Irrational nostalgia: as it relates to our love of the theater experience

Our prospective web premiere has caused me to reflect on the theater experience. What is the value of going to the movies? For a while, I’ve maintained a position that it is the best way to watch a film. But I am unsure if this feeling is an actual conviction, or if really I just cling to an irrational romantic notion of “the idea” of the movie theater.

Let’s examine the theater going experience. How does it differ from watching a movie at home? To start, there’s the larger screen. To this I have two points. First of all, many homes are becoming furnished with projectors that enable the theater viewing experience on your wall. As projectors proliferate, many people will forgo televisions for digital projectors. They take up less space and provide a larger image. I have already enjoyed many movies this way, so I no longer see the movies as the exclusive provider of a large screen.

Secondly, does a larger image actually equal a better experience? I admit that seeing “Lawrence of Arabia” at the Ziegfeld is an experience I will cherish for the rest of my life. But in the same way that certain paintings are better with small dimensions, couldn’t I argue that some movies benefit from a small dimension? If the film’s goal is to sweep the viewer into an atmosphere and make him forget about the real world, then a large screen is probably a better route. But, if sweeping the viewer up in the world of the film might be disadvantageous, say because it prevents the viewer from examining the ideas of the film, then I would argue that film should be viewed on a smaller screen. Given these two points, I think we cannot be dogmatic about a movie theater’s screen size advantage.

Neither can we point to the fact that theaters offer the most current releases. Comcast is in the process of making deals with studios to acquire the movies on cable even sooner. The gap between theatrical and cable release will diminish to nothing. In fact, some movies are already being released simultaneously on cable networks and theater screens.

Could the theater going experience offer anything else? Well, there’s overpriced snacks. Sneaking snacks into a theater is a bitter reminder that I am poor. Not such a good context to begin a film viewing experience. At home, I can publicly display any type of cuisine, which has the potential to be much more diverse than what the theater offers.

Is there an advantage to watching a movie with strangers? There is something to be said for the ferver of a crowd, especially at midnight screenings, film festivals, or fan saturated retrospectives. And there’s something to be said for chatting up with a fellow fan (although I rarely do this). But a factor like this is technically external to the film, no? I could argue that if it does significantly affect my appreciation of the film, then the audience is potentially distorting my experience of the film. To take the argument to extreme lengths, if I make out with a girl for the duration of Jonah Hex, is it suddenly a good film? No, and I shouldn’t allow the energy of the audience to influence my assessment of a movie either.

There’s also the matter of having to go to the theater, and make it at a time established by the theater. Now, I actually see this as an advantage. When you have to look up the show times, coordinate with other people, make the trip to the theater, it creates the context of an “EVENT” for the movie watching experience. It’s special. It’s not mundane like just flicking on the television. But I have created this event experience through movie marathons right on the comfort of my own couch, and these experiences rival any event I’ve had at the theater.

So then, what is left? As with any obsolete technology, there is one remaining thread sustaining it’s influence in the lives of human beings. Nostalgia. Does the theater retain value because when I go there, I am reminded of the great tradition that was part of so many people’s lives?

Here’s one thing to consider. Many theater goers of the 50s were not clinging to the movie theaters because they loved the movie theaters. No, they went to the movie theaters because it was modern technology. So if we really want to adopt the mindset of these people, we would also turn to the modern technology instead of clinging to old fashioned, outdated experiences.

But here is the heart of the issue. Why do I like an old bicycle? Because it has a history? It has endured time? These are all admirable qualities, but have nothing to do with my speed or safety. If I like an old bicycle, it’s because I like being perceived as the type of person who likes old bicycles. I have accepted this taste as part of my identity. I like to be perceived as a simple european instead of an exercise addicted Lance Armstrong. Similarly, if I like the theater going experience, it is because I like the idea of being perceived as the type of person who likes the theater going experience. Who sees charm in the dingy art houses. That constructs a romantic identity for me and because of this, my appreciation for the theater going experience is really just a narcissistic notion.

