Posts Tagged ‘film’

I have a blind spot in my thinking. It’s a blind spot that’s shared by many of us who are privileged in our access to education or technology. It’s a bias that skews our analysis and leaves glaring gaps in our worldview.

Malwen pointed out such a gap in my CURNBLOG piece on changes to film distribution, and I want to address that gap. But first, lets have a look at that bias.

A lesson in logic

Years ago, on the train back from my Grandma’s funeral, I got into a discussion about religion with a Baptist minister. I don’t remember his name, but he seemed like a Dave, so we’ll call him that.

It was an interesting conversation to have with a stranger, especially one who was well informed on his subject. I’d been reading Camus and Dawkins at the time and came out with a lot of well-reasoned arguments around evidence and human experience, explaining why I found the basis of so much faith unconvincing. I just couldn’t understand why people bought into it. I thought that if they just thought about it they’d realise it didn’t make sense.

Then Dave presented a point that completely blew my mind.

Most people don’t think like me.

I was a humanities graduate from a prestigious (read old-fashioned, arrogant but incredibly well staffed) university. I was a post-graduate student trained to dismantle the world through logic and reason. I had spent half my life ploughing through piles of books. I was surrounded by other people who spent their leisure time debating these issues.

The arguments I was deflating, Dave pointed out, weren’t intended for me. They were the way other people got into religion, people who didn’t approach the world the way I did. To them, those arguments made far more sense than my high-level logic. That was why so many people believed in a way that made no sense to me.

Mind. Blown.

This is your brain on logic

This is your brain on logic

 

So, cinema…

Skip forward 13 years, and I’ve just written what I consider an insightful peace on changes in the entertainment industry. I’m pretty proud of it. I’m getting some nice comments on the post.

Then Malwen says:

while very many people have access over the Internet to films, there are some who have no access and so are dependent on the old forms of distribution, and those, like me, who have access but with bandwidth too low to download or stream film’

And I’m right back in that train, slapping myself on the forehead for my narrow world view.

It’s not that my argument about where distribution is going is wrong. Hollywood’s most profitable audience is well-to-do westerners, and the ones with the latest toys pull the rest along with them. The changes I wrote about will happen, because the behaviour of people like me will allow certain forms of culture to prosper.

But what about everybody else?

Well, it depends how broad a picture you draw. There are plenty of people in the world with no access at all to the entertainment I’m privileged to have. They still won’t get my bright new future of online distribution, but that’s not a priority for them. Because lets not forget, while I’m watching the latest Joss Whedon film there are people starving. The world is amazing, and at the same time terrible.

For those who watch films but don’t have access to the new distribution technology, old approaches will remain. There will be cinemas. There will be DVD rental. There won’t be as many, and they’ll struggle, but they’ll survive by catering to their audiences, by giving them these same films as quickly as they can. People without suitable streaming technology will be at a disadvantage, there’s no doubting it. But they won’t be entirely abandoned.

And.

Because there’s an ‘and’ to balance the ‘but’.

The technology that’s making all this available is speeding up the pace of change. It leads to people getting what they want sooner. It’s leading to cheaper and easier access to technology.

I’m an optimist. I really do believe that more and more people will get access to technology that lets them experience the whole sphere of human knowledge and culture. Some people are being left behind, but the human desires to know and to share, along with business’s desire to make money out of everyone, are starting to close the gap.

The internet empowers people to take the information they want. The businesses and organisations that succeed will be the ones that support that, not fight it. And so the signal gets shared.

Closing the logic gap

My article in CURNBLOG told half the story. Failing to acknowledge that was an ignorant, privileged way to tell it. But there’s hope in the other half of the story too. Because while not everything humans do is flawless, we are building a better world.

 

Explosion picture by Maxwell Hamilton via Flickr creative commons

Just a quick note to say that I’ve got a guest post up today at CURNBLOG, a blog about films. It’s another piece on the distribution of In Your Eyes, this time expanding upon the creative implications of this distribution model. If you’re interested in film or in the changing nature of creative businesses then you might want to give it a read, and maybe have a look at the other interesting film articles on CURNBLOG.

Hey, did you all notice that cool cameo by Ed Brubaker in Captain America: The Winter Soldier? Seriously, sinister scientist number two was played by one of the greatest living comic book writers. What a guy. What a beard.

Trust me, he was there, thought without that hat

Trust me, he was there, thought without that hat, and with more beard

OK, if that one passed you by did you notice Stan Lee in his role as a museum security guard? Of course you did. Stan turns up in every Marvel film these days. He was even on a train in Agents of SHIELD. You don’t need your comic nerd friend to point him out to you any more – he’s one of the most recognisable faces in the whole Marvel Movie Universe.

