All entries for February 2008

February 27, 2008

a quotation.

The lent gods don't just hate me, they are disappointed in me.  I like to think that they are meeting, to create evil plans against me, whilst spinning round and round on the world's largest carousel in a roadside tourist attraction in Nowhere, USA.

Here's a quote that is making me think:

I hope to convincingly argue that there is a place in film studies for defining and defending important films.  What I mean by important films probably does imply something like a canon of great films, of films that are important because they are great films.  As such, important films are ones that require defense on the grounds of taste: a great film is important because it is a great film, not because it is popular, not because it presented the first application of a new technology, and not because it responded to a particular historical moment - though, of course, a great films might include any or all of these elements as a measure of its greatness.

   Richard Rushton, 'The New Film Studies and the Decline of Critique', Cineaction 72 (2007), p. 4.

I feel that this idea unwittingly plugs into the emerging discourses of cinephilia (e.g. Christian Keathley, Thomas Elsaesser, Rosenbaum/Martin) that I have been exploring recently.  The question, I suppose, is: are ideas about the 'great-ness' of the film really the stuff of an academic discipline?  Can you imagine accepting undergraduate essays entitled 'Why is Cloverfield a great film'?  Or would that take film studies to a place that is unsuitable for a university?

I've arrived at this juncture whilst contemplating why my project about the digitalisation of cinema should focus on Richard Linklater.  This is a question that I haven't quite resolved in my mind yet.



Here's some other stuff:



   * Steve Richards, 'Don't let a row over the Speaker obscure the value of what takes place in the Commons'
   * My Life is Choked with Comics, 'Hideshi Hino: Panorama of Hell'

And I'm currently amused by the Sarah Silverman and Jimmy Kimmel video exchange, and the Seth Rogen parody that has followed.

February 17, 2008

on cinema for the sake of it.

I quite frequently go to the cinema to see whatever is new and on.  This is mainly because I like to get out of the house; walking down the road in the cold with a big coat, hood and scarf, occupying about 3 seats for stuff in a near-empty matinee or early evening screening, finishing popcorn even before the trailers are finished and watching something chosen for its store-bought status as the week's major release is infinitely preferable to wandering around the house, occasionally reloading Facebook (although that probably says more about my work habits than anything). 

I don't perhaps get as angry at bad or average films as some of my peers so this is very rarely an entirely negative experience, and sometimes there are surprises and treats.  Anyway I believe that it's aces to explore your present culture, the time that you are living in.  We can't discount the possibility that film and cultural historians will look back at films that we now disregard, and wonder why they were so derided (this can often be the case with B-movies from the classical Hollywood period).  Watching new stuff is especially important for me right now, because my research is about uses of digital tools in cinema - which is very much 'breaking news', and the majority of contemporary releases are thematically relevant to it in one way or another.  I often try to find a good performance, or some ace set design or visual effects, or a pretty actress.  If nothing else, you can ask yourself "Why doesn't that film work?", which keeps your critical tools from becoming overwhelmed by a constant onslaught cinema 'classics' in a film department. 

David Bordwell wrote something recently about cinema releases in the first quarter that I agree with, and that perhaps echoes some of these ideas:

Yet this is a flush period for those of us who like to explore low-budget genre pieces. I have to admit I enjoy checking on those quickie action fests and romantic comedies that float up early in the year. They’re today’s equivalent of the old studios’ program pictures, those routine releases that allowed theatres to change bills often. In their budgets, relative to blockbusters, today’s program pix are often the modern equivalent of the studios’ B films.

I suspect that it may be a tiny bit different for us in the UK, as this is the time of year when we receive the onslaught of award-nominated films, the 'quality cinema', that was released in the US late in the year previous.  The last few weeks have seen No Country for Old Men, Juno, There Will Be Blood and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly released in the UK - as well as the deserved return of Away From Her, thanks to Julie Christie's Oscar nomination.  Still, there's plenty of genre films around - particularly at the Leamington Apollo, which often inexplicably shows genre movies that aren't really being shown in many multiplexes (often at the expense of something else that you'd expect to see - I haven't quite forgiven them for not showing Superbad last year).  

This was going to be an introduction to a post about Jumper, but it's gotten a little unwieldy.  On Jumper tomorrow, then.  I think there's a cool idea in it.


February 15, 2008

some weekend things.

A Friday random-stuff-you-might-enjoy-if-we-share-the-same-interests post.

I might add some more later when I've read a little more today. 

