Floating Weeds Randomised

moccastfloatingweedsThe films of Yasujiro Ozu are probably the opposite of random in their structure and composition, so it seems rather perverse to make one his films the subject of this ongoing series of randomised film reviews. But that’s not a good enough reason to avoid giving it a try, this time working with Ozu’s gorgeous 1959 Floating Weeds, a remake of his own 1934 silent comedy-drama. It’s also a good opportunity to sing the praises of Eureka’s magnificent Blu-Ray edition of the film, from the Masters of Cinema series (though today’s frame grabs are taken from a DVD – for an idea of the BD quality, this link should help). If you need a primer on the formal style of Ozu’s films (though admittedly it just focuses on a few of the late works), I wrote one for my students a few years ago.

The rules are simple: I use a random number generator to give me five numbers, and these dictate the minute-marks of the frames I take from a DVD of the film. These three images then form the basis for a discussion of the film. The numbers are 7, 36, 41, 56, and 78, meaning that we begin with … Continue reading

Cineblatz Randomised

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Usually, when I write these “randomised” posts, I use a random number generator to select three or four frames from a film; these then serve as starting points for a discussion of the film, hopefully from unexpected angles, focusing on the minutiae that reveal the broader concerns of the whole. See here for more examples. In this case, I’m using it as a way to still the torrent of Jeff Keen‘s two-minute collage film Cineblatz, and instead of using the number generator to tell me which minute from the film to examine in more detail, I have intermittently tapped the “framegrab” button to gather a gallery of stills from the film. You can click on any one of them at the bottom of this post, or see them, in sequence, in the slideshow at the top. Continue reading

Se7en Randomised

I haven’t done one of these in a while, and I remember enjoying writing them, so I thought it would be fun to revisit the Randomised series. You can read more examples here, but the gist of it is that I use a random number generator to select for me some images from a film and use those frames as a prompt for discussion of the film. When I first saw David Fincher‘s Seven back in 1996, I disliked it quite a lot. It wasn’t just that it made me uncomfortable; I was an opinionated, contrarian filmgoer at the best of times, and seeing a packed house for a matinée screening lapping up the lurid details of such a fashionably grim movie wound me up. Dark was the new black. It felt like the film’s downbeat tone was all posturing: it wasn’t the product of a misanthropic worldview, but the shock tactics of a film-maker eager to buck every available trend of  the genre thriller. More to the point, I was sick of serial killer films, fed up of hyperintelligent and meticulous murderers whose preternaturally effective and elaborate schemes, always perfectly executed, seemed more like the manoeuvrings not of believable killers but of self-satisfied screenwriters. The fascination with the process of killing someone was distasteful and dishonest, I believed, resulting in the ultimate ascension of Hannibal Lecter and Dexter to the status of righteous avengers picking off the scum of society (a reactionary fantasy that I still find wholly repellent). I still have some of these reservations, but after subsequent viewings, Seven has, to my mind, matured considerably (as, I hope, have I) into a compulsive and rich work that rewards close scrutiny and transcends any of its modish or exploitative genre-mates. Continue reading

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace Randomised

Star Wars Phantom Menace Darth MaulSee also:

Yippee. I committed myself to finishing off a series of posts “randomising” the whole Star Wars saga. (See here if you’re not sure what “randomising” refers to on this blog.) Which means I have to reopen the wound of The Phantom Menace, Jar Jar Binks and all.

On a ratio of intensity of anticipation to quality of end product, The Phantom Menace must surely rank as one of the biggest anti-climaxes in cinema history. And it produced long-lasting unsettlement in franchise fans. Did its deep crapness mean that we had entered a cynical age that could no longer countenance jaunty battles, rubbery creatures and accident prone sidekicks (all of which were present in the “Original Trilogy”, as it came to be known, perhaps to protect it from contamination by association with its prequels)? Had Star Wars been rubbish all along and the world just hadn’t noticed? Why had we openly expressed excitement at the imminent release of a new film from the producer of Howard the Duck? I can’t answer these questions, but I can hope that the randomisation process will throw out some interesting observations on this film, whether you regard it as an underrated minor entry in a classic film series, or as the punishment beating of the collective human childhood, a joyless and perfunctory marquee for action figures, lunchboxes and Jar Jar Binks beachtowels.

