Real, Actual Notes On The Pilot Of Six Feet Under

I’ve heard incredible things about both the pilot and the finale of Six Feet Under and at least the first has delivered. This is a super polished, arch, stylized look into the most crushing, unfair, devastating abyss that is death AND IT WAS AWESOME. The show notes I took weren’t meant to be at all serious, but they devolved quickly and yet evolved at the same time into and all-caps, sputtering, extravaganza of awe.

Ok, you have my attention cinematography.

Oh, Dexter’s in this. Weird.



HBO and Ravens, what’s up with that?

Yes. Classical music. Win.


The worst things always happen in places where Christmas is sunny.


Dexter, you are weird.

A long time to leave that open space in the background…

CALLED IT. Bye, Richard Jenkins. 

Symbolism is Symbolic.



Oh God, the early aughts edgey girrrl look is really bad only ten years later. I’M SO DATED!


Oh no, it’s not even been ten minutes into the episode.




Ha, high as balls, but yeah, she’s ok.






HANDS OF BLUE!!!!!?!!!!



DO NOT Magnolia reference me right now, Brenda, I’m already in a state.


I kinda hope the jumps and projections aren’t a regular thing. You can only be clever so many times before you’re twee.




This is the correct reaction to “I’m a WHORE!”

“I WENT CAMPING” is now officially my new euphemism.

Love the subliminal messaging above Brenda’s fridge.



This is an appropriately weird compliment for a funeral.






I don’t mean to diminish the complicated things that Six Feet Under  is doing, both in formal and tonal terms. I’ll have more collected thoughts on the first two episodes in a bit, but when a show succeeds on a visceral level – the almost participatory, “Don’t go in there, you fuckwit!” level of engagement –  it is fantastic.

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Belated MovieBoozer Report: Pain & Gain

Summer movies are a strange phenomenon. I’ve having fun with the few I’ve seen already, but can’t really qualify any of them as, you know, good. Competent. Well shot. Well acted, even. But remember that time when Billy Wilder got to rewrite his own scripts? No? Well, it was the thirties. As much as I enjoy the Marvel House Style, it seems like movies aren’t better than they need to be anymore. So when something as kind of not cookie-cutter yet of the action/true crime mold as Pain & Gain doesn’t just get dumped in January but climbs the calendar all the way to the end of April? That’s exciting.

Mostly it’s because I believe that studio popcorn flicks can still bear an autuer’s mark. They can do interesting, distinct things within the basic parameters of a four-quadrant-pleasing blockbuster. Michael Bay might be everything critics think is wrong with Hollywood, but when you see a Michael Bay movie, you know it. No one else could be responsible for the things he does, for worse and for better. Pain & Gain comes really close to being a good film, but but it’s less Bay’s bombast and more his meanspirited glorification of all things domination that ultimately got in the way of the story.

Anyway, for all my thoughts, check out the review.

film reviews pain and gain

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Special Bloody Snowflakes: Cinematic Combat On TV

A television series’ identity, in this age spreading dawn’s rosy rays on the demands of niche audiences, is often a matter of differentiation. You have to make choices based on the resources you have, of course, and with a view to the goals and universal laws of your series, but also with consideration as to how those choices stack up against other shows addressing similar issues. TV series sort of get to be their own genres, accruing concerns and conventions that are repeated and varied until a well of expectations exist in the mind of the viewer.

For example, the ending of last week’s episode of Mad Men – Don slumped in daze of malaise in front of his apartment, out of synch with the unforgiving symmetry of the composition, a song of barbed significance coming on over the credits – feels as stock at this point as a high noon shootout. Now, no other episode, to my memory, has ended precisely this way and not every episode ending finds Don as puppy-dog lost as he is here. But it is a generic thing – the ending feels like the ending to the idea of the typical Mad Men episode I have in my head, one that will never fully play out on screen in its entirety (a very Mad Men concept itself). So newcomers that tread the same ground harrowed up by Mad Men have to contend not only with the baggage of their particular show format, distribution method, and/or series setting, but with the generic legacy of very successful, culturally impactful shows that are similar too. How do you differentiate the sci-fi frontier of Defiance from Firefly? How did Parks and Rec free itself from the shadow of The Office?

film studies

Sometimes that prime act of differentiation is as simple as having Mark Harmon as the lead of your forensic procedural, as opposed to Gary Sinise (RIP CSI: NY). However, last Sunday the planets aligned for a one-night-only triple set from three violent, pseudo-historical period pieces, and I wish they all could’ve spent more time on the air together. Looking at how Game of Thrones, Spartacus, and The Vikings all define and differentiate themselves, each is very openly stylized in a way that complements the overall identity of each particular series. There’s a lot that could be said, but the way the shows handle their combat sequences is a nice, concrete way of approaching the issue.

television studies

You can’t match Game of Thrones for scale or production value, and there’s no two ways around that. The show’s second season received a budget in excess of 60 million, nabbed gore-maester Neil Marshall (of The Decent and Centurion)to direct last year’s all-battle episode “Blackwater,” and utilizes locations already complete with ruined castles and weathered battlements by shooting in Northern Ireland and Croatia (and Malta, and Morocco, and Iceland, too). It has the money to be cinematic in the Cinerama sense, with an omniscient, roving eye and massive sets, faceless hordes and ‘hero’ extras, CGI and FX. The production value is lavish enough to be photographed more or less as-is without looking silly or small-time, and that’s actually kind of a huge deal for a TV series.

