johansson in Under the SkinI 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.

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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.

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Pacific Rim

Final_Four_Jaegers, Pacific Rim

One of the signature images of the contemporary action blockbuster is of human operators manoeuvering artificial bodies. Whether it’s Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) in Avatar, operating a lanky blue alien chassis while napping in a metal cocoon, Wikus (Sharlto Copley) in District 9 in a cyborgic war-machine suit, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) operating his hi-tech Iron Man suit, or the combatants of the Jaeger programme in Pacific Rim working the mind-and-body controls of their gargantuan monster-punching robots, we are accustomed to seeing the spectacular visual effects doing the heavy lifting while the human performers, seen in occasional cutaways, take up subordinate roles. This is partly a way of finding something for the people to do while the focus is on the big machines that are the agents of action in these movies, but it is also the visual logic of films dependent on motion-capture to fuel their digital heroes: these are films that celebrate technology, but remain anxious that those technologies are inscribed with the markers of human input that make films about machines relatable and engaging. Continue reading

345-Word Reviews: World War Z

World War ZNeither the calamity that its troubled production might have led you to expect, nor the triumph that its $250 million price-tag should lead you to demand, World War Zed offers a number of delights. This is a globalised disaster movie, told not from the perspective of bedraggled survivors who end up turning on each other in a desperate fight over dwindling supplies (the genre template laid down by Romero, and canonised most recently in The Walking Dead comics and TV series), but through the lens of a UN-led operation to find a solution to the zombie pandemic sweeping the planet. This omniscient overview sometimes dilutes what should be a terrifying vision of a world falling apart, because it gives an unwarranted sense of control over events, and the film plays out in a doggedly linear hop from one country to the next along a thread of tangential clues.

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Spectacular Attractions Video Podcast #001

This week, I present the first of what I hope will develop into a regular series of short video podcasts. Last year, I experimented with ten audio podcasts, most of which adapted posts previously published on this blog. As much as I enjoyed making those shows, I missed being able to show images and clips, so this is an opportunity to refer very directly to particular scenes from films; sometimes I’ll analyse a single clip, and other times the subject will be more of a video essay like this first entry, which revisits a post about Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. You can read the original entry here, but I really wanted to start with something familiar to get used to the editing software. I’m using iMovie for now, but might progress to something more complex if needed. This equipment serves my purposes for now.

I plan to follow this with two more short videos about 2001, and then a broader variety of films. If time allows, new video podcasts will appear every fortnight. Feedback on episode #001 would be greatly appreciated:

Spectacular Attractions Video Podcast #001: 2001: A Space Odyssey – This Way Up from Dan North on Vimeo.

Super 8: Victory Through Lens Flare

There’s no question that I overuse lens flares on occasion … The kneejerk reaction from the director of photography is usually, “OK, we’ve got to flatten that light because it’s going to flare.”  I think it’s one of those things that you want to make sure that, obviously, it’s … To me it’s such a cool beautiful image, the light through the glass. There are times that I feel like it sort of adds another kind of smart element, and it’s hard to define.  But it is a visual taste that I do like.  I think there are a couple shots in Super 8 where I just think I should definitely pull back here or there, but I can’t help myself sometimes.

J.J. Abrams interviewed by Peter Sciretta

I had begun plotting to write about lens flare in Super 8 shortly after leaving a screening this evening. Living in the Netherlands, and being quite busy at the moment, I often get to see films later than most people who profess an interest in cinema, so I was not entirely surprised to find that somebody, in this case Adam Nayman at Cinema Scope, had already offered a perfectly fine analysis of that very topic nearly three months earlier. He made many of the points that had occurred to me while watching the film, along with many others that had not; I agree that, while the use of lens flare (which, as in the example above, whether simulated in post-production or a natural by-product of scattered surplus light entering the lens) might be seen as an authorised tic beloved of director J.J. Abrams, it is better understood as akin to the affected (and affectionate) artifacts in Tarantino and Rodriguez’s Grindhouse, where the pops and scratches on the over-worked “prints” of the film were a shortcut to evoking the conditions under which their film might wistfully be watched: i.e. it is a nostalgic device to reinscribe the image with the traces of pre-digital imperfections, from a time before the fetish for immaculate, malleable visuals arrived (though I would humbly submit that such a time never really existed, since digital technology was invariably used to couch its visualisations in the tones and trappings of analogue processes). Continue reading

Koko in 1999 (1927)

One thing that will strike you about the Fleischers’ 1927 cartoon short Ko-ko in 1999 is how it anticipates other motifs in science fiction cinema. Most notable is the moment where the eponymous clown finds himself trapped in a feeding machine with more than a passing resemblance to the feeding machine tested by Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times (1936). When a stern Max Fleischer tries to bring Ko-ko down a peg or two by creating a bunch of rival clowns, Ko-ko rebels and shunts the competition out of the frame. Fleischer punishes his creation by conjuring Father Time, who pursues Ko-ko into the future – 1999, to be precise. There, he is assailed by all kinds of automated obstacles, and acquires a wife out of a vending machine. Like A Trip to Mars, which I posted here a couple of weeks ago, this is an extract from the excellent Inkwell Images DVD set, which also features documentaries about the Fleischer Bros. Studios. The music is Stereolab‘s remix of Shonen Knife‘s Hot Chocolate, taken from the Ultra Mix album.

Koko the Clown in A Trip to Mars (1924)

Still messing around basic techniques in iMovie before I start chopping up my own footage, I thought I’d try adding a new soundtrack to an old cartoon.

There’s no shortage of posts about space travel here at Spectacular Attractions, at least where Georges Melies and his film A Trip to the Moon (something of an obsession of mine) are concerned. This 1924 Fleischer Bros short is certainly a descendent of that movie. Koko the Clown was borne out of experiments with rotoscoping by Max Fleischer. The process involves drawing frame-by-frame animation over live-action reference footage, and represents one of the originating techniques for today’s motion-capture technologies.

