Tag Archives: Cinema

Miscellany

Mandatory Sensations / The Experimental

In most organizations, there’s going to be a tension between what’s been proven to work, and what’s worth experimenting with for the future.  Last time I checked, facebook is a company that experiments a lot; it’s a core value at the company.

Of course, new initiatives aren’t always successful.  I can remember a long time back when Monday Night Football selected comedian Dennis Miller to be a commentator.  My recollection is that it was not a good idea at all.  However, one certainly can’t fault Miller, and although the ABC network was perhaps too lax in screening this experiment beforehand, you can at least credit them for being willing to fail.

Virtually all organizations – no matter how ancient and stoic – have to eventually try something new and risk failure.

Moving along with a simple case study, I can’t really remember the last time I saw much or any of the Academy Awards, but in recent years I more or less remember the headlines surrounding the event.  To be pretty general, there were calls for change regarding the award results.

Now, my gut feeling is whether or not the suggested changes were warranted, the Academy Awards was like a sitting duck.  It’s perceived lack of experimentation, and more generally any sense of movement or change, inadvertently created a curious vulnerability for it at that point in time.

This is the curious vulnerability:  It didn’t really matter if it made sense for the Academy Awards to experiment radically.  It also didn’t really matter if the changes demanded by external forces were warranted.  Today, by default, an organization is expected to experiment, and more generally, exude a sense of movement or changingirrespective of what that movement or change is!  Organizations that don’t do this are automatically, implicitly, and perhaps subconsciously, considered faulty, if not guilty!

Yes, it seems as though your organization has to propagate a sense of movement or change, even if completely vague, just for the sake of producing that sensation.  We’re now several generations past the “MTV generation”, so perhaps it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise.

In a motto: If you don’t control the conversation about “change” in your organization, the odds are much higher than someone else will.

With respect to the Academy Awards, I think the experimentation that they’d need to embark on to effect that general sense of change would have to go beyond who is the host.  The experimentation will have to affect the fundamental nature of the event.  For instance, award categories.  Perhaps add some new experimental categories, and try them out in the run-up to the actual show.  Perhaps include some in the time slot where they kind of just show actors walking into the building.  And perhaps others in the days and weeks preceding the actual event.

And to that end, I’ve had musings for some time that are somewhat obscure, but nevertheless interesting and perhaps worthy of some kind of experimentation one day.  They probably also cater more to cinephiles than the average consumer, and that, specifically, could be a great part of the experimentation.  In my opinion, they’re legitimate categories in their own right.

1. New Experimental Category: Highest Ratio of Trailer Quality to Motion Picture Quality

In other words, it was an incredible trailer for an awful movie.

Of course, it wasn’t necessarily an awful movie.  In fact, my current all-time pick for this category is Safe, which was not bad at all.

The bottom line is trailer composition is an art that’s currently not recognized in any way.  The producer for the trailer may have the lamest film of all time to work with, but his job is to take that, and from it create the most compelling 60-second preview possible.  That is an art!

To drive this home further, Hollywood is approaching $50 billion a year in revenue, and this is easily the most unheralded facet of that cash cow, even though it’s one of the absolute most critical trades.  Imagine a Hollywood where all the films were the same, but all the trailers were absolutely awful.  I would envision many billions of dollars in lost revenue.

2. New Experimental Category: Greatest Motion Picture Over-Performance

In other words, you saw the poster, you saw the trailer, you knew about the cast, you knew who the director was, and… you were completely shocked at how good the film was.

Similar to before, it doesn’t necessarily mean all those aforementioned ingredients were of low quality.  And of course it doesn’t necessarily mean the film is that great.

Picks from recent memory include Law Abiding Citizen, Broken City, and Prisoners.  Perhaps owing to the complexity of the measurement, it’s difficult for me to choose one as the clear winner.

To drive home the above points, the best film I’ve seen from the recent past is The Dark Knight.  However, it wouldn’t be a contender because, although it actually did over-perform, I expected a very high level of quality to begin with.

3. New Experimental Category: Best Scene From A Motion Picture

This is self explanatory, and there are too many possibilities to list right here.

