Fistful of Film Techniques

M. and I are hard at work on our summer workshop, which we’re privately thinking of as “Personal Essay Filmmaking, 2.0.”  Last year at this time, we were trying to guide our students through the incredibly complex task of crafting a short personal essay film in two weeks.  This was complicated by any number of factors: mis-advertised course times and dates and lack of lab space being two of the unexpected ones.  On top of that, there were all of the difficulties of teaching a class for the first time, and team-teaching for the first time, to boot.  In short, it’s amazing that we—and the students—made it out alive.

This time around, however, we’ve streamlined the class considerably.  Based on our recent research, we’re also actively thinking about YouTube as a space in which personal essay films already exist, in a variety of manifestations.  For the last two days, we’ve been reading personal essays with the class, and using the written text as a starting place to discuss genre, and then we’ve moved on to examining a number of YouTube videos.  We’re keeping Jenkins and Juhasz in mind here, but we’re also asking our students to take seriously the potential to produce a personal film with larger societal/cultural meaning.  As if that isn’t setting the bar, try this one: they only have two weeks to do it.  (!)

My job in class tomorrow is to provide for them a handful of filmmaking techniques that will spur their creative process, and give them some ideas about the visual and aural possibilities available to them.  I’ve been assembling clips for the past hour, trying to decide which might be the most relevant to the types of stories they want to tell, but let’s face it: the language of film is infinite, and our time in class is shockingly limited.  The task of giving them an abbreviated toolbox of film techniques (and by this, I’m thinking particularly about shots, editing effects, etc.) is a bit like asking someone to build a house, but being told that they can only have three tools with which to do it.  A hammer, nails, and a saw?  A wrench, pliers, and PVC pipe?  Point of view camera, or low angle shot?  Non-diegetic sound, or discontinuity editing?

I can’t help but be reminded of the advice of dissertation advisors everywhere: you should have three different versions of your project on tap at any given moment—the 500 word version, the 200 word version, and the 25 word version.  Tomorrow, by necessity, we’ll be going with the 25 word version of film techniques.  Perhaps there will be time at the end of the week for a longer version.

Video Argument, Ms. Pac-Man Edition

Apparently, I’m all about reposting other people’s content here. However, this video is up on Feministe this morn, and it’s taken from Pandagon, so I’ll just imagine that I’m sharing the love. You TOTALLY have to get over your initial reaction to hurl invective at the screen shot figure here—suffice to say that it’s a terrible representation of the yummy goodness (yummy pretzel goodness, to be exact) that comes after it, which, I’d like to say, is making me think about the rhetorics of argument via video.

I’m no rhetorical expert, and I’m sure that the peeps in comp/rhet could run circles around me here (and I encourage them to do so, both for the public service of greater knowledge, and because it’s good for their health), but there are several things that are working in this video. First: the tone is, while a bit outre, also right on for the subject. It’s colloquial, it’s entertaining, and it fits the subject matter completely (can you imagine this as a “straight” reading of the cultural value of Ms. Pac-Man? Please. What’s the point?). Second, while I’m almost always dismissive of still images, the editing in this piece is fab. The juxtaposition of picture of Gloria Steinem and Shirley Chisholm(?) with Margaret Thatcher and Nancy Reagan; the Ken Burns effect on the initial image of Ms. PM—it’s as entertaining as the voiceover and the nostalgic kick of the A-Ha song in the background. What I’m most impressed by, here, is the way in which the producers have integrated information and cultural analysis: reading of symbolism, parallels to the contemporaneous social and economic milieu, a short history of the origin of the names. It’s delightful, it’s informative, it’s convincing, it’s making me want to find chapters 1-3 immediately.  How does a video argument differ from a textual one?  How does it make the most of the particular affordances of its medium?  Here are some ways to start thinking about it.

This, my friends, is a keeper. And one that offers up some real-world criteria for video argument assignments.

Snow Days=Cinema Catch-up

There are many revelatory benefits to snow days—freedom from class preparation; not having to put on teacher-appropriate clothing; eating meals from a plate rather than a tupperware container.  [There are of course, drawbacks as well: revising carefully crafted syllabi; fielding panicked emails; etc.]  As ice blanketed the Capital Region and the Saint Rose campus, however, what I hadn’t expected was the way in which calling off classes would equate to catching up on missed movies.

