A Jerman Perspective

Learning, sharing, and discussing about film, the tech industry, and foreign policy, among other things.

Maintaining Epic Scope

On day 4 of FilmCritHulk’s Bond columns, he tackled the most recent movies. After very high praise for Casino Royale… well, we got Quantum of Solace. Here’s the kill shot:

WE THINK OF CONTINUING A STORY INTO A SEQUEL AS MAINTAINING SOME KIND OF “EPIC SCOPE” ACROSS MOVIES, CREATING CONTINUITY AND IMPORT. BUT THAT ONLY WORKS IF YOU ARE TELLING FULL STORIES WITH EACH MOVIE. SO INSTEAD OF FEELING LIKE THE NEXT CHAPTER IN A LARGER STORY, QUANTUM IS MERELY A HALF-ASSED CONCLUSION TO A PREVIOUS STORY… LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THIS IS THE DANGER OF SERIALIZATION. YOU BEGIN TO USE TV CLIFFHANGER THINKING AND THE IDEA THAT YOU CAN JUST TEASE THINGS OUT OVER TIME. THIS IS A COMPLETE FAILURE OF REALIZING THAT MOVIES ARE DIFFERENT. THERE IS SO MUCH TIME BETWEEN THEM THAT CLIFFHANGERS DON’T WORK. THE EMOTION DRAINS OUT. YEAH, CONNECTIVITY AND EVOLUTION IS GOOD, BUT YOU STILL NEED TO GIVE A FULL-COURSE MEAL THAT IS GOING TO SATISFY.

If the purpose of the movie is to deliver some exhilarating action sequences, Quantum generally delivers (though not quite, due mainly to the lack of any weight to the events). If it’s to depict the dismantling of a fictional organization by a beastly man, mission accomplished. If it’s anything beyond that, I’m afraid you’re in trouble. Welcome to modern franchise films. Just because you make one good, powerful, meaningful movie doesn’t automatically imbue any sequel, prequel, or offshoot with some deep significance.

However, as Hulk notes, maintaining continuity can be used to great effect if each chapter has it’s own unique purpose. The best example I can think of is the Before series. The three movies focus on the same two characters, but each analyzes a very unique set of circumstances and challenges. It’s not some pile of inside jokes, and you can watch any one individually and fall in love. Continuity is used not as a cop out, rather as an opportunity for even deeper investment in the characters, and to provide perspective and understanding possible no other way. Never is it stretching out a previous installment, instead building on itself just as life does.

A movie world has no intrinsic right to exist. Each chapter of a saga must justify itself.


As a side note, it reminds me a bit of this gem by Alexis Madrigal in The Atlantic, which I actually discovered in another excellent piece by David Carr in The New York Times:

“it is easier to read ‘Ulysses’ than it is to read the Internet. Because at least ‘Ulysses’ has an end, an edge. Ulysses can be finished. The Internet is never finished.”

About a year and half ago I fell asleep during a movie for the first time in as long as I can remember (during one of the duller parts of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows). A little less than a year ago I asleep in a movie theater for the first time (Enders Game). In the past month or so, I have fallen asleep in the middle of movies about 6 times. All this has been accompanied by a consistent urging to multitask while watching movies, as though I’m just watching to check it off my list. Next thing I know I’ll be watching multiple movies at once. This isn’t me. A few days ago I read a piece by Matt Zoller Seitz reminiscing on a filmgoers perspective, and with it, a type of film, that seems to have disappeared…

films that seemed to assume that if you’d bought a ticket and were sitting in the theater, you were willing to surrender to somebody else’s vision for a while, and go with their flow, whatever it was, and not demand continual, obnoxiously aggressive stimulation as recompense for their half-paying attention.

At some point I let this go. The result has been a dramatic decline in my appreciation of movies. The love that once burned bright has sputtered out. I am determined to reclaim it. From now on, I am going to save watching movies for only when I can block out the time. I’ll shut off all my electronics, set aside any other potential distractions, and do everything I can to stifle my expectations and predispositions. In short, I will surrender myself fully to the whims of the filmmaker.

via https://dayone.me/Hjyz4p

Wants vs Needs: The Character Arc

One of my favorite parts in FilmCritHulk’s Bond columns shows up as he moves on to one of the series’ lowest points: Diamonds Are Forever. The great flaw he draws out is the utter lack of character psychology:

WOULDN’T YOU KNOW IT BUT HOW WE DEAL WITH THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN WHAT WE WANT AND NEED (ALONG WITH OUR ABILITY TO RECOGNIZE THAT DIFFERENCE) IS ACTUALLY WHAT GIVES US EACH OUR OWN PSYCHOLOGY. WHICH JUST SO HAPPENS TO BE THE THING THAT MAKES US A FULLY-REALIZED PERSON, WHICH JUST SO HAPPENS TO BE THE SAME THING THAT MAKES SOMEONE A FULLY-REALIZED CHARACTER ON THE SCREEN / PAGE / WHATHAVEYOU.