tv criticism

Yet, if you look at “Blackwater,” what’s noteworthy is how little time the speaking cast spends physically fighting. The battle is more like a madly spinning top being poked and prodded. The tension and suspense is in seeing on what side, Lannister or Baratheon, it will eventually land on. Most of the truly gruesome and explicit, although not hyperrealistic, violence happens to the redshirts on both sides, and one suspects that is part of the series’ point about power struggles. The emotion comes in as the consequences of these massed armies hacking at each other bear on characters from, largely, the removed, ruling elite, not through the martial prowess and passion of warrior-leads. We keep cutting back to Cersei getting increasingly drunk and hosting an uncensored course on Queenship with Sansa that gets more horrific as she loses hope, while the fortunes of the Lannisters hang on Tyrion’s nervous courage. The most triumphant moment is his heroic speech in the third act that undercuts traditional battle heroics.

The other most memorable moment, is the explosion of Wildfire, an impersonal thing of pure visual spectacle that both sets the tone but in many ways dwarfs all the action that follows. And that’s Game of Thrones for you – it’s immersed in impressive scale, staging, effects, and a conventional (read: compares favorably to film) style of combat cinematography, but the emphasis is still on the scales of power and where, exactly, those will balance out in relation to the characters we care about.

spartacus tv criticism

On the other end of the spectrum, Spartacus can do more with less, and with more flair, than pretty much anything else on TV. I’ve talked before about how its embrace of the most hyperreal, artificial tools in the cinematic apparatus translates to an outpouring of emotion and a statement of character agency. Spartacus can lemur-leap seven feet in the air to strike a man on horseback and slow down the camera’s speed because his desire to remove Crassus’ head from his body is so intense it transcends the laws of physics. People don’t just bleed when cut, they are fucking pressurized hydrants of blood and constrained passions and desperate hopes. The show became exceptional when it figured out how to marry stylized physical spectacle to emotionality, and distinct by how it was, at its best, able to crank both all the way up to 11.

spartacus tv criticism

Spartacus never had the budget for good looking, naturalistic production values (mo money, mo armorers with no fingerprints from making so much chainmail) and turned instead to green screens. But the show utilized that technology and played with depth in really interesting ways. Often, a character’s expression is highlighted and slightly detached from both an artificial, filtered atmosphere and the ubiquitous, synthetic blood-spatter. So the ‘truth’ in the frame is the emotion conveyed by the actors even as the relentless visual spectacle elevates action to an Elysian plane of fucking badassery. Its combat is personal and cathartic where Game of Thrones’ is global and machination-driven. It’s anchored, of course, by quieter dialog scenes that establish the relationships and desires the cast of Spartacus work out through sex and violence. But in terms of combat, overt stylization – whether it’s ramping (it’s always ramping), CGI-enhanced exsanguinations, whatever – actually serves to bolster the melodrama of the series, not undercut it.

spartacus tv studies

By Jupiter’s cock, the final showdown between Spartacus and Crassus is nothing but a font of full-throated emotion, complete with cutaways to those most loved and lost by the Thracian, yet it’s amazing how pared down (comparatively) their duel is, rhythmically punctuated by groans and the grinding of steel. There’s plenty of the show’s signature CGI splatter. But in the end, we have two men, their faces slick with congealing blood, spittle dangling from their mouths, and their desires, ideologies, and wills finding vent against the other. The fight is entrancing, brutal, and holds triumph for our hero without retconning his inevitable fall. The beauty of Spartacus is that it has serious, often very tender, things to say about love, personal dignity, and freedom, yet it expresses those ideas through ripped warriors killing and fucking their way across Italy.

the vikings tv criticism

This brings us to The Vikings, the freshman beginning to come into its own, with combat sequences that are often more assured and interesting than anything else in a given episode. What’s so wonderful about this series is the way it differentiates itself through an unadorned visual efficiency. Its style is workmanlike, as mechanical and percussive as a well-oiled piston. Vikings likes to have at least one extreme long shot of the entire crew engaged in hand-to-hand fighting, but it’s sort of like watching ants burrow through the sand. The gore is less, obviously, than premium cable, and no subjectivity has yet crept into the combat cinematography itself. But the stakes are hardly Machiavellian. The vikings come. They raid. They take gold. Off they sail again. Ragnar Lothbrok’s mad, calculating smile continually obscures his plans and motives from us as well as the bumbling Northumbrians.

vikings film studies

Vikings has a more sociological ax to grind than either of its cable kindred, portraying a culture of brutal, entrancing mystery clashing with the Christian worldview we’re familiar with. So it makes sense that battles are most interesting when they’re dealing with group dynamics: the discipline and coordination of holding a shield wall, even the ritualized, personal combat between the Jarl and Ragnar is ringed by people, not the stands of an arena. And the cinematography largely reflect this: fighting’s played in real time, without trickery or awe-inspiring staging, and shared among the raiding party of grim, almost dispassionate warriors. Well, there’s Floki. But the point here is The Vikings doesn’t try to weigh combat down with import beyond immediate survival or the acquisition of wealth. No rallying cry, no value statement, no historical ripple effect. It’s death as a way of life.

vikings tv history

It’s really special all three series, making very different cinematic decisions about a similar visual issue, got to share a night of programming. I’m not sure I even want another show to try and replicate the distinct stylization of Spartacus, but period series will continue to develop and bring new strategies to our small screens. Genres, and television shows, survive by varying themselves, after all – redefining and reacting to what’s gone before and surprising us with fresh perspective. To paraphrase a man who no longer exists, that is all a cable showrunner can do.