So the bottom line is that I cannot think of one legitimate reason to embrace the theater going experience, but I can think of many reasons not to. If you can think of a good reason, send it to me.

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Explication of Scenes: Part III

How about the scene when Danny goes to see Gideon in his cell? The purpose of this scene was to mislead you. The way he treats the priest, you should think that Gideon has some issue with religion. This was a tricky scene because I needed to make it seem that Gideon was anti religious without having him say anything ridiculous like “I hate God.”

I really regret playing the part of “Older Gideon.” When Hitchcock did this kind of thing, it was always at a mundane moment.  When the shots of me occur, there are really critical pieces of information getting revealed. So instead of saying “Ohhhh that’s why!” people are saying “That’s Nate, that’s the director, yadda yadda.” Really, the casting decision was motivated by not having to think about one more actor. On the flip side, I think some people may find it interesting that the director is playing “The Evangelist” character. Does the title possibly refer to the director? Maybe…but I’ve decided to reserve that speculation for the criterion collection essay that will accompany the DVD.

What I like in this scene is the moment when the Priest walks toward Danny. The Priest is discouraged and Danny tries to provide encouraging words.

But the Priest maintains his path, ignoring Danny. The priest disappears behind Danny. But then Danny mentions “I was his father.”

The priest reappears from behind Danny. He is interested by this. The shot isn’t symbolic or anything, but the design of it was meant to communicate the thought process of the Priest through the blocking.
Then we go back to the execution room. Danny and the Priest discuss Gideon. The camera is positioned behind the backs of the characters. I think this creates a more intimate vibe when characters are discussing something very important. They face away from us, so it’s almost like we are eavesdropping.

Here’s something I learned. Flashback cuts need to be motivated by a line. The line doesn’t have to be “It was a dark and stormy night..” but there needs to be something. The flashback here was initially motivated by a pregnant pause. Some people found this jarring. So I freeze framed the shot and added a line of voice over to prompt the flashback. This was fine because we had voice over anyway. It’s amazing what you can fix in post sometimes!

What it’s about: 8 1/2

This  week I decided to tackle something a bit more challenging: 8 1/2. This Fellini masterpiece is an explosion of meanings and implications. You could say it’s about film, it’s about male chauvinism, it’s about longing for the innocence of childhood, but I think what supersedes everything is a complete metaphor for God and his relationship to the world.

Now I am going to try to explain my interpretation as clearly as possible and I apologize if I fail.

Guido is a film director. He has had some success but he is currently having an artistic crises. His next film is ambitious and he is unsure if it will make any sense. As you watch the film, you begin to realize that Guido’s character refers to Fellini. Fellini is a film director, with an artistic crises, and 8 1/2 is a potentially non nonsensical ambitious film. So Guido is the cinematic manifestation of Fellini.

I want to point out that in this post, 8 1/2 stands as a metaphor for a deterministic God. That is, a God who predestined everything to happen and controls every molecule. I think it’s possible to interpret 8 1/2 as a metaphor for a God who permits free will. But for the sake of focus and clarity, I’m not going to entertain that interpretation.

So, a deterministic God controls all the molecules in the universe right? This is comparable to a film director like Fellini who controls all the creative decisions for the movie. But what is unique about 8 1/2 is how  Fellini extends the metaphor with the Guido character. In the same way that God sent down his manifestation in human form to a human world, Fellini sends down his manifestation in cinematic form to a cinematic world. And Guido interacts with people and suffers…and fill in the blanks. If you have any arguments against this interpretation, think about how Guido shoots himself at the climax and the supporting characters carry him like a martyr. And then he resurrects.

I’m just going to stop here because I vowed to make these short. But I want you to know I’ve written about 10 other pages that I’m not including. I think I’ve exercised a divine amount of restraint, because I have a lot more to say. There is not another movie I’ve seen that is so complex with such fascinating implications. For example, given this metaphor “What is Fellini saying about the creative process?” “Does he see himself as God?” “If Guido has control over everything, why does he suffer so much?” “Isn’t it possible to interpret this as a metaphor for a God with a free will?” “Does Fellini actually believe in God?” “Does God like 8 1/2?” “Is God the true director of 8 1/2?” And on and on. Enjoy this one.

