Posts Tagged ‘storytelling’

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a study of metaphor and allegory in fiction

 

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Art House Disaster

What a royt mess this one is. For an hour it seems like nothing is going to change. The story lacked an arc for an eternity.

You figure naked Scarlett, freaky aliens – what could go wrong?

Plenty, it turns out. The shots are so long and laborious, full of themselves with art house sensibility, that the story drags into tedium.  It never achieved liftoff. This is yet another one with potential, but couldn’t deliver the goods. The character took too long to deviate.

Some of the serious moments are unintentionally funny too.  Shame.

2/5

 

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Ben Stiller is a funny guy.  He’s got not one but two firmly set on my top comedies of all time list.  But this film falls into a place that isn’t quite funny enough, nor is it serious enough to work as a drama.  It’s got the neither fish nor fowl problem, and so we have a long dramedy.

It’s long in the sense that stretches of it drag slowly.  As a dramedy it never comes close to a film like GO, which set the bar for this type of story.  Also, Mitty comes from a bygone era, and this adaptation has to contend with a lot of content in the meanwhile.  Notably Jim Carrey’s Yes Man already carried the ball and with a lot more self-actualization.  Mitty is too passive, where things conspire to force him to act.  This passivity leaves a sense of waiting, and waiting.

The original Mitty story is very short and up on The New Yorker website right now.  I read it to get a sense of the divergence.  Stiller’s version does veer significantly in its meaning, style, tone and plot.  In the original, Mitty truly doesn’t do anything exceptional at all.  All the extraordinary aspects are psychological responses to a boring, stifling middle American existence.  Everything is an escape, rather like in Brazil, fantasizing to push away the horrors of the character’s real life.  Mitty has no horrors, but is simply responding to middle class pointlessness, bourgeois uselessness.  His entire life in the story revolves around buying dog biscuits to please his wife.

Mitty’s fantasy life, however, veers toward this sort of thing:

“There was a rending of wood and splinters flew through the room. “A bit of a near thing,” said Captain Mitty carelessly. “The box barrage is closing in,” said the sergeant. “We only live once, Sergeant,” said Mitty, with his faint, fleeting smile. “Or do we?” He poured another brandy and tossed it off. “I never see a man could hold his brandy like you, sir,” said the sergeant. “Begging your pardon, sir.” Captain Mitty stood up and strapped on his huge Webley-Vickers automatic. “It’s forty kilometres through hell, sir,” said the sergeant. Mitty finished one last brandy. “After all,” he said softly, “what isn’t?””

So, Stiller is caught between a rock and a hard place making this transition to film.  The real Mitty doesn’t do anything: that’s the point.  In the movies, we can’t have static characters who don’t do anything.  It’s too boring.  Having Mitty flip completely changes the meaning, but Stiller also has to keep it recognizable to the original.  So it’s a torturous problem that seemingly can’t be solved.

Stiller tried to weave aspects of Mitty’s real life and job into the fantasies, fighting with his boss for example like Transformer robots.  I found these sequences wrong, just gratuitously inserted by screenwriters / producers for their “cool factor,” rather than coming organically from the story.  And I could almost overlook these sins, if not for the commercial product placement serial eye rapes. As noted by others, Mitty 2013 is the worst commercial whoring of a film since The Internship (the Google fucks you up the ass movie).

“The film boast[s] the biggest budget of any of his directorial efforts…”

Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Stiller made his deal with the devil, and he should be called out for it.  When you stop the story, oh, five or six times to get in the sponsors’ names, you’ve become a de facto commercial.  You’ve insulted your viewers and broken the 4th wall.  You’ve essentially said time out, I know you’ve invested some of yourselves into these characters, but these characters are going to sell you some shit now, so please be accommodating and don’t walk out.

It’s like your best friend comes over to your home one day and says, “Dude, I love you man, but you gotta listen to me about Amway.  You could be in my downline.”

I mentioned Go above and for a reason.  There’s a brilliant turn of events in that film where a depraved police detective has two Hollywood boy toys at his mercy.  The cop has a drug bust hovering over the actors, and he’s controlling them as his pawns.  In addition to bringing the two boys over for dinner, as he prances about naked in front of them, the cop finally broaches the other ulterior motive.  Confederated Products!  It’s hilarious satire and says pretty much the diametrically opposite message to what Stiller has done with Mitty.