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Let Me Describe The Last Month

Click the image.

Sorry to go all tumblr on you there. But melancholy happens. So that’s where I’ve been.

The great news is that period TV is a-blooming this spring with Game of Thrones, Vikings, and Spartacus all at least sharing the screen for one more, gloriously bloody week. Mad Men‘s back, more ponderous and oblique, and slyly hilarious, than ever, and I want to write about all these things this weekend. But with clear eyes and full heart, I can say that I’ve found what I think is the most flawless opening season of a TV show I’ve ever had the pleasure to watch.

tv studies

Get excited. I have thoughts on Friday Night Lights.

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The Fury Of The Footnote-Men: Evaluating History In Film

In the wake of the Oscars (19/24. Meh. Stupid sound editing/production design), a great hue and cry has been raised among the punditry over films and history and historicism and anachronism and I LOVE IT, y’all. There’s a great piece over at NPR about the historical accuracy of language in things like Lincoln and Downton Abbey, while CinemaBlend’s running a pithy argument for why Argo’s loose approach to authenticity allows it to transcend “truth” and work better as a film than the more serious Zero Dark Thirty and Lincoln.

lincoln film studies url-5


Really, you think?

This idea – that getting things wrong can actually makes them more right – is contingent upon a pre-agreed upon set of criteria for success. What those criteria are and how films and TV shows set up their own individual contracts with their viewers are fascinating to think about. Is it this chillingly realistic portrait? Or is it a bearded Ben Affleck and film stock? There’s a huge difference of attitude and tone between very conscious historical dramatization and what I like to call hashtag history, which evokes historical periods, events, and persons without any pretension towards accurately portraying them.

film studies robin hood

A fascinating example is Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, which can’t make up its mind what it wants to do with its historical setting and its ahistorical literary tradition. The closest people you can get to a historical Robin Hood are probably Eustace Folville and James Coterel, medieval gang leaders in and around Leicestershire and Derbyshire who may have had Lancastrian sympathies but certainly were all-purpose extorters, kidnappers, and murdurers, and survived because they acted on a freelance basis for the local nobility and clergy rather than on behalf of a stricken, oppressed peasantry.  While Coterel and Folville were gentrymen,  and probably had the lay of Sherwood forest,  unfortunately the first extant references we have for a ‘robbehood’ or ‘robehaud’ predate them, appearing in the late 1220s, almost thirty years after the death of Richard I, as placeholder names for itinerant felons. The Folville and Coterel gangs were active during the reign of Edward II and III, in the early fourteenth century, and the first literary reference to Robin Hood occurs in Piers Plowman, written towards the end of the same century. So in conclusion, no, there never was a Robin Hood.

This is because, if you read any of the actual early ballads and stories about Robin, he’s terrible at being Robin Hood. What he actually does is act as a foil for representatives of various medieval castes and tests them, exposing the corruption and hypocrisy of clergymen and nobles, the cruelty of minor town functionaries, stuff like that. Everyone beats him at archery and swordplay, even Marian ties with him, and he’s constantly getting captured by the evil sheriff and Little John and Much the Miller’s Son are constantly having to rescue him. And rescuing him means killing people. A lot. And then misrepresenting yourself as the person you killed before the King. And then freeing Robin and killing all the guards and stealing the tax chest. No mention is made of its distribution to the poor. Check this out: John smote of the munkis hed / no longer wolde he dwelle; / So did Moch the litull page, / Ffor ferd lest he wolde telle. Or, John struck off the monk’s head / no longer does he dwell; / So did Much the little page / for fear that he would tell.  Less “Huzzah!” and more “Take the Canoli,” right?

film theory robin hood

This is why I was initially excited about the 2010 Robin Hood trailer. Because it doesn’t really matter if you have the historical or literary background, but incorporating the legend’s darker origins would be wicked.  The film looked violent and full of glowering, a reconsideration of the romantic Robin legend solidified so concretely by 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood. The trouble is, whether you order green tights or not, you have to acknowledge the generic baggage you have in making a Robin Hood film. We’re looking for stuff. Where’s Little John? Maid Marian? The Sheriff? Prince John?  What is this version of Robin Hood’s general attitude? Does oppression get him down, or do you kind of suspect he’d be in the Greenwood anyway? In creating your forest hideout, you have to know where to place the trees around the secret entrance.

