I ENDORSE: Moving Pictures by (Sir) Terry Pratchett

Imagine the highest tower of Ankh-Morpork, a 50 foot tall woman climbing to its peak holding a screaming ape in one hand (the Librarian for Discworld buffs), swatting a couple of wizards flying around on a broomstick.

This is the sort of thing you'd expect from a Discworld novel called Moving Pictures. I originally bought this book to read Pratchett's thoughts on movies (as he has a way of wonderfully lacing his opinions into his stories), and secondly because I know I'm always in safe hands when I'm reading a Discworld novel. To my delightful surprise, it turned out to be more of a love-letter to H.P. Lovecraft and all that eldritch lore.

I was satisfied with my need for Pratchett's thoughts on movies with the following passage:
 'I was doing OK,' she said. 'Nothing special, but OK. I was getting quite a lot of work. People thought I was reliable. I was building a career--'
 'You can't build a career on Holy Wood,' said Victor. 'That's like building a house on a swamp. Nothing's real.'
Which pretty much sums up my job, and anyone's job in the movies, only the difference is you can build a career in Hollywood. It almost seems unsettling, which is why it perhaps leads so well into Lovecraftian territory.

This post is not a review, it is a recommendation, so I don't want to spoil too much. The story represents more of the earlier days of film, it never gets past the silent-film era, for example. However the films are in colour, not in black and white, since the technology involves little imps painting images really quickly, then projected out of the 'other-end' of a light-eating lizard. There are examples of how films turned into commercial endeavours from artistic endeavours, the whole studio-system of the pre-50s, the guilds and union systems, primitive special-effects, talking animals and perhaps some other things I've left out.

Perhaps it is not a book that so much enriches the exploration of Discworld, and maybe it was written as a way for Terry Pratchett to reach his quota of two books a year, or probably it is just some funny idea he had that seemed to solidify itself. Despite these thoughts which came to my mind it is still enriching and satisfying on its own merit, and so far my personal favourite.

So, go on you monkeys! Get out of the house and read a book!!

B&W lighting - The Lady From Shanghai

I either hate or love a black & white film. I love a b&w film if the photography tries to emphasise the art of silhouette and understands the complexity of simplification. I hate watching a b&w film if it's a bunch of uninteresting grey objects not knowing their places in any order of focal points, as if it's yearning to be in colour but the technology was too expensive at the time (or didn't exist yet).

The best example of b&w photography I seen so far is in The Lady From Shanghai by Orson Welles. There is a famous back-story behind this movie, and perhaps lead to the result of its failure to make a profit.

At the time Orson Welles was married to Rita Hayworth, the most famous pin-up model in her day well known for her luscious long red hair. The marriage was rather shaky, by then they had a daughter but even that couldn't keep the two together. Rita suffered from abuse as a child and Orson didn't know how to deal with that. Orson was doing a stage production of "Around The World in 80 Days" but was in debt to the costume company and needed the money to get the costumes the day before the play opened, so he called the head of Columbia pictures and borrowed the money to pay off the debt, in return he would make a picture adapted from the closest book within his reach, which happened to be some pulp-fiction noir his secretary was reading. When it came time to make the film his wife, Rita, wanted to co-star in the picture in an attempt to bring the two closer together. Orson reluctantly agreed, but he knew her trademark red hair would not work in the kind of film he was making. After all, what is red hair in b&w photography? Just some useless grey. So he made her cut her hair short and become an extreme blonde. Perhaps he knew there would be a public backlash to changing Rita Hayworth's famous pin-up look, however Orson only had one thing on his mind - to make a good movie - and so he did.

Some time after the movie was wrapped up, Rita and Orson decided it wasn't working out and got a divorce. The film was released two years later and in the public mistakenly viewed it as the cause for the break-up, and so fell out of the public favour and flopped.

Story-wise, The Lady From Shanghai plays out like a typical noir page-turner. Each scene keeps revealing new and intricate turns. To describe its plot properly would take about the amount of time to watch the film itself. But say what you want about the story, the film's look is a marvel on to its own. As an example I will take a single-shot from one of my favourite scenes - besides the house of mirrors climax - in the aquarium. The complexity of the lighting is a feast for the eyes, and I still can't tell whether it's in a real aquarium with strange refraction tricks or if it's a processing-screen behind them. The fish are distractingly huge, like Werner Herzog would say, they seem to be a metaphor for something but I don't quite know what.