Perhaps Stiller’s film doesn’t work so well because the people behind it have simply sold out and they’re no longer shy about shoving it in our faces?

And unlike Go, I figured out the Mitty plot device very early in the running time, so there’s that little failure. If they had spent as much time on the story as on the product placement deals…

I’m not going to pan the film entirely.  There’s a lot there to digest. I’ll rate it right down the middle, half-full, half-empty, a very Zen 2.5/5 stars.

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Raindance

 

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To me, a pontificating Internet blowhard of questionable character, it’s not hard to differentiate a good short film from a bad one.  There’s a very easy litmus test, and it usually works.  It works so well that I click right on out of there when a film fails this test, and I have a strong suspicion that I’m not alone.

Perhaps festival snob judges use different criteria (a probability).  Perhaps the masses use this one.

Here is the magical secret to a short film that is truly worth spreading:


A good short film feels too short, and a bad short film feels too long.

That’s it.  That’s the whole ballgame.  I can stop writing now.  It’s the same criteria for longer works as well, but this basic characteristic, this essential and fundamental property of good film vs. bad is usually the last thing that most amateur filmmakers consider.  They obsess over every other aspect of making a movie, the nuts and the bolts.  They don’t even consider the editing of the thing until everything is shot.  Then they don’t want to cut the excruciatingly boring stuff, because a lot of work went into filming it in the first place.  These decisions should have been made at the script stage, in pre-production, thinking about why every shot actually is needed or isn’t.  But more importantly: why the shots they have written are boring and don’t convey enough story in a short enough amount of time.

Craft shots that give multiple channels of information to the viewer, instead of leaving viewers waiting, and waiting, and waiting for your God damned pretentious piece of shit to actually start.

That means an inciting incident right at the beginning that can hook people and set up an interesting story.  Without front-loading your film with a unique and meaningful opening scene you’re dead.  You are done.  I have already clicked onto something else, and I have no regrets about leaving you behind.

Now these are general principles, and building it is easier said than done.  How does one craft an opening scene that can hook people and ensure they keep watching?

Well no one can tell you that.  It’s subjective, entirely dependent on the story.  Each story has its own trajectory, its own unique set of parameters, unless you’re copying others and basically stealing (in which case a career on Wall Street might be more appropriate rather than in the arts).  Art is supposed to take it to the next level, to build, to make connections that others simply hadn’t made before.  Even working in a genre, new situations and consequences can, and must, present themselves.  Remakes of popular films tend to innovate new twists.  Or else what’s the point?  What is the point of shoveling the same story?  Why are you, the filmmaker, required at all?  A machine can rehash the past, and probably with better efficiency.

But the main problem in most short films I come across (and that is quite a lot) is that they are boring as fucking hell on ice.  The opening scenes don’t portend anything at all.  They aren’t intricately thought out situations, and they aren’t much of a story.  They are banal, trivial, pointless and not worth watching.

Perhaps I’m jaded, not wowed by the ability of twenty-somethings to press record on a DSLR.  Perhaps even with filmic visuals the pretty pictures’ complete lack of meaning and drama registers most with me.

Film is dramatic if it is anything.  It needs the conflict of opposing ideas (and an educated writer).  It needs the spark of antagonism.  Something must be off and the resolution unclear.  That’s what compels us to keep watching.  A camera can meander down all the long boring hallways of the world, but who cares?  Each second and each frame of film must be justified: why are you wasting the audience’s time?

When one looks at a photograph he or she can look for a second or for a minute.  The choice is up to them.

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When one looks at a movie, the duration of every image has been decided by someone else for them.  They are powerless, stuck, trapped, helpless, at the mercy of the editor now.  Film exists in time.  Time is a factor that is a basic fundamental aspect of every shot, every scene, every sequence, and the work as a whole.  Time is unique to moving pictures and needs to be considered as an important aspect of the process.  It needs to be considered at various stages and reconsidered over and over again until the finished film doesn’t waste the audience’s time at any point.

Wasting a minute of screen time on scenery may not seem like an egregious sin.  But with 1,000 people in the audience, you’ve wasted 1,000 minutes of people’s lives on the scenery.  That’s not a formula for success, I’m sorry to say, but it happens all the time.  Economy in the presentation is paramount.

