On Kevin Smith’s Potential

Every film has a goal. To explore the capabilities of a framing device. To decry the bourgeois camera style of early directors. To demonstrate what can be achieved on a shoestring budget. Some goals aren’t quite so lofty. Many films exist to simply divert, to entertain, to provide a convenient way for general audiences to fork over thirteen dollars. And that’s totally okay! The existence of blockbusters isn’t dependent upon the failure of art house cinema, and vice versa, so there’s no reason to adhere to a formulaic critical philosophy in order to ensure the survival of one’s preferred strand of film.

But some critics seem to be out of touch with this idea. Why criticize a Transformers movie for its “special effects incontinence” (this is from an actual review) when the whole franchise is intended to exist as little more than a drawn-out CGI battle? Identify what the film is attempting and then evaluate how well it achieves it. It’s simple.

And now I’m going to utterly violate this rule in order to criticize Kevin Smith.

But it’s for a good reason! It’s difficult to separate a film from the director who created it. Any time I see a movie by someone I’m familiar with, it’s inevitable that I’m going to trace common threads between what I’m watching and what I’ve seen before. For evaluative purposes I have an obligation to distance myself from the rest of their filmography, but knowledge of what someone has done before gives a critic a glimpse into what they’re capable of.

Kevin Smith is capable of a lot. We know that because we’ve seen him live up to his potential. Clerks is an oft-cited example of well-executed low-budget cinema, and Chasing Amy shows that he’s capable of taking a nuanced stance on ideas like love and sexuality. The man has talent, moreso for writing than for experimenting with film form, but we’ve nonetheless seen that he’s capable of creating art with substance.

So why on Earth isn’t he using it? I’m not going to criticize the content of Yoga Hosers and Tusk, because he never wanted them to be good in the first place. I am, however, comfortable saying that Kevin Smith’s willingness to make mindless entertainment is worthy of criticism. Not because there’s anything inherently wrong with mindless entertainment, but because Smith shouldn’t be the one creating it. In the same way that driving a Ferrari strictly in areas with a speed limit below 35 is a waste of potential, Smith’s recent filmography is disappointing purely because of what the man could achieve if he only tried.

It doesn’t look like Smith will be changing his tack any time soon. He’s currently developing a film called Moose Jaws, a sequel to Yoga Hosers. It’s a quasi-parody of Spielberg’s Jaws, but with a moose rather than a shark. I’m not expecting too much out of that.

I just hope that Smith realizes, preferably sometime soon, that making something that will be remembered as more than just entertainment is worth the effort. Good movies, movies that do more than hold our attention for ninety minutes and make us chuckle, can have a profound impact on our culture. Silly films about walruses and living sausages are fine, but leave them to less capable directors. You have more important things to do.

Ikiru and Inertia

Sort of on the cusp between middle-aged and elderly. Certainly not old enough to be in a nursing home, but certainly too old to get off the bench in a recreational basketball league. Out of place at both a rock concert and a bingo hall. That I-like-my-coffee-black sort of age, but likely too young to have one of those medicine trays with seven compartments, each labelled for a specific day of the week. A city councilman, or a planner, or a chairman, or some other variety of bureaucrat. Public Works department, yet he doesn’t seem to have completed any sort of Work for the Public in quite a long time. Stack of paper. Stamp. Place in bin. Brush aside needy citizens, who do they think I am, some kind of public servant or something?

Stomach cancer. Incurable. Six months, maybe? He realizes how he’s never realized how unfulfilling his life is. He tries indulging himself. Gambling, drinking, parties, etc. Doesn’t cut it. So he decides to do his job, see if he can make his community a better place. Turns a cesspool of sewage into a public park. The people love him. He dies.

Ikiru is, I think, among Kurosawa’s finest, samurai or otherwise. It’s certainly among his most personal. And yet some of its implications are a bit unnerving. Do we never fully realize our capacity for good, nor recognize the happiness it brings about, until we’re nearing the end of the time allotted to us? Why does it take so long? Perhaps it’s a desperate scramble to do something of substance, to justify our birth and the eighty-odd years we spend spending and eating and indulging and crying and laughing. Kind of like this review. I spent the first half rambling and now I’m realizing that I need to say something, that this needs to have a purpose, because otherwise why did I even bother to sit down and write this? We fear that our story will end without a theme, without having said something, and maybe it isn’t until the end approaches that we even recognize this fear.