I have huge admiration for Stan Lee. His plots and dialogue are old-fashioned for my tastes, but the guy co-created some of the greatest characters in comic book history and was instrumental in making Marvel the giant it is today.

But having him turn up in every film makes it seem like he’s the guy behind every aspect of Marvel ever. Which is true, except for the many characters he didn’t create. And the fact that they were all co-creations with artists. And the fact that all of those characters have been given their depth and richness by generations of writers, not just Stan.

Art is never really a lone activity. It’s about collaboration, not isolated acts of genius, and the cult of the individual creator bugs me. It’s why the endless Stan Lee cameos are starting to vex me as much as they amuse. Maybe it’s time to cut down on Stan’s screen time and give some of it to his hundreds of collaborators down the years.

 

Ed Brubaker picture copyright Luigi Novi / Wikimedia Commons

Peter Jackson has changed the title of the third Hobbit film from There and Back Again to The Battle of the Five Armies. So what, many might say. After all, isn’t this just marketing?

No. The title of a story matters. It sets the tone. It prepares your expectations. It says something about what you’re about to see. It’s a part of how you tell the story.

'I was blond and clean shaven when I started watching this film.'

‘I was blond and clean shaven when I started watching this film.’

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a story about the military, about cold war style spy shenanigans, about people frozen in time. The name sets the tone perfectly.

The Book With No Name is a story about wise-cracking criminals and chancers, with a supernatural element thrown in. The attempt of the title to evoke something mysterious mis-sells the book, sets false expectations and generally doesn’t work.

Jackson knows what he’s doing. You might not agree with his approach to the Hobbit movies, but there’s no doubting that he’s a very capable film-maker. The change of name shows a shift in focus to epic warfare, away from the whimsy that lay at the heart of the original book. Sure, the battle was part of that story, but it was the culmination of a journey towards grandeur, not the focus of the story.

Jackson’s gone big with these films, and he’s clearly setting out his stall in re-naming the film. Personally, I think that turning the Hobbit into a multi-film epic in the style of The Lord of the Rings is a mistake, but given what he’s doing the re-naming is clearly the right choice.

Anybody got any good examples of stories with perfect names, or terribly misleading ones? I’m sure there are better examples out there than the first two that popped into my head.

‘I want to know what you feel like.’

It might sound like a simple, twee sentiment, but that sentence lies at the emotional heart of In Your Eyes, and stands for so much that is beautiful about the film. Written by Joss Whedon and directed by Brin Hill, In Your Eyes is a simple story built around a single central idea – two people who have never met but who find themselves seeing the world through each other’s eyes. It uses this one strand of magical realism* to up-end normal human experiences of intimacy, creating a powerful exploration of what love means.

Zoe Kazan as Rebecca

Zoe Kazan as Rebecca

In another’s eyes

The film’s fantastical element – the connection that lets Rebecca and Dylan experience the world through each other’s senses – is the most obvious way in which the film shows the experience of love. It’s an unambiguous metaphor for love as a shocking, transformative experience, one that makes us see the world in new and wonderful ways. It leads us to see everything from the point of view of another person, to whose perspective we find ourselves intimately bound.

Think of that moment when you started singing along to a terrible pop song because your date loved it; or your boyfriend made you realise how cute pug dogs are; or you noticed just how exciting horses were to your children. The film evokes this experience many times, most obviously when Rebecca builds a snowman for Dylan and he in return shows her a New Mexico sunset. They see the world through the eyes of love, and its wonders are revealed.

The confidence to continue

Seeing themselves through each other’s eyes brings out another aspect of love that the film explores – love as a bringer of confidence.

When someone else tells you that they love you, when they not only say but show that they think you’re special, it’s an incredible confidence boost. It puts that extra skip in your step, knowing that you are worthy of being valued, worthy of love. The little voices putting you down in your head don’t have to win.

There’s a wonderful moment in the film when Dylan sees Rebecca in a mirror for the first time and tells her how beautiful he thinks she is. You can see that confidence growing in her face, overcoming the belittling she has suffered at the hands of her husband. Each of these two lovers gives the other confidence, and they get it back in return. It’s wonderful.

Connecting to another, connecting to you

This shocking, unexpected connection that Dylan and Rebecca make, this magical, wonderful thing helps each of them to connect more deeply with themselves as well as each other. It gives each of them the confidence to explore their own feelings and failings, their own past and their potential future. In stark contrast with the husband who throws out Rebecca’s photos, or the old friends forcing Dylan down a path he does not want, Dylan and Rebecca support each other in becoming more self-aware, more connected with their emotions. It’s a connection that makes each of them less reliant on others while building an intimacy that they’ve never shared with anyone else.

