Saturday, September 15, 2007


I've already seen it once, and due to an awkward lab schedule, I was running on next to no sleep. Nonetheless, when this movie played in class, I was so into it I forgot to pay attention to the filmmaking.

Murderball taught me to make characters react differently to different things - scary, intimidating Zupan is a touching father figure to Keith. The events of any story are exactly as meaningful as the characters believe they are. Audiences take our cues from the characters. If one guy is blasé about losing his legs, losing your legs must not be that big of a deal. But if another guy almost breaks down under the strain of trying to cope with it, then the first guy's a tough guy and accidents suck.

Murderball also taught me that brief animation sequences can be awesome. They can help explain abstract concepts, or provide a visual element to, say, a monologue.

Friday, September 14, 2007

La Strada

I feel a certain obligation to kick off these little columns with some form of synopsis to the movie I'm going to be talking about. I wonder, though, if the benefits outweigh the downsides. On the one hand, a synopsis would help you understand what the hell I'm talking about, and it would get my brain started thinking about the material. On the other hand, trying to describe things is not something that comes naturally to me, and in fact tends to sap my energy, preventing me from getting to the point of the piece. But there again, perhaps I need practice synopsizing, certainly a potentially useful skill.

I suppose I have no choice but to do what feels right.

La Strada is about innocence, coercion, infatuation, disappointment, and wonder. Gelsomina, played by Giulietta Masina, is a wonderfully expressive audience proxy. When bad things happen to her, you know because she looks hurt, and her hurt look makes you feel hurt. When the world around her is exciting, you take joy in her excitement.

I learned from La Strada that a passive protagonist doesn't have to be a death sentence. Screenwriting books hate the passive protagonist. The very idea gives them chills. Your hero has to choose his fate - that's what makes him a hero! And it's true, most of the time, when you see the hero onscreen being led around by the nose, he's awkward, annoying, and unsympathetic.

Is it the persecution of Gelsomina that makes her so endearing? I suppose she does make choices, albeit choices made from weakness. She doesn't have to go with Zampano. And she does run away, and she is offered a new home, twice - once with the circus, once with the convent.

The Innocent is a strange and difficult archetype. Your manly hero is simple to construct. Make him very, very good at what he does, and then put him in a situation where he has to use talents he didn't know he had. North By Northwest - Kaplan is a skilled bullshit artist, and he uses that talent, but he also has to sneak around and climb on Mount Rushmore. Pulp Fiction - Vincent's a great hit man and a great dancer, but finds himself having to doctor Uma Thurman.

Everybody uses this. Competence is admirable, which creates sympathy, and being forced to learn new skills is frightening, which creates empathy.

And then there's Gelsomina. She's not particularly good at anything at all - much is made of Zampano abusively teaching her how to do her job. She sacrifices herself for her family, sort of, but she doesn't seem to have much of a conception of what exactly she's doing. It's not an admirable moral choice, just a hazy sort of wandering.

How the hell is she so adorable?

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Nanook of the North

Yes, that's right. I also do this for movies I see in class. It's harder for me, here, though - feels more like an assignment, which drains my willpower. Nonetheless, a commitment is a commitment, and I am committed to finding things I learned about every movie I watch.


Nanook of the North taught me that a little bit of sudden, unexpected cuteness can go a long way toward sustaining interest. As YouTube so eloquently shows, people will watch anything, no matter how asinine, as long as it has that cuteness factor.

It also taught me not to overdo it. Sure, the baby trying to pet the fox, and it almost biting her, is cute and funny once, as is the makeshift human sled. But repeated over and over again, it starts to lose its charm. Understatement is the key - Save the best instant moments to show nonchalantly, as though it happens all the time and is hardly worth noting.

3:10 To Yuma

Ahhh, the Western. One tiny slice of American history, a small, isolated place and time - and it's provided more to Hollywood than, arguably, any other.

I think the reason hinges on its very isolation. Out West, the order of society is figured out by a select few characters, acting in an idiosyncratic way. If we, the audience, get to know and understand the characters who make the rules, we know and understand the whole fabric of society, for the duration of the movie.

And then, of course, the mighty obstacles to mere survival, the desperation that tends to provide much-craved character motivation. It's hard to imagine a suburban wage slave driven to the kind of primal desperation you see in Christian Bale's eyes here. So the conflicts tend to have high stakes, and feel epic.

I learned from this movie, that giving a character something iconic, like (let us say) a black hat, then taking that iconic thing away from him, can produce a most excellent feeling when that aspect of his character is restored.