The randomiser has given me the numbers 2, 49, 76 and 114. So, here we go…
Star Wars: The Phantom Menace 2nd minuteThe number 2 corresponds to the 2-minute mark, so that’s the frame I’m stuck with. I thought 2 minutes would put me right in the middle of the expository text scroll that begins all of the Star Wars film, pretending to be catching you up on the backstory for a serial that spanned a bigger story either side of the one you were watching. As a kid (sorry to keep framing these films in terms of how I remembered them, but I guess that’s when I was most affected by them), the text seemed to be interminable, teasingly delaying the action. Now it’s gone in 60 seconds, and we’re straight into some scene-setting. Two Jedi Knights are being sent to investigate a trade dispute that has led the Trade Federation to blockade the peaceful planet of Naboo, a kind of pastel-coloured paradise of Renaissance palaces and Atlantean underwater cities (that actually like crystalline versions of those Habitrail things that people keep hamsters in). The Jedi’s shroud casts a shadow on most of the right-hand portion of this frame. It’s notable how often George Lucas plays on the monkish, forbidding appearance of the Jedi; does he want to draw attention to how they police the galaxy with this iconography of fearsome mystique, or the way the hoods make them look just like their ultimate nemesis, Darth Sidious (later the Emperor). We are never supposed to be troubled by the self-regulated, masonically sheltered Jedi order; we just have to accept that they are benign. At least all of their superstitious beliefs about the universe turn out to be true. But aside from trying to prevent a galactic slide into imperialism, and ensuring the preservation of their Order and all of its traditions, what are their political and ideological leanings, their worldview or their model for government. Well, aside from some quasi-Buddhist (The Phantom Menace even includes a shot of some Buddha proclamations about the interconnectedness of all things, we don’t really get a sense of the broader system of the Jedi system. Without actually ruling, they operate like a protective, interventionist priesthood, and their wider activities are subordinated to the easier, and more visually pleasing heroics of swordplay, escape and rescue. Anyway, back to this shot. The looming presence of the Jedi knight (that hood is a tantalising cover, setting up anticipation for a reveal) behind the pilot seems threatening, though it doesn’t block out the view through the screen of the blockade of starships around the green planet. There’s a striking stacking up of scales here, from the cloaked body in medium close-up through the windscreen to the distant planet whose inhabitants are abstracted subjects of the metallic ringfence that has them tightly monitored from orbit. As I’m sure I mentioned in earlier posts in this series, that shuttling between individual actions and planetary generalities is the template for the saga as a whole.
Star Wars: The Phantom Menace 46th minuteA nice red hue distinguishes this shot of Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan Kenobi, communicating remotely with Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson). Qui-Gon has taken a cell sample from Anakin Skywalker, believing him to be uniquely strong with the Force. Or something. This was the moment that made Star Wars fans the world over stop and say “WTF?” or some other culturally-specific expression of dismayed disbelief. If the Force was a mystical, spiritual essence that binds everything together, yet only a few believed in it enough to be able to feel its effects, how come we can suddenly measure the midi-chlorians and see a Force-o-meter on a little screen like the one in this frame? Many were not amused. A noble belief was reduced to a bit of pseudo-scientific genetics. Was Lucas trying to scientise the franchise? If so, he could’ve gone the whole hog and had different gravity levels on different planets or something like that. Either way, the tension between Obi-Wan’s monastic outfit and the computer equipment he’s peering into (it’s almost composed like a two-shot, as if McGregor is in conversation with the screen) articulates something of the Jedi’s relationship to technology. They have great facility with it, but it sits uncomfortably with their sense of self-denial and their emphasis on the body’s oneness with spirit, as opposed to the body’s augmentation with electronic assistants.
Star Wars: The Phantom Menace 76th minuteJar Jar Binks received an unprecedented level of hatred at the time of the film’s release. It was as if disgruntled fans were channelling all of their disaffection into the lightning rod of the amphibious Gungan slapstick sidekick, who they suspected of being a thinly-veiled appeal to kids and the toy market. You can see his feet on the table, to the left of this frame. I wrote a paper about the Jar Jar hate campaign, arguing that it might reasonably be seen as a projection of distaste at the overuse of CGI creatures, an abject response to the coming of the virtual actor. In this shot, Jar Jar sleeps deeply, snoring and tongue-lolling in a slovenly manner that pegs him as a creature of appetites, a folksy bystander to the political machinations of the plot. Lucas may have intended him to be an oblivious guide for the viewer through the earnestness of the other narrative pathways, as if he could make you feel OK not to have a clue what was happening or why it mattered. In contrast to Jar Jar’s clueless peace, Jake Lloyd’s Anakin Skywalker cowers and scowls in the corner, diminished in the frame by those big dumb feet. One of the promotional posters for the film showed Anakin casting the shadow of Darth Vader on the wall, and I’m sure it’s a coincidence that his head appears to cast the shadow of a helmet in this shot. Both the poster and this shot play on the dramatic irony of the incongruence between the jackbooted Dark Lord of the Original Trilogy and this sullen mummy’s boy. An abnormally sensitive composition leaves him forlorn and feeble, out of step with the new space he finds himself in. It also echoes/prefigures a similar scene of Luke Skywalker, saddened and defeated by the death of Obi-Wan as the Millennium Falcon escapes from the Death Star in Star Wars.