Or maybe it’s more ego-driven. Perhaps our desire to be seen, to be noticed in some way lies dormant throughout life and only overcomes our inertia when it’s almost too late. Maybe his swan song is nothing more than a way to perpetuate himself, to make some sort of legacy that will outlast him. Is this why anybody does anything at all? Certainly frightening, but Ikiru leaves it open as a possibility.

Go watch it if you haven’t already. Above all else, I think it works best as a warning against the joyless drifting that we fall into all too often.

 

 

Wonder Woman and Growth vs. Proficiency

Is it better to prioritize growth or proficiency? Although this question is at the heart of education, I’ve been considering it in relation the the DC Cinematic Universe. Since its inception it’s been a C- student, completing the required tasks to get by (make loads of money at the box office) but never showing any real interest in the material (making a legitimately good movie). If we look at Wonder Woman in relation to the franchise’s previous efforts, it’s fantastic. It blows everything else out of the water by having a coherent plot and reasonably interesting characters. But I can’t help but feel like its praise stems largely from the horrible movies that came before it.

There’s certainly a lot of good stuff to be found in the film. It provides an interesting look at outdated gender roles and carries a meaningful social message without seeming hamhanded or pandering. In particular, watching Diana walk the streets of World War I era London and balk at its blatant inequality is entertaining and incredibly relevant. The relationship between Diana and Steve manages to avoid tired Hollywood romance clichés. Some of the action is well-orchestrated as well, surpassed only by one of the Batman fight scenes in Dawn of Justice. It’s a thoroughly entertaining, mostly well-done popcorn movie.

Yet it isn’t perfect. In any sense of the word. There is some incredibly corny dialogue. Most notably, the interactions between Diana and the film’s primary antagonist were not easy to listen to. Some of the directorial decisions were questionable as well, like the film’s painfully trite final shot. The beginning was a bit exposition-heavy and had a few minor pacing issues.

Despite these flaws, the film is solid. It hasn’t revolutionized the superhero genre like Nolan’s trilogy, but it’s a strong entry in an incredibly weak franchise. Should this be enough to earn universal acclaim, or are we looking at the film from a pessimistic worldview tained by Zack Snyder’s directorial dictatorship? Perhaps it’s impossible to separate film from franchise at this time, and only time will tell if Wonder Woman is worthy of the praise it’s received. Either way, it’s good to see that the DC Cinematic Universe is capable of producing a watchable movie.

The Horror of Everything We Don’t See in Robert Eggers’ The Witch

(This article discusses graphic violence in the context of horror movies. The scene discussed is so horrifying, in fact, that I debated as to whether I should even write a piece on it, as I hope to avoid sounding insensitive and tasteless. However, I believe that the concepts this sequence raises are absolutely crucial for understanding the horror genre, and to ignore them would be to leave a gaping gap in one’s understanding of cinema.)

Film analysis involves the careful dissection of everything that happens within the frame (the mise en scène), how those frames are linked together, and the sound that accompanies them. This, of course, makes sense, and it seems rather silly to point it out; obviously analyzing a film involves picking apart the components that constitute it. But I think this conception of cinema leaves out a crucial component; yes, it’s important to note all that a movie is, but what about everything it isn’t? The choices an auteur makes about what to leave out of a frame or a sequence are often just as crucial as the decisions they make about what to actually put in it, and it can sometimes be challenging to see this.

