Films

White Dog: a Bold Stance on Prejudice

There’s something about underappreciated works of art that makes me appreciate them more. Maybe it’s some sort of hipster instinct that allows me to derive satisfaction from that which not many other people have derived satisfaction from, or perhaps it’s a sort of voyeurism, peering into the innards of a bloated artistic medium to extract something of value, something that a studio hardly wanted to reveal to the public. Either way, there are certain films that nobody has seen that everybody has to see, certain films that say something profound that nobody wants to hear. White Dog has some terribly important, terribly horrifying things to say about race relations, things that were relevant when the film was released in 1982 but are somehow even more relevant today.

I’m about to spoil it, so go see it. It’s only ninety minutes. Some of the acting is questionable and there are some truly awful B-movie, Hard Ticket To Hawaii style zoom-into-a-character’s-face-as-something-important-happens moments, but watch it anyway. It’s about a German Shepherd, a “white dog” trained to attack black people on sight. A woman finds him, takes him in, and then begs an animal trainer to get rid of his ingrained racist instincts. The trainer himself is black. After many people are wounded and at least one is killed by the dog, the trainer actually manages to get the dog to stop attacking black people. The dog, however, is not fully cured, as he attacks a white man during his final test, nearly killing him. The object of his hate was merely switched. The dog is shot and killed during the attack.

It’s harrowing. It ends abruptly. The dog dies and the credits roll. We aren’t given time for grieving his irreparability, for lamenting the fact that he came close to being saved. He’s just killed, suddenly, and our hopes for his rehabilitation are dashed in an instant. A few characters articulate that it isn’t the dog’s fault; of course it isn’t, he’s a dog, and dogs can’t be racist by nature. It was the fault of the original owner, but that doesn’t change the fact that the animal’s hateful nature is permanently imbued. The dog may have switched targets at the film’s conclusion, but the aggression isn’t going anywhere.

There are plenty of interesting messages about prejudice seeded throughout the film. The white woman who brings the dog into her home, who tries to change his nature: perhaps a claim that even those who are well-intentioned and have no prejudices themselves can inadvertently offer a safe haven to those who do. The black trainer who tirelessly works to retrain the dog: a man who desperately wishes for the hateful to change, who wants to remove some hate from the world without resorting to violence. All of these interim messages, however, are overshadowed by the final sequence. As the final gunshot rings and a heavy silence lingers above the characters, the film’s statement is clear; try as we might, hate cannot be conditioned out. Prejudices ingrained in youth become a part of one’s consciousness, they become the consciousness itself.

Is this true? I certainly hope not. But it’s a bold stance on one of the most important social questions that we face today, and it’s a viewpoint that everyone ought to understand in order to be in tune with the modern world’s ever-increasing tensions.

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.

 

 

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.

The Challenges of Film Familiarity

This is a theory that I’ve been thinking about for a long time now, and I’ve decided that I ought to flesh it out thoroughly with a full article.

While some skills of literary analysis are transferable to film analysis, there are a few key differences that make it an entirely different beast. These differences can make it difficult for even the most skilled readers to dissect film effectively. I’ll refer to these challenges under the umbrella of “film familiarity”.

Film familiarity can be divided into two primary components. The first one involves the fundamental tools that the medium uses to deliver an impact, which are visual and auditory stimuli. These stimuli also happen to be the variety of sensory information that most people are bombarded with most on a day to day basis. It may seem as if our familiarity with this sort of sensory information would make film analysis easier, but it actually generates one of the greatest challenges of understanding the form. Consider the written word; most literate people read in some capacity every single day, but they’re not exposed to nearly the same volume of text as they are to images and sounds. Furthermore, the text they’re exposed to in the form of cereal boxes and advertisements is a far cry from the text of literature. As a result, when someone sits down to read a poem, it’s an active and involved process. Because they’re not exposed to poetic language in their everyday life, there’s a degree of conscious effort that takes place to internalize it and interpret it. Each line is taken in, processed, and critically analyzed on at least a somewhat conscious level. The images and sounds of film, however, are far more familiar to the everyday person than the style of a poem. It feels more natural. When they watch a film they receive its emotional impacts, but they don’t need to consciously process the information they’re presented with in order to do so. Breaking down the film into its constituent parts feels unnecessary and unnatural, creating a barrier to understanding the technical elements of the medium.