I was in my office writing an exam when the school cancelled class from 2:30 onward on Wednesday.  What a lark!  Wednesday afternoon?  What better time to go to the movies?  K. and I shared the theatre with exactly 3 other people who were brave enough to face the rain/ice bonanza in the Northeast.  And few things were a better corrective to all of that water runoff than the desert terrain in No Country for Old Men.  [How did I go this long without seeing it?  Don’t get me started…]

It goes without saying that the film is phenomenal, yes?  I’ve come to associate the Coens primarily with their gonzo sense of humor in The Big Lebowski and Raising Arizona, so the starkness of this film was a bit of a shock.  Sure there are some moments of humorous dialogue, but those are sandwiched in between  stretches of dark and impending doom that they barely make a dent in the tone.  For all that’s been written about the movie (much of it focused on the characterization of Javier Bardem’s Chigurh), I found myself constantly coming back to the scenes with Kelly McDonald (whom I haven’t seen since Gosford Park, and wouldn’t have recognized unless someone tipped me off).  For all that this film is about inexplicable and random violence, and largely in a man’s world, her character is invested in holding people accountable for their involvement.  Even as the dominant voices in the film (Tommy Lee Jones’ monologues that bookend the action) gesture toward the helplessness of the law, of humans in this landscape, her voice is the one that sticks with me.  [As a sidenote, her early scene with Josh Brolin is taking on the quotability factor of Lebowski in this household.  “Kim, where are the vacuum cleaner bags?”  “You don’t gotta know everything, Carla Jean.”  “But I gotta know that…”]

Once you’re in the cinematic groove, there’s no stopping.  We took in Persepolis last night,  which was touching and visually exciting and bittersweet.  I have to confess to having never read the graphic novels, so I can’t comment on the correlation between the two, but the film was charming.  How it manages to blend a short history of Iran with a coming-of-age story with the pain of transnational migration and exile with the story of a family—-all done effortlessly—has something to do, I think, with the visual style.  I’d love to see Scott McCloud take a whack at an interpretation of how the animation works in this film.  And without spoiling it for everyone, you’ll never think of “Eye of the Tiger” the same way again.

Next up?  Michael Gondry’s Be Kind, Rewind.  Because what’s better than Mos Def and Jack Black acting out popular movies?  Here’s to bad weather!

So Many Teen Films, So Little Time

It’s syllabus season again, here at Abyme central, and that means making a number of fine-grain distinctions about what to include in classes. As I’ve said before, this is always a moment of great pain. It feels a bit like abandoning your children by the side of the road, or picking them last for kickball teams (I’ll stop short of a Sophie’s Choice scenario). This spring, I have the great pleasure of teaching a course on teen film. Assuming that I have about 12-13 dates on which to show films, how on earth do I narrow the pack?

I know what you’re thinking: there are some must haves. I’m down with Timothy Shary (and a host of film critics) on this one: John Hughes changed the nature of the genre, and thus he’s in, and perhaps more than once. But then which? And why? And there are other concerns at stake here as well; while I could certainly build a list that would speak to the history of the genre, particularly in response to modern market forces, what I find myself most interested in are the ways in which this format wrestles with the anxieties and obsessions of contemporary phenomenon, and in doing so, constructs adolescent responses to them. For that reason, films that are particularly good at exemplifying critique (e.g., Boyz in the Hood) are in, over and above exemplary candidates in the pool.

One last thing that I find myself fascinated by, that’s slowly making its presence known: the stakes of the teen adaptation flick. There are too many of these to count, really, ranging from Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (a staple of my high school experience) to the recent Amanda Bynes vehicle She’s the Man. Are they the equivalent of hiding vegetables in junk food, ie., “fooling” a teen audience into consuming something that’s ostensibly “good for them”? Are they depending on the fact that they’ll be shown in schools? Is it just part of a larger raid on high culture texts by the Hollywood industry? The answers to this are going to be different for each film, surely. For my money, I’m most interested in the ones in which the original ideologies of the text have to shift, and sometimes even reverse themselves, within the constraints of this genre. [Case in point: last time I checked, the reason Viola in Twelfth Night dresses as a man is to protect herself in a strange country. Bynes, on the other hand, is motivated by a desire to join the boys soccer team. Is enforcing Title IX the 21st century version of self-protection?]

All of this to say that the canon of teen films is battling it out with those that do the kind of theoretical and intellectual work that I want them to do. Which means, I fear, that a number of old favorites are going to have to drop out. The question of the morning: will Some Kind of Wonderful or Say Anything get the knife?