Scott’s Robin Hood is so caught up in reconsideration for its own sake – Richard is dead! And Robin’s a commoner! And the Merry Men can be feral children! And Marian gets to fight in a pitched battle! – that by the time it gets around to the pseudo democratic, “Rise up, good people, and defend justice and liberty!” themes that go along with Flynn’s feathered cap, they seem completely out of place. It gets neither the history or the myth “right” in terms of accuracy, nor sets up the grounds for us to take them as drama for its own sake. I mean, I’m thrilled whenever Elinor of Aquitaine shows up in anything, but by the time there’s, like, a reverse D-Day French invasion of England complete with medieval Higgins boats, you have well and truly broken the tether of your source material. The key is that by foregrounding the entire endeavor with a promise of “real” history or some sort of accuracy, that tether matters, and we as an audience want it. Another Ridley Scott historical gloomfest, Gladiator, gets its facts wrong too, but the film’s focus is not on the politics of the Nervian/Antoninian dynasty. It paints in broad, bloody strokes.

film studies lincoln

Lincoln is, in a sense, at similar cross-purposes. The film wants to portray the man as he really lived and to honor his legend. This is ambitious, and I think on the first front the film succeeds in a spectacular way. It offers us a repurposed view of an iconic image, a person about which we have certain assumptions, and its a view that acknowledges those assumptions and shows us something thrillingly new. The humane, burdened, slyly hilarious Lincoln that Day-Lewis turned in will be the authoritative version in all our minds for a good long while. Portraying the Importance, sending him off to The Ages, as best represented by that, ahem, obvert John Williams score, casts contrasting shadow on the film’s story itself. Argo has no such concerns about posterity. It ends on a storyboard with meaning to the emotional story of the protagonist. It could have been any hostage crisis, really, that facilitated that growth and exposed that level of silent sacrifice of extractor Tony Mendez, just so long as Ben Afflect could sport his full and many beard. The terms are less stringent. It’s easier, which is why what Lincoln did accomplish feels more like, you know, an accomplishment. Historical drama is very hard to get factually and emotionally correct. When you do it, though, the past comes alive;  for beings with existences as fleeting as ours, that’s not an ignoble endeavor.

the vikings tv studies

This is why, in conclusion, The Vikings, the History Channel’s first scripted effort (aside from Pawn Stars, but that’s another topic), will be fascinating to watch. It looks pretty damned narrative and involving and entirely a dramatic enterprise, but it’s airing on a network called The History Channel. We’re expecting both accuracy and truth. Where will it place its flag? How will it navigate these issues? Will Gabriel Byrne be scary-cranky or adorable-cranky? Will that hot Australian find Canada? I’m excited to find out. 


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Oh No Film Majors’ Oscar Predictions: Part 4

Aaah! I’m out of time! What’s going on? Annie, don’t you know you’re going to be on stage in like 30 minutes?! Red Carpet. “Oh my gosh, frenzy!”

Best Picture – Argo

Best Director – Ang Lee

Best Actor – Daniel Day Lewis

Best Actress – Jennifer Lawrence

Best Supporting Actress – Anne Hathaway

Best Supporting Actor – Robert De Niro

Boom! Done! See you on the other side.

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Oh No Film Majors’ Oscar Predictions: Part 3

We’re under an hour to go, so very quickly, here we go.

Best Cinematography

Who To Bet On: Life of Pi. Yeah, you know that whole defining how 3D can be used not just as gimmickry but as an discrete cinematic device integral to the experience of a film thing? It’s kind of a big deal.

Who To Support: Skyfall. Shanghai fight sequence. Roger Deakins. The colors! The colours!

Spoiler To Mention So You Still Look Smart: Skyfall. I mean, I personally love Sheamus McGarvey and Anna Karenina is pretty spectacular, even if it doesn’t come off. But it’s between Pi and Skyfall, and it’d be a pleasant surprise if it was Skyfall. 

Best Editing

Who To Bet On: Argo. It’s a taught film, man. Good timing of things. A thriller. Meh.

Who To Support: Zero Dark Thirty. It’s a bit unfair, in both directions, to judge ZDT by its raid sequences, but DID YOU SEE THE RAID SEQUENCE? It is textbook perfect tension. 

Spoiler To Mention So You Still Look Smart: Silver Linings Playbook. No one cares a whole lot about editing, so votes can be scattered around, and people do seem to love Silver Linings

Best Score

Who To Bet On: Life of Pi. Mychael Danna’s put in a lot of great work and the variety of instrumental influence at play in Pi is certainly in his favor.

Who To Support: Life of Pi. Yeah, all the choices are pretty fine on their own, and do what they’re supposed to in the film, so Pi is legit.

Spoiler To Mention So You Still Look Smart: Beasts of the Southern Wild. Score is the category Beasts has the most chance to win. It will not win. But this is their shot.

Best Song

Who To Bet On: Skyfall. The Academy wants to see Adele high-five Daniel Craig and be awesome.

Who To Support: Skyfall. We ALL want to see Adele high-five Daniel Craig and be awesome.

Spoiler To Mention So You Still Look Smart: Skyfall. Do you even know who else is nominated? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

Best Original Screenplay

Who To Bet On: Zero Dark Thirty. It’s a choice between a rock and hard place with Django and ZDT, but regardless of what you think about the movie, it’s structured cleanly and clinically, and is the classiest choice.