It’s the beauty and the paradox of love as explained by Joss Whedon.

A film worth loving

It would by easy to dismiss In Your Eyes as just another love story, but it’s so much more than that. In Cabin in the Woods, Joss Whedon explored horror conventions in a way that was both affectionate and challenging. Here he does the same for love stories. What he says about love may not contain anything completely new, but he brings it together with a beauty and a freshness that left me grinning as I fell asleep last night.

It helps that the script is alternately funny and touching, as with so much of Whedon’s work, that the cast give great performances, and that it is often beautifully shot.

You can see the first few minutes for free and instantly hire the whole thing on Vimeo, and I really can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s a beautiful film, it’s still a relatively daring approach to distribution, and it’s well worth your time and money.

Go, watch, and reflect anew on love.

And once you’ve watched it leave a comment below, let me know what you think.

 

 

 

* When I see the  phrase ‘magical realism’ I read the word ‘fantasy’. It’s a phrase that seems to have been invented by the literary establishment to avoid admitting that they’re reading, writing and enjoying stories that share a genre connection with The Dresden Files and all those shelves full of paranormal romances. But it’s also a useful phrase, as it’s now come to imply a particular type of fantasy, usually with a modern, realistic setting and only one or two fantastical leaps of imagination.

I admit, I didn’t think I could admire Joss Whedon any more than I already do. Kick-ass script-writer, eloquent feminist, architect of the intricately impressive Marvel movie universe, and bearer of a stylish beard. How could he get any more awesome?

Answer: by creating a charming-looking indie genre film and releasing it straight onto the internet.

Leaping joyfully forward

We all know that the internet is undermining established cultural distribution channels. Record stores are dying in the face of iTunes and file sharing. Amazon is gutting the big chain bookstores, leaving the quirky and the unique to re-emerge from the rubble. Illegal streaming services are the bane of the film and TV industries.

Creative businesses have basically two options when faced with this.

Firstly, they can dig their heels in and get defensive. This is the approach that involves lobbying for harsher copyright prosecutions, that tries to limit internet access to stop file sharing. It’s putting a huge effort not into giving customers what they want – easier access to the products they enjoy – but into preventing it.

The other option is to go with the flow, to recognise that people don’t just file share because it’s free, they also do it because it’s easy and convenient. Give them that ease and convenience, the opportunity to watch the latest films and shows in their own home at a time that suits them and without the interruption of adverts, and most will pay for it.

In Your Eyes

This is what Joss has done, releasing his latest film, In Your Eyes, straight onto a paid streaming service at the same time as its premier yesterday. Rather than digging in his heels he’s leaping joyfully forward into the new era, setting an awesome precedent for others. Sure he still works for the big conservative studios too, but that gives him the money, trust and publicity to achieve things like this.

Plus it gives us the interconnected joy of the Marvel movie universe, so yay for that.

I haven’t had time to watch In Your Eyes yet, but you can be sure that I will, and that I’ll come back here to enthuse about it at great length. Unless it’s bad of course, but this is Joss Whedon so I can’t see that happening.

In the meantime, lets take a moment to appreciate the wonder that is the man Whedon.

Mm, beard.

I mostly prefer to read and watch new things, but lets face it, there’s a part of all of us that craves the comfortable and the familiar. This weekend some friends stayed over with their young daughter, who will often have cartoons on in the background while she’s playing. In the space of 24 hours she insisted on The Pirates in an Adventure With Scientists twice and Despicable Me three times. That desire for the familiar is deeply ingrained, even in those for whom the whole world is full of novelty and wonder.

We shouldn’t be surprised that we get a lot of familiar, derivative cultural outputs. They’re something that our brains crave, that help us recharge between the new and the adventurous.

And hey, who doesn’t want to watch The Pirates in an Adventure With Scientists over and over again?

 

Progress is a problematic idea, one that rings an idealistic bell for some people, but for others smacks of smug superiority. Once seen by our society as an obvious ideal, it’s now challenged and made more complex, struggling to retain its original idealistic shine.

It therefore seems appropriate that Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Marvel’s latest superhero blockbuster, raises issues of progress in the Marvel universe, the Marvel brand and beyond. Because that description of the problem of progress is also the problem of Cap.

Captain America

 

A reader’s progress

My view of Captain America has changed over the years, as I suspect it has for any reader who’s stuck with him. When I started reading superhero comics I was put off by what looked looked like a symbol of blind patriotism. But then I started reading comics with him in, particularly those written by Ed Brubaker and Mark Millar, and I saw something else. Not jingoism but idealism, a dream of what a nation and a person should aspire towards. More nuanced and reflective than that costume might make you think, but still with his ideals intact.

