The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 18:39:56
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 16:32:50
Matt § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-05 01:49:12
Greg Linch § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 18:05:52
Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Jay H § Matching cuts / 2014-10-02 02:41:13

Digging in the crates, Cinefex edition

I saw Beasts of the Southern Wild this week and absolutely loved it. It’s easily the best movie I’ve seen all year, maybe in many years. I mean: definitely weird! Definitely a little “huh?” in parts! But certainly no more so than The Dark Knight Rises, and if we’re willing to suspend disbelief for Christopher Nolan, then certainly we can extend that suspension to this handcrafted gem. I highly, highly recommend it. And I went in knowing almost nothing about the plot, so I’ll pass along almost nothing here.

I’ll post instead about this bit, which is entirely behind the scenes, and entirely delightful. From an interview with the movie’s director and special effects coordinator:

[Director Benh] Zeitlin mentioned Cinefex when we spoke to him. Can you talk about the magazine’s influence on your work?

[Special effects coordinator Ray] Tintori: I have this collection of Cinefex magazines that are all out of print, and they’re from the 80s to the early 90s. It’s completely my secret weapon. They’re magazines I had when I was a little kid that I would obsessively look over before I could even read. I would obsessively look at these pictures and think, this was a still from a film and this was the crazy contraption they had to build in order to pull off that image. But as I got older and learned how to read, the actual articles themselves are just incredibly dense, they go through every single shot in a film like Ghostbusters, or like Indiana Jones 2, Tron… every single effects film that came out in the 80s. There is an incredibly detailed, meticulous, clinical description of how they pulled off that shot, and almost as importantly, everything they did that didn’t work.

Back in those days, every effects shot was like a puzzle. You really needed to figure out how to do it. It wasn’t like, “Oh, we’ll just use this plugin, we’ll use this render farm.” You had to start from scratch every time. They were constantly trying to outdo each other. So every time we approached a shot in this film, it was like, let’s just scour through this stack of Cinefex and just see how they approached similar things. There are techniques we used in Beasts that were taken from so many different kinds of films. Like, there’s this one scene where there’s a very low-hanging sun in the back, and I got that from the sequel to Space Odyssey. They described that they had made a painted backdrop, cut a hole in it, and put a light source behind it, and that was a sunlight source.

I’m not going to link back to the source interview, because it contains spoiler-esque pictures of the movie’s monsters. You can obviously find it easily with Google if you really want to, but since I had such a wonderful time seeing this gem of a movie—this crazy contraption made from old Cinefex spreads—without any preconceptions at all, I’ll encourage you to do the same.


Snark by Snarkwest: A Conversation With Joss Whedon

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Truth from Tilda

Tilda Swinton’s last two lines here are stunningly perceptive:

“For me that is grace,” she says of her character’s dumbstruck confusion in the face of her irrevocably altered life. “I am really interested in silence. In inarticulacy also, which isn’t the same as silence. As a performer I like looking at the gaps between what people want to communicate and what they can communicate,” she adds. “I love good filmmaking that isn’t just about really proficient writers of dialogue, who think that everybody’s really articulate and everybody can hear each other really well. That doesn’t feel true to me, actually. I mean, that’s a fantastical universe.”

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Let’s nerd out about digital projection

This is just about my favorite kind of internet writing: the deep nerd-out, gracefully written, but without any real expectation of, or capitulation to, a general-interest audience. This one is about the past, present, and future of digital projection in movie theaters and I totally enjoyed it.

(I think my favorite part is the picture of the Digital Cinema Package in its red plastic carrying case, and the accompanying description of the all the crazy DRM surrounding it. You have to get the password over the phone!)


Possible Worlds

Editors’ Note: Last week, Ross Andersen told me he had an essay on filmmaker Terrence Malick that was “perfect for Snarkmarket.” At first, I thought he wanted me to link to it, but I quickly realized he meant it would be perfect to guest-post here, like our earlier Netflix sci-fi catalog post by the Snarkmatrix’s Matt Penniman. I happily agreed. And now, I’ve got TWO Malick movies I’m motivated to see as soon as I can.

— Tim Carmody


Ross Andersen

This is a tough week for the Terrence Malick fan. On Friday, The Tree of Life is due to hit theaters stateside, having premiered and won the Palme d’Or at Cannes earlier this month. Already the web is crackling with reactions to the film, flustering those of us too prole to have hopped a Gulfstream to the international debut. After watching the trailer to the point of emotional exhaustion, it occurred to me that a look back at Malick’s oeuvre might be in order, if nothing else as a more productive pre-release time killer. I was especially keen to revisit The Thin Red Line, the finest war film in a generation and the one that made Malick’s legend with those of us too young to have seen Badlands on the big screen.

