Category Archives: Theoretical

Protests, propaganda, and false narratives

Narratives give definition and structure to our stories, both in fiction and in life; they can also deceive us and teach us false truths. An object lesson in wariness is unfolding right now. According to news reports, protestors yesterday have attacked U.S. embassies in Egypt and Libya. In Benghazi, an American ambassador and at least three others were murdered. In Cairo, the U.S. flag was torn to shreds and replaced with a flag with the traditional Muslim prayer, “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammed is his prophet.” So far, these facts appear to be undisputed. What is more provocative (and more relevant to this blog) is that a causal link has been made between these attacks and a film made by an Israeli-American filmmaker. The film is ironically titled The Innocence of Muslims, and it is a broadside against Islam. Continue reading


Neo talks digital cinema

What’s going to happen to all the digital material that we create? How can it be stored? Because that question really hasn’t been answered. We talk about the democratization of film, the fact that these tools are becoming cheaper, faster and lighter. Anyone can do it now. And I think the filmmakers we talk to have mixed feelings about that: Who’s going to be the tastemaker? Does that mean there will be less good and more bad?

But, yeah, to answer your question — I mean, it’s not as groundbreaking as when film went from silents to talkies. Let’s say that. Or from black-and-white to color. This doesn’t have that feeling of sea change to it. But there are many implications that come out of it. Especially in the early days, there was the question of the quality of the product you’re looking at, the quality of the image. For certain artists whose vision is to make the best possible image, they felt digital wasn’t there.

The above quote is from an interview conducted by Andrew O’Hehir with Keanu Reeves, who has produced a new documentary that I’m quite pumped to see, called Side by Side. In it, Reeves chats with filmmakers about the practical, aesthetic, and philosophical considerations involved in the industry-wide transition from film to digital. The interview has only made me more excited to see the film, because rather than pontificate, Reeves poses question after question, even though the film has been finished. To me, that’s one of the strengths of documentary features: real life doesn’t necessarily conform to tidy narratives or clear answers to hypotheticals. It’s the one form of cinema in which you can get away with telling an ambiguous story with an ambiguous viewpoint, and not have the majority of the audience revolt. Even so, Reeves refers to the stories inherent in the films he likes to make, suggesting that if he does perceive a definite arc to this quest, it’s an arc whose trajectory he is still in the process of charting. Continue reading

The foundation of society is culture

Individuals inspired by a great work apply and diversify its vision in their own artistic or intellectual efforts, spreading it to new audiences at different levels of refinement. The transformative power of the great work eventually affects the sensibilities, dreams, or thoughts of all, even if it does so very indirectly and in watered-down form. The perspectives of the seminal works eventually find their way into the general culture-schools, newspapers, movies, television soap operas, novels, and, not least, the imagery of advertising.

Those who enter our minds and imaginations are in a position to make particular ideas, attitudes, behaviors, and experiences seem inviting or repulsive. They can affect our notions of what to admire, what to fear, what to scorn, and what to laugh at, and they can incline us to action that corresponds to these responses.

In an erudite (and wee bit protracted) essay, Claes G. Ryn argues that conservative intellectuals and leaders have largely — and foolishly — abandoned a deep engagement with culture in favor of shorter-term, more practical political dogfights. The result is a conservatism essentially unmoored from its own culture and, therefore, its own soul. Though the essay was originally published in the 90s, the clarity of its call to action is immanently relevant. Via More Than 95 Theses.☕

Nolan apologetics

David Bordwell has mounted a strong defense of Christopher Nolan’s status as a preeminent director against naysayers like Jim Emerson. (Check out the rest of Observation on Film Art’s Nolan entries.) The long and short of it is that, while Nolan might not be particularly daring or sophisticated in his raw technique, he does flex the boundaries of mainstream cinema in order to create enjoyable films that reward critical appreciation.

Can you be a good writer without writing particularly well? I think so. James Fenimore Cooper, Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, and other significant novelists had many virtues, but elegant prose was not among them. In popular fiction we treasure flawless wordsmiths like P. G. Wodehouse and Rex Stout and Patricia Highsmith, but we tolerate bland or clumsy style if a gripping plot and vivid characters keep us turning the pages. From Burroughs and Doyle to Stieg Larsson and Michael Crichton, we forgive a lot.

