Sunday, February 28, 2010

Becky Sharp (1935)

Adapted from "Vanity Fair" by William Makepeace Thackeray (and the play by Langdon Mitchell), "Becky Sharp" is a delightful satire that is so much more deserving of praise beyond its technical achievement as the first feature shot in three-strip Technicolor.

In circulating prints, the color has faded. I'm aware that a full restoration has been done, but it is not available on DVD, and the current copies don't fare too well in that department. A reviewer at the time wrote that the film's color pallet resembled "boiled salmon dipped in mayonnaise", and available public domain copies don't even look this good.

Watching the film for the first time, I was prepared for more or less a historical curio. What I found instead was a delightfully funny satire, so completely subversive that it's hard to believe the film was made after the crackdown of the Production Code.

Produced by the independent Pioneer Pictures (and distributed through RKO Radio), the film moves along at a crackling pace, with a splendid leading performance by Miriam Hopkins, who plays the conniving Sharp with a definite wink to the camera. Hopkins was the perfect choice for this part-striking just the right note between scheming opportunist and romantic figure. Alan Mowbray is her husband who descends into a mire of debt as a result of her extravagant spending. Nigel Bruce is perfectly cast as the bumbling, asexual "best friend" of Hopkins' character, who avoids asking her to marry him by taking a job in India.

The film, skillfully directed by Rouben Mamoulian, has a largely theatrical feel to it, but that doesn't matter. The film is unashamedly theatrical, and features a wonderfully over-the-top performance style that perfectly matches the witty dialogue. The color cinematography adds to the garishness and highly stylized nature of the film, and in that context works well, although I wouldn't argue the film is greatly enhanced by being filmed in color the way "The Adventures of Robin Hood", say, would be. Overall, the film does have a distinctly low-budget look, perhaps necessitated by the added cost of Technicolor. Ray Rennahan, Technicolor's cameraman, offers quite ordinary compositions, suggesting perhaps he was far more a technician than a cinematographer. (On future projects, Rennahan would always work in collaboration with another cinematographer, such as Ernest Haller and Lee Garmes on "Gone with the Wind").

What's perhaps most striking about the film is how shamelessly opportunistic the Becky Sharp character is. This works perfectly, especially in the final fade out, which is almost startling. Her telling off of the headmistress at the beginning of the film, and her pointed jabs at upper class Billie Burke during a society ball, all make for fun, biting moments of humor. There are definitely moments that make a contemporary viewer ask how it could have possibly gotten by the censors.

While not in the ranks of the greatest works of the Classical Hollywood period, "Becky Sharp" proves that films need not be "great" to be strong entertainment. In many ways, it represents the true artistic diversity that Hollywood was capable of during the studio era. A perfect mix between high and low humor, mixed with sharp satire, "Becky Sharp" holds up very well after more than 70 years.

Monday, February 22, 2010

A New Approach to Narrative

“The ideas dictate everything, you have to be true to that or you're dead.” –David Lynch

Short films are nothing new. The very first movies were “shorts”, at least as we think of them today. Of course, if you were to ask a viewer in 1898 to describe a movie like “An Astronomer’s Dream”, they would describe it simply as a movie. It wasn’t until film began to expand into longer narratives that the idea of “shorts” and “features” became established. Over time, even some of the finest practitioners of the art of short filmmaking came to think of the form as the bastard step-child of the two-hour narrative feature, which has remained the measure of “real filmmaking”.

Thanks to emerging distribution models as a result of the Internet, everything you thought you thought you knew about “real” filmmaking is changing. It’s time to stop thinking in terms of “shorts” and “features”, and to start thinking in terms of “movies” again.

The short film and the online video of the 21st century are close cousins-close, but-I would argue- are not one and the same. The short film has traditionally existed in relation to the feature film. It has been seen as secondary to the feature (and for most of the Classical Hollywood period, supported the main feature on the program). Too often, shorts are seen as “junior movies”, as if they have to wait and grow up to be the real thing. And too many filmmakers treat shorts merely as a training ground before going on to make features.

Therefore, I would suggest it’s time to forget this notion of “short films”, which carries all sorts of archaic connotations that can safely be left in the 20th century. With the Hollywood feature film in its death throes, the time is ripe for re-thinking our whole notions of producing content, and what to do with it.