I learned that character traits don't necessarily have to be particularly developed to serve their purpose. Why does Russel Crowe draw people? He just does. It's his thing. And his character feels nuanced for that. Lesser writers have a habit of only including character traits that directly affect the plot. It's sort of a running joke on Curb Your Enthusiasm, that absolutely everything mentioned, even in passing, will come around to a punchline at some point in the episode.There is not a part of those characters' lives that does not serve the Comedy. These guys are different, and I like 'em better for it.

I learned that characters should deserve their fates, especially if you're going to feel sympathy for a dude who kills folk right and left. There is always one specific thing that triggers a death in this movie. Heroic characters do something awesome, and then get shot. Less heroic characters have a less heroic final action.

I think in movies, your last impression of a character is at least as important as your first impression. After all, that's the point where you, the audeince, have gotten to know them. In The Grand Illusion, you don't think of Eric von Stroheim as the hotshot fighter pilot - you think of him as the prison guard, the broken man. That's what he becomes - that's what you're left with. That's what lingers in your mind.

First impressions, I think, are overrated generally, but particularly in movies. While I would never push for a lamer character introduction, (unless of course there was a powerful trade-off), it's important to remember that we're here to see change. The most an early portrait of a character can be is a kickass "before" snapshot. If we see something to like about the character, as audiences we have an enormous potential for forgiveness. Look at Marsellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction - he's treated as an enormous, scary black asshole for most of the film, but all it takes is a little rape, and all of a sudden he's a human being.

I need to watch that movie again. I'm certain I could learn a lot from it.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

My Best Friend

I saw this adorable little movie at the Enzian tonight. It's about an antique dealer who realizes he has no friends, and so makes an extravagant bet with his business partner that he can produce a best friend within a week. I think of it as a good watchin' movie - goes down smooth and easy, and leaves a refreshing taste in your mouth.

I learned from this movie just how un-cliché a story can feel, despite fitting perfectly into the screenplay structure formula. There came a point in the film where everything seemed fluffy and happy. I thought to myself, Gosh, this looks like a High midpoint - I bet we're about an hour through the movie. Sure enough, the time was 10:01, almost exactly halfway in.

I learned a sexy cinematography trick - character on one side of the frame in the background, plot-centric dividing element centered in the foreground, giant empty space on the right. Camera, you are saying something! Also! Cut out of your crazy artistic shots like that, before they become intrusive! Also! Gradually using shorter and shorter lenses is an excellent way of showing a character connecting with the world!

Speaking of connections, the 180-break in that film, when François actually becomes sincere for the first time.. Gorgeous. And the conversation where group shots and OTS pans around the table are used, then the truth comes out, and they suddenly switch to singles? Do not think nobody noticed these things, filmmakers! I noticed! And I congratulate you on a job well done!

This film gives me renewed dedication to making sure the camera always, always, always says something. Which, in my writing, gives me renewed pressure to make sure the camera has something to say.

That's what I learned about composition from My Best Friend. It's interesting - when I think of the look of a movie, I tend to concentrate on the camera angle, almost ignoring the lighting. Perhaps that is a failing of mine. I would give the lighting more consideration, but the way the camera works is so interesting! There is so much to think about!

This movie also taught me how to make a jerk-off character lovable. It is not just about the acting! When you think about it, the premise seems sort of awkward.. The man has no friends? How can we, the audience, have sympathy for him?

I have a theory about sympathy. First, remember that sympathy is different from empathy. Empathy is the act of "identifying" with a character, of saying, He's just like me. Sympathy, on the other hand, is the act of feeling what the character feels - you cry when he cries, you swell with pride when he receives applause. This is what happens when you "fall in love" with a character.

It's my belief that sympathy is usually much more important to the success of a film than empathy is - and though the two are obviously tightly related, each has its own quirks. For example, while excessive character details get in the way of empathy - you, the audience, are most likely not a boozing atheist horror novelist from Maine - they can actually help foster sympathy. Gosh, you think, look at what happened to this guy. And here's how he reacted. I'd do the same thing in his shoes! I think I'd better care about this guy!

So, here's my theory: Sympathy comes from producing the same reaction in the audience, that the character has onscreen.

In My Best Friend, the pivotal scene is at François's birthday party, when his co-workers remark that no one will come to his funeral because he's a jerk and has no friends. It's a hilarious scene, and you can watch the actor's face fall ever so subtly. That's the point where I said, okay, buddy, we're together on this, for better or worse.

It's also, not coincidentally, the same scene where the catalyst of the bet takes place, ending the initial setup phase, halfway through the first act. After all, the main point of the setup is to get you on the hero's side, thus providing the energy to stay through the rest of the film.

Pan's Labyrinth is interesting because of how far it goes to remove all sympathy for a character - but I will leave that as an exercise to the reader.