I also think this is a non-cinephile category that could captivate the average consumer.

4. New Experimental Category: Moodiest Motion Picture Film

Wow, now this is a niche experimental category!

I have no idea how to quantify the moodiness of a film, or articulate what this category even really means, but you know it when you see it.

One thing I’m pretty sure of is music tends to play a critical role.  That said, this isn’t Best Motion Picture Score or Best Motion Picture Soundtrack.

For me, the film that really stands out is the mostly-unknown 1996 Spanish film by Carlos Saura, Taxi.

Fittingly, the soundtrack featured cult band Mano Negra, which was noteworthy for its very high level of experimentation.  Numerous multilingual tracks from the the band’s relevant album Casa Babylon have a very unconventional and original sound, and are worth a listen.

Equally worthy of consideration, with an equally moody score,  soundtrack, visuals, and writing, is Yimou Zhang’s 1995 film, Shanghai Triad.

Miscellany

Excellence By Accident

“Fanedits” are one of the newer trends in cinema.  It’s when amateurs attempt to edit a film, in an attempt to achieve what they believe is perfection.  Their legality is sketchy as is their typical distribution.  I encountered the strangest fanedit by accident.

I had received a bargain-bin DVD copy of Pearl Harbor.  Since I had never seen it, I eventually decided to view the DVD.  It was a 2-disc set, but one of the discs was missing.  I figured it must have been the special features.

I was very impressed with the film, instantly captivated by a very interesting cold opening, intrigued by the chosen timeline for the film, and the general pacing and structure felt very, very different and definitely refreshing!  I didn’t realize the disc clearly said “Disc 2”, and I was in fact watching the second half of the film like an idiot.

(Eventually, I finally saw the first half of the three-hour film.)

My final analysis is that Pearl-Harbor-the-DVD-Part-2 can actually be viewed as a self-contained film.  As for references to things in the first half of the film, they generally turn out to be better when you imagine what happened, or speculate what they might be talking about.  Of course, due to time constraints, it’s a common occurrence in films anyway – so in this case you don’t even realize there’s something strange going on.

Pearl-Harbor-the-DVD-Part-2 is better than Pearl-Harbor-the-DVD-Part-1 .

More surprisingly, it’s also better than Pearl-Harbor-the-DVD-Part-1-and-Part-2!

I don’t claim it’s perfect, but I do claim it’s better.  Much better, in fact.

Throw away the first disc, and you have the ultimate Pearl Harbor fanedit.  If you’ve never seen Pearl Harbor, you’re the next-to-perfect test subject.  (In this case the perfect test subject would be completely unaware of what’s going on.)  Watch the second half of the film and see for yourself.

Can something more useful than a random film review be gleaned from this?  Yes, I believe so.  Sometimes, superior quality and solutions can be found in the strangest places.  Never close the door on brainstorming methods or approaches.  You never know what you’ll find.  And sometimes a lack of awareness can open the mind, when otherwise it might be gridlocked with conventional thinking.

I can't read.
I can’t read.

Great Design

Rhyming With The World

We’re going to take two trips at the same time.  One through time and one through an ecological life cycle.  Both will be through vignettes and neither will be linear.

– Gone To Texas –

Cow hoof prints in cement. One of the last remaining artifacts from the old Van Berg dairy farm.
Cow hoof prints in cement.  One of the last remaining artifacts from the old Van Berg dairy farm.

Even though my great-grandfather hailed from Nebraska, his first name was extremely Scandinavian.  This may have been a contributing factor in his decision to only go by his initials.  He did this so much so, in fact, that even friends and family had no idea what his actual name was.

He came to Texas to work on the expansion of the existing irrigation system.  What they were working on would allow more water from the Rio Grande River to be channeled northwards.  More water would reach more farm fields, and I believed it helped the cities as well.

He eventually started a dairy farm as a side business. His son, my grandfather, disliked it so much that he dismantled it almost immediately after inheriting it.  And so, many old dairy farm structures were either torn down or left to eventually disintegrate on their own.  As a result, our property tends to have pieces of very old lumber laying around, and we haven’t ever had a good use for them.