Once again, Hulk highlights what has become so severly lacking as characters become driven by indulgence and entertainment value, rather than real humanity. He goes on:

THE OTHER REASON THESE TWO QUALITIES OF WANT & NEED ARE SO IMPORTANT TO STORYTELLING IS THAT THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THEM JUST SO HAPPENS TO BE WHERE MOST GREAT STORY CONFLICT COMES FROM. NO, IT’S NOT INVADING ALIENS OR MENACING TOUGHS, IT’S OFTEN JUST OUR INTERNAL CONFLICTS, WHEREIN WE LARGELY CREATE PROBLEMS FOR OURSELVES AND HAVE THE CAPACITY TO RECTIFY THEM. IT’S NO ACCIDENT THAT THE RECTIFICATION OF THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN WHAT WE WANT AND NEED OFTEN SHOWCASES HOW WE REACT TO EXTERNAL CONFLICT, TOO. AND WHERE THIS BIT OF INSIGHT GETS REALLY COOL IS WHEN YOU NOTICE THAT THOSE BIG SWEEPING THINGS WE CALL “CHARACTER ARCS” ARE REALLY NOTHING BUT AN EXAMPLE OF HOW A CHARACTER GOES FROM CHASING WHAT THEY WANT, TO STRIVING FOR WHAT THEY NEED. ISN’T THAT REMARKABLE? THAT THE THING THAT MAKES FOR GREAT, PURPOSEFUL CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT IS THE SAME THING THAT GIVES RISE TO REAL-LIFE MATURITY? HULK LOVES THE IDEA THAT WHAT SATISFIES US IN LIFE IS THE SAME THING THAT SATISFIES US IN WATCHING A CHARACTER’S DRAMATIC, STORY-BOUND LIFE TOO.

Indulging viewers is all about giving them what the want, not what they need. The entire idea of the character arc is that throughout the story, the character progresses more and more toward discovering and chasing what they need. Then, in the climax, the character makes this grand realization and is transformed through it. Instead, nearly every modern blockbuster uses the climactic final segment to give people what they want: entertainment, in the form of the typical barrage of fights and explosions. This is devastating.

I don’t want to get too presumptuous or critical, but I sincerely believe that much of the reason this can be so difficult to appreciate for some audiences is because they fail to acknowledge its application in the real world. If you don’t embrace the need for distinguishing wants and needs in your own life, and the contribution that has to our own development as humans, you’ll never be able to appreciate it in the storytelling world. Of course, the story can teach us this crucial lesson, but that becomes much harder when we think of film only as entertainment.

THINK OF IT LIKE THIS: IF A MOVIE GIVES US WHAT WE WANT AND INDULGENCES US, IT FEELS REALLY GOOD IN THE MOMENT, RIGHT? OF COURSE IT DOES. BUT IF A MOVIE GIVES US AN EXPERIENCE THAT WE SECRETLY NEED? WELL, THAT MIGHT MAKE US FEEL GOOD, TOO, BUT THAT MOVIE DOES NOT ONLY PLACATE US IN THE MOMENT. INSTEAD, IT WILL BECOME THE KIND OF POWERFUL EXPERIENCE THAT STICKS WITH US FOR A LONG TIME. … YOU KNOW THAT SENSATION YOU GET WHEN YOU SEE A MOVIE AND YOU SORT OF HAVE A WEIRD FEELING COMING OUT OF IT AND MAYBE EVEN DISLIKED IT - OR MAYBE IT SHOCKED YOU AND ROCKED YOU TO YOUR CORE? BUT DAYS OR EVEN WEEKS LATER YOU FIND YOU ARE STILL THINKING ABOUT? STILL REALIZING THE WAYS IT’S MAKING YOU THINK DIFFERENTLY ABOUT LIFE? CHANCES ARE THAT IS A MOVIE THAT HAS GIVEN YOU SOMETHING YOU DIDN’T REALIZE YOU NEEDED, AND HAS PROVIDED SOMETHING THAT HAS HELPED FEED YOUR SOUL IN SOME SMALL WAY.

