Steven Soderberg

I haven’t written much here about Mr. Soderbergh which is somewhat surprising. I tend to talk about him quite a bit and think about him even more, so this absence shows me just how wrongheaded I have been about posting here. I will lighten up and start posting more.

To sum up my feelings about Mr. Soderbergh briefly I will say this — I like his attitude about making movies and his role as a director. Whenever I read or see and interview with him or listen to a commentary on one of his movies I am always impressed. I have not heard much concerning Mr. Soderbergh of late and I had assumed this was because he had so many problems with his most recent film, the Che biopic. I can safely say my own distraction is the reason for this lack of news. After reading the following interview:
Steven Soderbergh Article it is quite clear he is as busy as ever.

What I like best about this director is his attitude concerning commercial and critical success. As most everyone knows his career began with a film that heralded a resurgence in American independent film (as well as numerous awards and critical acclaim). Since that time many of his films has been both commercial failures and poorly received by the critics. Despite this fact I have yet to encounter an interview or a commentary that expressed bitterness, resentment or finger-pointing for these failures. Instead what any reader or watcher will encounter is Mr. Soderbergh assuming all responsibility for these failures and a very cool and calm attitude concerning them. What he has said numerous times, and what I find to be most admirable, is that if he is the director and something in the film is not good or if the film itself does not work — then he is to blame. Not the actor, not the studio but him. It’s a very rare kind of statement for a director to make and it endears him greatly to me.

The above linked article is largely about his most recent endeavor, the Che Biopic, which runs somewhere around four and a half hours long and is being shown as two separate films. I suggest anyone interested in how such a film comes to be made (by here I am referring mostly to the length) read this article. Mr. Soderbergh is detailed in explaining the process and logic behind the creation of this film and allows those of us on the outside of the film industry a peek into this mysterious world.

I cannot stress strongly enough how helpful I find the comments and responses Mr. Soderbergh offers to any questions regarding his work. Rather than offering general statements he is specific in how decisions are made and why. In the case of this film he explains why the story ballooned from one section of Che’s life in Boliva to begin incorporating other important moments and how this affected everything else. I feel most filmmakers tend to gloss over these stages of the process of making a film in order to keep the story simple and I wish they did not. Being told of the way this film morphed over the years, and why he made the decisions he did to change the film in a step-by-step fashion, Mr. Soderbergh offers practical insights I think any emerging filmmaker will find both helpful and interesting.

The Tale of Two Cuts

Despite a fairly impressive amount of negative media attention I decided to watch Babylon A.D. this past weekend. I was in the mood for a gritty, rough kind of action film and I was pretty sure that Vin Diesel would deliver. I didn’t really get that from Babylon A.D.

Instead, what I ended up with was yet another DVD that decided to try and defeat poor reviews and box office performance by including two versions of the movie on the DVD. This is what we call the “Throw everything we shot at the audience and hope something sticks” technique.

This is not a new practice and, I have to admit, once upon a time I found this concept to be appealing. My thought process ran something like, “You have footage that is not properly edited, scored and lacking digital effects that you have decided to share with me?! I am ready!”.

Lately I have found that I lack the interest to watch two different versions of the same film during a rental period (even a Netflix rental period) or even to sit through the deleted scenes which are served up as some rare delicacy. The reason for this is fairly simple, I’d like someone to decide what the movie is and I don’t think that person should be me.

Babylon A.D is a great example of the studio/director not presenting a unified front and giving the world one version of their movie. So instead the audience is given two versions of the film, neither of which is really complete. Now perhaps the two opposing camps did not have access to the same footage, or perhaps there was so much ill-will floating around that they intentionally tried not to use the same footage — but for some reason critical pieces of dialog and even portions of scenes are missing from both cuts.

What you end up with is one cut which we shall call “The Dark Cut” and the other which we shall call, “The Less Dark Cut”. Now the only way that the viewer which we shall call “The Unsatisfied Customer” can actually see this movie and get all of the information they need in order to

a) understand the movie’s point and
b) attempt to enjoy it is by watching both of these versions and mentally editing sections from each together.