When we say that a work of art is ahead of its time, often we intend only to convey its excellence, but there is another meaning. In the last weeks of 1998, The Thin Red Line lit up the silver screens of an America that had settled into a lasting peace. These were heady days; the abrupt end of the Cold War had given rise to ideas like ‘the end of history’, the notion that war itself had been vanquished, and that the peaceful spread of democracy was imminent. And while there may have been no bending of swords into ploughshares, the Internet, a brainchild of the Pentagon, had begun to turn a mighty harvest. It was as though the fog of war had suddenly lifted, burnt away forever by the hot shining stars on the American flag.

Thus, moviegoers can be forgiven for skipping out on Malick’s opus, which arrived alongside reviews keen to warn of its three-hour running time. In the San Francisco Examiner, Edvins Beitiks called the film “a long exercise in pseudo-philosophy… visually stunning but empty at its core.” Charles Taylor, writing for Salon, quipped that it was a “mixture of distanced estheticism and woozy imponderables” made by “a tin-pot Kurtz”, the latter a reference to the director’s various eccentricities. The film grossed a mere thirty-six million dollars at the box office; less than a sixth of the total hauled in by Armageddon, an entertainment more in keeping with the national mood. Of course history didn’t let us alone for long. No thief in the night, it roared right back into the American consciousness with a singularly traumatic spectacle: the smoky, shrieking collapse of the World Trade Center. All at once the fog of war returned, thick like the ash hovering just above the streets of lower Manhattan. The decade that followed is not easily summarized, nor has it altogether concluded, but one thing is certain: the war film is newly resonant in its wake.

Whatever its cultural import, as an exercise in pure cinema, The Thin Red Line is a visionary work. Like its source material, a novel by James Jones, the film’s narrative is a sprawling anthill of small stories dug into and around a battle on the island of Guadalcanal. Over the years the Second World War has proved a fertile subject for America’s filmmakers, many of them dull propagandists. It’s a credit to Malick that his film owes none of its considerable gravitas to “greatest generation” nostalgia, or “good war” moralizing. Instead, despite rich period detail, its historical particulars fade into the periphery, so that the war here is an abstraction, a canvas. In the early going Malick wrings a sublime sequence from the troops’ slow march into the island’s interior. The camera creeps through the slithering, violent jungle, awash in a quiet strangeness like you find in the very best science fiction. It’s a miracle that these scenes can feel so fresh to an audience steeped in the mythology of Vietnam; this is not the first time we’ve followed The American Soldier into an alien rainforest. Still, the film’s lush palette is of a marked contrast with the sepia tones of Iraq or Afghanistan, a reminder that no matter how timeless the trappings, we are firmly in the realm of history.

The second act tracks the slow, grinding assault of a hill in the center of Guadalcanal. A growling Nick Nolte dominates here as a careerist colonel, a lifer bent on bullying his men to their deaths if it means an extra star may adorn his shoulder. One unforgettable scene has Nolte stomping through a trench to reprimand an insubordinate, pausing only to ask a shirtless private the whereabouts of his “blouse”. As a ruddy ideal of martial machismo, Nolte makes Robert Duvall’s napalm huffing surfer in Apocalypse Now look effete by comparison.

When the attack begins, Malick sends the camera weaving low through the tall green grass, past orange explosions and streaming columns of helmeted GIs. Occasionally the combat scenes dissolve into flashbacks; moments from childhood, afternoons with a lover, each lit as though stilled in the amber of memory. These transitions should be more jarring, but instead through some movie magic we pass effortlessly from the adrenal warfare of the battlefield into the internal life of its combatants. As the campaign wears on, it exacts a gruesome toll; the brilliant green slope becomes, at once, a graveyard and an asylum. The second act closes with a delirious charge into enemy camp. The troops, rendered ecstatic by survival, amass like fire ants into a sprinting riot of cruelty. The saturnalia that ensues invites our horror, but also our empathy. We share in the troops’ release, and yet feel complicit in their excesses, much as we did while clicking through the lurid slideshows of Abu Ghraib.

Still, The Thin Red Line isn’t perfect. At times the script pays tribute to some unfortunate tropes, like when one soldier wonders aloud why the indigenous children never seem to fight. Or when Sean Penn (perhaps improvising) refuses a medal recommendation by muttering that “the whole thing’s about property.” These are the easy slogans of a lesser film, but thankfully they’re rare. The third act meanders a bit, but pleasurably, as though we’ve joined the troops for a boozy stretch of R&R. Along the way, Malick fills the margins with an extraordinary range of images: the swiveling eyes of an owl taking in the bloodshed; sea-soaked hermit crabs in the hands of a small boy; sunlight pouring slow like smoke through the spring canopy. Critics have dismissed these digressions as virtuosic preening, but in doing so they miss the larger point; that the wretchedness of war, itself of a piece with nature’s own fury, plays out in an illuminated context.