Heroes of the Evangelist: Mike Lane

This week I’d like to highlight the heroic actions of Mike Lane. I met Mike when I was waiting tables at a restaurant called “Henry’s End.” Everyone knows that he is the best customer. He over compensates hilariously obnoxious comments with a generous heart. And I mean generous. He redefines the word. Here are a few examples. Mike inundates every waiter with extra tips. Mike paid the airfare for one waiter to go to see his family in Morocco. And of course Mike gave a hefty donation to our film.  There are too many stories to mention.

Here’s one of the better ones. One time, I met Mike for some dinner at a really great restaurant in New York called Blue Ribbon. I’m telling him about this girl I met and he says “invite her to have dinner with us!” I protest a few times, but he insists and I finally concede. He pays her taxi fare to come immediately. He proceeds to order Rothchild wine, steak, and lobster, gives the waiter his credit card number and then takes off. There I am with a beautiful girl and an extravagant dinner. That’s the kind of guy Mike Lane is. You thought those people only existed in ABC family Christmas specials? Think again. I feel truly blessed to know Mike Lane and he is certainly a hero of our film.

The value of subtlety

Often I will hear someone evaluate a film in terms of it’s degree of subtlety. A person will say “oh it was great, the director approached the theme in a really subtle manner.” or, “it was horrible, he was shoving his idea down my throat, he should be more subtle.”  These comments cause me to wonder who decided that directors should achieve a level of subtlety. This seems to be an assumption without rational basis. What is the value of subtlety?  I suspect that our appreciation for subtlety is the result of our depraved nature and that subtlety may have no real value.

I imagine some readers are saying ” When I appreciate subtlety, I am admiring the prowess of the artist, and his ability to walk a line; communicating his idea softly, but still making the idea possible to understand.” But is it possible for everyone to understand the idea? If so, can you really call that subtle? If not, doesn’t that suck for the people who didn’t get it?

And that is the reason we value subtlety: our human propensity to exclude others.  To be subtle is to communicate a piece of information in a manner that is either hidden, less noticeable or not as clear as possible. The comprehension of the information requires more effort on the part of the receiver. The more subtlety in your communication, the more effort required on the part of the receiver. The greater the effort required, the fewer the people capable of exerting this effort. Thus, as the subtlety of an idea increases, the number of people who will comprehend decreases. So then, when a person says “it is good because it is subtle.” he is actually saying ” I like it because many people don’t.  I have access to something special. My comprehension of this information affirms that God has given me a more advanced brain than most people.”
From here I think the issues are evident. First of all, subtle art encourages a  country club heirarchy, including some and excluding most. Secondly, the proliferation of this value allows hack artists who produce confusing works without any genuine or deliberate choice to pretend that what they’ve done actually is good, but it’s just too subtle for you to understand. Thirdly, the people who experience subtle art don’t even like the art, they like the fact that they understand it. They are prideful. They don’t experience the art, they admire their own brains.

Conversley, this is the same reason why people don’t like bombastic art. If a director screams out his message, the viewer feels that the director is insulting his intelligence. The viewer thinks “hey, God gave me an advanced brain that can connect dots and I like to connect dots but you’re connecting the dots for me and that makes me feel bored and useless.”

But a bombastic director does not necessarily think his audience is stupid. It’s possible that the director could care so much about his idea that tries to communicate it as clearly as possible. He’s not telling the audience they are stupid, he’s making his idea accessible to everyone. Isn’t that admirable?  Why should we applaud an artist who doesn’t communicate his idea clearly? That’s like applauding a cook for preparing something that most stomachs can’t digest.

I’d like to see more “CLEAR FILMMAKING” Enough of this subtlety!

Any retorts?