I have never seen a case as severe as this, although I am sure there are probably worse. I have seen differences with films like Die Hard 4.0 where one version is missing a few expletives and the blood splatter is toned down. I have seen differences like with the numerous versions of Blade Runner where a dream sequence or a shot of an origami unicorn is missing.

My long-winded point I am trying to make here is that typically when studios and directors do this nonsense the cuts that are ultimately released differ in such slight ways that it is rather obvious as to why certain scenes, lines or shots were scrapped. The studio wanted a PG-13 rating or felt that shooting the dog would upset the audience too much. What is going on with Babylon A.D. is like being served up three-quarters of a movie in either version and being told “It’s not my fault, blame the other guy.”

Patton Oswalt and the Truth

I’ve been listening to some of Patton Oswalt’s stand up the past few days and while I have been laughing myself silly I have also learned a thing or two. When I say learned what I really mean is that a truth I already knew has been revealed to me. This, I think, is the true worth of stand-up comedy. A person gets on stage and tells you things you didn’t know you already knew and they make you laugh while doing it.

What I learned from Mr. Oswalt today has to do with the Star Wars prequels. Before I listened to this routine I was sure I did not like any of the prequels and I was fairly sure I knew the reasons why. I missed a few. In his act Mr. Oswalt reveals some of the most convincing reasons I have encountered as to why these movies are absolute garbage. Forget Jar-Jar and terrible acting and a lead that conveys no emotion. Forget also really bad looking digital video that was hyped (there it is again!) as “The Thing That Would Soon Devour Film”. Even, and I know this is a big one, forget the fact that Lucas decided to direct these movies himself — despite the glaring evidence of the first trilogy why this would be a bad idea.

Now that we have forgotten these minor points (and believe me, I have more) let us get to what Mr. Oswalt targets as the problem: Lucas spends a good deal of time in the first two movies telling us about the really tough and evil characters we love, but about when they were sweet, innocent children. This point had not occurred to me before listening to this bit but it is, without a doubt, exactly what is wrong with these movies.

Let’s look at one of the all time villains when he was a sweet and cuddly boy that life kept tromping on. Poor little Vader, don’t cry now. The truth of the matter is very simple: I could not care less how Darth Vader came to be what he is. Not one bit. The same goes for any of the other characters in these films.

Here is a clip I found on Youtube of this bit (NSFW):

If you would like to watch a very long video (seven parts total!) that goes through every aspect of what is wrong with The Phantom Menace then take a gander below (these clips are NSFW):

Art That Challenges You

After recently watching a movie and disliking it greatly, I did what I so often do; I decided to watch the special features. This has become something of a pattern for me, I watch a movie and if my response to it is strong (in either direction) I immediately want to delve into the special features to see what the filmmakers have to say. Although the DVD format is still relatively new I must admit to having grown accustomed to these features and my ability to watch them. Whenever I encounter a DVD that contains only the movie (which I admit is rare now) I feel as though the video store has pulled a fast one on me.

What recently came to my attention concerning DVD’s are two things:

1) there are many kinds of special features and commentaries and

2) what I have come to expect from them is absurd.

To address the second point first let me say this: say you read a book and when you turn that last page and close the cover you shake your head and say, “well, at least it’s over”. Do you immediately run to the library or to your computer to look up what the author has written in defense of the book? When you visit a museum and see a painting and find that it looks like something your prized chocolate lab could construct with twigs, tennis balls and mud do you venture out to the information desk to see if there is a pamphlet printed on behalf of the artist explaining the merit of the work? My guess is you do not. Instead you accept the fact that the painting is not to your liking and move on to the next. Perhaps you decide to try another book by that author, reading reviews of it beforehand.

My point is this, to the best of my knowledge this is the only art form that offers the artists the opportunity to explain and defend their work in such a widespread manner. Personally, I enjoy these commentaries and special features quite a bit. Having an interest in making movies there is occasionally information that seems aimed at helping people like me. What I take issue with is what I have come to expect from these features, that is, a defense of failed films.