And indeed for all the attention he pays to trees and rivers, Malick’s ultimate subjects are flesh and blood. Our most ancient questions fill the mouths and minds of these soldiers, and yet we never stop seeing them in the totality of their condition. Yes, some are destroyed by sadism, and some shatter into hysterics when death hovers close, but others pour cool water on the heads of the wounded, and survive to float joyously in the shallow green surf. In this way the war is like a prism used by Malick to splinter the human character into its many brilliant and tragic forms.

In the film’s very first scene, an alligator sinks ominously into a murky stream while sunlight-hunting vines strangle a nearby tree trunk. A voice asks, “What’s this war in the heart of nature? Why does nature vie with itself?” When the first humans appear, they are seraphic by comparison: children playing simple games with small stones, then swimming amidst a reef, silhouetted against the sea surface, like figures on stained glass. Critics like Charles Taylor have accused Malick of pursuing a false dualism in his work, of sending in a crude human archetype, boorish and unseemly, to “despoil the uncorrupted beauty of nature.” But Malick’s nature is not Milton’s; here it is the garden that is fallen. Oddly, in this, our most profound modern fable of war, humanity is a transfiguring force: the first of nature’s forms to buck its amino acid programming, to strain tragically at something beyond Hobbesian survival. In the end, The Thin Red Line is a work of humanism, not nature worship; a reminder that even if history and war should extinguish the first flickers of truth and beauty, they will linger on in human memory, as hints of a possible transcendence.

— Ross Andersen

PS: The Thin Red Line is on Netflix Watch Instantly. — TC

PPS: Anything short of Criterion Blu-ray is blasphemous. — RA


Snark by Snarkwest: Directing the Dead

I’m going to watch some horror directors and film writers talk about what’s to come in the horror film genre. And you can watch! Woo-hoo! Speakers: Scott Weinberg (managing editor / Cinematical, Jason Eisener (Hobo With a Shotgun), James Wan (Saw), Emily Hagins (My Sucky Teen Romance), Nicholas Goldbart (Phase 7), Simon Rumley (Little Deaths), and Ben Wheatley (KILL LIST).

Respect the jump …

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The Western 101, via Netflix Watch Instantly

I love Westerns. My allegiance to the genre has long been known on the Snarkmatrix. (I refer you to the comment threads on Exhibit A or Exhibit B.) So I am excited that people are excited by Joel and Ethan Coen’s new Western, True Grit.

And jeez, I hope I get a few hours by myself in the next week or so to see this movie. Parenting is a serious drag on your ability to partake of the cinema, which is one reason I’ve become such a devotée of Netflix Watch Instantly. I didn’t even get to catch the restored Metropolis when it came to town, and I had only A) waited months for it and B) written a chapter of my dissertation about its director. So I don’t know if True Grit is as good as everyone says it is. What I do know, what I know the hell out of, are Westerns, and Netflix. If you don’t know Westerns, that’s fine. So long as you’ve got a Netflix subscription and streaming internet, I’ve got your back.

You probably know that True Grit (2010) is an adaptation of the same Charles Portis novel (True Grit) that was previously adapted into a movie [True Grit (1969)] that won John Wayne a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of the eyepatched marshal Rooster Cogburn. It’s not a remake, you’ve heard entoned, it’s a more-faithful adaptation of the novel.

Fine. Who cares? At a certain point, remakes and adaptations stop being remakes and adaptations. Does anyone care that His Girl Friday was a gender-swapping adaptation of The Front Page, a terrific Ben Hecht and Charles McArthur play which had already been made into a movie in 1931, and which was made into a movie again in 1974 with Billy Wilder directing and Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon playing the Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell roles?

Okay, I do. But besides me, not really. Because His Girl Friday obliterated The Front Page in our movie-watching conciousness, even though the latter is the prototype of every fast-talking newspaper comedy from, shit, His Girl Friday to the Coen Brothers’ The Hudsucker Proxy. It’s been over forty years since True Grit (1969). It’s a good movie, but if you haven’t seen it, don’t sweat it too much.