Launched in 2005, YouTube was the first online video site that really exploded in a burst of user-generated content, and it resembled nothing on the current media scene. Many people noted the similarities to the early period of cinema-the period that Tom Gunning calls the “Cinema of Attractions”, and which is generally accepted as having lasted from about 1895 to 1906. A major reason for this comparison was the democratization of filmmaking as a result of filmmaking tools becoming available to everyone. Video had certainly been shown online before, but the time was right for a kind of video distribution revolution. The Flash-based media player used by YouTube, which eliminated the need for long download times, the DSL and broadband connections for uploading, and of course, the widespread accessibility to the tools to shoot and edit high-quality digital video all came together at just the right moment to make it all possible. Writing at the dawn of the online video boom in October 2005, Tom Moran noted the ease with which professional-level filmmaking tools were becoming available, “not just to a relative handful of highly paid people in Southern California, but to almost anyone who can afford to buy a Mac G5 and Final Cut Pro. The implications of this revolution are only just now beginning to be felt.” (Moran, “Celluloid Chickens Come Home to Roost”)

Well, the floodgates burst and, according to YouTube, they currently receive 20 hours of uploaded video every minute. That’s just one site, mind. To get an idea of the content being uploaded to the web every day, would one have to take into account the hundreds of other sites, some of which-such as DailyMotion and Vimeo-have become quite popular among online filmmakers as alternatives to YouTube.

Now, mainstream producers of content are attempting to get into the online game. This is particularly ironic, considering that these same companies fought so hard against online video when it first emerged. In coming late to the party, they have proven how out of touch they are by trying to force their old content into the new form of online video. The most interesting part is, despite their efforts to promote their already-heavily marketed content, it appears that the approach just isn’t working. In a news piece of 15 April 2009, David Silversmith is quoted, saying that, “Depending on whose version of revenues you accept, Google is losing anywhere from $513 million to $663 million annually on YouTube”. (Silversmith, quoted in “YouTube: The Bigger It Gets, the More it Loses”, retrieved from In other words, the effort of Hollywood to push their old content into this new medium has been a losing venture. Lloyd Fonvielle notes that this approach was “doomed to fail” and that “content can never be considered apart from the means used to distribute it, and thus the ways it is consumed.” (Fonvielle, “The Movies Begin…Again”) He sums up the basic issue that producers of content are currently grappling with: “When new technologies appear, the instinct is to try and figure out ways to make them the vessels for existing content. But new technologies usually need a new kind of content -- or old content wholly re-imagined.” (Fonvielle, “The Movies Begin…Again”) Rick Altman, speaking at the Alice Guy Blache Symposium, “Woman with a Movie Camera”, at New York University’s Cantor Center in November 2009, made a similar point in relation to emerging media, specifically addressing the problem he referred to as “pouring old wine into new wineskins.” (Altman, “Emerging Media: Then and Now”) Both Fonvielle and Altman point to the same basic problem: how do you shape your content when hardly anyone can even describe the medium you’re trying to work in?

A new generation of filmmakers is emerging, whose work will, whether intentionally or not, explore that very issue. These are trained filmmakers, many from a generation that has grown up with unprecedented access to production tools, working with an eye to quality and style, and above all, a desire to express ideas, but in a way that is appropriate to the medium of online video. The results are a new kind of film, freed from the demands and prejudices of commercial distribution that have plagued the art form since Edison first tried to wrest control from the independents over 100 years ago.

Lloyd Fonvielle calls them “MicroMovies”, a term he introduced in his piece, “The Movies Begin…Again”, in which he calls for a new way of thinking about the role of storytelling in the online video medium.

As Fonvielle notes, “A million people with cameras making movies means a lot of bad movies…and a few really amazing ones. It was the same in the early, anarchic days of cinema before the studio era…but in the course of that era a new art form was created.” This “looking back” to the early days of cinema is an approach Fonvielle advocates in his piece, “Surfing the Micro Wave”, drawing a comparison between the Nouvelle Vague filmmakers in France during the 1950s, and producers of online content in the 21st century, both of whom have looked backwards at earlier models for inspiration.

Fonvielle has collaborated with Jae Song, a Brooklyn-based filmmaker, on a series called “Noir Bars: New York”, which premiered earlier this month. Song’s approach to directing the segments take full advantage of the small size of the equipment needed to produce a video. Fonvielle, in describing the production history of the “Noir Bars: New York” series, notes the small and portable size of the equipment being used, with a full production package that can “fit into a backpack”, and shooting in extreme low-light conditions, such as the candlelight emanating onto the actor’s face in a small, dimly lit bar. (Fonvielle, “Majestic Micro Movies: Tech Specs”) Shooting entirely in natural light, director Jae Song is able to achieve remarkable images. In addition, Jae’s camera shoots in high definition, another major technical breakthrough at the level of consumer-level filmmaking tools.