– Brand Management –

I would call it “rhyming with the world”.  It’s a phrase I found in a book, but in the book they call it “rhyming with nature”.  Let’s be honest – doing something with “nature” sounds kind of passé doesn’t it?  It sounds like you have to find a tie-die shirt and a headband to get in.  But “rhyming with the world”?  That sounds like something exotic!  Maybe some sort of never-to-be-forgotten trip to the Caribbean.  Branding is always important, don’t you think?

http://www.aikidofaq.com/introduction.html
http://www.aikidofaq.com/introduction.html

Now, to illustrate a different point, what if instead of calling it “rhyming with the world”, we called it “organizational efficiency”?  That almost kind of sounds like something a Fortune 500 company might employ.  How about “operational effectiveness”?  That sounds like it might involve some kind of modern military strategy.  “Harmony of motion”?  Perhaps that’s distinctly Aikido.  It’s all the exact same thing, just in different contexts: maximizing efficiency.  (Sometimes, to reach this optimal efficiency, you must find a solution that may not be the first item on everyone’s brainstorming list!)

– Humans, Everything Else, And Life And Death –

A still from the film Aliens.
A still from the film Aliens.

In Aliens, Ripley brazenly and shamelessly betrays the queen alien in a classic deal gone bad.  After being given everything she had wanted, Ripley breaks her tacit agreement with the queen alien.  She blows away the queen, along with all of her eggs, pointlessly, for no reason other than malice.  This is the glorification of anthropocentrism.  (Nearly 20 years after James Cameron shot this scene, it still stands as one of the most unique and one of the best film sequences ever produced.)

Strange as it may sound, this film scene is something of a guilty pleasure.  I am anthropocentric, and this scene is a personal reminder of my own anthropocentricity.  Proof that my worldview holds humans to be preeminent.  In fact, my views on global ecology, and my general desire to not inflict harm on other life unnecessarily, is actually just an extension of this worldview.  It is the way that I, for various anthropocentric reasons, personally choose to exercise free will as an anthropocentric agent.

Global ecology and the role we play in it isn’t an abstract academic exercise.  For example, in Australia, finding out the daily UV index is a life and death matter.  The state of the ozone layer around Australia is so bad now that skin cancer there is described as an epidemic.  Some estimate that one in two, or an almost unbelievable two in three, Australians will contract skin cancer in their lifetime.  If humans truly are supreme, then they will surely keep this world, the collective human home, in order.

– Open Your Eyes –

There is a useful mental exercise where someone is shown something, and then that person is asked what they see.  They are supposed to guess what the object is for, or think up additional and perhaps non-intuitive uses for it.  (This is actually a regular segment on Ask This Old House, but in truth I believe I first saw something like it in an old Adrian Lyne production.)

So, what do you see?

Newspapers and Packing Materials

Looks like some discarded paper products – newspapers and packing materials.  In other words, trash, or perhaps paper recycling if we were being good global citizens.  There are surely many secondary uses for something like this.  I’ll give you my answer on this in just a second.

What do you see?

Texas Ebony Seed Pods 1

These are seed pods from the Texas Ebony tree.  It stands to reason that the Texas Ebony trees in my yard are the very distant descendants of ancient Texas Ebony trees.  Trees that probably stood here in this very same region, perhaps in a tranquil near silence, before humans were ever here.  Just as today, their seed pods would have fallen everywhere and would have almost been a nuisance had anyone been here to care.  My answer on this, too, in just a second.

Texas Weeds 1

The above picture is your only clue.  It may help you deduce where I’m going with part of this.  The clue is this: Near-useless weeds are endemic in South Texas just like they are endemic in many other places.  There are many ways you can try to manage or eliminate them…

Texas Ebony Seeds Pods 2

What if we harnessed the shape and size of Texas Ebony seed pods by placing them and the newspaper down over weed growth? Then you would have a semi-permanent weed barrier, and best of all, it would have style. To me, this is an instance of perfect South Texas Style.  Truly, this is something that cannot be bought. You can’t buy this weed barrier at Home Depot or Lowe’s.  If you’re in the U.S., you have to be in South Texas to get it, and when you go to get it, there’s usually an abundance waiting for you.