You should, however, be sweating the Western. Because not least among their virtues is that Joel and Ethan Coen care and care deeply about genre. Virtually all of their movies are a loving pastiche of one genre form or another, whether playful (like Hudsucker’s newspaper comedy or The Big Lebowski’s skewed take on the hardboiled detective), not so playful (No Country For Old Men) or both somehow at once (Miller’s Crossing, Fargo). And the Western is fickle. You’ve got to contend with books, movies, radio, and TV, all with their own assumptions, all alternating giddy hats-and-badges-and-guns-and-horses entertainment and stone-serious edge-of-civilization Greek-tragedy-meets-American-origin-stories primal rites.

I’ll save you some time, though, by giving you just twelve links, briefly annotated.
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Film History 101 (via Netflix Watch Instantly)

Robin is absolutely right: I like lists, I remember everything I’ve ever seen or read, and I’ve been making course syllabi for over a decade, so I’m often finding myself saying “If you really want to understand [topic], these are the [number of objects] you need to check out.” Half the fun is the constraint of it, especially since we all now know (or should know) that constraints = creativity.

So when Frank Chimero asked:

Looking to do some sort of survey on film history. Any sort of open curriculum out there like this that runs in tandem with Netflix Instant?

I quickly said, “I got this,” and got to work.

See, trying to choose over the set of every film ever made is ridiculously hard. Choosing over a well-defined subset is both easier and more useful.

Also, I knew I didn’t want to pick the best movies ever made, or my favorites, or even the most important. Again, that pressure, it’ll cripple you. I wanted to pick a smattering of films that if you watched any given, sufficiently large subset of them, you’d know a lot more about movies than when you started.

This is actually a lot like trying to design a good class. You’re not always picking the very best examples of whatever it is you’re talking about, or even the things that you most want your students to know, although obviously both of those factor into it. It’s much more pragmatic. You’re trying to pick the elements that the class is most likely to learn something from, that will catalyze the most chemistry. It’s a difficult thing to sort, but after you’ve done it for a while, it’s like driving a car, playing a video game, or driving a sport — you just start to see the possibilities opening up.

Then I decided to add my own constraints. First, I decided that I wasn’t going to include any movies after the early 1970s. You can quibble about the dates, but basically, once you get to the Spielberg-Scorsese-Coppola-Woody Allen generation of filmmakers — guys who are older but still active and supremely influential today — movies are basically recognizable to us. Jaws or Goodfellas or Paris, Texas are fantastic, classic, crucial movies, but you don’t really have to put on your historical glasses to figure them out and enjoy them, even if they came out before you were of movie-going age. The special effects are crummier, but really, movie-making just hasn’t changed that much.

Also, I wasn’t going to spend more than a half-hour putting it together. I knew film history and Netflix’s catalog well enough to do it fast, fast, fast.

And so, this was the list I came up with. As it happened, it came to a nice round 33.

I made exactly one change between making up the list and posting it here, swapping out David Lynch’s Eraserhead for Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless. I cheated a little with Eraserhead — it’s a late movie that was shot over a really, really long period of time in the 70s and came out towards the end of that decade. And Breathless isn’t Godard’s best movie, but it’s probably the most iconic, so it was an easy choice.

There are huge limitations to this list, mostly driven by the limitations of the catalog. Netflix’s selection of Asian and African movies, beyond a handful of auteurs like Akira Kurosawa, isn’t very good. There’s no classic-period Hitchcock. There’s no Citizen Kane. There aren’t any documentaries or animated films. And you could argue until you’re blue in the face about picking film X over film Y with certain directors or movements or national cinemas.

But you know what? You wouldn’t just learn something from watching these movies, or just picking five you haven’t seen before — you would actually have fun. Except maybe Birth of a Nation. Besides its famous pro-Ku Klux Klan POV, that sucker is a haul. Happy watching.


Western threads


I saw the new video game Red Dead Redemption for the first time this weekend, courtesy of my pal Wilson, who described it (and I paraphrase) as “every awesome Western ever, combined.”

It is indeed totally stunning, and it’s got me thinking about Westerns. Among other things:

What clicks in your mind when you think about Westerns? Any recent movies I ought to see? Any other fun stuff out there?

Update: Yes, this post was Tim-bait, and whoah yes, he delivers. I’m considering just pasting his comment into the body of the post and moving what I wrote to the comments…


Japanese movie recommendations

Ooh! My question about quiet 70s suspense movies yielded great results—a whole Netflix queue’s worth. No surprise, given the collective cinematic erudition of the Snarkmatrix.

So here’s another movie question (and this one connects back to my quick post on Japan). What are some really good Japanese movies of the last ten (or so) years that I should see? With the stipulation that I’m not looking for animation, horror (e.g. Ringu-style creep-out stuff), or action.

What do you think? What have you seen?