Now, it’s become a feature of these Star Wars Randomised posts that one frame will be thrown open to the readers for their comments. Take a look at the following frame and see what meanings, interpretations, pedantries and observations you can apply to it. Any and all contributions are welcome:
Star Wars: The Phantom Menace 114th minute

Star Wars: Return of the Jedi Randomised

ralph-mcquarrie-return-of-the-jedi-endor-racingSee also:

The last in the “original trilogy” of films is ready to be Randomised, reduced to three randomly selected frames, which will then provide a basis for my discussion of “random” aspects of the film (as opposed to the usual tactic of picking out the stuff that suits my own thesis).

I remember Return of the Jedi better than any other Star Wars film. Iwas the right age when it came out – old enough to understand the plot and to have some investment in the lives of its characters, but young enough that the inclusion of a tribe of cheeky teddy bears seemed like a crazy-funny idea to pep up an increasingly downbeat and self-important franchise with some unselfconscious slapstick rather than a canny-cunning concession to the toy market. This is the first time I remember being, like, totally psyched (as I believe young people are saying these days) for an upcoming film. I even read an article in Time magazine, an unusual activity for this particular 8 year-old, which I remember being a million pages long and published months before the film came out; actually it was published in the week of the film’s release: it just felt like ages before I would get to see the film for myself. I also suspect that this film, in a pincer movement with The Muppet Show, cemented a lifelong interest in puppets. The accompanying documentary, Classic Creatures, confirmed that George Lucas’s galaxy was one where humans were interlopers in a crowd of rubbery creatures.