Professors on Film

I had the great pleasure of catching a matinee of Tamara Jenkins’ The Savages yesterday (winter break=weekday matinees=bliss). The accolades for the film are everywhere, so I’ll spare you my own review here. What struck me in off moments, however, was Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character, John—a depressed, overly-rational expert on Brecht and a professor of drama in Buffalo. Despite significant differences in characterization, I couldn’t help but think of Steve Carrell’s Frank, a depressed/suicidal, emotionally-distant “foremost expert on Proust” and a professor of literature in Little Miss Sunshine. I’ll admit that like most of America, I took a pass on The Human Stain, but having read Roth’s book, I can imagine the characterization of Coleman Silk that stems from his lifelong elision of his past, his dismissal from the college, and disturbing relationship with a cleaning woman decades younger than him. Let me guess: depressed? Unable to cope with the real world? [Sidenote: K. just reminded me that Dustin Hoffman’s professor in Stranger than Fiction is the exception here: quirky and a mainliner of coffee, but seemingly a relatively happy chap with an improbably large office. Of course, he studies living authors, and that might account for the difference. :)] And, not to put too fine a point on it, it’s probably necessary to note that all of these characters are literature professors.

This is by no means a comprehensive study; let’s instead call it an intuition with a few examples. But, dear reader, what on earth is going on with representations of professors?!! Who are these guys?! Does anyone really know them? Worse yet, did anyone ever take a class from one of them? I understand that professors, like psychiatrists, occupy a certain region of the American pysche, and thus cliches and caricatures are born. But there are two things, specifically, that chap my hide here.

First, it’s the equation of literary expertise and depression. More: John/Frank/Coleman each have a failing or failed relationship that they’re engaged/engaging in. Isn’t that just too Madame Bovary? Emma isn’t the only one who is led down the path to ruined love by books. Even Jules (the Hoffman character) seems unattached at best—in fact, do we ever see him outside the confines of the school? He bears a torch for an author who famously kills people in her books. In short: the equation seems to be a redux of an old chestnut about the dangers of literature (makes you incapable of “good” love!), with a dash of American anti-intellectualism (too much book-learnin’ will make you weird!) for good measure.

Second, on a note of perhaps useless call for some sort of realism, is it impossible to imagine a woman as a professor? Maybe just one? Somewhere? Is that asking too much? It’s not such a new thing for women to have doctorates in literature, I’ve heard—just ask the MLA. I’ve been out of undergrad for over 10 years, and I had a good-sized handful of smart, quirky, engaged female professors even back then. In graduate school, there was a collective of brilliant, well-published, psychologically-sound, sartorially-gifted lady doctors. I can only imagine that there are more now than there were then.

So what gives, Hollywood and indie-filmmakers? How about one measly female professor who’s not eating barrels of Zoloft in 2008? I’d consider it a personal favor.

Old Documentary, New Tricks

When taking an unannounced blog hiatus, is it best to start back up at whenever you have the wherewithal, or wait out a more rational time period?  It looks as if I’m just about at the 3 week mark–I could wait until Christmas Eve to post, but why let my blogging get any rustier?

One of the differences between end-of-semester thinking and post-semester thinking is that my brain actually engages with things it encounters.  Case in point: after a morning of snow shoveling, I had a chance to catch about half an hour of David Redmon’s 2005 documentary Mardi Gras: Made in China.   Ostensibly, the film begins with a simple premise; Redmon notices that Mardi Gras beads are made in China, and he embarks upon a research trip to understand the ways that such a quintessentially New Orleans artifact is produced so far away.  What he documents instead, however, are the material consequences of that production, and the misperceptions and rationalizations of those Americans who import and use those beads.

This DVD went to the top of my Netflix cue so quickly it could make your head spin.  How did I miss this film when it came out?!  It’s such a beautiful representation of globalization and all of the psychic positions that allow economic injustice to proliferate.  The American importer of the beads tells the filmmaker that the Chinese workers are industrious–so much so that when he visits the factory floor, they’re too focused on their work to speak to one another (unlike, of course, the jocular American factory workers).  Redmon indicates, however, that the workers are fined a day’s pay for talking.  Mardi Gras revelers are asked what they think about Chinese workers begin paid pennies a day to produce the beads that they throw away.  One man replies that pennies a day makes for a better living situation than others more unfortunate in China.  Meanwhile, Redmon interviews workers who are well aware of their exploitation, who feel very little “gratitude”  for their terrible working conditions and pay.

It may be the case that I’m teaching the introduction to American Studies in the fall, and if so, this documentary may be front and center.  I love the way that it positions an American tradition vis-a-vis workers in a global economy.  And it seems to make ever more relevant the recent histrionic fears about Chinese imports.  I wonder if I could organize an entire class looking at the transnational underpinnings of specific U.S. celebrations?