Similarly, Nolan’s work deserves attention even though some of it lacks elegance and cohesion at the shot-to-shot level. The stylistic faults I pointed to above and that echo other writers’ critiques are offset by his innovative approach to overarching form. And sometimes he does exercise a stylistic control that suits his broader ambitions. When he mobilizes visual technique to sharpen and nuance his architectural ambitions, we find a solid integration of texture and structure, fine grain and large pattern.

Note that Bordwell doesn’t argue that Nolan’s filmmaking is flawless or terribly polished in the way of many of the more critically lauded auteurs. He spends a great deal of time showing that most of Nolan’s technique has deep, conventional roots while ruminating on how well (or poorly) Nolan utilizes these forms. The gist of his argument is that Nolan’s detail work isn’t quite as meticulous or graceful because he is so focused on the big picture — but the big picture is usually captivating and meticulously constructed in its own way. (In my discussion of Emerson’s critique of The Dark Knight’s chase sequence in relation to film editing, I referred to Nolan’s technique as “gestalt,” which isn’t the same thing as Bordwell is arguing, but the intersection between Bordwell’s appreciation of structure and the way Nolan accumulates moments within that structure is worth further investigation.) At the risk of putting words in Bordwell’s digital pen, Nolan may not be one of “the greats,” but his shortcomings are not necessarily fatal flaws. And those shortcomings are compensated for by the ambition of his narratives and the serendipitous places where Nolan’s craftsmanship operates at the level of his vision. Please read the entire article, especially if you’re invested in the critical discussion of mainstream cinema and Nolan’s place within it.☕

Limitless impatience: the Prometheus cut rate

Over at The Review Diary, Satish Naidu opens his critique of Prometheus with a discussion of its editing: specifically, the way that its shot lengths convey a feeling of impatience and aggression.

Here, it is blunt harsh cutting coupled with classical composition, reducing emotion to information, and destroying any hope for cosmic rumination. What the aesthetic rather inspires is the familiarity of the daily grind of life. As in, the industrial-reality/ structural-philosophy of everyday existence as against the mythology of our cosmic significance. […] Consider the opening moments, which do not present a patient temporality of the earth ala 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the Darwinian nature, in all its forms, is primarily temporal over and above spatial, and where it waits with limitless patience. As opposed to Mr. Kubrick, whose composition is from the nature’s perspective, Mr. Scott aligns himself with the aggressive instincts of the human, both in their quest for knowledge and survival. He flies over mountains and valleys and rivers, and reaches just-in-time to bear witness to the point in our genesis where a humanoid drinks some black liquid from a vial and disintegrates and falls into river.

This is about the best articulation I’ve yet read of one of the little things that niggled at me during and after the film. I’ve only seen Prometheus once, and I will likely see it a few more times, but it would be very illuminating to compare the shot lengths and editing choices made by Scott in Prometheus against the decisions he made in Alien, and then to further contrast them with 2001. Jim Emerson did an excellent comparative post about these three films, in which he highlighted similarities in production design and composition, and what how those technical choices impact the thematic reception of the films. However, he does not really discuss shot length, which is a shame, given what he says about a single frame from Alien in a follow-up post:

This shot is a beautiful example of the antithesis to what I have labeled “one-thing-at-a-time filmmaking.” The basic composition (roughly symmetrical with an opening in the center) is repeated throughout the movie, as befits a movie about violation, penetration and passages of birth and death. It also gives your eye places to wander, details to soak in. It allows you room to breathe. Throughout, “Alien” gives you ample opportunity to look around and admire the industrial/organic design of the Nostromo, and it entices you to notice nooks and crannies where threats might be lurking.