The second part of film familiarity stems from the way the medium handles the passage of time. Now, written works have a limited degree of control over how much time the reader will spend on it. Tolkien, for instance, can make the journeys of his hobbits seem tortuous by tirelessly describing every last rock, tree, mountain, and bend in the road. But despite this, readers will spend varying amounts of time on each section. They’ll reread sentences that they don’t understand, savor the bits they enjoy most, and get through the boring sections as quickly as possible. The time controls of written works extend only as far as encouragement. A filmmaker, on the other hand, has total control over the duration of her work. She can select the exact total runtime and the precise duration of each scene. Barring bathroom breaks and intermittent pauses, and if a film is viewed as the creator intended, each viewer will be provided with the exact same runtime. Now, this is ignoring the frequent pauses that a film student or critic would employ in order to dissect certain scenes, but right now we’re referring only to the normal and intended delivery of a work. Undeniably, written works do not have the strict built-in duration that films have. This has a few important effects for the filmgoer. The most straightforward one is that the average viewer simply won’t have enough time to carefully dissect the piece. Since the film will go on and on despite the viewer’s thought processes, most people will not be able to carefully consider the intricacies of every shot and scene. The second, less straightforward effect is the subconscious encouragement towards passivity that a carefully controlled time structure generates. The controlled pace of a film means that a role that the audience would serve in the case of a written work is taken from them and relegated to the creators. Riding on the back of a motorcycle requires less attention than actually operating one. In the same way, the less work that an audience has to perform, the less attention they’ll need to pay to it. As a result, conscious effort must be taken to give a film the same attention as a novel or poem.

The funny thing about the medium is that if film familiarity is the primary stumbling block on the path to understanding the form, then one must actually become less comfortable with it in order to dissect it. They must consciously eliminate their rapport with the medium in order to be able to examine its technical elements. On the other hand, there must be some instinctual connection with the piece in order to be able to receive its intended emotional impact. Striking this balance between instinctual film familiarity and disinterested analysis is one of the greatest challenges that a student of film faces.

 

(This article is continued in a later post. Click here.)

Wes Anderson and Challenging Media

There’s no doubt that Wes Anderson is good at what he does. If you want a whimsical, storybookish piece of filmmaking, there’s nobody better in the world. I always feel as if I can reach out, pluck a film of his out of my TV screen, and prop it up next to pictures of long lost cousins in my grandmother’s house. There’s something undeniably cutesy about his films, and the strangest thing about them is that I enjoy them.

I spend the bulk of my movie-watching time suffering through crushing exhibitions of human misery. It’s not because I want to feel miserable; it’s just that those films tend to be the most emotionally impactful and worthwhile. On the other hand, I could just be enduring a years-long bout of belated teenage angst that demands a steady stream of Aronofskyan media. For the sake of my pride I’ll stick with the former explanation. But despite the immense value I see in challenging stories, there’s only so much I can handle. It’s important that I get a reprieve every now and then. When people eat loads of spicy food they built up a massive tolerance to heat. After extended periods of gustatory punishment they’re able to conquer foods of titanic Scoville levels, foods that would bring any mere mortal to his knees. However, their tolerance also means that they hardly notice foods of moderate spice that the common man would feel intimately.

 
That’s what I fear when I watch long strings of depressing films. I don’t want to be the guy that needs inhumanly spicy foods to feel anything. I need breaks between the eldritch abominations that I love so dearly or I won’t be able to appreciate them at all. This is what Anderson provides. His movies are cutesy, yes, but they’re also emotionally impactful, easy to watch, and fun. They’re well-crafted examples of modern filmmaking that help ensure I don’t become jaded. I enjoy Wes Anderson’s films because they’re such a far cry from the films I love.

We Need to Talk About Kevin

spoilers for We Need to Talk About Kevin

 

It’s always interesting to see how storytellers strip down their pieces to deliver a precise, focused message. Distilled narratives have always been far more fascinating to me than labyrinthine thickets of intersecting plotlines and heaps of deep characters. Perhaps my attention span is just sorely lacking, but I like to believe there’s something special about these barebones pieces. They capture the fundamental essence of a feeling and nothing more. It’s why I’m so fascinated by directors like Nicolas Winding Refn who strip down their films until there’s nothing left but unadulterated audiovisual stimuli.

 

I recently watched We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lynne Ramsay, and it does something novel to simplify its message down to the core. It’s a story about the relationship between a mother and a son, the latter of which turns out to be a misanthropic, hateful outcast. The film primarily concerns itself with the intersection between mother and son and the seemingly inevitable hatred present in some people, but there’s a moment when it could easily veer into the political. The film builds up to the son, Kevin, going on a killing spree at his high school. However, the filmmakers had no intention of making a film about gun control, so they made a simple narrative change: they had Kevin do his killing with a bow. 

 

It’s a simple change, but it radically changes how the piece is read. If he had used a firearm, there isn’t a shred of doubt in my mind that people would take the film as justification for stricter gun laws. But that’s not what the film is about. It was never intended to have a political message. It tells a story about evil and interdependency, nothing more and nothing less. Including a gun would muddle this message and greatly lessen the raw emotional impact that Kevin’s unstoppable decline has on the audience. We Need to Talk About Kevin shows the importance of focus in storytelling. A piece that tries to do too much can end up doing nothing at all.