Anyway, enough nostalgia. The randomiser has given me the following numbers: 15, 59, 97 and 110. A very good spread, I think. Let’s see what we get:
Star Wars: Return of the Jedi 15th minute15 minutes in, we’re at the court of Jabba the Hutt, a giant slug-thing as capriciously sultanic as a Charles Laughton performance. This is a shot that has been added for the Special Edition re-release of 1997. The two humanoid girls are dancers from the house band (their parts were added when George Lucas decided to expand the group’s musical number to a full-blown muppet-fest), Rystáll Sant (left) and Lyn Me (right). Bounty hunter Boba Fett, through the addition of this one shot (actually, I think there are two glimpses of the master shot of this group), is transformed into a suave ladies man, instead of the skulking dude in the corner too shy to take his suit off even in the desert. In the prequels, he is given a backstory that posits him as the donor DNA for the Clone army, and his uniform now looks like an antique version of their suits. His trajectory in those films had obviously not been planned at the time of Return of the Jedi in 1983, because he is given a throwaway slapstick death scene to match his minimal screentime. But fans had taken the character to their hearts, surely on the basis of his cool outfit; it’s not like he does very much in the films themselves, and it can’t be entirely because of his earlier cartoon appearance in the Star Wars Holiday Special, an utterly execrable embarrassment about some kind of Wookiee Christmas, as far as I recall. Anyway, the nightclub backlighting and alien groupies pay him the respect that his followers clearly believed he was due. The dancers are marked as exotic, with their colourful skin and hair, and their slightly augmented anatomy. At least as far back as the Star Trek Green Lady, lovelorn and pent-up fanboys have been prompted to imagine whether alien women were different in all kinds of ways, and Star Wars has a lot of catching up to do in the sex department, devoid as it is of even implicit eroticism beyond a bit of (tom)boyish flirting here and there. It’s just a shame that, in trying to loosen up the Lucas libido, the film ends up dressing girls in fetish wear instead of giving them something interesting to say or do.
Star Wars: Return of the Jedi 59th minuteA little later, at the film’s halfway point, we have an exhilarating chase on the literally named speeder bikes through the forests of Endor. It’s all forests on Endor. The motion blur on the scenery, accentuated by the sharp focus on the biker scout (used to be one of the favourites in my collection of action figures), demonstrate the incredible pace of this sequence. A self-confessed boy racer in his youth (see American Graffiti for evidence of a nostalgia for shiny, shiny cars), George Lucas finds plenty of chances in his Star Wars franchise for chase sequences and vehicular combat, all of them built on his signature coupling of mortal danger and a gleeful enjoyment of speed. So many complex special effects went into this sequence, including travelling mattes, miniatures and live action footage of the actors. But it hinges on a very simple trick – some dude with a camera has to walk through the forest, capturing the background footage that will then be played back at high speed. There are plenty of contests between vehicles in the Star Wars universe, so it’s refreshing to see one so close to the earth. Endor is one of the staging posts for the final battle between the Empire and the Rebels, marking out most forcefully the clash of interests between a hyper-technologised ruling party and the traditional cultures that populate its colonies.
Star Wars: Return of the Jedi 110th minuteAn an unenlightened child, it always puzzled me why these mighty, wise warriors, good or evil, didn’t just kill each other. Instead they brandish statements like “give into your hatred” or “if you strike me down I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine”. Really? Do they want to be killed or not? What happened to the old ways of goodies and baddies trying to kill each other because each represented a threat to the other’s plans? And why did Darth Vader kill Obi-Wan Kenobi if he knew it would make him more powerful? Only later did I understand that the plan was to turn Luke Skywalker into an asset of evil and turn him to the Dark Side. This might seem like  a spiritual conception of evil as a corrupting infection that requires a single transgressive act (tellingly centred around the killing of a feared enemy) to let the infection take over the body and mind, but it’s also a conservative one where you either are or are not wicked and get branded as such. In any case, by the end we still wind up with the Emperor preparing to kill Luke once and for all. The camera moves with him, his hands threatening inwards from the side of the frame, an over-the-shoulder, almost-point-of-view shot signalling the pushing of the young Jedi towards the edge of the precipice. Think how many important showdowns or daring escapes happen on the edge of these apocalyptic canyons in George Lucas’ adventure serials (i.e. including the Indiana Jones films). Nothing signifies imminent doom better than a potential plummeting towards a vanishing point. These dangers of extreme vertical drops stand in sharp contrast to the horizontal axes of the chase scenes such as the one in the previous frame. Death comes when the forward motion stops.

Finally: this one is for you, readers – the bonus frame. The 97th minute. Take a deep breath, flex your typing fingers and tell me what you can say about this:
Star Wars: Return of the Jedi 97th minute

Jaws Randomised

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The impetus for this post comes originally from Nicholas Rombes at Digital Poetics, but I got the message from Catherine Grant’s indispensable Film Studies for Free. The challenge is to analyse a film by responding to three frame grabs taken from the 10, 40 and 70 minute marks. By taking away the element of free choice from the selection of illustrative images (my own posts on this blog tend to be filled with frame grabs, usually ones that illustrate my argument), the critic is prompted to engage with the film text from a different angle – “freedom through constraint”, as Rombes put it. It’s a little like the Dogme 95 manifesto, where a group filmmakers drew up a list of tenets to make films by, each one imposing a cerain restriction that would push them out of habitual approaches and disable their natural tendencies towards artifice. I thought it sounded like an interesting experiment, so I thought I’d give it a go. Since I’m teaching Jaws to my second-year students for the first time next week, it seemed like a good choice to start with. Part of the task is that I will write this post in one go, now, without leaving my desk to look anything up (and without Googling anything, obviously), and then publish it straight away. So, from this point on, I have only three frames to work with, and a maximum of half an hour to spare. But instead of taking frames from the 10th, 40th and 70th minutes (which gives a spread of chances across the whole film), I’m using a random number generator to choose three points from which to take my grabs: the only control I will exert is in excluding the credits from consideration (except in films where the titles play over pictures).  in this case, the computer has chosen 49, 96 and 113. I’ve seen the film before, and recently, but I don’t know what the frame grabs will show until I get started. It all begins with…