The newspapers will break down over time, but that’s OK.  Their purpose is actually two-fold.  First, depending on how much you put down, the newspapers all but guarantee the existing weeds will die.  Otherwise, it will be a huge struggle keeping them from pushing through the second weed barrier (in this case, seed pods).  Second, they buy you time.  We didn’t want to have to round up two or three layers of seed pods all at once for our various yard projects.  The newspapers allow you to incrementally add that second weed barrier without having to deal with new weed growth.

Putting Texas Ebony seed pods to work!  As you can see, we have one or two more layers to go.
Putting Texas Ebony seed pods to work!  As you can see, we have one or two more layers to go.

One reason, in particular, we want to place weed barriers around trees and small structures is that we want to be able to cut every blade of grass or every weed with a lawn mower, and not have to bring out another tool to deal with the remaining weeds that are right up against the tree or structure.

Getting closer to the beginning, we have several bamboo plants.  Bamboo can be used for a lot of things!  Some of its uses include food, structures, and weapons.

Bamboo Crater

We have dug out a small crater right next to one of our bamboo plants.  We route some of our graywater to this crater so it can be better utilized.  (The ideal design for such a crater would be a bowl-like, concave impression with the bamboo plant right in the middle.  However, for various reasons, we chose to do it this way.)

Chipped Wood and Bamboo

One other great bamboo use stems from the fact it is very easy to put through a chipper and turn into fine-grained bamboo pieces.  These chips are a great second-level weed barrier.  More bamboo growth will give us more ammunition to snuff out more weeds.  This is pretty good holistic efficiency.

But what about that huge crater?  It’s not very appealing to have a huge hold in the middle of your yard!

Bamboo Crater With Van Berg Dairy Farm Board Walkway

Now back at the very beginning, we take some of that old lumber, saw it down to size, and cover the crater so we can walk over it.

The old Van Berg dairy farm lives on.

 

South Texas 1

South Texas 2

South Texas 3

Points of Controversy

Real Art

So what is real art?  Well, the question itself is misleading.  To explain, we’ll drive down a meandering path, hopefully passing a few controversial sights along the way.

When I was younger it seemed like I had a lot of free time.  And I spent a considerable amount of it watching different films. Believe me when I say I’ve seen a few.  You might even call me a cinephile.  I’ve seen performances that are great, performances that are a level beyond great, and yes, I have seen the best performance of all time.  Have you?  Chances are you might not have.

Still from the 1993 film Kalifornia. Photo: Gramercy Pictures / Getty Images
Still from the 1993 film Kalifornia.  Photo: Gramercy Pictures / Getty Images

The film was Kalifornia.  Not easily categorized, it’s an all but forgotten 1993 masterwork by Dominic Sena.  Brad Pitt delivered an untouchable performance in the role of Early Grayce, a psychotic redneck who is only occasionally connected to reality.  The character is extremely authentic and anything but one-dimensional.  In particular, Grayce gives us hints that point to an enigmatic depth.  You also forget it’s Brad Pitt.  Extremely difficult to pull off.  Maybe almost impossible.  The artistic merit here is way off the chart!  If it were measured by an odometer, it would have rolled over several times.

And yet, the artistic body most visibly responsible for handing out film awards based on artistic merit, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, snubbed Pitt outright in 1993.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Academy_Award_for_Best_Actor
1993 Nominations and Winner for Best Actor.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Academy_Award_for_Best_Actor

That year, Tom Hanks took home the Oscar for his role in Philadelphia.  Now, I saw Philadelphia.  Tom Hanks did a great job in his role – no doubt about it.  But comparing his performance in 1993 to the one Brad Pitt gave would be like comparing the vocal strengths of John Travolta and Pavarotti.

OK, if I’m right, how could this be?  After all, the official name of those golden statuettes they give out is: The Academy Award of Merit!  Well, let’s take a very quick detour and consider the viewpoints of just two dissenting actors.  George C. Scott, a winner of one Academy Award, refused to even take part in the Oscars.  One reason given was the political nature of the event.  And perhaps Mickey Rourke said it best in an interview once when he described the film-making business in general: “It’s all politics.”