This marked progress in my understanding of characters like Cap, the way that, even if I don’t buy into everything they represent, the way they represent it can be of value. I’m not patriotic, but Cap showed me how even that ideal could be a positive influence.

This mixed up Captain America, bound by an ideal of his country rather than blind loyalty to it, is the Cap that we get to see on screen. He’s a man out of time, a less cynical figure from a less cynical age, who challenges us to stand up for ideals. It’s not that he isn’t conflicted, but that he doesn’t let himself become jaded. Chris Evans is brilliant in that role, one of the best bits of casting in recent mainstream cinema, really bringing the character alive.

A company’s progress

Marvel have made great progress since they set up their own film production team. Sure, it hasn’t all been an upward curve – progress never is. But they’ve found the confidence to try different styles, as exemplified by the darker, half thriller tone of The Winter Soldier, and by the upcoming cartoonish space romp of Guardians of the Galaxy (for which I am super excited – seriously, have you seen how fun that trailer is?).

They’ve also gained more confidence in tying their films together. They started out with little nods and post-credit sequences. Then they gained faith in what they were doing and went a bit too far, with a chunk of Iron Man 2 that served continuity at the expense of the film. Now they’ve become more confident again and so don’t over-sell it, simply re-using characters and elements, like when Agent Sitwell emerges from bit parts and DVD extras to take on a significant role in this film. It adds richness for those who watch all the films, and does no harm for the casual viewer.

It’s this balance of variety and interconnectedness that’s making the Marvel movie universe so compelling.

Progress in the film

Which brings me round at last to the theme of progress within Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

There are some obvious nods to the wonders that progress can achieve, like when Cap gets introduced to the sweet sound of Marvin Gaye. There’s also an acknowledgement of its alienating effect, as Cap suffers from an extreme form of the alienation many people feel in a fast changing world.

But progress really comes to the fore when we learn about the plan of the film’s villains. This is forced progress, one group’s view of the future being pushed forward at vast cost to the rest of mankind. It’s the sort of progress that 20th century dictators were so fond of, pushing society down a controlled path towards what they saw as its inevitable destination. It’s progress towards oppression.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a story of the benefits and the dangers of progress, but like Cap the film retains its idealism, showing that even through setbacks we keep moving towards better things.

Progress in our depictions

The film’s central plot is also a sign of progress in how we discuss one of the biggest political issues of recent decades – the ‘War on Terror’. At first those using the arts to critically discuss this movement were shouted down. Then critiques began to emerge on the fringes and through subtle metaphors. These became more blatant and more popular – The Wire being a fine example – until a decade later we’ve reached the point where a multi-million-dollar Hollywood blockbuster can turn a thinly veiled analogy for the War on Terror into its central villainous plot.

When a taboo subject becomes the centre of a Captain America film, we can feel confident that people feel free to speak their minds.

So that was good then

I really enjoyed Captain America: The Winter Soldier. As a cinematic experience it was full of action and excitement. As a source of reflection afterwards it’s been surprisingly thought provoking. It’s got to be seen as another success for Marvel, and I can’t wait to see the next.

If you like the Marvel movies then you should go out and see this one. If not then you can probably wait until it’s on TV. But you should all still be excited for Guardians of the Galaxy, because seriously, have you seen that trailer? That’s some big, dumb, fun progress right there.

 

I love monkeys. Not in the bad way, like those ancient folks who bred with horses and gave us the centaur menace. In a clean, wholesome, childish fascination kind of way. Because monkeys are awesome.

I should clarify that I don’t just mean monkeys, I mean all apes. But ‘monkey’ is a far better word to say. Just role it around in your mouth for a moment. Monkey. Then ape. It’s like deciding between trousers and pants. Let me tell you, Americans and other linguistic heathens, you are missing out by abandoning the trouser.

Monkeys know how to live

Monkeys know how to live

It was a trip to the zoo on my way back from holiday seven years ago that cemented apes among my favourite creatures. I watched the gibbons going nuts in their cages, swinging around, screeching, rattling the bars, flashing their teeth and everything else at passers by. And I thought to myself, that looks like fun. Those guys know how to live.

But what’s even better than a monkey? A science fiction or fantasy monkey of course. So here are some of my favourites.

The Librarian

You’re civilised folks, so I’m going to assume that you’ve read some Terry Pratchett. And while those books are full of great characters, by far my favourite is the librarian.