What do I mean by failed films? Mostly I mean movies that made very little money at the box office. Thanks largely to the Internet Movie Database everyone now has the ability to find out (roughly) how much every movie makes at the box office. Why this should be of interest to anyone other than the investors (and others who stand to profit) I will never know. I do know that I have checked these figures times beyond counting and I cannot offer a reason as to why. Perhaps because it is there. To get back to the original point, the DVD format seems to have become a place for filmmakers to get in the last word about their movie, if they choose to. Take for instance the film, “Mallrats” by Kevin Smith. Critically the movie was not well received and commercially I believe it lost money (now that I have brought it up I must, of course, refuse on principle to look up such things). If you listen to the audio commentary Mr. Smith and the cast discuss why the film did so poorly.

I single out Mr. Smith because he is a shining example of where DVD’s go wrong. Rather than create a commentary for people who like the movie (which must be the majority of the people watching) a great deal of time is spent pointing the finger and assigning blame. Perhaps this is appealing because gossip makes a person feel like they are part of the group. Clearly I am of this type because I have delved into numerous commentaries and articles where mud flies freely and done so with glee. In any case — a movie, a sculpture, a topiary should stand on its own. If the artist needs to explain what they have done in order for the audience to like (or understand) it then they did not do their job well. If the Sistine Chapel required a tour guide who explained all of the obstacles the Medici family and competing artists created for poor little Michelangelo – asa the only meanly for you to appreciate why it is beautiful, I doubt it would receive so many visitors.

The film that brought all of this on (so you know who to blame) is called “Down in the Valley”. Aside from starring Edward Norton I knew very little about the movie prior to watching it, which usually is a good thing. My problem with the movie is that it seems to lack two very important things;

1) a point and

2) likable (or redeemable) characters.

I say this because the film ended and I sat watching the credits wondering, why did I watch this? As I previously wrote I then navigated through the menu and saw that the DVD contained a question and answer session with the director and Mr. Norton. What I learned from this exchange was that they both love the movie and feel that it is wonderful because it challenges the audience. Neither the director nor Mr. Norton elaborated on this point so I, the humble viewer, was left feeling as though I was lacking. Because of this feeling I decided to sit down and sort through my thoughts in an effort to better understand the film, why this idea of  ‘not getting it’ troubles me so and if this is somehow part of something larger.

The novel Lolita is one that I think challenges many readers. Its subject matter is so shocking, so revolting, so clearly wrong that the elegance of the writing and the readability of the book makes many readers question their own morality. I do not mean to say it makes men and women wonder about pedophilia, but, as I found while reading, it made me wonder what the writer was doing so well that kept me reading despite my disgust with the subject matter. I would call this a challenging book because its subject matter is one that I have strong negative feelings about, yet it is crafted in such a way that I continued to read.

So many works of art, especially modern art, seem to be designed to achieve the opposite effect. The subject matter of the book or sculpture or movie is something benign, something trivial but the way the viewer (or reader) is forced to interact with it is so unpleasant that the challenge lies in enduring the process to (presumably) reach the ‘ah-ha!’ moment where the beauty and importance is made clear. The bent beam of steel is ugly, it is plain, it is common and only those who take the trouble to study it, to examine it closely and use their imagination as to what it could be or was are able to to see the beauty. Perhaps the fault lies with me and this is just my attempt to come off looking good. Perhaps. I have noticed that generally speaking independent films (which is what Down in the Valley is) claim to be intentionally difficult and challenging as a positive attribute. This is something that people who create independent film seem to take pride in. Whether this is turning a weakness into a strength or embracing the other simply because it is the other I do not know for sure. I can say, as someone who does have a lot of time on his hands, that unless I am lured in by the film or book I can no longer find a reason to sit through two hours of dreariness or boredom, simply because it is art.

And yet here I am, some time later, writing and thinking about this film. I take no pleasure in these thoughts, in these words I am writing. The film whose meaning I’ve missed is akin to the sore tooth that my tongue cannot stop probing. Without social media I might write my behavior off to a personality quirk, another shortcoming I possess. I see, daily, how many other people devote their time and energy exploring the artistic works of others (usually films) from this place of ‘not getting it’.