Here’s a perfect case study: The Witch by Robert Eggers. There’s a lot to love about this film, and reams have been written about it (see, for instance, Briana Rodriguez’s review in Back Stage that discusses the psychological relationship between director and actor), but there’s one particular sequence I’d like to hone in on. The film kicks off with a colonial New England family leaving their town after a heated religious disagreement, venturing into the wilderness to start their own independent farm. Shortly after the move, the mother of the family gives birth to Samuel, her fifth child. Just a few minutes into the film, one of its most horrifying sequences takes place. Thomasin, the eldest child in the family, is out in a field playing with Samuel. When she diverts her attention for a split second, he disappears. The family searches for him in the woods, but he’s nowhere to be found. They’re unsure of what happened to him, but it’s revealed to the audience that he was abducted by a witch, a middle-aged woman who lives in a decrepit hut just a short walk from the family’s farm. A minute-long sequence shows his fate: be warned, this sequence is incredibly graphic. I’ll link it here for anyone that wants to give it another look, but I’d highly suggest that you watch the film in its entirety before reading this piece. The scene may just seem tasteless without the film’s context. (The portion in question begins around 1:18 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SIfjcHn9JYw)

It’s a brutally tough sequence to watch. Yet the interesting thing about it is that we don’t actually see the violence taking place. We see the moment immediately preceding the brutality, and then we see the product of it. The process, replaced by a few moments of a black screen, isn’t actually shown on screen. This may seem like it would lighten the impact of the violence, but in many ways it actually bolsters it. Although we don’t directly see what is happening to the child, there’s certainly no ambiguity about what’s going on in the scene. We’re left to fill in the blanks, forced to conjure up scenes of the horrifying act that’s taking place in the sequence. Perhaps our own imaginations are capable of generating images more terrifying than anything Eggers could throw at us, and that potent ability is what he’s leveraging for the sake of horror. Sure, at risk of being seen as a tasteless and gratuitous filmmaker he could have actually shown the murder on screen, but that may not have even been as effective as his practice of restraint. All the fake blood, special effects, and CGI in the world couldn’t match what the audience’s mind is capable of dreaming up, and by giving them some space to roam he leads them to a terrifying impact that traditional imagery couldn’t match.

Perhaps, then, this scene may inform how we think of the medium as a whole. Perhaps film isn’t just a set of juxtaposed images and sounds that deliver an emotional and intellectual impact, but the scaffolding that allows for the creation of an effect within the audience’s mind. Thus, film is the framework for viewers to generate their own thoughts and feelings built upon the content on screen. It’s not a neatly packaged dose of stimulation, but rather an unfinished picture with blanks left for the audience to fill. This seems to align in some ways to the “reader-response” school of literary criticism, but I think the basic concept may apply to any artistic medium. In a lot of ways, the input from a film’s viewer is just as important as the film itself; the horror of what we don’t see in The Witch provides a great example of this give-and-take.

The Four-Part Thesis Statement

I was originally exposed to this system by a mentor and former teacher of mine. I’ve found it immensely useful for teaching ninth graders the fundamentals of writing an effective thesis. I’ve made some tweaks and additions to it, but the core steps have remained the same. It’s most applicable to basic argumentative essays about works of literature, but it can be adapted to other types of writing as well without much trouble.

The system is comprised of four basic steps. When I teach the system to students, I tell them that it’s best to write out each component individually and then synthesize them into a cohesive thesis statement.

First, the topic. This is the one component that is usually not directly included in the thesis statement itself, as it simply refers to the theme that the statement is concerned with. Although it is implicit in the thesis statement, having students write out the theme that their essay explores helps to guide the development of the other three components.

Next, the position. This is the stance that students take on the theme they’re exploring. It’s the core of any analytical thesis statement, as it ensures students are actually making an argument rather than a simple observation. Usually, this takes the form of a cause-effect relationship. This is the most important component of a basic argumentative essay, but higher-level pieces like symbol analysis may not have a clear “position” component, as they might skip straight to the “significance” section.

The reasons are the evidence supporting the analytical claim. In an argumentative essay about a work of fiction, this component is made up of textual evidence.

And lastly, the significance. This is usually the most challenging portion for students to address. In this section, the argument about the text is broadened to make a more generalized claim of real-world importance. It often takes the form of a moral claim or an observation about human behavior. Significance is intended to address why we should care about the essay’s argumentative claim.

Here’s a sample of how a student could use this system to outline a thesis statement:

Topic: Belonging/Acceptance in The Jungle Book

Position: Because he possesses the body of a human and the behavioral traits of an animal, Mowgli is barred from fully integrating into any society.

(Notice that this claim displays a clear cause-effect relationship. This is often an effective way to generate an analytical claim. )

Reason: Mowgli is taunted and rejected from the jungle for being a “man-cub”, and the citizens of the village view him as a savage brute.