* I'm planning on doing a preview of EliteXC tomorrow.  Probably on one or two of the undercard fights, rather than Kimbo vs Tank which already has heaps written about it.

And finally, I bought tickets this morning for this in Birmingham!  Yeah!

danlesac.jpg


the old–ness of competing elements.

This is an issue that I have been meaning to write about for a little while - probably since I read 'Digital Encounters' by Aylish Wood, an interesting and clear book.  There is an idea about aesthetic differences in cinema galvanised by digital technologies that I have been testing in probably every film I've seen since.  It struck me again yesterday when watching Little Miss Sunshine whilst eating take-away pizza - as a sort of forgetting-Valentines activity.

In the introduction to 'Digital Encounters', Aylish Wood writes:

I will argue that digital technologies have led to an increasing appearance of competing elements in digital effects cinema, games and gallery installation art, and that the degree to which viewers have to distribute their attention varies within the organization of the interface. (4) 

This idea ties together aesthetic developments across several different media.  Digital aesthetics have concurrently developed, according to Wood, towards increasing the freedom of the viewer/user; towards providing the viewer/user with more "embodied agency".  It's important to note that this is posited as a general  trend (rather than a rule), and Wood does acknowledge that "the opportunities for agency available to a viewer depend on the different ways interfaces distribute a viewer's attention" (82).  We can find a similar idea in Mark Hansen's Philosophy of New Media, although his focal point is gallery installations.

My principal interest is what Wood calls 'digital effects cinema'.  I personally dislike the 'effects' in that term but can't offer a better one here - what we're studying is any films that use digital technologies.  Wood translates her idea to reference this cinema when she writes:

...when effects are visible on screen in a way that competes for a viewer's attention their impact is different, generating both a spatial and time-based engagement where watching one thing means not watching another. (86, my emphasis)

Most obviously, this can refer to a film such as Timecode (Mike Figgis) that has four different frames on-screen at the same time.  The notion of 'watching one thing means not watching another' seems to work here, when there is more than one frame - and Anne Friedberg has developed a similar line of argument about digital technologies in her (ace) book The Virtual Window

Wood also sees this broad aesthetic trend in blockbuster films that use a lot of CGI, because digital technologies can give 'life' to objects or entities.  For example, in the film Twister the tornado, although not personified per se, acts as if it is 'alive' - Wood describes it as a 'dynamic element'.  She writes:

The tornadoes are made credible by being integrated with the human figures, but at the same time they compete for a viewer's attention, redistributing it between the character and non-character elements.  As spatial objects they have meaning beyond that given to them by character actions. (54)

Therefore we can see how the same broad theory about digital aesthetics describes both Timecode and Twister within the terms of Wood's argument.  The central characteristic is a mise-en-scéne that contains 'competing elements', parts of an image that distribute the viewer's attention; in other words, to make a shot more complicated or layered by the presence of more-than-one potential focal points.  My question is: is this a characteristic of digital technologies in cinema?  Or is it just a relatively common characteristic of cinema?   Is 'pre-digital' cinema, or even post-digital cinema that doesn't use digital tools in overt ways, characterised on the whole by images with a single focal point?  Or can we find more examples of 'competing elements', separate from aesthetic developments engendered by digital technologies?

Let's look at a shot from Little Miss Sunshine, taken from what is in my opinion the film's most moving sequence.   As the family's van nears their destination, Olive is passing the time by giving her brother Dwayne an eye test from a free card taken at the hospital.  It transpires that Dwayne is colour-blind, and therefore unable to fly a jet in the air force (his dream, towards which he has taken a vow of silence for 9 months).  He freaks out, the family stop the van, and he runs down a ridge screaming whilst the rest of the family remain at the top.  I remember seeing this sequence in the Ashford cinema with my hand over my mouth, at a time when I was really worried that studying films had removed some of their emotional effect for me.

Olive, his sister, walks down to comfort Dwayne - and just gives him a simple hug, resting her head against his shoulder.  In the shot that depicts this beautiful gesture, Olive and Dwayne are in the foreground on the right side of the frame.  Further to the left, in the distant background, we can see Richard, Sheryl and Frank standing at the top of the ridge looking on.  Olive's gesture lasts several, almost silent seconds before Dwayne says, "Okay, let's go."  To me however, this shot contains at least five 'competing elements', that is things that a viewer could pleasurably look at whilst missing other potential pleasures, in the form of the characters. 