What I hoped to poke at a bit here is the intention of the artist regarding the work. Someone like David Lynch enjoys making enigmatic films (and television shows) and offers no explanation to their meanings. He’s interested in making you think, in confusing you in posing questions without answers. Other artists, like the people who made “Down in The Valley” I think have other intentions. I think they wanted to tell a story about a certain kind of people in a certain kind of place and knew that this was not a film for everyone. They seem to take pride in the fact that people will be put off by aspects of the film, be it the subject matter or the pacing of the storytelling, and I find this to be a different animal.

Film Ratings

How movies are assigned their ratings has become something of a hot topic in the past few years. Although I have never seen much written about the subject, listening to the commentaries on several DVD’s (Kevin Smith’s in particular) have offered some insight into how the MPAA rates films. There is of course the documentary This Film Has Not Yet Been Rated which I could watch about twenty minutes of before becoming bored with the director and his need to be in front of the camera.

This article pertains to the rating system in Ontario. What is of interest is how forthcoming their ratings board is and how well defined their categories are for determining the ratings of their films. This is a link to their site ––how-a-movie-is-rated-in-ontario

On this note there is another ratings group, independent of any government as far as I can tell, called Common Sense Media. I find this site and the ratings they have posted on Netflix to be very helpful. They offer detailed explanations for each film so that the reader can understand why this film is deemed 16+ and how it differs from another film with the same rating.

Oliver Stapleton

Whether you are a casual moviegoer or a film buff chances are unless you are also a cinematographer you don’t pay too much attention to this particular profession. Certainly we all notice the way films look and when it is either exceptionally beautiful or painfully drab the credit nearly always falls on the person making the final decisions: the director.

Although I have little experience and no training in either photography or cinematography I have come to follow the works of one cinematographer in particular: Oliver Stapleton. Chances are you have seen his work.

Mr. Stapleton is unusual in that he writes at length. In addition to writing about his own projects —, he also has attempted to write a guide for others interested in getting started in film. He comes across as very down-to-Earth and is a pleasure to read.

I recommend anyone interested in film, whether as a career or if you are looking for a non-sensational read about the decisions that go into how movies are photographed to visit his site. There is a large amount of material to look through. Below is an excerpt from his article on the Shipping News that I feel best captures what the site has to offer.

Stapleton’s sensitivity to landscape also impacted discussions about the film’s aspect ratio. He felt that Newfoundland’s rugged features deserved a widescreen format, but conceded that the height differences among actors could make 2.35:1 framing awkward. That Hallstrom had only worked with widescreen once before (on The Cider House Rules) also created concern.

“Right up to the last week, we were still tussling about which format suited the film,” Stapleton recalls. “It’s simply easier to shoot in 1.85:1, but that format doesn’t give you the same kind of tension when you go out into the land. So I got Steve Dunn to produce both actors [Spacey and Moore?] and the child for me four days before we were to start shooting. We were lucky that the child was quite tall, and neither of the actors was. We went to the set with a viewfinder, and I kept switching it between 1.85 and 2.35 and handing it to Lasse. In the end, he said, ‘You know, 2.35 is just cooler.’”

3D and Your Eyes

James Cameron defending 3D technology.

I want to preface this by saying the last movie I saw in theaters was Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Needless to say I have not seen any films, including Avatar, in 3D.

The first link is to Roger Ebert’s blog. It is no secret that Mr. Ebert does not like 3D. This particular post contains a piece by editor Walter Murch explaining why 3D will never actually work. The short version is — our eyes are not designed to readjust repeatedly.

The second link is to screenwriter John August’s website where I found myself wandering about for several hours today. Mr. August has a post that centers around an interview James Cameron gave to Variety Magazine. The excerpts Mr. August has are very good but if this interests you at all you should go on to Variety magazine and fill out their new registration form so you can access the interview in its entirety. It is worth the read.

I found it interesting enough that I have continued looking for interviews with Mr. Cameron concerning 3D and I am going to paste one more below. This is to the site for Popular Mechanics and is more concise than the previous link.

What has most impressed me in reading these interviews with Mr. Cameron is his technical knowledge and frankness concerning the 3D conversions that have been done. At no point does he shy away from any of the concerns regarding 3D and is at his most convincing when discussing the technical aspects of how this process actually works.