The importance of legacy

So very often I think about the future, maybe a couple hundred years down the line. I’m dead. I’ve directed many movies. My children have continued copying over the files to new hard drives and renewing a subscription to some archiving company, holding a retrospective screening of the movies. But my grandchildren probably won’t be so concerned with this. They’ll get careless. The movies will start to be lost. The archiving company may go out of business. People may stop watching movies completely in favor of other more advanced types of entertainment. The last server with one of my movies dies. And any record of anything cinematic I’ve done will be gone. No one will remember a single frame. Is this depressing? It kind of sounds like it, right?

Some recent thoughts shine a few rays of hope for me. First of all, it’s nice to know that even if I don’t achieve the same level of success as Alfred Hitchcock, we will meet the same fate. On a long enough timeline, this will be true for every filmmaker/artist/person. Setting a benchmark like “Well, if my movies can last like Alfred Hitchcock’s” seems arbitrary. Why 50 years? Why not 100? What would I be satisfied by any number? Secondly, I shouldn’t be making movies to leave some legacy anyway, that’s a selfish motive. I should be trying to improve and entertain people. I shouldn’t base my self worth on the legacy I leave. Thirdly, even if every person forgets my movies, God won’t. And my fourth reason has to do with the DAMN MESSAGE I COMMUNICATE IN THE FILM.

For those of you who are familiar with the ending, Gideon sacrifices any potential for being remembered as a great religious figure. Instead, he will be remembered as a crazy atheist. The sacrifice of his legacy was a more righteous thing to do.

Now, this discovery doesn’t mean that I need to go burn every copy of my movie to somehow emulate the message. BUT, it does mean that I shouldn’t invest so much thought into the legacy of the film.

Thank God!

Explication of Scenes: Part II

Okay, so continuing where I left off. What was I thinking with the scene where Danny enters the execution chamber? We shot it in a way so that you experience the execution chamber in the same way Danny does. That is, it’s a new environment, with all kinds of expectations. This is to encourage you to sympathize with him. The more experiences you share with a character, the more you feel that you know a character. So if you experience the introduction of the execution chamber with him, it’s like a shared experience with him. Imagine if I had started the film with an empty execution chamber and then I introduced Danny? This actually divorces you from his character, because suddenly you have experiences of this world that he does not have. You won’t feel as close to him as if you had spent every scene with him.

So getting back to this scene. Let’s talk about the way it was shot for a second. You might think that to experience an event like a character would, that the camera has to be some type of jerky POV shot. Not necessarily the case. What if you have a close up of the character’s face? This may seem to be a counter intuitive choice for showing you a character’s experience. The character isn’t seeing his own face, the character is seeing the objects off screen, so we should look at that, no? Well the close up allows you to observe his thoughts/feelings. Although you don’t see the outside world like he sees it, you do see the inside world of his mind with him. A jerky POV shot won’t allow you to do that. Truthfully, the combination of a POV/over the shoulder shot and a close up is the best way to embody a character’s experience, because you get the objects he looks at as well as his thoughts about the objects. If you haven’t noticed 90% of dialogue scenes from the last 100 years are covered this way.

We achieve this by pushing back while staying on him so that we can see parts of the room and his reaction to the parts simultaneously. But we only reveal part of the room, because Danny has only experienced part of the room himself. Maintaining that enigma is in line with his experience of the room. The film itself is enigmatic in the way that it makes you ask what transpired between the characters. The whole purpose of the film is to answer that question. So starting the movie by shooting in a way that left a lot of mystery seemed to be fitting.

And of course the sign near his head that reads “Execution Room Rules” was a low budget way of telling the audience that they are in an execution room. I mean we had chairs set up and an execution chamber, but I don’t want people to be like “Is that a dentist chair?” I’d rather be clear as quickly as possible. At least in this situation. It’s important to communicate that he’s in an execution chamber because it answers the question “Why Is Danny here?” Answer, “To see the execution of his son.” New Question “What did his son do?” THAT’S WHAT TAKES US TO THE NEXT SCENES!!!!