That means giving people more and more of the story through as many channels as possible.  This is where amateurs and professionals tend to diverge.

Reveal vs. conceal is the eternal struggle for writers of all media.  When is the correct moment to show something, and will showing it reveal too much, making the story predictable?  This is where experience and knowledge make all the difference.  Apparently most of these boring films err on the side of concealing everything.  They don’t want to give away the ending, and so they keep it all hidden until the last scene.  Unfortunately, no one is watching by then.  The problem needs a more nuanced approach, a way to reveal a larger truth in tiny increments.  These stages of revelation are like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that come together and suddenly jump to life at the end.  Figuring the correct sequence of incremental revelations (and getting it moving soon) is the crux of the game.

A good film will hit the viewer with sound and imagery in abundance: background sounds, foreground sounds, music, specially chosen sound effects that are relevant to the story, foreground imagery, background imagery, the perfect location, the perfect lighting, the perfect camera motion, a perfect transformation as the drama unfolds during a take.  While the student film lingers on some background scenery, the more accomplished film has already conveyed a dozen things about the world, the characters and the conflict to the audience.  The interplay of background to foreground in visuals and in audio keeps the watchers watching.  Shots should be mined for opportunities to give clues in the background as well as in the foreground, by the first frame as well as the last frame of a shot.  The action that unfolds during a shot can convey many different pieces of information, if one abandons linear thinking.

Front-loading, providing sufficient story information up front to set up the narrative through to the end, is the major missing ingredient in bad shorts.  The boring films just exist on a simple linear line.  The amazing films exist on multiple lines of storytelling, weaving a tapestry. Boring films focus on a single, obvious and unremarkable element, and hope that people will wait for something interesting to happen later – maybe.  Films need to start interesting and accelerate from there.  Life’s too short.

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The writer devalues the entire finding by continually referring to hopeful narrative stories as “entertainment:” a loathsome, despicable word I refuse to stomach.  I would rant about this false concept at length, but, anyway:

The Pursuit of Hopefulness (Effects of Narrative Storytelling)

in all three cases, led to three different positive emotional responses. Second, the results of this study suggest that underdog narratives not only provide viewers with models of hard work and determination, but that inducing hope may increase the likelihood that viewers will pursue their own goals.

What they’re describing are psychological changes in the audience: art, communication, the transfer of emotions and resonance, sticking power.  Fuck “entertainment,” which is transitory distraction of no consequence (except to Mammon).  Using the banal marketing speak of the culture renders useless their own area of research and expertise.  It’s counter productive and helps no one.

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This is totally amazing.

 

Indiewire:

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Needless to say I disagreed with a couple of assessments, but not most.

Watchmen, highly underrated.  The story I saw works absolutely well.

Avatar, very disrespected.  The story is not “Pocahontas.”  Do they even know the Pocahontas story.  This kind of dismissive derision pervades many white male reviews of the film, which assume any “indian” story must be the same.  This is veiled racism, really. Avatar is the story of an immoral invasion and resource grab that is repulsed by the indigenous.  They win.  Not through isolationism, which was their original position, but through cooptation and adaptation, and the Avatar character’s literal melding of the two races.  It is as much a political story about the immoral nature of imperialism and conquest as anything else.  Avatar is an evolution both in storytelling (the Avatar itself integral to the story) and in technical wizardry.  It is high tech, and yet tells a very old injustice, the story of “civilized” nations stealing from those less advanced and murdering these peoples with impunity. But it proceeds to turn that real history around, as the alleged civilized nature of these invaders is discredited by one of their own.  The invaders are ejected from this world in a manner not seen before.  Cameron didn’t just steal anyone else’s story.  He forged a new, unique story based on these elements.  It is a petty disservice by hacks to automatically dismiss the story because of its resemblance to indigenous human conflicts.  I’s frankly offensive that it happens so often with white, smarmy writers.

And Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula?  Piece of shit.  Terrible movie and probably the least scary vampire movie I have ever seen.  All the suspense and terror of the novel is replaced by overlit, overwrought, VFX heavy noise.  Red plastic suits of armor?  Were you on drugs, Francis?  Any film school chimpanzee could have turned in a better Dracula than that.  It is unfathomably bad to the point of raising my blood pressure.