The librarian is basically the part of my brain that wants to be a gibbon. Transformed into an orangutan, he not only accepts his change of state but relishes it. It’s pure wish fulfilment, staying smart enough to read but dumb enough to communicate in ‘ook’s, swinging through the rafters by your toes, eating bananas and screeching at idiots.

And lets face it, what bookish nerd hasn’t wanted the strength and social licence to beat their mockers senseless?

Toy Story 3

I never watched Toy Story 3 before last night. I know, shame on me. It’s a beautiful work of children’s fantasy, full of noble ideals and talking toys. But what’s even better than a beautiful children’s fantasy?

A beautiful children’s fantasy with apes.

Honestly, they had me three minutes in with the line ‘death by monkeys’. But it was the monkey watching the security screens that really did it for me. A cute animal was made sinister by his bared teeth and the washed-out glow of those monitors. The juxtaposition with his happy clapping cymbals just made him all the more menacing.

Because that’s the thing about apes. Like people, they’re not just smart, funny and adorable. They can also be sinister and downright dangerous, like the baboons that invade isolated South African commuter townships, or the Mediterranean apes that raid cafés for booze. These are monkeys as mad villains or outsider antiheroes. I love those monkeys too, though I wouldn’t want to stand between them and a whiskey.

Ack-Ack Macaque

A gun wielding, cigar chomping, pulp action pilot ape. If that sentence doesn’t make you want to read a book then you’re lost to me.

I haven’t got round to reading Ack-Ack Macaque yet, but it’s been on my list since I read this review. I love the wild spectacle of old pulp stories, before people had such fixed ideas about what was possible and what fitted in each genre. You got space rockets to planets full of purple people. You got mole men beneath the earth. You got hidden temples, alien invaders and two-fisted heroes, probably all in the same book. And a cigar-chomping ape pilot seems the perfect embodiment of that.

Gibboning it up

How much do I love apes in fantasy settings? I have spent a whole weekend being one. Inspired by my visit to the zoo, I decided to play one in a live roleplay game.

What I actually played was a demonic imp called Gibbon, who ate monkey nuts, threw the shells at passers by and only spoke in ooks. I walked the monkey walk, screeched at people I didn’t like, generally aped it up. It was some of the best fun I’ve ever had, and though I only did it twice in fifteen years at that game, it’s still one of the most memorable things I’ve ever done. Years later, people I didn’t know at the time would say to me ‘wait, you were that guy?’.

I love monkeys, but how about you? What apes have I missed? Or is there another beast you prefer in your fiction?

Picture by Ian (cr03) via Flickr creative commons

The death of film maker Harold Ramis is a moment of deep sadness. For people of my generation, now living on the generous side of thirty, the Ghostbusters films were huge cultural touchstones, up there with Star Wars and Indiana Jones in the pantheon of fun, exciting stories that grew in meaning as we grew in age.

But for my money the most notable of Ramis’s works, the one that touches my heartstrings and tickles my funny bone, will always be Groundhog Day.

The day that just keeps giving

I first saw Groundhog Day in the cinema on my fifteenth birthday. The story of a grumpy TV weatherman stuck living the same day again and again, it didn’t make my teenage friends laugh as much as they’d wanted. But for me it was a perfect combination of sweet and funny. Watching Bill Murray’s character grow, remake himself, face despair, hope and ultimately transformation, there was something very relatable about it.

What I realise now is that Ramis did a fabulous job of reinventing the oldest writer’s maxim – write what you know. He might not have known what it was like to be stuck in a time loop (if he did then good for him), but he knew about human desire. He knew what it was to fall in love, to dream of being a better person, to long for the chance to re-do a significant day and make sure that you get it right.

Ramis turned ‘write what you know’ into ‘write what we all wish for’.

If I had a Groundhog Day

I suspect that we all have a Groundhog Day, a day we would like to live again, whether to put right our mistakes or to relish a treasured moment.

A year after seeing Groundhog Day I fell out with a group of close friends. It was largely my fault. Few teenagers know how to deal with their feelings, and I was worse than most. My cataclysmic blow-out – the first time I ever yelled at anyone in public – ended my first set of really close friendships. I didn’t know how to fix the damage any more than I could go back and avoid it. But I dwelt on that day for years, running over in my mind how I could have got it right.

If I could have a Groundhog Day, one day that went round over and over until I fixed it, it would be that day. I would save those friendships and in the process learn to deal with emotions that even now, as an adult, I get horribly tangled on.

All our Groundhog Days

Ramis achieved something amazing with Groundhog Day, making a common human feeling magical, showing something we all feel. It’s why I’ll always love his work, and is one of the many, many reasons why his loss is such a tragedy.

How about the rest of you? What were your favourite Harold Ramis moments? And what would your Groundhog Days be?