Writing

Villeneuve’s Arrival and Balanced Innovation

(spoilers for Arrival)

Decrying the state of cinema has always been popular, but now it seems to be particularly in vogue. Recently, I’ve heard people argue that cinematic innovation is not just slow as a result of cultural trends, but because of artistic limitations as well. That is, after a century of development, everything that is worth doing in film has already been done. I’m not talking about technical innovations and gimmicks like Cinerama or 3D; I mean in the sphere of storytelling and film form. Looking back at the French New Wave era, or even the German Impressionist movement, I can definitely see why some critics aren’t pleased with the comparative innovative spirit of today’s cinema. But to claim that film has reached the apex of its development is, I think, shortsighted.

And I’m not just talking about the most obscure, avant-garde corners of the art form. In fact, I think some mainstream films are innovating more meaningfully than the least accesible experimental pieces. I recently watched Villeneuve’s Arrival, which sits firmly in the mainstream sphere, and I think it’s a perfect representation of balanced, meaningful innovation in film storytelling. It encapsulates exactly what a modern film ought to do in order to maintain a substantial audience while also exploring new artistic territory: take an old trope or technique and turn it on its head. It’s an old trick; taking old motifs or expected patterns and inverting them in some way has been popular among experimental musicians for a long time now, but only a select few filmmakers seem willing to do it.

In the case of Arrival, Villeneuve takes a tried and true tool of cinematic storytelling, the flashback, and uses it in a way that few filmmakers have attempted. Throughout the majority of the film, the protagonist (Louise) experiences what appear to be flashbacks to her life before the death of her daughter. Just as in any other film, these visions give the viewer context that frames her actions during the events of the film. However, at the film’s conclusion, it’s revealed that these supposed flashbacks are actually flashes forward: the alien language that Louise is studying enables people to experience time in a nonlinear fashion, and throughout the film she is actually seeing premonitions of events to come.

It’s a simple inversion. Villeneuve takes a standard cinematic tool and turns it on its head. There are no ridiculously long takes, no experimental color flashes, nor even any particularly obscure storytelling structures or techniques. These things are certainly valuable at time, but filmmakers looking to make movies that are both innovative and accessible should be thinking like Villeneuve: take an old trick and make it new.

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 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.

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.)

The Inseparability of Romanticism and Science

As a humanities-focused student and a “romantic” according to Robert Pirsig’s definition, I’ve always had some preconceived ideas about people who pursue math and science. For instance, I tend to think of them as fact-driven, emotionally detached from their investigations, and focused on the utilitarian outcomes of their work. Of course, some scientists probably fit this description fairly well, but a quote from Einstein raises another possible motivation for the pursuit of these disciplines that I hadn’t considered before. He claims that some scientists are drawn to their profession out of a desire to “escape from everyday life” and “[trace] out the restful contours apparently built for eternity.” It may not even be the useful outcomes of their investigations that draw them in, but the experience of the process itself. Human life is emotionally turbulent and opaque, often not understandable by cold logic alone. Science, on the other hand, relies entirely on objective observation. Although the process is challenging and involves countless missteps, the tools that garner answers in science are well-defined and easily observable. Perhaps these tools attract those who are turned away by the volatility of everyday life.

 

There is, however, a hint of irony in Einstein’s justification of scientific pursuits. Everyday life, just like science, could be broken down using methods of logic and inference. It’s just that the objective tools of scientific investigation are rarely applied in an informal setting, and therefore human life takes on the appearance of an impenetrable mystery marked with emotion and uncertainty. If we stick to Pirsig’s definition, then claiming that science is understandable via logic and everyday life isn’t is itself a highly romantic statement. It’s looking purely at the observable veneer of each pursuit: science as a chain of reasoning and life as an ever-changing combination of mysterious factors. A true scientific mindset would hold that life can just as easily be approached using logical tools of inference. Perhaps this tension, this inability to see the entirety of existence through an objective lens, shows that we all have a degree of romanticism within us. The tools we use to perform science may be based entirely on observation, but the motivations for utilizing them are not so pure. Even Einstein couldn’t deny that science is sometimes pursued for reasons beyond the purely utilitarian and logical.
Furthermore, science is also influenced by rules of morality and justice, rules that are based entirely on romantic intuitions about what is right and what is wrong. Beyond the evolutionary conditions that have trained us to cooperate with others, ethics are based primarily on emotion and instinct. Science, thankfully, is restrained by these ideas, which demonstrates that there is a degree of intuitive decision making that affects even the most objective discipline. It seems to be impossible to separate ourselves entirely from our romantic affectations, which is probably for the best.

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.