little miss sunshine screen grab

We can concentrate on Olive, walking towards Dwayne (which creates suspense, as Sheryl has already failed to comfort him and we are unsure of how she is going to act towards him, and vice versa) and then quietly making the aforementioned gesture.  Looking at her, we can see that she understands and cares for her brother.  Or we can look at Dwayne - and notice his sharp intake of breath when Olive touches him, or how he stifles a cry, or how he lightly shakes his head in a way that implies "Life has fucked me over, but Olive's competition is important right now and I've got to accept that".  Or Sheryl's worried and nervous glances from side to side in the background.  Or the direct contrast made between Frank and Richard: Frank keeps his arms tied behind his back, remaining composed and respectful, whilst Richard has his arms by his side in an impatient manner.  Richard doesn't want to be late, he doesn't want Olive to miss the contest because then she (and, by extension, he) will be a loser.

The shot is carefully composed in a way that ensures that all the characters are visible simultaneously.  In our view, Richard's left foot stands directly behind Olive's right shoulder - not one character is placed in a way that would impair our vision of another (or, indeed, the still camper van).  I've gathered this information by pausing, re-winding and watching the 10-15 second shot three or four times over - I don't think you could glean it all from one single viewing.  Yet it is all there, several elements are presented to the viewer to choose from - each potentially at the expense of the other.  And not one of these elements are given their central qualities, their heart, by a digital technology - these are provided by excellent performances, one of cinema's most traditional tools.

I've chosen Little Miss Sunshine because I watched it last night, and this shot struck me.  It could be argued, I suppose, that Little Miss Sunshine is a contemporary film, and that the aesthetics of contemporary cinema have been changed, as a whole, by developments in digital technologies.  The logic of this suggests that, thanks to trailblazing films such as Twister, audiences now expect competing elements otherwise they view images as too simplistic.  I would refute this argument by pulling a copy of La Regle du Jeu from the shelf - which is full to the brim with comparable sequences.

I do really like a lot of Wood's book, but I'm just not sure that, in the process of marrying ideas about different forms that have all been profoundly affected by digitalisation, she hasn't created a theory about digital technologies in cinema that is too broad to be completely useful.  As it is, it just isn't a new aesthetic phenomenon.   


February 13, 2008

a few things that struck me about juno.

I got to see Juno at the Apollo this past Sunday afternoon, and I really really liked it.  It is quite twee, and has a striking soundtrack appropriate to such a tone (Moldy Peaches, Belle and Sebastian et al), but if I'm honest I REALLY LIKE TWEE THINGS.  I'm all for objects that try to express honesty through simple-ness or childish-ness.  Juno immediately establishes this frequency for itself with a patchwork-animation title sequence and a theme song by children's songwriter Barry Louis Polisar (which is, simply enough, entitled 'All I Want Is You').

Juno is one of the more attractive female characters in the cinema of my recent memory.  She is funny, she is artistic, she is enthusiastic about outmoded pop culture (she namechecks The Stooges and Dario Argento), she makes a novelty pipe look cool.  She is as witty as Enid from Ghost World (minus the bitterness) and as romantic as Amelie - and, indeed, her enormous nighttime gestures towards Bleeker (moving a furniture set across town, filling his mailbox with orange Tic-Tacs) feel like they owe a debt to that French lady.  She doesn't appear to think too hard about the implications or consequences of her actions (see: her pregger-ness), which are signs of an immature, teenage sensibility, but she doesn't try to dodge or be dishonest about her problems.  You get the impression that she'll learn from her mistakes and move on.   

It's important for this film to have such a sympathetic protagonist, because she carries all of its emotional weight - it wants to believe that her innocence and romanticism can be widespread.   She is placed into a social world populated by, strictly speaking, broken or unconventional families.  We find out early on that Juno's mother abandoned their family when Juno was still young.  Further to this, we only ever see Bleeker's mother (leaving open the suggestion that his father has left) and Vanessa & Mark, the couple in whom she invests so much, fall apart.  It is this latter development that leads her to ask her father, "I just need to know if it's possible for two people to stay happy together forever." - a question that I think is at the heart of this movie.  It is at this point that she, and we, look again at the families to be shown the kindness and love that hold them together.  Although her mother left at a young age, perhaps Juno and family are not badly off at all.

I'm really interested in the relationship between Vanessa and Mark.  The decision to get divorced is made so unbelievably quickly (Mark tells Juno that he's planning on leaving Vanessa, Juno storms out of the house and is confronted by Vanessa, Mark has divorce papers about one scene later) that it makes me ask if they got married at a similar speed.  When Juno spots Vanessa at the mall, my first reaction (probably because of Juno's instinct to duck out of sight and spy) was to feel suspicious - what is she doing?  why isn't she at work?  has she been lying? - when the reality of the situation is way more innocent and sweet. 