This, I believe, summarizes one of the toughest challenges viewers and storytellers face. Non-indulging, challenging, and moving films are often seen as being for those who are “into film,” or else for some other limited demographic. The idea of the “character-driven” movie being some specific, distinct category strikes me as the most telling evidence of this. There is no reason why that should be the case. The world doesn’t indulge us. It challenges us, and those challenges are often moving. Therefore, these kinds of films are not film-geek stories – they are human stories.

Bond and Indulgence

About a month ago the brilliant FilmCritHulk published a series of columns on the Bond movies. In the four columns he provided fascinating analysis of Bond as a character and franchise. It was a lot to digest, but it’s filled with gold. I finally got through it about a week ago, and would like to share some of my favorites bits.

Here’s some great stuff from the first column:

IT KEEPS GOING BACK TO THE TOTAL INDULGENT CELEBRATION THING. BECAUSE IF WE WERE STUDYING ALL OF THESE POSITIVE AND NEGATIVE BOND TRAITS IN FILMS THAT WERE CONSTRUCTED AS ANALYTICAL CHARACTER PIECES, THEN IT WOULD BE ALL WELL AND GOOD. MAYBE EVEN FASCINATING. BUT AGAIN, THE BASIC PROBLEM COMES DOWN TO THE FACT THAT WE ARE NOT STUDYING BOND IN THESE MOVIES, WE ARE INDULGING IN HIM. AND WE ARE INDULGING IN A VERY SPECIFIC, NON-DISTANT WAY. FOR…

RARELY DO WE SIT BACK AND THINK ABOUT JAMES BOND.

RARELY DO WE EVER REALLY EMPATHIZE WITH BOND.

INSTEAD, WE JUST WANT TO BE JAMES BOND.

This is all too true, and not just of Bond. It seems to be the case with the vast majority of modern blockbusters, not to mention that much broader category of crowd-pleaser, feel-good movies. Hulk goes on to diagnose this from a viewers standpoint:

THE PROBLEM IS THAT RIGHT NOW IT REALLY SEEMS LIKE MOST OF THE POPULATION CONSUMES MEDIA IN AN INDULGENT, PORNOGRAPHIC FASHION. THERE ARE ENTIRE SECTIONS OF THE POPULATION WHO ONLY WANT MOVIES TO DO WHAT THEY WANT. WHO VICARIOUSLY PLACE THEMSELVES INTO THE SITUATIONS AT PLAY AND WANT ONLY GRATIFICATION FROM THEM. FORGET ABOUT THIS EFFECT ON DRAMA OR STORY, IT’S ABOUT WHAT WE FEEL WE’RE OWED. AND IT’S HOW WE GET A SERIES OF IMPOSSIBLE AND UNSTOPPABLE BADASS HEROES. IT’S HOW WE GET HYPER-ATTRACTIVE LADY-PLACEHOLDERS TO LOOK AT. IT’S WHY WE HEAVILY REWARD EVERY DESIRABLE BEHAVIOR AND RENEGADE ATTITUDE.

BUT HEY, MAYBE THIS HAPPENS IN MOVIES/TV BECAUSE LIVING VICARIOUSLY THROUGH THEM IS SO DAMN EASY. WE JUST SIT IN THE DARK AND LET THESE FILMS LIVE IN OUR BRAINS. BUT HULK CAN’T QUITE SAY THIS IS EVIL OR ANYTHING, BECAUSE HULK WILL ADMIT THAT CONSUMING MEDIA IN A PORNOGRAPHIC WAY CAN BE A FAIRLY INNOCUOUS ENDEAVOR IN AND OF ITSELF… BUT IT CAN STILL DEFINITELY LEAD TO PROBLEMS WHEN WE WORSHIP IT.