(In the actual meat of the essay, direct quotes from the text should be included. In the thesis, it’s okay to give a quick overview of the evidence.

Significance: The desire for comfort and familiarity leads people to reject others on the basis of anything that makes them different.

(This claim is a good example of the “human behavior” variety of significance.)

Full Thesis: Because he possesses the body of a human and the behavioral traits of an animal, Mowgli is barred from fully integrating into any society; the animals of the jungle taunt and reject him for being a “man-cub”, and the citizens of the village look down upon him as a savage. This demonstrates that the desire for comfort and familiarity leads people to reject others on the basis of anything that makes them different, from their physical traits to their social behavior.

This is a somewhat cumbersome example, but it does a good job of demonstrating how the four-part method can be used to devise a direct, workable thesis. Oftentimes the components can be combined and pared down to make the statement more succinct.
Incorporating this system into a high school classroom (particularly at the lower levels) helps ensure that students write purposeful analytical essays that aren’t simply making an observation about the text. It strikes a healthy balance between guiding students towards writing effectively and providing them with the freedom to explore their ideas independently.

The Harkness Method and High School Film Classes

The typical high school level film class will, of course, be incorporated into the English department. While this is certainly the most suitable place for such a course, there are some points of drastic divergence as to how the class must be taught compared to the average English class.

The interesting thing about an introductory film course is that in some ways, it resembles a foreign language class more closely than a literature-based English class. In language courses, oftentimes the first two or three years are dedicated to learning the syntax, vocabulary, and structure of a language before having any actual discussions. In the typical high school level English class, knowledge of these concepts is assumed. Now, it would be silly to claim that a beginning film student must spend the first three years of their studies just learning the tropes and visual vocabulary of cinema, but nonetheless a strong foundation must be established before any high-level discourse is held to examine the technical elements of the medium.

So how does Harkness fit into this? My only experience with the method is with 9th grade English students so I can’t discuss all contexts in which it may be useful, but I can say that it isn’t a tool that I’ll be implementing at the outset of my course. The first few weeks will be spent building up a strong visual vocabulary, and the weeks following those will probably center around heavily guided discussion. I want to ensure that we build a strong understanding of the building blocks of cinema, and I fear that leaving students to their own devices will reinforce bad habits of film analysis. Perhaps later on, when I’m sure that students understand the purpose of cinematic analysis and the good habits that go along with it, I’ll give them more room to discuss in a more free flowing manner.

Yet I fear that by restricting free discussion early on I may set a negative tone for the discipline of film studies in general. While a great degree of film analysis involves the systematic deconstruction, there’s also an element of emotional connection to the medium that has to take place in order to analyze it in an original manner. Leaning too far towards the didactic teaching style would, I think, remove too much of this emotional connection. As I discussed in my last post, removing this instinctual link to some degree is crucial, but to do so completely is to destroy one’s ability to empathize with the thrust behind a piece. Perhaps my dilemma concerning Harkness demonstrates this pressure point, and my decisions about how to implement it effectively will turn out to be consequential for my semester-long plan for molding the analytical abilities of my students. If I can strike a productive balance between Harkness-style discussion and traditional classroom techniques, then I can also strike a balance between disconnected analysis and instinctual empathy. That, ultimately, is the reason to teach a film class in the first place.

The Challenges of Film Familiarity Pt. II

(This is a continuation of an article I posted on March 26th, 2017. If you haven’t read that post, click here to get caught up.)

I posted the above on reddit.com/r/truefilm to start a dialogue about the theory’s implications for the delivery of film education. I got a few interesting responses, but the most notable one extended the theory to encompass all forms of visual media and consider its social implications. Here’s an excerpt from his response:

(As is completely understandable in a casual forum, /u/mosestrod made some grammatical errors in his response. I preserved them for the sake of accuracy.)
The moving image is so familiar to us insofar as it is our everyday, it does – as you suggest – produce both passivity and conformity with the what is. Film mimics reality better than any other art form. But this pretence is also its risk, and we’re always threatened by the loss of that capacity to critically confront the artwork, to break its spell. Few even recognize the hold but finish as if having been mesmerized. You’ll often hear people talk about getting lost or absorbed in film, which is necessary, but so too is that moment in film that break the trans-fixation…
…We can perhaps probe even further the moving image; the infamous Baudrillard argued the image-world had produced a simulation of reality that had substituted itself for reality. That the hold of the TV was like the gods of old, and consumers sat fixated on the truths it delivered ready-made into their minds; moving only to make the regular libations and offerings of coin. What does it mean to switch fluidly from a film channel to one on baking to an advert and so on? How does art as a separate sphere survive this? What does it mean to carry around a screen, a smart phone, so you can be always plugged into the network 24/7? So many of our experiences come to us via. the moving image; I’ve been to so many countries, and worlds, I’ve seen shock and awe live, danced in prisons and inside volcanoes. But have I ever actually lived it, experienced it? All those moments are no longer lost in time, in rain, but captured, colonized, stored in ventilated server warehouses in Arizona, replayed and doled out. I can exchange my independence for access to this image-world and the wonders it delivers to me like all the rest. The avant-garde once made it their task to breach the separation of art and life, well our industrialized society did it for them, but at the expense of both.”
(/u/mosestrod)

This comment spurred me to consider two important implications of film familiarity. The first relates to how film familiarity can warp our perception of what is real and what is entertainment, breaking down the barriers between experience and media. In the modern world we’re exposed to an unprecedented volume of visual stimulus, from commercials to cell phone screens to pieces of art. If we accept the idea that film is a medium that closely resembles our perceptions of the real world, then how are we to determine what belongs to our world and what belongs to the world of the image? With this challenge in mind, overcoming film familiarity becomes a much more meaningful task. Before I had thought of it simply as a way to facilitate the analysis of the form, but if we concern ourselves with the social implications that /u/mosestrod raises, then it serves a different purpose entirely. It becomes a method of demarcating what is real and what belongs to film. It constrains our perception of reality and determines what we internalize as art and what we accept as experience. Thus, our ability to overcome the rapport that accompanies our innate film familiarity determines the extent to which we can identify reality for ourselves rather than have it preselected for us by the visual media that we consume.

So what are the implications of this extension of film familiarity for the delivery of film education? For one, it certainly ups the gravitas of the endeavor. We’re no longer just teaching people to appreciate and understand an art form, but rather we’re teaching them to filter the information they’re exposed to in order to separate reality from fiction. There are also some important practical implications of this shift in pedagogical duty. For instance, I think for the purposes of a beginning level film class it will be crucial to develop visual literacy for a wide range of image-based media, not just the feature film. Of course, actual films should be the focus of the course, but including other forms of visual stimulus will ensure that students establish a strong base for overcoming film familiarity in all spheres. Perhaps the deconstruction of advertisements and visual social content will help facilitate this.

/u/mosestrod’s post also got me thinking about another implication of film familiarity: film’s status as an exploitative medium. Motion pictures rely on their ability to place viewers into a sort of “spellbound” state of mind in order to achieve their emotional effects. But film’s entire ability to place us in this state relies entirely on the existence of a subconscious familiarity with the medium in the first place. In a way, it’s targeting a weakness of our mental capacities in order to shift our perception of reality for a limited time. Is this the case for all forms of art? Are they simply targeted doses of stimulus that leverage our instinctual quirks for the purpose of entertainment? Perhaps I’m getting off task with this, but it could be interesting to consider what mental weaknesses, if any, are targeted by other forms of media.
This concept of film as a medium that takes advantage of an instinctual weakness also has some interesting pedagogical implications. Primarily, it harkens back to the issue of balancing an emotional connection to the piece with intellectual disinterestedness. If film really does leverage emotional quirks, those quirks must be kept active in some capacity to experience the film as it was meant to be experienced. In order to break down how a film works we must be able to remove our latent film familiarity, but in order to see its intended effect we must allow some of that film familiarity to remain. Perhaps encouraging multiple viewings would strike this balance: the first one to watch the film as intended, the subsequent ones to understand its technical elements. This may be impractical for a classroom scenario, but striking the proper balance between these two observational modes will be crucial to developing a deep understanding of the form.