There's a great moment where Vanessa is painting the nursery, and she's wearing an old Alice in Chains t-shirt splattered with paint.  The t-shirt undoubtedly belonged to Mark, and Vanessa - having deemed it too old or unsuitable for Mark at his age - now uses it as a disposable item.  I'd be willing to bet money that Mark resents this - he feels that he can still go see Alice in Chains if he wants to, and mosh along with the kids.  This type of scenario, and the argument that they later have at the end of their relationship, raises the oft-cited masculine problem or confusion: feeling like a relationship is somehow stifling your self.  Perhaps it is possible to hold up Juno's father or Bleeker as alternative solutions or retorts to this problem - I'm not sure.

A lot has been said or written about Juno's relationship to the politics of abortion (and I do have one or two thoughts about this - her decision to not get an abortion seems to be represented as irrational and borne out of fear, which would seem to be a sidestep away from making a clear point on this issue), but I much prefer a reading that emphasises the film's belief in love, not only in the romantic sense, but also between family members and friends.  It is all very, very sweet.  I like that.

P.S I plan to see the movie again sometime over the next couple days, so perhaps will share more detailed thoughts about it. 


dear 'lent' gods.

Dear 'Lent' Gods,

I'm sorry for breaking my 'one post a day' pledge.  I was having dinner at James and Louise's house, and didn't get around to it.  I promise to make up for it.  I want to write about Juno and about World Extreme Cagefighting this evening.  Please forgive me.

Thanks,

Tom.


February 11, 2008

reckless moment 11/2

I'm not going to get a chance today to write properly, because this afternoon I'm writing about Tape and digital video for my latest chapter (I hope to share some ideas that come out of this later in the week) and compering this evening.  I don't want to rush my next planned entry as I really liked Juno and such admiration will take a little time to express.  Therefore - more of a note today, just to keep in the habit. 

THE RECKLESS MOMENT
MONDAY 11TH FEBRUARY
With: Tom Hughes & Pete Falconer

Special guests: KEVIN SHEPHERD, Heather Charlton, Phil Hasted, Dave Howat, Iszi Lawrence & Joey Page.

Downstairs at Robbins' Well, bottom of the parade
8.30 doors 9 show
price £2
NO SHIRT, NO SERVICE!

I'm hosting this show this evening.  Kevin Shepherd is a really underrated comedian - he's been on the circuit for longer than I've been watching live comedy, and I've never seen him be less than hilarious.  I'm also excited about seeing Joey Page, as he comes highly recommended by Matthew from Pappy's Fun Club.  Iszi has been good on her last couple of appearances at Reckless, and I'm looking forward to seeing Heather's first gig in ages.  I don't know Phil Hasted or Dave Howat - but it's always lovely to watch new comedians and meet new people. 

And here's some recommended reading:


February 10, 2008

escaping from side control.

I was going to watch the Detroit vs Anaheim hockey game (sounds great, and I haven't watched a whole hockey game since Christmas holidays), but the combination of our overloaded-at-eveningtime Internet connection and upgrades at the legally dubious streamtvnow has denied me.  I guess that I'll write in here and read comics instead.

My shoulders, back, hips and left leg are aching from Brazilian jiu-jitsu yesterday morning.  I'm really, really enjoying it though - it has been years since I begun to learn a new sport, and there's something about this one that feels unique and exciting.  I even spent 30 quid on my own gi yesterday!  For the win!  This week I learnt a technique to be used to escape when your opponent is in side control.   

side control.

This photo shows what side control is.  The guy in the black gi is in side control, and yesterday I learnt one thing you can do if you are in the same position as the dude with the blue gi.  (I stole the photo from grapplearts.com).

First, you create space on the right side by lifting your hips (this is known as 'bridging') and pulling your right elbow down against your opponent's hip.  You then bridge your hips again, and roll your left arm underneath your opponent's chin until your hand is rested upon their shoulder, with your wrist and forearm under their chin.  It's really important that, when doing this last bit, you roll your arm under the chin rather than circling it towards their shoulder.  We were told that if you leave your arm dangling like this, it gives your opponent an opportunity to execute an Americana armlock - though I don't know how to do that yet!