My question is this: does Scott really give the viewer ample opportunity (in Alien) to look around and admire the design and contemplate the nooks and crannies where threats might be looking? My recollection is that he does, more often than not. But what about Prometheus? Are the shots lengths in that film a bit longer than those of the average summer blockbuster? Probably. But how much time are we actually given? Much of Prometheus felt rushed to me, which seemed at odds with the metaphysically contemplative ideas that were being bounced around. And the way Satish describes the impact makes a lot of sense to me. What is especially surprising is that, based on my potentially inaccurate impressions, the approach Scott takes to many of the scenes in Alien bespeaks more patience than the approach he takes to many of the scenes in Prometheus. The much more lean, nihilistic first film is accorded more awe in its technique than the more expansive, self-consciously spiritual latter film. I wonder if this is a deliberate choice, or if Scott’s impatience to unbind Prometheus after decades of development led him to cut faster and deeper than he should have. For a film about the human exploration of the most profound questions of existence, it seems that Scott doesn’t give his viewers very much time for that exploration.☕

The gods of Prometheus

My wife has a brilliant and, as far as I can tell, rather original theory about the mythos and backstory of Prometheus, which she has kindly posted on her blog. Lots of spoilers, obviously. Her theory doesn’t necessarily mitigate the many flaws in the execution of the film or the misbegotten convolutions of some character motivations (proto-facehugger fist-bump, anyone?), but it is the most coherent explanation of the clues that I’ve yet read. An example:

Just think about the uniforms the Engineers wear. They are wearing synthetic, not organic, body armor that looks strikingly like the Xenomorphs. Remember the medical room scene where they “trick the head into life,” the Scottish Doctor points out that the helmet isn’t an exoskeleton it is synthetic armor. At the end of the film when we finally see the Xenomorph alien we’ve been expecting to see for the last 2.5 hours it immediately struck me that the alien looked more like the Engineer’s synthetic body armor than the Engineer itself. A lot of people are probably citing this as some sort of logical narrative inconsistency. I think otherwise. After all, the Engineers have the figures in the vase room; they would know what it would look like when an Engineer got parasitized by a Xenomorph. I propose that they modeled their body armor, and probably gobs of other things, after the Xenomorph because they knew it was deadly and effective.

One thing I forgot to mention to my wife when I edited her first draft (sorry, Ellen! My bad!) is that her theory doesn’t touch on what happens to  Holloway and Fifield after they’re exposed to the goo. An addendum might be that the Engineers were aware of the mutant zombie side-effect of direct exposure, and that’s why they kept the goo in such a controlled environment. The direct exposure (that is to say, ingestion) of the goo by the first Engineer we see suggests that they must have been aware of it, and that the ritual of drinking it — as opposed to falling face-fist into a puddle of the stuff after your colleague stupidly tries to fist-bump a hissing cousin of the thing from the Death Star’s trash compactor — evolved as a response. As Ellen argues, an awe connected with fear is not uncommon. The mutant Fifield is faster, stronger, and more unkillable than human Fifield, and even though he’s become a hideous monster, a death cult (which is essentially what the Engineers would be, in my wife’s view) might revere such a thing. The Engineer in the opening sequence might not even be attempting to “seed” another world at all: perhaps he’s ingesting the goo in an attempt to become that superhuman freak, or die trying. After all, we don’t see the DNA actually seed anything. All we see is its accelerated corruption and dissipation.

All of this is highly speculative, of course, but I suppose that’s half the fun of grappling with a film like Prometheus in the first place. I’m still on the fence about it myself, but I appreciate that it has spurred a lot of creative, constructive dialogue. Even if I ultimately judge the film to be a failure, I think it’s a successful, interesting failure. In the meantime, check out Ellen’s post, and continue the dialogue.☕

Conservatism, pop culture, and Speed Racer

Acculturated is running a symposium this week that asks if conservatives are “bad at pop culture.”  Editor Emily Esfahani Smith lays it out for the readers:

[W]e set out to ask some prominent writers that we know, many of them conservative, about the relationship between conservatives and pop culture. Some of the questions we asked them were: Are conservatives bad at pop culture? Or, is that a myth? If they are inherently “bad” at pop culture, then why? More broadly, why do conservative writers and pundits appear uninterested in pop culture? Can you think of good examples of conservatives doing pop culture today? Continue reading

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