Here are some screen-shots from one of the final moments in the aquarium, all taken from a single shot of Orson and Rita walking past the camera.

The beginning of the scene. Rita's full figure as she is walking and her face is half-cast in shadow. Orson is about to walk into frame.

Now we have both Orson and Rita in frame, walking towards us. The camera is currently stationary. Notice the shades of their clothing. Rita's coat is a pure black over a lightly shaded dress, you can't see the shape of her arms or chest, but you see her hands coming out, clinging on to a black purse. Orson is in a totally dark suit(in some shots it's all pure black), with a slightly less darker shirt underneath, along with his black hair, he's just a walking shadow save for his face and hands. It is to due to his dark attire that we can keep an eye on the white piece of paper he is holding, as it plays an important role to the story (I won't go into it here, I recommend watching the film).

They walk closer, the light has shifted a little darker in this shot. In movement, the light is constantly shifting up and down due to the water bouncing light in all sorts of directions. This is why it was important to separate the extremes of dark and light, because all the medium greys in between were going to be constantly shifting.

They come closer into a medium shot. Here, the camera begins to slowly turn right, constantly keeping the two slightly left-of-centre.

Even closer, and as the camera turns Orson's head casts a shadow over Rita's face.

I particularly love this frame. As Rita's face is being eclipsed, her eyes still glow out of the darkness. Their silhouettes become extremely defined in front of the bright fish-tanks.

However, notice when they're in front of a pure-black column. Rita's face and hair has become much brighter, but her body has completely disappeared. Orson is now walking in front of the camera as we come to the apex of its turn.

Both characters have switched sides, however remain left-of-centre. Rita still has glowing eyes and now she has gained glowing teeth!

Orson is the first to completely turn his back on us. Rita's face is becoming much darker, however when she's in front of a black column her blonde hair is lit up.

The camera has stopped turning and it is now tracking behind Rita and Orson. Pay attention to Orson's signature cheek, and how the light shifts as he walks past a black column. Keep in mind, this is all in the same shot.

For a while the camera tracks both characters as they talk with their backs turned towards us. How often do you see that in movies? I'm not saying it doesn't happen, but if it does, then it's usually for a reason. In this shot, it's totally casual, and it helps that it's just two characters - a man and a woman - so we can distinguish the voices.

The shot ends with both characters turning in profile looking at each other and the camera has stopped moving. Both faces are engulfed in shadow, with a bit of light outlining them both to separate them from the dark-grey background.

It's after that final turn, Rita talks for a bit, then there is a cut. To me this is the greatest example of black & white cinema. In the old days there was a lot of cigarettes being smoked on the screen, to create a constant movement even when the characters are static. To me it seems cheap and easy to just have someone smoking, especially if it adds nothing to the character. That's why I liked Orson Welles' films as he would always be inventive with movement. So go watch The Lady From Shanghai and see how film is really made!

Feminism +Tim Burton's Alice In Wonderland

I've been reading some interesting stuff about feminism in cinema. It's a blatant fact that cinema is a male-dominated medium, and therefore we may not realize how conditioned we are to accepting masculine-driven stories (even by female directors eg Kathryn Bigelow). What we normally have is a story starting with a central character in the centre of a social disruption, then the central character must find a way to resolve the disruption through a linear process, step by step. The typical layout is a male hero versus a male villain, and the male hero has a male buddy and/or female lover who will die, or at least be in hopeless peril, by the hand of the male villain which justifies the hero conquering the villain via horrible death or humiliation.

What, then, is the femenine-driven story? I don't know if it's been clearly defined, but characteristics include an episodic narrative, emotionally based conflict and resolve, often (but not always) melodramatic. Opposed to the masculine identity of going out on epic adventures and quests, the feminine story is typically domestic, reflective and explores personal identity. A feminist often asks what is the role of a woman in the story? A mother? A wife? A daughter? A damsel/princess in distress? A whore? It is important to understand the location (place and time) of the female character, as different cultures/timeframes will have different, sometimes severe, social expectations for her.