Who To Support: Moonrise Kingdom. Because it should win something, damnit. It’s a pretty decent Wes Anderson flick, and anything to not support Flight

Spoiler To Mention So You Still Look Smart: Django Unchained. It’s wordy like Lincoln  but shit blows up! Whooo? 

Best Adapted Screenplay

Who To Bet On: Argo. Writers have tended to be a little more hipster, rewarding non-Oscarbait when it can. Lincoln is the only other choice of merit and it’s a little too Important.

Who To Support: Lincoln. It’s Important for a reason, y’all. They get Abraham Lincoln right.

Spoiler To Mention So You Still Look Smart: Silver Linings Playbook. I say this because I don’t understand the love for SLP and Oscars often go to films whose appeal I don’t understand.  

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Oh No Film Majors’ Oscar Predictions: Part 2

Welcome to all the other kinds of films, which AMPAS lumps into six categories so we don’t have to talk about them after that, and which programmers of the awards ceremony are most willing to cut off!

film studies animation paperman

Best Animated Short

Who To Bet On: Paperman. The race between is between Disney animators, really, but Paperman does have an advantage of its innovative blend of cell animation and CGI to lean on, creating a fluid and luminous look, even more classically elegant for being rendered largely in black and white. While Adam and Dog might exact more pathos out of a more challenging meet-cute, Paperman may well be a welcome herald of the shape of animation to come.

Who To Support: Paperman. Y’all, I’ve listened to Christophe Beck’s score for this short 80 times according to iTunes. I may or may not have forfeited impartiality here. It’s great writing music! And everything else about this short is great, too. If I had to explain the modern Disney sensibility in 5 minutes, I would probably show Paperman. Let’s all go to the 125th Street Station with trapper keepers and be ensnared by love.  

cinematography paperman

Who’s The Spoiler To Mention So You Still Look Smart: Adam and Dog. Much as how Jessica Chastain’s performance is a subtler and technically probably more demanding than Jennifer Lawrence’s showier turn, Adam and Dog’s wordless exploration of the first friendship is vibrant, rhythmic, and satisfying on a primal level. It never quite reaches the exuberant pitch of Paperman, but the animation here is the most joyously alive. It may well win.

Best Live-Action Short

Who To Bet On: Curfew . The Shorts are always near-run things because almost no one watches them, and very few break through to notoriety in the general pop culture. That’s why the animated race is so exciting this year: people are actually watching the films. That said, Curfew fits the Oscar trim nicely: a suicidal man is thwarted in his attempt by being forced to babysit his niece. Serious material, plenty for the actors to chew on, and unexpected turns.

Who To Support: Asad. Here’s the thing about Asad. It’s the story of a young Somali boy who struggles whether to join an outlaw pirate gang. It’s awesome. And by awesome, I mean terrible. And by terrible, I mean gorgeous.

film theory death of a shadow

Who’s The Spoiler To Mention So You Still Look Smart: Death of A Shadow. This is probably the coolest looking of the three shorts I’ve seen and executes its trippy, high-concept premise – a WWI-era soldier uses a steampunky camera to steal dying people’s souls – really well. It’s also got Rust And Bone alumnus Matthias Schoenaerts, so it might be able to ride in on that wave.

Best Documentary Short

I haven’t seen any of these, y’all, so get out the tea leaves, I guess? Most of the buzz seems to be surrounding Innocente, for what it’s worth.

hollywood film harry potter

Best Animated Feature

Who To Bet On: Wreck-It Ralph. Although there’s many, myself included, who thoroughly enjoyed Wreck-It Ralph but weren’t blown away, it’s still got the most viable chance because it was released (fairly) recently, critically very well received, visually clever, and funny. The race between Ralph and Brave is pretty close, though, so don’t bet too much.

Who To Support: Pirates! Band of Misfits. It’s not going to win so whatever, but this is a rollicking, swashbuckling adventure with Charles Darwin, who has a crush on Queen Victoria, who hates pirates and hunts them abroad her QV1. And there’s a Dodo, because of course there is. If you don’t love pirates, and adorable English actors like Martin Freeman, and warm animation, and pirate nemesis QUEEN VICTORIA, then I’d like to know when your soul got marooned on a desert island.

hollywood film pirates!

Who’s The Spoiler To Mention So You Still Look Smart: Brave. Never underestimate three things: the prestige appeal of Pixar Studios, the laziness of Academy voters who don’t watch all the films, and the earth-shattering beauty of the Scottish highlands. While it’s certainly not as narratively sophisticated as its older siblings, Brave is one of the most gorgeous animated films I’ve ever seen. This could be a Jon-Stewart-wins-the-Emmy scenario for Pixar, with Disney Animation Studios as the wincing but good-natured Stephan Colbert.

Best Documentary

Who To Bet On: Searching For Sugar Man. This recommendation is based on number the critics and guild awards the documentary on perennially elusive, socially conscious musician Rodriguez has won, which is most of them. Besides being a master class on when and how to withhold and reveal information, Searching For Sugar Man has one of the few things its fellow nominees lack: a well earned happy ending to make voters feel even better about giving it the win.