PUT IT LIKE THIS: ON THE OTHER END OF THE SPECTRUM, WE HAVE PURPOSEFUL ART. HULK’S TALKED ABOUT THE REFLEXIVE, EVASIVE NATURE OF TRYING TO DEFINE ART BEFORE, SO LET’S DO THE SHORT VERSION. YES ART CAN BE ANYTHING AS LONG WE CALL IT ART, BUT HULK IS TALKING ABOUT THE SPECIFIC FORM OF ART THAT IS AT THE CENTER OF EVERYTHING IN OUR LIVES. PURPOSEFUL ART IS THE REASON WE TELL STORIES AND ENGAGE IN THIS COMMON EXPERIENCE. IT’S HOW WE SHAPE THE STORIES OF OUR LIVES AND PROVIDE CONTEXT AND MEANING TO THOSE LIFE STORIES. AND THAT KIND OF ART ISN’T REALLY ABOUT WHAT WE WANT, BUT INSTEAD WHAT WE NEED. IT GIVES US CONFLICT, AND CHALLENGES OUR NOTIONS AND INFORMS LIFE’S GREATER NARRATIVE. IT MAY FIND ITS WAY INTO OUR HEARTS AND MINDS THROUGH AN EMOTIONAL AND VICARIOUS EXPERIENCE, BUT THEN ART HAS THE ABILITY TO ACTUALLY TRANSFORM US WITH ITS THOUGHTFUL WAYS. ART MAKES US AWARE AND IT NEVER OBLIGES US.

Studios constantly talk openly about including scenes, characters, and even entire plotlines to “please fans.” This isn’t necessarily a terrible thing, but when it comes to guide the filmmaking process we slip far away from the “purposeful art” Hulk talks about. Indulging like this must be kept in moderation.

Of course, this is how money is made: you give people what they want. Yet, amidst all the clamoring of studios racking up box office numbers, it’s critical that we appreciate the value of purposeful art. We need it as human beings and as society, for the betterment of both. It may not be as instantly gratifying, but it is far more rewarding in the long run.

Films have immense power to both good and ill. The impact of what is put on the screen is felt.

WE OVER-VALUE FILMS WITH INDULGENT PSYCHOLOGY AND THEN TRY TO CLAIM MOVIES DON’T INFLUENCE US, BUT FUCK THAT NOISE. OF COURSE THEY DO. WHY DO YOU THINK SO MANY PEOPLE ABHOR AWARENESS AND CEREBRAL MEDIA CONSUMPTION IN GENERAL AND COMPLAIN WHEN THINGS “TAKE THEM OUT OF THE EXPERIENCE”? WHY DO PEOPLE GET UP IN ARMS WHEN THEY WANTED CHARACTERS TO DO SOMETHING ELSE? WHY DO PEOPLE GET MAD AT THINGS WITH SAD ENDINGS? DAGNAMMIT, WE HAVE TO DO BETTER THAN THAT.

Movies matter. We can’t afford to pretend otherwise. I know not everyone is into film in the same way. Some people just go to the theater for entertainment. I’m not saying that’s a terrible thing, just that you have to be careful what you’re really looking for and getting.

At the beginning of the second column, while discussing On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Hulk makes an essential distinction:

ACTING LIKE A REAL PERSON MAKES BOND A WORSE VEHICLE FOR INDULGENCE AND WANNA-BE-COOL FANTASY. A HUMAN BEING WHO SOMETIMES GETS SAD AND STUFF? WHO WANTS TO PRETEND TO BE THAT!?! AGAIN, THIS IS THE KEY DIFFERENCE BETWEEN INDULGENCE AND ESCAPISM. YOU CAN WATCH INDIANA JONES FALL AND FAIL AND BARELY CLIMB HIS WAY OUT OF DANGER AND DISASTER, AND YET YOU HAVE STILL ESCAPED FOR TWO HOURS INTO A LIFE FILLED WITH ADVENTURE AND EXCITEMENT. BUT WITH JAMES BOND? IT SEEMS THAT A LARGE AMOUNT OF VIEWERS ARE PUTTING THEMSELVES DIRECTLY IN BOND’S PLACE, AND THUS FOR TWO HOURS THEY GET TO BE KINGS OF THE MUTHAFUCKIN UNIVERSE AND GET ALL THE CHICKS OR WHATEVER.

There’s nothing wrong with escapism, and certainly not with having a good time at the movies. All that fun stuff can happen in the context of real, human characters that teach us things through their trials. What we have to be careful about is using movies as an outlet purely for our own flawed pleasures without consciously acknowledging what’s going on. Know what’s good for you and aim for that stuff.

The “Boringness” of Boyhood

Yesterday, SullyDish compiled a couple recent pieces critical of Boyhood. The harshest of the three cited was by Mark Judge. The majority of the piece seems more a critique of modern American manhood, but his primary objection to the film seems to come in this bit:

"Yet for the endless hours that Boyhood unspooled, he seems like a bystander; nothing seems to excite him, make him want to charge ahead and change the world, or even fall in love with it. Martin Luther King, Jr. once famously said that if a man hasn’t found something he’s willing to die for, he’s not fit to live. At some point in the teen years, most men have found something they are willing to die for, be it a girl, your buds, or your country. Such turning points are the stuff of great, or even good, movies."