This brings me to Tim Burton/Disney's recent version of Alice In Wonderland. Perhaps I looked at it in the wrong light in my harsh review a while back, perhaps I wasn't considering the feminist point of view. I have to ask, then, is this version of Alice In Wonderland a femenine story?

Of course it isn't!!

It's just the same as any masculine story only the genders have been reversed. In doing so they have turned Alice into a...

...a man!

Defined muscular exterior, phallus in hand...is this an appropriate role model for little girls? To become a man? Not that there's anything wrong with it, however I preferred the original book - episodic, emotional, reflective of personal identity - seems a more feminine type of story. Perhaps we're too conditioned, the female audience included.

There is more to explain but I want to leave that for whenever I may get around to making a video-review of this movie.

Voice-over narration in movies.

Observe the following chatlog:
[03:30] hobblin> ya idk blade runner just didnt deliver to me
[03:30] hobblin> maybe i had too high expectations
[03:30] hobblin> oh and dear god the voice overs by harrison ford
[03:30] hobblin> they were just awful
[03:30] hobblin> it was like B movie quality
[05:51] Archfriend> hobblin
[05:51] Archfriend> you watched the Theatrical cut?!?!!
[05:51] Archfriend> no wonder why you thought it sucked

This gets me thinking how there are some movies that get a "Director's Cut" and the first thing they do is eliminate the voice-over narration that featured prominently in the theatrical release. Bladerunner is an example, another I can think of is The Dark City. In both cases, the directors (Ridley Scott and Alex Proyas, respectively) decided the voice-over was disengaging for the audience. A deconstructionist like myself may lead to the conclusion that it was an executive decision, seeing as these were both big studio films. This is where we come to an audience-divide, where the executives are both right and wrong.

The main clash between the executives and the directors comes down to whether profit should get in the way of good film-making. An executive believes the largest portion of consumer-market are morons, it is these people who they are aiming to extract all the money from. So what satisfies the moron? How do we appeal to them?

What morons want, no, what they need is security. They need nurturing; everything must be spelled out clearly. Subtlety does not work, it has to be over-the-top for the moron to even register the moment. They have to have their hands held like little babies, then have a road-map spread out in front of them with a red mark circling the destination point and a dotted line indicating the journey. Then the journey must be safely completed in a three-act structure.

A (good) director, on the other hand, assumes the general audience is intelligent enough to know their algebra and they don't always need their variables to be constants. They can put the pieces together - and enjoy doing it! Perhaps the theory might be uncertainty generates excitement and excitement generates profit.

So who's right?

Just kidding, that was a trick question. Right and wrong doesn't even apply to this argument. Both types of movies have made lots of money and both types of movies have also flopped.

Bladerunner and The Dark City could both fall under the science-fiction-slash-noir category, however Bladerunner was more successful due to its grandiose visuals being so new at the time and The Dark City flopped due to its grandiose visuals not being such an appreciated spectacle as other films of its time plus the story failed to be engaging (most likely due to the voice-over giving away the big twist at the beginning of the film, effectively amputating its own legs it was to stand on).

Perhaps there are many films that could do with a make-over and dropping its voice-over all together. For example, I perceive How To Train Your Dragon would be ten times better without it. Another example is Kick-Ass.
((try to think of more examples later))

But when does voice-over actually enhance a story? I may be exploring the executive's nightmare-realm here, but I can think of two examples based on movies I've enjoyed:

This is when the narrator can speak only from their own perspective and they may or may not be wrong. This unreliability becomes a type of brain-food for the audience as we now have to sift through the given information and sort out for ourselves what could be fact or fiction, and how it is necessary to understand the story.

When a narrator is speaking from the future, most likely in a period piece, the film can give the sense of being very novel-like, whether being adapted from a novel or not. The enjoyment comes from the narrator revealing the story as it's happening, or perhaps sharing information that can not be shown. Sometimes the narrator might not be talking about the story at all, just rambling on some obscure philosophy about something.

It is also entirely possible to have a combination of the two, like in Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon.

To be honest, there should be more to this blog post, but this is as far as I got in my draft. I could be exploring and deconstructing some examples of good voice-over (and maybe some bad ones), but the effort to slug through all that is more than I could ever muster. I can not even bring myself to give empty promises on future blog posts about the subject. If the discussion should go any further, I suppose that can be done in the comments.