In addition to this “micro” form of production, they’re also exploring what it means to tell stories in the age of short bursts of sensationalist video that has tended to dominate the online venues thus far. This gets at an issue I have explored in my own work, most recently in "The Agreement", in which I attempted to explore the full depth and complexities of narrative in a format that was still appropriate for the online venue.

It’s important to remember that narrative filmmaking represents only one approach available to filmmakers working in new, emerging media. Because of the lack of commercial dictates, many alternative forms, including experimental video and the video essay, have been able to flourish.

The video essay format provides a chance for filmmakers to experiment with film theory, and to apply theory to production. In “Visual Pleasure”, produced at New York University by Monica Sandler, several theories come together in a kind of Godardian essay, including those of Laura Mulvey and Andre Bazin, which are directly evident in Sandler’s cinematic style and technique (one scene combines Mulvey’s idea of the male gaze on the female subject with a Bazinian long-take, which Sandler achieves through a great panning shot of Tompkins Square Park, with both figures in the frame). The result is the kind of provocative exploration of ideas that are all too often absent from projects emerging from film schools. By incorporating theory into the form of an essay film, Sandler demonstrates the effectiveness of such theory, and provides a great example of its practical applicability to the production process.

Charles Tashiro is another filmmaker exploring the possibilities of non-narrative formats. Preferring to refer to his films as “theoretical” rather than “experimental”, Tashiro’s new video series, the “Mysteries”, is an ongoing exploration of ideas that he is working with as alternatives to traditional narrative forms. As with the “Noir Bars” series, Tashiro decided to work with as simple a production set-up as possible, and chose the mystery genre, as it is “arguably the most intellectual of popular genres, in the sense that there is little effort in most of them to make you empathize much with the characters”. The genre, therefore, was ripe for a theoretical exploration of its form and structure. Tashiro decided to play with certain generic elements of the mystery, recognizing the Modernist writers’ technique of using elements of the genre: “So the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I could make a series of little mysteries but only if I approached the subject matter obliquely. In other words, I would set up a situation, and allow the atmosphere to ‘tell the story,’ which, however, is nothing more than the way the film makes the viewer feel.” The “Mysteries” series, then, presents yet another alternative to the traditional narrative discourses that have been present in mainstream cinema for nearly the last century.

In “Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method”, Gerard Genette argues that “we currently use the word ‘narrative’ without even paying attention to it”. (Genette, 25) This would seem to be a source of confusion right now when talking about its role in new forms of digital and online-based content. Genette goes on to distinguish between the “story” (the content conveyed by the narrative), and the “narrative” itself; that is, the narrative text, or the way the story is presented. (Genette, 27) What I would like to propose, then, is that it is not the “story” itself that is transforming as a result of emerging trends in digital media and online distribution venues, but rather the narrative-the way filmmakers are choosing to present stories. This is not to argue that films must tell stories, or that they must adhere to any dominating literary traditions. I am suggesting, however, that for filmmakers who choose to use the medium to convey fictional events of some kind, a new approach to narrative is the only way to make the full transition to a form that will be totally unique to the online medium. Just as the earliest films contained staged or fictional scenes, whether it be men playing cards, or parents feeding their baby, it was the development of new narrative forms by people like Melies and Porter that allowed the format to grow out of the existing models and traditions from which the earliest works borrowed.

The examples of films I have noted throughout this essay-“Noir Bars”, “Visual Pleasure”, and the “Mysteries”, all provide a model for different directions narrative and non-narrative filmmaking may take in the coming years. The greatest single potential of online video, however, is that filmmakers will hopefully never have to choose only one “model” to follow, which would effectively put us back in the same position as we were in the early 1910s when narrative films became the dominant, and therefore “correct” model of “real filmmaking”. The key, then, is to keep the field open to new approaches at any cost. As Lloyd Fonvielle suggested, doing so will mean a lot of bad movies being made, but the potential to explore the full possibilities of the medium would be endless. And only then will we be able to refer to “movies” without having to qualify them by their length.

Citations: Altman, Rick. “Emerging Media Then and Now” panel. Woman with a Movie Camera: The Alice Guy Blache Symposium. New York, 14 Nov. 2009.

Fonvielle, Lloyd. “The Movies Begin…Again”. Mar de Cortes Baja. 24 Jan. 2010.