Okay, here's the tough bit.  You perform a movement that is known in bjj as 'shrimping', which entails pushing from your legs to shunt your hips backwards (i.e. out of your opponent's control).  In this case, the dude in the blue gi would move his hips clockwise and bend his right leg (whilst keeping the left leg straight).  You can then exert your bent right knee against your opponent's stomach - and then push with your knee and your arm (that is against their shoulder) to create more space.  With this two-pronged leverage, you'll hopefully be able to get back into the guard position (where you have your opponent's body locked between your legs).  You may need to slip your left leg between their legs and use it to force their body away.  

I found it really difficult, and I'm still not convinced that I've remembered all of the detailed movements.  It's great living with Rosie, because we can practice on each other - so hopefully I'll be acquainted with it before the next practice this Saturday.

Okay.  Comics now.  Juno tomorrow. 


February 09, 2008

have i waited too long?

The mystery vegetable was a celeriac - which I had suspected anyway. 

New Found Glory played at the Colosseum Kasbah in Coventry last night.  I like them, I really do.  They sing soppy songs about girls, in a way that knows and admits that girls are AWESOME.  These tunes are not really traditional songs of romance and true love; they can be caught moaning about a girl who isn't interested, but you totally get the impression that they'll get over it soon because they just can't get away from how much darn fun girls are.  This creates fun, bouncy pop-punk songs with fun lyrics like 'Remember the time we wrote our names upon the wall?  Remember the time we realised Thriller was our favourite song?'. 

To me the very idea of this gig was a bit ridiculous, because I spent many Thursday nights as an undergrad jumping around to 'Hit or Miss' and 'My Friends Over You' in the Colly.  The fact that the band were coming to play those hits live was a bit surreal - you may as well expect Rage Against The Machine or The Libertines to add Coventry to their tour schedule.  My second thought, when I saw this gig announced, was that I hope they play in the side room and that there are only 30 people there.  Gigs in Coventry have never been particularly well attended - why should New Found Glory be any different?  If there were just 30 people there, they wouldn't be able to ignore our obscure requests.  Oh no.  I was therefore disappointed to find that there were about 1398120482304 people there (but happy for the band, I guess), and that the main room was PACKED.  Like, properly PACKED.  You couldn't even get inside the room in the left door (there was a little more space by the right door).    

This wasn't the reason I didn't really enjoy the gig.  It was completely underwhelming.  I think the main problem was the sound, which was really fuzzy and unclear.  Jordan's (the singer) microphone also seemed to be playing up towards the end - he looked the tinest bit frustrated in the last few songs.  NFG on a Friday night is also geared to a party atmosphere - lots of singalongs, jumping around and fun covers (they've just released a new album of movie covers, so there was even more of these - they played 'It Ain't Me, Babe', 'Iris', 'Kiss Me' and probably some others I can't remember) - and I just wasn't down with the party that night.  School had been difficult Friday, and I had appalling sleep on Thursday night.  You can't really judge a band solely upon musical performance when the singer puts the microphone in the crowd for the crowd to singalong in every chorus.  It's more about the party - like it was when they played Reading 2007. 

A shame, as it should've been amazing.  They did play 'My Friends Over You' in the encore though, and I'm prepared to forgive them loads solely because of that song and how damn good it is. 

Here's some recommended weekend viewing:



New Found Glory - My Friends Over You music video.



Masakatsu Ueda vs Atsushi Yamamoto from Shooto Back To Our Roots 7 26/01/08 - an awesome fight.  Starts with some explosive looking stand-up by Yamamoto, and then turns into a really advanced grappling war.

I wrote this blog whilst listening to 'White Doves & Smoking Guns' by The A.K.As, and 'Proof of Youth' by The Go! Team.  The Go! Team are awesome, but I'm STILL undecided about that A.K.As album.


February 08, 2008

Vegetables.

I'm in the process of coming off some medication right now, and one of the side-effects is supposed to be insomnia.   I don't know if it counts as insomnia or not, but I'm having crazy trouble sleeping this week.  Therefore I'm really tired right now and haven't had the best day, so I'm off to bed soon.  Yet I'm not giving up all that easily.   By way of a blog today, here is what I received in my weekly organic vegetable bag today - which I will detail later in the week how I use:

  • One bag of kale.
  • A fruit bag containing oranges (Sevilles, perhaps), tomatoes, red apples and kiwi fruit.
  • A handful of mushrooms.
  • 2 swedes.
  • 2 onions.
  • 4 carrots.
  • Lots of potatoes.
  • A mystery vegetable.  I'll post a photo tomorrow to attempt identification.
I really like food.  And I really like Gaia.  Good night.


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