Jaws: 49th minute

… this shot from the 49-minute mark. I got lucky on this one, I think. Jaws is a film of two halves, and this pretty much sums up the plot of the first. Chief Brody (Roy Scheider, far right) and Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss, centre) are trying to persuade Amity mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton, left) to close the beaches following a series of shark attacks in the area. The major is dodging his responsibilities, desperate not to lose out on the 4th July visitors who bring so much vital revenue to the local economy. This frame comes from a long tracking shot (I think it lasts about two minutes, though the strictures of this task forbid me from going back and timing it), over the course of which Vaughn’s progress from left to right is repeatedly obstructed by the Hooper and Brody trying to persuade him of their case. Vaughn’s suit is blue, decorated with little anchors that represent his feeble attempt at kinship with the ocean that contrasts later with the other men’s first-hand knowledge and experience.  His position on the left seems less dominant; the dark shape of Brody’s form seems to obstruct his passage, and the Amity Island sign aims a big diagonal line down towards him as if to keep him in his corner. But this is the end of the shot, and the mayor is about to exit the frame between the other two men, leaving a big sky-blue space in the image and confirming the ease with which he can ignore the evidence of experts and press on with his plans as normal. The billboard behind them has been vandalised: a bikini-clad swimmer is about to be chomped by a shark, represented by a big black triangular fin, a simple, iconic signature of death at sea, a cartoonised version of the Jaws poster campaign where the triangular monster is fixed on a devastating collision course with the naked flesh of an oblivious swimmer.

Jaws is often recorded by historians as the first “blockbuster”, the first mass-marketed movie whose box office impact was prefabricated through a perfect calibration of timed release dates, merchandising and hype. This may or may not be true, but what is notable is the way it builds the preparations for summer holidays into its narrative, reflecting the scheduled activities (the spirit of a beach holiday if not its actuality) of its audience, and putting those holidays in jeopardy. The danger of shark attack is pretty frightening enough, but adding the threat of cancelled holidays on top really racks up the tension. It’s just one example of Spielberg’s knack for mediating an immediate affinity between the film’s content and the lives and wishes of its audiences.

Jaws: 96th minute

At the 96th minute, we’re into the chase between boat and shark. If the first half of the film is about the uneven competition between an unseen beast, imagined only as a dark shape or extrapolated from a glimpse of fin, then the second is an equalised battle of wits between Quint, Hooper and Brody and the Great White. Since the shark is offscreen and undersea for the most part, the yellow barrel with which they tag it serves as a visual index of its proximity and pace. It’s a bright spot in the grey inscrutability of the ocean (notice how sea and sky almost blend together in this shot). Less imposing than the flat blade of the shark’s fin, the barrel gives the creature a jauntier avatar for these chase sequences; it dances across the surface of the water instead of slicing through it purposefully. For scenes where the shark becomes a fearsome foe once more, the fin replaces the barrel as the sign of its presence.

Jaws: 113th minute

By the time we hit the 113th-minute mark, with only a few minutes left to play, Hooper is missing believed dead, and Quint has been eaten alive, dragged back into the sea where he spent so much of his life. No doubt he will become another legendary fisherman’s tale of sea monsters and disappeared sailors resting in pieces at the bottom of the ocean. The shark’s blows to the hull of the ship are slowly sinking it. Jaws is partly structured around perpendicular lines, the tension between spaces above and below the water’s surface, as summarised in the film’s superlatively explanatory poster compaign: a horizontal swimmer’s forward motion along a horizon-line cut out by the vertical upward surging of the monster from below. The boat which has forced the shark to come up to the surface from below to be pursued along the horizontal axis (as in the 96th-minute frame grab above) now finds the tables turned as it lurches into a digaonal position, poised between the two angles and threatened with downward motion. The second half of Jaws sees the boat gradually destroyed in its battle with the shark, and its available spaces shrink away until Brody is left cowering in the cabin, between the smashed ship-to-shore radio that can no longer save him, and the compressed air canistor that will be his salvation. He is peering out of the window as if the shark respects boundaries between interior and exterior, though it is in actual fact about to break into the cabin and try to make a meal of the Chief. But at this point, Brody is still hoping that staying indoors will protect him from the sea a little longer, but all outside is an impenetrable pale grey, in stark contrast to the busy mise-en-scene inside the cabin.

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