Who To Support: The Invisible War. Both The Gatekeepers and 5 Broken Cameras should be mandatory viewing for anyone who wants to discuss the Israeli/Palestinian issue the way Lincoln was for Congress, but The Invisible War is the only film out of the nominees that pushed all my right film major buttons – it’s cleanly constructed and focused without bashing heads, yet powerfully insistent and affective – and covers a subject we all should be talking about. And it’s not likely to win, so just mention to others it’s streaming on Netflix.

film studies the invisible war

Who’s The Spoiler To Mention So You Still Look Smart: How To Survive A Plague. This is an instinct call, not having seen the film yet (it’s also streaming on Netflix so I have no excuse), but anger seems to be resonating well right now, with all the Occupy imagery floating around comic book films and such. And here’s a documentary not only carefully handling the passionate, fight for their actual lives of ACT UP during the height of the American AIDS epidemic, but how, though it was damned near thing, passion met politics and got something done.

Best Foreign Language Film

Who To Bet On: Amour. Oh, I’m sorry, which of the other nominees are also up for Best Picture and Best Direction and Best Actr – I’ll stop right here.

Who To Support: Amour. Yeah, the film is that nuts. Despite how mean-spirited its attitude towards its characters (what children react like that?), it is one of the most assured, visually breathtaking and emotionally affective pieces of the year.

film criticism amour

Who’s The Spoiler To Mention So You Still Look Smart: Amour. It is the surest of sure bets, y’all. There’s no spoiler, so let me instead suggest two very fine foreign films whose only misfortune is being not-Amour this year: No and A Royal Affair. The former is a Chilean political comedy both biting and absurd, and is anchored by one of the better performances I’ve seen from Gael Garcia Bernal; the latter is a chewy Danish melodrama with a pleasingly subdued, aesthete style and more Voltaire quotes than you probably heard in high school.

Tomorrow: the Little Six civilians do care about –  screenplay, song, score, cinematography, and editing.

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Oh No Film Majors’ Oscar Predictions: Part 1

As much as I might complain about Hollywood film’s annual ticket-spiking, institutional horse-race, predictions are fun, so let’s do this thing. Today I’ll begin with some the technical categories and work my way up to the major awards.

film studies

Best Visual Effects

What It Covers: Technically, the award encompasses both setwork and computer-based effects, but really, this is the award for the CGI that has the most essential impact on the overall success of its film. That said, according to the actual Academy criteria, visual effects are judged by “the artistry, skill and fidelity with which the visual illusions are achieved.” So while giant aliens and mecha-battle-sharks do get recognition, it was Hugo who nabbed this award last year for creating a convincing train crash.

Who To Bet On: Life of Pi. There’s no two ways about the fact that Life of Pi leans on its effects work and pulls off its breathtaking CG seascapes, ships, and animals flawlessly. The visuals are integral to the film and have the advantage of being mostly faithful to real-life stuff, instead of outer-space or fantasy fixtures.

film studies life of pi

Who You Should Support: Life of Pi. CG. Bengal. Tiger. CG Bengal Tiger. Did you see the CG Bengal Tiger?!

Who’s The Spoiler To Mention So You Still Look Smart: Although fan-favorite The Avengers earned a nod, the sleeper here is actually Prometheus, which older Academy voters are more likely to have seen and feel good about voting for  – if Christopher Nolan’s superhero can’t get love from the Academy don’t expect Joss Whedon to do better. But the likelihood of a rolling space-station victory lap for Ridley Scott is pretty low.

Best Sound Editing

What It Covers: The award used to be called Best Sound Design, which is an easy way to think of this one. It’s for designing and manipulating audio to create distinct sound effects for a particular film. An example is the Ringwraiths’ scream: it’s actually a distortion of screenwriter Fran Walsh’s yell, but it’s been played with and crafted for the LOTR films. And don’t worry, everybody gets Editing and Mixing confused, which is probably why Hugo won last year.

Who To Bet On: Skyfall . When action movies like Inception and Pearl Harbor and frickin’ U-571 have come away with this award in the past, you better believe that the Academy is lining up to vote for a classy, cinematic action film like Skyfall. There is a wonderful interplay between sounds and silences here as well: the film does wonders with smaller zips and clangs as much as the big explosions and crashes.


Who You Should Support: Skyfall’s sonic precision is indeed breathtaking, so feel good about it winning. But Zero Dark Thirty, particularly its raid sequence, is equally exacting. The Academy doesn’t want to get tarred with politics unless they have the caveat of Sean Pean being drunk, but if you’re pulling for upsets, this is one to root for.

Who’s The Spoiler To Mention So You Still Look Smart: Life of Pi.  The reason so many combat or action-heavy films win sound editing is because, especially in this age of intensified continuity, sound carries much of the narrative burden of tracking action during chaotic fight sequences. In a similar vein, sound plays a huge role in creating the believability of a fake Bengal tiger. Life of Pi is therefore next likely.

Best Sound Mixing

What It Covers: Ok, again, the basic distinction between editing and mixing is that while editing rewards the creation of sound specifically for an individual film, mixing rewards the overall blending of the sounds (ambient, dialog, canned, music, etc.) on a film’s complete soundtrack. The winner is often the same as in sound editing, but not always. Hugo took a trip to the moon with its Mixing Oscar last year.