 

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If you haven’t seen serial killer Buffalo Bill’s 70 min. review of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, your life is truly deficient.

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by Joe Giambrone

 

“Be careful when you fight the monsters, lest you become one.” -Friedrich Nietzsche

Mainstream Hollywood tends to make me nauseous for what it puts up on screen and for what the public accepts as normal, as “entertainment.”  I’ve rejected the usual mainstream studio version of war and what torture means for quite a while, but it keeps finding its way back into even supposedly children’s fairy tales.

For all I know the Hansel and Gretel story was originally designed to scare the crap out of kids and to keep them from wandering off.  That much does translate to the new film Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.  I was dragged to the thing by family, and it was either that or Spielberg’s Lincoln, which I certainly wasn’t in the mood for; in retrospect this was in all likelihood a mistake.

Now the issue with stories, the power of the story is what it does to the protagonist(s), or more to the point what the protagonists choose to do.  How they respond is how we are to respond to external events.  They are a template, a guide to lead the viewer through challenges, as one might find in the real world.  Whether fantasy, science fiction or horror the responses and reactions of the protagonists are to be considered by the audience and accepted as logical, justified and rational given whatever extreme situations confront them.  In this way stories teach, prompt and alert.  They acclimate the viewer to new and extreme possibilities such as war, combat… interrogation of captured prisoners?

Here is where the word “entertainment” gets employed by “the industry” as a shield of armor.  They love this word and all it implies, freedom from moral considerations, freedom from scrutiny, freedom from accountability or responsibility for the things they show and tell millions of strangers.  It’s all just entertainment, you see, and you are supposed to repeat the mantra too, as you unquestionably accept their culture.  “Entertainment” is the first refuge of intellectual cowards.

Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and his sister Gretel (Gemma Arterton) are mercenaries now, guns for hire.  That’s a “new take” already.  Mercenary protagonists?  Hired killers with a long track record of killing witches, only in this film the witches are very powerful, fast, violent and ugly, so it’s okay.  Well, the main antagonist, the “Grand Witch” Muriel can be pretty attractive when she wants to be, but she always transforms to a hideous makeup effect when it’s time for evildoing.

The Hansel mercenary character has an odd American sensibility about him, as the movie is supposedly set in old Europe.  It’s obviously not intended to be taken seriously but to pander to provincial American audiences.  And pander it does.  Dialogue is peppered with contemporary one-liners, like a Die Hard film.

So that’s the stage.  When one of the townsfolk returns to the tavern with a message from the witches he then explodes in a volcano of guts and gore.  One of the young fan boys who’s obsessed with the two witch hunters proclaims, “That was cool!”  Still covered in the intestines of the exploded man, what kind of twisted thinking is going on here?  The extreme gore and sadism is normalized, even in a peaceful tavern where one of their own has just exploded in a most disgusting fashion, the walls splattered with his blood.  This wasn’t even a witch but a local tracker whose splattered spleen has landed in the ale.  Whatever?

Even that scene wasn’t what set me off against this thing.  It was the capture and interrogation of one of the witches.  The torture issue is where Hollywood boasts a stained, repugnant record that stretches way back but is particularly egregious after the attacks of September 11tt 2001.  What stands out about the Hansel torture scene is the casual, unthinking normalcy of it all.  Jeremy Renner has his own spikey brass knuckles ready, and probably blood-encrusted, which he automatically grabs and begins beating an actress across the face with.  It’s never a question, never an issue by anyone.  It’s simply a normal, everyday part of the War on Witch Terror, a deliberate parallel that is flagged later for us in no uncertain terms.  And of course the torture also works!  The witch remains defiant in demeanor, but swiftly spills her guts about the big witch plan.  Zero Dark Thirty meets Disney, who could ask for more?

So torturing and killing the evildoers is perfectly fine, business as usual, literally.  See, there’s never any question about their guilt.  With witches, if Hansel fails them in his inspection it’s burning time.  He is judge, jury and executioner.

A moral issue is established in the opening scene over witches, the death penalty, mob justice, hysteria, etcetera, before Hansel and Gretel show up in the town.  An attractive young woman is presented and demonized by a bully of a sheriff, while the mayor appeals to justice and evidence.  The ignorant mob is swayed this way and that, eventually fear mongered into siding with the sheriff and ready to kill the pretty woman.  That’s the cue for Hansel and Gretel to take charge, display superior firepower and belligerence, and to humiliate the sheriff.