I was under the misconception prior to reading these interviews that Mr. Cameron had gone the way of George Lucas. That is to say that he was so enamored with this new technology that he had lost his grasp on what movies should be. This is clearly not the case. The point that Mr. Cameron makes again and again is that the story is always the most import aspect of filmmaking. In his opinion 3D is a means to help enhance a good story but can do little to help a poorly conceived one. I would like to conclude this post with a few quotes from Mr. Cameron.

I do agree that there’s a consumer backlash and I actually think it’s a good thing, because what they’re lashing back against is some pretty crappy stuff. The consumer position is that if I’m going to pay premium for this ticket, you better show me the money, you know?

The other thing that people need to keep in mind is that 3D doesn’t make a good movie. Good movies are made by good scripts, great acting and a lot of other things besides just being in 3D. 3D can only make a great movie a little bit better.

What’s Wrong with Sentiment?

While visiting the trailers page on Apple’s website today I saw the poster of the film The Father of My Children. On it is a quote from Gavin Smith, editor of Film Comment magazine which reads — “Deeply Moving. Incredibly tender and heartbreaking without ever getting sentimental.”

I am, admittedly, a bit picky about some words. One of these words, especially pertaining to art, is sentimental. Why am I picky about this word? Because I am never quite sure what the person using it means. In an attempt to cure myself of my own ignorance I have decided to try and solve this matter once and for all.

Let us look to the definition as provided by Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary.

Main Entry: sen·ti·men·tal

Pronunciation: \ˌsen-tə-ˈmen-təl\

Function: adjective

Date: 1749

1 a : marked or governed by feeling, sensibility, or emotional idealism b : resulting from feeling rather than reason or thought <a sentimental attachment> <a sentimental favorite>
2 : having an excess of sentiment or sensibility

Let us assume that people like Mr. Smith take issue with the second definition of this term. How then is sentiment defined?

Main Entry: sen·ti·ment

Pronunciation: \ˈsen-tə-mənt\

Function: noun

Etymology: French or Medieval Latin; French, from Medieval Latin sentimentum, from Latin sentire

Date: 1639

1 a : an attitude, thought, or judgment prompted by feeling : predilection b : a specific view or notion : opinion
2 a : emotion b : refined feeling : delicate sensibility especially as expressed in a work of art c : emotional idealism d : a romantic or nostalgic feeling verging on sentimentality
3 a : an idea colored by emotion b : the emotional significance of a passage or expression as distinguished from its verbal context

I am assuming again but I believe Mr. Smith is using definition 2d and the real issue here is sentimentality. Merriam-Webster does not have a definition of this term so I have gone elsewhere.

Wikipedia has given a rather long-winded definition of the term.

Sentimentality is both a literary device used to induce a tender emotional response disproportionate to the situation,[1] and thus to substitute heightened and generally uncritical feeling for normal ethical and intellectual judgments, and a heightened reader response willing to invest previously prepared emotions to respond disproportionately to a literary situation.

The article quotes Oscar Wilde as defining a sentimentalist as “one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.”

So we all get it, a sentimentalist relies on a short-hand of sorts to elicit responses from the viewer/reader/audience that their work does not necessarily merit.

The article on Wikipedia goes on to say “Complications enter into the ordinary view of sentimentality when changes in fashion and setting— the “climate of thought”[7]—intrude between the work and the reader.”

That is to say that sentimentality is relative.  The article concludes, “The example of the death of Little Nell in Charles Dickens‘ The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-41), “a scene that for many readers today might represent a defining instance of sentimentality”,[7]brought tears to the eye of many highly critical readers of the day.”

So here is what we have learned – Mr. Smith is pleased with the film because it does not take any cheap, emotional shortcuts to achieve its goal of being moving, tender and heartbreaking. What undermines his statement is that in the future it is entirely probable that critics and viewers alike will find the work contrived, sappy and emotionally manipulative.

To my mind the use of this term by critics is as useful as other popular phrases such as “tour-de-force” and” adrenaline-fueled” because it is nothing more than an editorial shortcut that desires to have the impact of a critique without earning it.