Who To Bet On: Les Miserables. I refer you to that pretentious featurette about live-singing and you know, actors’ ability to make choices are whatever. It is technically ridiculous that the film’s entire musical orchestration is based on accompanists’ recording of music on the fly in a satellite room, gauging tempo and rhythm by how hard Hugh Jackson wanted to cry on that take. Everyone who has ever been on a set is impressed.  

film theory les miserables

Who You Should Support: Les Miserables. More like Les Ridiculous.

Who’s The Spoiler To Mention So You Still Look Smart:  The closest contender to even touch it is Skyfall, because did you see Javier Bardem explode that tube station for funsies? But much like Anne Hathaway, we were all going to acknowledge the prowess of recording a live-sung and sung-through musical from the minute it happened.  

Best Costume Design

What It Covers: It’s what the actors are wearing. And bear in mind, the Wikipedia page on Best Costume actually flat-out says, “..the Academy has traditionally avoided giving out the award to contemporary films” The Artist won last year, proving that while Costume does reward period detail, it doesn’t necessarily need to be Regency era, and the category is a likely bandwagoneer of major awards sweeps.

Who To Bet On: Anna Karenina. Neither of the major nominees in the category, Lincoln and Les Miserables, has overwhelming authority to nab this, and Weta Workshop is still glaring at Snow White And The Huntsman for stealing all its armor. So it’s not unlikely Anna Karenina will have a mini-sweep of the arts categories.

film studies anna karenina

Who You Should Support: Look, I really like Anna Karenina, ok? It’s distinctive without being crazy over the top. All the nominees achieve the effects they set out to, though, so root for who you want.

Who’s The Spoiler To Mention So You Still Look Smart:  Mirror Mirror. I know, I know, it’s not a good movie. You only saw this one because you were on a plane and you couldn’t look away. But giant golden hoop gowns and swan-head headdresses are kind of what Best Costume is for, and the film has, unfortunately, the tragic advantage of being a posthumous nomination for longtime Tarseem collaborator Eiko Ishioka. The sentiment factor may outweigh the embarrassment factor of supporting a be-frocked Nathan Lane.

Best Makeup And Hairstyling

What It Covers: Uhm, makeup and hairstyling? It’s helpful to remember that this award was created as the result of outcry that the makeup work on The Elephant Man wasn’t going to the recognition it deserved. Last year The Iron Lady won because the English have bad teeth, I guess?

Who To Bet On: Les Miserables. Hair and Makeup go through this weird double-filtration nominating process whereby nominees are pre-selected, then whittled down to only the three on which the entire Academy votes. So while films with lots of prosthetic work and intense wigs get nods, most-makeup doesn’t always translate to Oscar gold, and genre can give way to prestige picks. The Hobbit and Hitchcock are the other contenders, but Les Mis will probably get to have its cake.

editing the hobbit

Who You Should Support: The Hobbit. It’s super unlikely to win. The film’s being shunned like the kindergartener who lost Hannibal, Ms. Benjamin’s class’ beloved communal teddy-bear. But The Hobbit has 14 main characters, and they are effectively differentiated, by and large, through hair and makeup, never mind that Albino orc dude and all his minions. Not only does it include the most work, but its hair and makeup have to do the most work.

Who’s The Spoiler To Mention So You Still Look Smart:  Yeah, I’d be floored if Hitchcock won. But I guess you can talk about Anthony Hopkins’ jowls if you like, because jowls is a funny word.

Best Production Design

What It Covers: Production Design used to be called Art Direction until last year. The nomenclature change isn’t important, really. What the award entails is achievement in what might properly be called mis-en-scene: sets, interiors, props, what have you. It went to Hugo last year, because everybody loves clock-gears and trains.

Who To Bet On: Anna Karenina.  Like all the Art awards, Production Design favors period settings, and the closest a film can get to the sumptuary excess of Versailles, the better. Particularly intricate, gilded, or fantastical settings beat simpler, more understated sets, and Anna Karenina has the advantage of being all three, and not being too poorly received to disqualify it on the embarrassment factor.

cinematography anna karenina

Who You Should Support: Yeah, probably Anna Karenina. Lincoln, Life of Pi and The Hobbit are all nominated, two as period par-for-the-courses, and the other for, like, dwarven jewelry, but not only does AK provide a very lush and authoritative 19th Century look  stylized to fit modern aesthetic tastes, but also there’s this giant stage.  It’s a little crazy, and it works (visually, at least). A lot of that is down to the set design.

Who’s The Spoiler To Mention So You Still Look Smart:  Les Miserables. It’s the other most-showy period piece on the list, but Les Mis doesn’t have that extra design dimension to deal with. The only thing to upset Tolstoy and Stoppardists would be a revolutionary outpouring of goodwill towards the musical.

Tomorrow: Non-feature films!