As the pretty woman is saved by the two newcomers we are led to wonder if these two are on the side of justice.  They seek evidence about the woman, and really it’s just the expert myth that counts here.  Hansel has the status, the experience, the expertise to decide if the pretty woman should live or die.  Thus Hansel is supreme authority, supreme military force and “the decider” now.  As he reveals later, all witches will be burned, and that is his business model.  There is never any possibility of peace through any other means.  It is war, only war, and the enemy is beyond negotiation.  This is the tired formula, the cliché of course.  It’s expected, and it’s beyond question.

Like all good propaganda – and bad movies – the antagonists don’t have any legitimate grievances.  Witches aren’t retaliating for any wrongs done to them.  Townsfolk aren’t stealing the witch’s oil or propping up corrupt dictators over them, secretly torturing them in black sites or the like.

The witches just seek to steal the innocent town children, and for what?  For some McGuffin of a ritual; again who cares?  They’re evil.  Kill ‘em all, and do it in the goriest, blood splattered manner possible, much like modern weapons of war actually do to real human beings today.  In fact some of the weaponry, jaw-droppingly “blessed” with holy water by a “white witch” later on in the movie, are modern automatic machine guns and pistols.  The holy artillery is wielded by the mercenaries and their new side kick, the fan boy.

It is the essence of glory to kill ugly women, seems to be the theme of this thing.  The witches do take beating after beating and get torn apart in expected fashion at the climax.  The grand witch Muriel even begs for mercy, back in her attractive actress form, as Hansel is about to kill her.  There is no mercy for the evildoer, baby.  Mercy this.

And so that old adage about not becoming the monsters we seek to defeat was left on the cutting room floor.  Kill, kill, kill and live to kill another day.  As the witch hunters press on into infamy across the barren landscape (Afghanistan?), Hansel reads a voice over apparently prepared by the US Department of Defense.  You can’t run and you can’t hide.  We’re coming for you, evildoers, no matter where you go.  For we are Ameri-witch hunters, yeah witch hunters.  The world is our mission, and we won’t quit until it’s accomplished.  The white man’s burden is transferred to the next generation by way of special effect stuffed fairy tales.

Oh yeah, it’s just entertainment.

And they cheered, some small group of young people across the aisle.  It was a light turnout, second run, cheap seats, mostly empty.

I’m considering a study of the use of torture by protagonists, by supposedly “good guys” in Hollywood “entertainment product.”  This was, and is, actually a theme that runs through Hell of a Deal, my own novel.  The selling of torture is one of the most crucial issues of our time.  Polls show that significant percentages of people now accept this abhorrent, illegal and immoral practice after so much repeated conditioning in the news and on their screens.  Torture is pervasive, and yet has been rightly condemned as barbarism for centuries.  Our own Constitution forbids “cruel and unusual punishment,” and always has.  Perhaps the founders had significantly more wisdom than your average contemporary couch potato.

One film that stuck with me on this torture issue is the first Charlie’s Angels movie (2000).  Such an unlikely place to find a pro-torture message.  This film is a favorite of little girls everywhere.  My own daughter watched it repeatedly when she was 11 or 12, and it is a lighthearted romp.  But there’s that one moment they just had to include… fucking Hollywood.

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At one point in the middle of the Charlie’s Angels film an unnamed thug fights with Cameron Diaz (“Natalie”), and she quickly kicks his ass.  Then she proceeds to torture him for information by grinding her boot into his throat.  That’s the moment the film crosses the line from justifiable to morally questionable.  In my view it’s flatly immoral by its matter of fact unquestioned acceptance and use of torture when convenient by one of the “angels.”  This scene throws the entire film, and the people behind it and responsible for it, into question.  In what circle is torture considered another tool of the trade?  At what dinner parties do we stomp on people’s throats until they tell us the correct responses?  Why is this content included in a film for young people, who are to idolize and identify with these women?

In an overwhelmingly fascist culture, it’s just entertainment.  Who do we torture and kill next, Hollywood?  Can’t wait to buy my ticket.