Fonvielle, Lloyd. “Majestic MicroMovies: Tech Specs”. Mar de Cortes Baja. 9 Feb. 2010.

Fonvielle, Lloyd. “Surfing the MicroWave”. Mar de Cortes Baja. 13 Feb. 2010.

Genette, Gerard. Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. Trans. Jane E. Lewin, foreword Jonathan Culler. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1980.

Gunning, Tom. “The Cinema of Attraction: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde”, published in The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded, ed. Wanda Strauven, pp. 381-389. Amsterdam University Press: Amsterdam, 2006.

Moran, Tom. “Celluloid Chickens Come Home to Roost”. CelticProgressive. 14 Oct. 2005.

Mysteries. Dir. Charles Tashiro. 2010.

Noir Bars: New York. Majestic MicroMovies. Dir. Jae Song. Writer: Lloyd Fonvielle. 2010.

Silversmith, David, quoted in “YouTube: The Bigger It Gets, the More it Loses”. WENN news. 14 April 2009.

Tashiro, Charles. “The Mysteries”. Email to Matt Barry. 17 Feb. 2010.

The Agreement. Dir. Matt Barry, 2010.

Visual Pleasure. Dir. Monica Sandler. 2010.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

An Experiment in Narrative

I wanted to let everyone know about an exciting new series that's premiering online today, called "Noir Bars: New York", a collaborative effort by Lloyd Fonvielle and Brooklyn-based filmmaker Jae Song which is exploring and challenging the traditional ideas of narrative filmmaking in the YouTube age. The premise of the series is deceptively simple: a different character in a small, dark New York bar speaks a few lines of voice-over dialogue. I say it's "deceptively simple" because each of these voice-over monologues conjures up whole back stories which may vary from viewer to viewer, each possessing the scope and richness of narrative found in the feature film, but in the compact format of the online short. I had the pleasure of acting in one of the segments myself, and I was amazed at the variety of tones that director Jae Song was able to get from me while coaching me on my line reading (I won't reveal any more than that-you'll have to wait to see the segment for yourself!) On Lloyd's excellent blog, Mar de Cortes Baja, he poses the question: "Can modern micro movies learn to tell real stories, just as directors of the nickelodeon era learned to tell real stories?" (Fonvielle, "Surfing the Microwave") This series is an effort to explore that question. By drawing the comparison with the Nickelodeon, I'm reminded of Tom Gunning's essay on the period of early film that he calls the "Cinema of Attractions". There are definitely some similarities between the infant medium of theatrical cinema, and the infant medium of online video. Lloyd goes into great examples of these similarities on his blog, so I encourage everyone to check out his writings on the subject there. The subject of narrative filmmaking in the age of the "short sharp shock" has been one that I've been considering for several years now, since first publishing with YouTube in 2006. As a narrative filmmaker myself, I had just recently finished a feature film, and found myself in the predicament that there was no market for it. Through my undergraduate work at Towson University, I came to produce a short film ("The Wrong House", 2006) which consisted of a short slapstick comedy bit. I decided to see what kind of response it would get at YouTube, and surprisingly, this simple little sketch of a film ended up a fairly popular title (it still remains my most popular film online). I was struck by the possibility of such a simple, short narrative finding such an audience. In producing short films, the challenge is to express your ideas with what Charles Tashiro calls "economy of expression". Tashiro was also one of the pioneers in the form of the "web series", with his pivotal "Video Haiku" series which premiered over the course of one year on YouTube from 2006-2007. The short, 30-second videos proved quite popular, combining Tashiro's signature visual style with an original haiku poem that provided a counterpart to the image being depicted, sometimes including hints of a narrative that seem to invite the viewer to imagine the events that led up to the scene. Tashiro followed this with the even more challenging "American Alphabet" series, which debuted in the fall of 2007 and played out at the rate of one per week for the following 26 weeks. This series combined visual style with the direct address format, posing a series of thoughts on a variety of issues related to American society. Tashiro has compared the short film format with other arts requiring compressed expression, such as the portrait miniature. In "Noir Bars: New York", Lloyd and Jae have found an incredible way of blending a narrative into the short mode that has established itself as the standard for online video. By providing key details, they allow the viewer to create a rich narrative in his or her mind, sort of a cinematic "Mysteries of Harris Burdick". I encourage everyone to check out the series as it unveils. It promises to be a fascinating experiment in narrative storytelling in the age of the viral video. Visit Lloyd's page at Mar de Cortes Baja, and Jae's page