On the face of it, there is something alarmingly cliche about the new Star Trek movie, which clones a bunch of now-familiar Hollywood tropes into the comforting confines of the Starship Enterprise. From a storytelling standpoint, what I found most troubling was the ongoing Hollywood slavery to the concept of the ‘arc.’ Anyone who has read anything about the way screenplays are structured will be familiar with this concept, which states, essentially, that characters must start in one place and end in another; there must be a personal change as well as a physical one.
Or, The AFI List Project, #7: Lawrence of Arabia
I don’t know that Lawrence of Arabia is the greatest movie ever made, because I’m not sure that, in questions of taste, it’s possible to affix such definitive and concrete labels. I am sure, however, that it belongs to that very select group of films that have to be a part of that conversation; it is one of the few movies in history that delivers both deep narrative complexity and substantial sensual entertainment. And, if we are to discuss film as a visual medium, there may be no higher example of the visual art of moviemaking than Lawrence, with its vast landscapes and vividly saturated photography. Seen in a movie theater, one becomes aware that it is something akin to a miracle of cinema.
On Sunday, this year’s Best Picture winner is going to be crowned, and all indications suggest that the big winner on the night is going to be Argo. No one seems to be particularly upset about this – something of a relief a year after all the spittle spewed by cinephiles over the victory of The Artist – but it does mean that Django Unchained and Zero Dark Thirty, the two movies on the docket that probably have the most fervent groups of supporters, are likely to be shut out completely. That’s not upsetting to me personally – neither movie made the cut on my top five films of 2012 – but both films, as the objects of such fervent (if minority) admiration, as two of the most controversial releases of the year, and as the two best examples of contemporary American auteurism to be found in 2012, are deserving of further exploration.
Or, The AFI List Project #15: 2001: A Space Odyssey
For a movie so championed as a chilling parable of the final and necessary opposition between man and its mechanical creations, 2001: A Space Odyssey devotes remarkably little time to fleshing out the conflict between computer and the astronauts that it is trying to kill. “Open the pod bay doors, HAL,” has entered the lexicon as the most memorable line from cinema’s most celebrated piece of science fiction, but the movie is fixated on far more cosmic themes than Dr Bowman’s derring-do in dismantling his ship’s microchip brain. The origins of human behavior; the insignificance of man in the infinite scale of the heavens; birth, death, and resurrection – it is The Tree of Life, but better, in spaceships, and shot half a century earlier.
In a year of highly-hyped movies that were supposed to be great – that by all accounts should have been great – Looper is an anomaly, a comparatively small-budget (at $30 million) high-concept sci-fi that was almost under-marketed and that landed with a soft bang last weekend to universal praise and decent box office. It’s been drawing frequent comparisons to Inception, and with good reason: differences in scale aside, we’re not used to our action movies being intellectually challenging, and both films tackle mind-bending subject matter with similarly mind-bending directorial deftness. Just as notably, they’re both original creations in a world where the familiar is king.
I started writing a review of Paul Thomas Anderson’s newest offering The Master a week ago, in the aftermath of seeing it projected in glorious 70mm at the Arclight Dome in Hollywood. Yet the more I tried to say about it, the more I found myself wandering in different directions that had little to do with the movie I had actually watched: reflections on American auteurism, contrasts between the new film and Anderson’s previous work, and commentary on Anderson’s use of 70mm are all relevant to how we think about The Master, but all of them deal with the film as it exists in cinematic discourse rather than with the work of art itself.
At work, we’re deep in post on our latest project, and the last thing to polish off before it’s more or less in the can is the title sequence. That means that we’ve been knee deep in archival footage, font choices, and crawl edits, all towards figuring out what our sequence is going to say about the movie. For me, it’s also been a rare opportunity to reflect on an element of the movie narrative that stands outside of its normal rules but that can be used to great effect in enhancing helping the audience to understand what they’re seeing.
If you’re not aware, there’s a significant body of work done towards examining the motivations and processes of individual title sequences; in particular, I highly recommend taking a look at the work published at The Art of the Title, which first gave me the inkling that there might be more going on in these sequences than a simple announcement of who the Executive Producers of the movie were. My goal in this space is more general than anything there: to use the next thousand or so words to sketch out a couple of different ways that the title sequence can be used to enhance the movie that we’re watching.
WARNING: DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE DARK KNIGHT RISES.
Given the open ending and overwhelming critical and financial success of its predecessor, there may not be a movie in the history of cinema that was more certain to be made than The Dark Knight Rises. And, short, perhaps, of George Lucas’s second Star Wars trilogy, it may be that no previous movie has ever been the subject of such high expectations from its producers and its audience alike. On July 19th, a day before the movie opened, the possibility for both a Best Picture nomination and the title of highest-grossing film of all time were legitimately in play. And why not? Batman Begins, released in 2005, was by itself one of the best superhero movies that we’d seen to that point. The Dark Knight, three years later, redefined the model of what a superhero movie could be, and even led directly to a change in the structure of the Academy Awards. Meanwhile, director Christopher Nolan, in his breaks between movies, had directed a well-received Victorian magician drama in The Prestige and a Best Picture-nominated blockbuster in Inception. Reasons for optimism, in other words, were everywhere.
Or, The AFI List Project #60: Duck Soup
Comedy, especially satire, has never aged as well as drama, even from the ancient days. Aristophanes may be considered the first comedian, but it takes a thorough updating to make his satires watchable; the plays of his peers Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, meanwhile, can reliably be found, with few adjustments beyond translation, on stages across the world. It is no different in the movies: of the great comic acts of the first part of the century, it seems to me that only Charlie Chaplin’s films are still widely consumed, while the likes of Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers are remembered more as names and through their influence on later films than for their works themselves.