The Fleischer cartoons became increasingly sophisticated in their interplays between live action and animated imagery, and usually offered a tricksy variation on the same concept: Max Fleischer is seen drawing Koko, conjuring him ‘Out of the Inkwell’, as the series (and the Fleischer’s production company) would be called; Koko then runs amok, goes on an adventure, before eventually being returned to the bottle of ink and the stopper replaced. It’s a witty recurring riff on the relationship between artist and artwork, as Koko resists his limitations as a simple line drawing, yearning to escape from the flat page on the easel and flee into other worlds. The Fleischers were experts at integrating technical innovations with simple themes and narratives, as they did in the Betty Boop series (the subject of one of the first ever posts on this blog), where Max was more of a flirtatious overseer of his creaion. By the end of this cartoon, you’ll be amazed by how fluidly Fleischer inserts himself into the action in a dazzling finale that echoes the race around Saturn’s rings in R.W. Paul’s The ? Motorist (1906)

I’ve set this short cartoon to music by Michael Nyman. When looking for a soundtrack, I wanted to avoid the usual jaunty piano accompaniment that usually gets tacked onto this sort of thing: I wanted something a bit more surging and epic (plus, I couldn’t figure out how to re-attach the original soundtrack in iMovie: hey, I’m still a novice at this…). I hope you like it, and I hope it’s an improvement on some of the very fuzzy copies of the Inkwell films floating around on YouTube: if you want more, plus documentaries about the Fleischer Bros and their studios, I’d recommend investing in the DVD boxset from Inwell Images, Inc., from which this cartoon is an excerpt. I will follow this one in due course with another Fleischer treat, Koko in 1999, to which I’ve added music by Stereolab and Shonen Knife. You can view or sign up for my YouTube channel here.

Fragment #28: Bruno Latour on Avatar

[In his 2010 essay ‘A Compositionist Manifesto’, theorist of science Bruno Latour outlines his proposal for a new epistemology of the relationship between nature, science and humanity. As an alternative to ‘critique’, the analytical approach that “ran out of steam because it was predicated on the discovery of a true world of realities lying behind a veil of appearances”, he proposes a compositionist approach that requires its exponents to build, slowly and cautiously, forward-looking modes of thought and action to deal with looming ecological catastrophe which existing systems of knowledge have not prepared us to prevent. Perhaps surprisingly, he introduces the manifesto with a prologue about James Cameron’s Avatar, situating the film’s hero, Jake Sully, as a hopeful representative of a new way of being, where continuing existence might require a complete overhaul of how we perceive our place in the universe. The finished essay was published in New Literary History 41.3 (Summer 2010): 471-490, but you can read a draft version at Latour’s website; see also Lucas Verburgt’s excellent analysis of Latour’s argument, and Levi R. Bryant’s discussion of it at Larval Subjects. You can find my own posts on Avatar here and here. The illustration at the start of this post is from a concept design for Pandora’s Hometree by artist Seth Engstrom.]

“If I had an agent, I am sure he would advise me to sue James Cameron over his latest blockbuster since Avatar should really be called Pandora’s Hope! Yes, Pandora is the name of the mythical humanoid figure whose box holds all the ills of humanity, but it is also the name of the heavenly body that humans from planet Earth (all members of the typically American military-industrial complex) are exploiting to death without any worry for the fate of its local inhabitants, the Navis, and their ecosystem, a superorganism and goddess called Eywa. I am under the impression that this film is the first popular description of what happens when modernist humans meet Gaia. And it’s not pretty.

The Revenge of Gaia, to draw on the title of a book by James Lovelock, results in a terrifying replay of Dunkirk 1940 or Saigon 1973: a retreat and a defeat. This time, the Cowboys lose to the Indians: they have to flee from their frontier and withdraw back home abandoning all their riches behind them. In trying to pry open the mysterious planet Pandora in search of a mineral—known as unobtanium, no less!—the Earthlings, just as in the classical myth, let loose all the ills of human- ity: not only do they ravage the planet, destroy the great tree of life, and kill the quasi-Amazonian Indians who had lived in edenic harmony with it, but they also become infected with their own macho ideology. Outward destruction breeds inward destruction. And again, as in the classical myth, hope is left at the bottom of Pandora’s box—I mean planet—because it lies deep in the forest, thoroughly hidden in the complex web of connections that the Navis nurture with their own Gaia, a biological and cultural network which only a small team of natural- ists and anthropologists are beginning to explore. It is left to Jake, an outcast, a marine with neither legs nor academic credentials, to finally “get it,” yet at a price: the betrayal of his fellow mercenaries, a rather conventional love affair with a native, and a magnificent transmigration of his original crippled body into his avatar, thereby inverting the relationship between the original and the copy and giving a whole new dimension to what it means to “go native.”

I take this film to be the first Hollywood script about the modernist clash with nature that doesn’t take ultimate catastrophe and destruction for granted—as so many have before—but opts for a much more inter- esting outcome: a new search for hope on condition that what it means to have a body, a mind, and a world is completely redefined. The lesson of the film, in my reading of it, is that modernized and modernizing humans are not physically, psychologically, scientifically, and emotionally equipped to survive on their planet. As in Michel Tournier’s inverted story of Robinson Crusoe, Friday, or, The Other Island, they have to relearn from beginning to end what it is to live on their island—and just like Tournier’s fable, Crusoe ultimately decides to stay in the now civilized and civilizing jungle instead of going back home to what for him has become just another wilderness. But what fifty years ago in Tournier’s romance was a fully individual experience has become today in Cameron’s film a collective adventure: there is no sustainable life for Earth-bound species on their planet island.”