I couldn’t agree more with the Martin Luther King, Jr. quote. Thing is, it demonstrates to me that Mr. Judge missed something critical. Boyhood is about celebrating that stage of life where you’re still trying to figure out what that one thing you’re willing to die for is. Sure, there are a few unique kids who figure out their purpose in life at 11, build multi-million dollar charities, and then appear on 60 Minutes, but that’s obviously abnormal. To me, boyhood is about going through relatively ordinary experiences in order to discover what makes you extraordinary.

Plenty of films have captured the climax before adulthood where a character discovers their purpose in life. Never before have I seen a film which so beautifully captures muddling through the stage which makes that discovery possible.

Updates

I’ve decided to make some changes here. I’m not going to go on with a long-winded reflection on my experience posting here, but suffice to say it has proven very fulfilling. However, I’d like to share smaller thoughts about things that are happening in the now, and tidbits of things that I read elsewhere on the web (and off of it). Furthermore, I’d like to talk about things outside of film, like the state of social media and other tech industry related subjects.

After falling in love with Medium recently, I resolved to incorporate the service into my writing routine. From now on, my meditations on film will appear in a Medium collection I’ve titled Cinema Sonder, and my thoughts and ideas concerning the tech industry will appear in a collection called Civil Media. I will, of course, link to each post on here. This will allow me to write more frequently and keep up with things as they’re a part of the wider public discussion.

Since discourse and engagement have always been primary goals with this blog, I should note that I will be removing the Disqus comments service. Medium has its own commenting system and I’d like to give that a try. I encourage you to check it out, and would love to hear what you think of it. You can expect to hear quite a bit on the topic of online commenting from me in the future.

I’m very excited about these changes, and I hope you enjoy them too.

Embracing Gravity

If seeing is believing, then feeling is understanding. Film is the unique art form which combines virtually all others. It uses the visual, the spoken word, and heavy incorporation of music, all assaulting the senses to produce emotion. Gravity uses these tools to construct an atmospheric representation of a base human feeling. The film throws you into an environment that allows you to feel physically what the character has been feeling emotionally. It is this effect that gives Gravity such a special place in my heart. 

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Gravity as Inception

When JRR Tolkien first published The Lord of the Rings, many saw the story as an allegory for WW2, with the role of Hitler being played by Sauron. In an effort to prove this and various other parallels, fans and critics pried into Tolkien’s personal life. This is what we’re taught to do in school: decipher the author’s intent or message.

To Tolkien, however, this represented a complete misunderstanding of his work. The magnificent, expansive, and engaging world he’d created was meant to stand on its own. He felt that for the reader to seek out his intentions was to blind them to the real magic. To reference Inception, his aim was to bring the subject into the world and allow them to fill it with their subconscious.

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Rule Breaking

Why is it that we constrain world building to reality or imagination? A very interesting point was raised in a comment on “Erasing the Checklist” by my good friend Justin:

By using reality as its location, the movie had to abide by the laws of this universe, and it didn’t… it was too unrealistic for the type of reality it portrayed itself to be in. The intense focus of the rest of the movie was hard to take seriously because of these flaws.

Many have made the argument that certain parts of Gravity defy physics, and even a number of astronauts have weighed in on the subject. If Gravity were a documentary about space, professing to put you inside the helmet of a real astronaut, I would agree with these criticisms. However, I find the fantastical events of the film and the personal focus abundant evidence that depicting physical realities is not the prime directive. If this were meant to emulate Apollo 13, it would hardly make sense to place the characters in circumstances unlike anything faced by astronauts before.

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Erasing the Checklist

What do we want people to feel? This is the question that drives the Apple design process. It represents a focus on the experience of the product that has long been their greatest source of both praise and ridicule. Where many prize the simplicity, others decry the omissions. This same principle applies in film.

All stories are about taking a ride. There are a multitude of ways a filmmaker can go about this, each with its own merits, uniquely suited to the purpose of the film. Gravity places a great deal of focus on the visceral experience [1], on physically transporting you to space. However, to say this film is about the special effects would be misguided. They’re employed to create the environment, a tool used to fascilitate the ride. 

This criticism tends to be accompanied by an objection to the plot of the movie, which many have said is weak or flawed, while still others have suggested that it doesn’t have a plot at all. To consider this, we have to answer the question: what is plot, and what is it there for? 

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