Back to Kalifornia, we have a movie which was rated NC-17 in its original cut.  Philadelphia on the other hand is a PG-13 film that we can imagine might one day be shown on national holidays.  Entertainment aside, Kalifornia is a movie with virtually no redeeming value.  In fact, you could probably make the case that society would have been better off without it!  Philadelphia aspires to do big things.  It demands to have a conversation about how people should be treated.  In the end, it’s more or less a perfect fit for Hollywood’s portfolio of “important movies”.  This portfolio is an important part of Hollywood’s image and branding.

Now, if we stipulate for a moment that in reality Hollywood is actually governed by politics, is it really surprising that in 1993 Tom Hanks got the award, and Brad Pitt and Kalifornia received nothing – no wins, no nominations, nothing at all from the Academy?  (That year, Kalifornia received a handful of awards at minor film festivals, some of which I had never heard of.)

You actually don't need to see either film to predict what the results will be like. Which do you think was nominated for all the awards? Which do you think Hollywood values more?
You actually don’t even need to see either film to predict what the results will be like.  Look at the fonts.  Look at the taglines.  Which do you think was nominated for all the awards?  Which do you figure Hollywood values more?

Maybe what I’ve said is true and maybe it isn’t, but actually the idea is what counts.  We’re kind of getting an oblique glimpse of a very serious conflict.   There is a tension between two competing forces: purity of art and politics behind art.  And this idea can be generalized slightly.  If we say that politicizing art is to add constraints to it, then we can view all art as having a certain amount of constraints.  Of course, this is nothing new.  For ages, professional artists have been commissioned to work on art that patrons desire.  It pays the bills, and has yielded priceless art.  The question of whether constraints degrade art is not a simple yes-or-no question.

Let’s take another small detour.  Consider the old question: Do humans have free will?  The question implies a yes-or-no answer, but I believe, at it’s very core, the answer must be stated in shades of gray, so to speak.  (We’re specifically ignoring the more ambitious form of the question seeking to know if all decisions can be predicted ahead of time.  For our purposes here, we’re assuming that decisions are in general not predictable.)  If we truly had free will, we would not need to drink water or eat food.  But these are constraints that are placed on us and must be respected.  If we don’t respect them, we will cease to exist in this world.  (It should be noted that a tremendous amount of blood has been shed over satisfying these two basic constraints.)  So it’s hard to say we have free will.  However, I’d be pretty comfortable saying we have free will with a variable number of constraints placed on it.  And the key point is this: the fewer constraints a person has placed on him, the more free his will is.  Said differently, in life, and in all of its various aspects, a minimized set of constraints is a jewel of great price.

A multitude of mathematical constraints at work: Voronoi partition of a 3D solid. http://www.wias-berlin.de/research/rts/Delaunay/
A multitude of mathematical constraints at work: Voronoi partition of a 3D solid. http://www.wias-berlin.de/research/rts/Delaunay/

Back to artistic integrity, I would suggest that the fewer constraints an artist has placed on his work, the more likely it is his work will have greater artistic quality.

Don’t believe me?  Have you ever seen an uninspired, mediocre sequel to a good movie?  Chances are, this was the result of the following constraint: a group of financiers’ desire to rake in a bonanza of cash without any underlying artistic product.  Ever seen awkward product placements  in movies that distracted you from your previous suspension of disbelief?  Very similar constraint.  How about wartime propaganda?  It’s typically effective, but rarely as enjoyable as art under just a few less constraints; most of the time, it’s pedestrian.  With the skills they have, and working under the given constraints, an artist can do an excellent job in producing anything, including propaganda, but the work itself will probably lack the artistic quality we’d expect from the same or similar artist under fewer constraints.

A big box of Cheerios in Days of Our Lives.
A big box of Cheerios in Days of Our Lives.

We’ve reached our destination.  To summarize, the question of real art is a misleading one.  There are really infinite grades of artistic quality.  All things being equal, when there are fewer constraints on the artist, the art will probably be better.

And in Hollywood, politics is a heavy constraint.

Some sightseeing in Dominic Sena's Kalifornia.
Some sightseeing on the road in Dominic Sena’s Kalifornia.