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Film History Is Not Your Bitch, History

As should be pretty apparent given the number of times I ruminate on things like Spartacus and Game of Thrones, I love historical fiction.  But beyond its own charms, historical fiction has the virtue of being a gateway drug for more rigorous historical study and scholarship. I’d bet ten livres de tournai many a medievalist found their way into that epoch through Arthurian lit and Tolkien. The awful (it’s awful, y’all) TNT mini-series Gettysburg was how I first got interested in the Civil War. Historical fiction presents the opportunity, particularly in visual media, to get a sense of the past as the present (because the story unfolds in time, as you watch it). Through an emotional alignment to characters, it allows we moderns to appreciate what makes history so compelling: grasping the actuality, the desires and thoughts and wits and passions, of those who were, and were like us, who will be gone as utterly as they all too soon.

lincoln film theory

With that rather florid beginning, you can gather that I have thoughts on Maureen Dowd’s snippy article decrying a lack of accuracy in Hollywood films. Let’s begin her premise on which she takes down Argo and Lincoln:

 “…my pet peeve about filmmakers [is when they] make up facts in stories about real people to add “drama,” rather than just writing the real facts better.”

Inherent in this statement is a prejudices of taste: that ‘real facts’ are always better than anything an author can make up in stories about real people. This is certainly a valid opinion. But it’s one that exists in a vacuum apart from the entire history and trajectory of Hollywood storytelling. Starting from around 1912, what’s become known as the Classical Hollywood Narrative Style has ruled filmmaking. Every film, whether reacting against it or conforming to it, has to make creative choices based on the fact that the dominant trend in ‘feature’ filmmaking is to tell a story of a protagonist, grounded by psychological motivation, and his/her pursuit of defined goals. Ben Affleck must get those hostages out of Iran; Lincoln must pass 13th amendment, etc.

Drama arises from the complications and developments which delay and redefine these goals – the Chief of Staff hasn’t approved the tickets, quick find out where his kids go to school – and the interplay between pathos and action – oh no! the tickets have not been approved, it would be terrible if those poor hostages got captured, quick, Bryan Cranston, you must get them cleared! – allows us as viewers to feel (not think), to reach a catharsis where we recognize good and reject evil. I’m not saying this is the only way to do fiction, but this is how Hollywood does it, and y’all, it works.

film studies lincoln

While eviscerating the voting scene, Ms. Dowd cites the creative reasons Spielberg left in an inaccurate voting structure, by state rather than by name: rhythm, and ease of tracking the narrative. Quotations are put around these like they’re inferior concerns, as well they might be to a historian. But for we civilian viewers, it’s damned important to be completely enveloped in the tension of the vote – unthinkingly, viscerally hooked – not only because the climax of Lincoln is a series of white dudes speaking briefly, but because we already know the outcome. If you couldn’t track the scene because of all the Gileses and Roscoes and Addisons we’ve never met before thrown willy-nilly into the roll call, there’d be no tension, you wouldn’t care, and the scene wouldn’t work. The film chooses a narrative imperative over historical accuracy, shocking absolutely no one.   

Ms Dowd raises the point that incorporating the real facts could sustain tension. True. But unless they conform to the rigid focus and structure of Hollywood narrative style, unless they are a part of the protagonist-centric narrative established and carried into the climax, they are unnecessary to the narrative and encumbering distractions. Film is the art of omission. In order to fully appreciate the sacrifice of those Connecticut representatives, Lincoln would’ve had to established them earlier on, a shot of cable TV actor kissing his ailing wife before riding to Washington, etc. Michael Stuhlberg, Walter Goggins, and David Warshofsky all arguably stand in for the conflicts of various congressmen and the risks they took in  their voting choices, just as Zero Dark Thirty‘s Maya and Argo’s Jack are composites of many agents working the same cases.

cinematography lincoln

These are the constraints of Hollywood narrative. These are the terms. Ms. Dowd’s complaints are completely valid, but ask for a kind of motion picture the Hollywood feature film is not interested, intended, or built to be.  Ideally, Hollywood films offer us a glimpse of emotional truth: the grueling thanklessness and internal trials of Intelligence service: “Argo fuck yourself,” or the glorious, momentous historical achievement of passing the 13th Amendment, even if it totally would have passed once the new Republican-controlled congress came into session.

That said, there is something to her point about sending Lincoln forth into high schools classrooms across the nation without putting a Fiction warning label on it. It is equally idealistic for me to suggest everyone is capable of simmering down and taking film on its own terms, as a piece of art (no one takes issue with all stupid mistakes Gerome gets wrong about Roman life; thumbs down did not mean what you think it means, moderns) and not as a historical document. Film profoundly influences our perception of history. There’s a whole lens of studying history through its reception.


But the idea that Kushner and Spielberg’s creative liberties have ‘defamed’ Connecticut is, to this Louisiana native, ridiculous. Y’all are really worried about being seen as pro-slavery? I guarantee you my middle school classmates, who are so Southern one poor confused little belle earnestly asked our civics teacher, “Who actually won the civil war?” wouldn’t even absorb the names/states of the placeholder congressmen who voted ‘nay,’ but would track, as the film wants them to, the overall momentum of the vote and feel the catharsis of its hard-fought success.

Be upset about historical inaccuracy if that’s your deal.  But also, please, if you know better, – which you should, Maureen Dowd – temper those objections by putting them into the context of the filmmakers’ intentions and choices. As she rightly points out, our reactions to stories are stories in themselves.

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