Thursday, January 28, 2016

Michael Moore and ego-driven documentary

Bowling for Columbine. Sicko. Fahrenheit 9/11. Capitalism: A Love Story.  The documentaries of Michael Moore have a lot of things going for them; big-name issues at the head of public debate, brutal honesty of style, and at times a humorous tone.  However, the key aspect of a Michael Moore film, which often disrupts his general appeal to a more critical audience, is ego.

As a documentarian, Moore strives to create an education, yet entertaining film, often turning what what can be serious material into a laughable idiocy.  However, he does this not through subtlety, but through his own personal appearance in his films.  Michael Moore himself acts as the "everyday man" in his films; appearing as a normal person rather than an uppity director.  His portrayal of this everyman helped to give his work an air of groundedness and relatability.

While this trend worked in his early films, the repetition of his own involvement has grinded many of his viewers nerves.  His films became more about himself and his opinions than the issues and logic behind them.  His films reach a point where he becomes not only this everyman, but he becomes highly-successful filmmaker Michael Moore.  As his films became more topical, many critics claim that his success had lead him to become snobby and arrogant, and it becomes truly visible in the parody on his famed "Roger and Me", known as "Michael Moore Hates America".  The film, by Mike Wilson, attempts to emulate Moore's earlier film where he attempts to get an interview with CEO of General Motors Roger Bonham Smith.  Wilson attempts to interview Moore, while also exposing some of the discrepancies of Moore's earlier work, from manipulation of data and information, to staging of events and processes, in order to fit Moore's ideology and thesis of Moore's films.

The egotistical character that Moore has become, being a prominent left-wing political activist, has turned many of his films sour.  His personal appearance and brashness, while entertaining from time to time, has spoiled the ideological approach his films take towards difficult issues.  The brashness comes off as arrogance, and this turns the viewer off to his perspective.

Adult World: Quirky, Funny, and Incredibly Relateable

Surfing through Netflix's recent releases section I stumbled upon "Adult World", and boy am I glad I did! This quirky, coming-of-age comedy hits a little too close to home for me, as I'm sure it does for many soon to be or post-college graduates. The story follows Amy, a naive Syracuse graduate who believes she is destined to be a great poet. Things don't work out initially and she eventually accepts a job at a local sex shop while she pursues a mentorship with her idol writer, Rat Billings. The dialogue is quirky and off beat, reminiscent of works by Diablo Cody (Juno, Young Adult), but somehow in that off beat oddness there is the raw truth of finding oneself during an awkward time.

The cast includes Emma Roberts, Evan Peters, and John Cusack. Adult World was filmed in 22 days in Syracuse, NY.

Buster Keaton and Physical Comedy

As many of you know, my thesis film, Mime and Punishment is inspired by the works of Buster Keaton and his influence on visual and physical humor. On the off chance you are not aware of who Buster Keaton is, he's this guy.
Steamboat Bill Jr.
This bit, from his film Steamboat Bill Jr. is perhaps Keaton's most famous stunt and has been continually referenced throughout pop culture.
Gags, like the one above, are what Keaton was known for. His films were chock full of and heavily reliant on physical humor. Keaton's characters, would often find himself in zany and often dangerous situations. What's even more remarkable was all of his stunts, were done by himself. With all these zany stunts came a fantastic visual storytelling. Silent films of the time, Buster Keaton's included, had to rely on title cards in lieu of dialogue for exposition. Most films of the period had an average of 240 title cards.
 Imagine 240 of these being needed to tell your story. Keaton said that he never used over 65. That's almost 1/4th of what every other film used. Instead, Keaton relied on the kinetic and often slapstick energy to tell story in non-verbal manners. Keaton was always entering and leaving frame in interesting ways. His mannerisms and framing have had a lasting legacy. This fantastic video from Every Frame a Painting shows the lasting legacy of Keaton as well as better explaining the points I made in this post.

Anomalisa is a Movie that is Playing in a Theater Somewhere

So I saw this movie the other day. It's called Anomalisa. If you haven't heard of it, check it out. It was written and directed by Charlie Kaufman. If you haven't heard of him, check him out. Because he and his work... well, it's definitely out there.

Anomalisa is a stop motion animated film that follows protagonist Michael Stone as he travels to Cincinnati to his latest book at a hotel service convention. The story is extraordinarily simple. Michael checks into his hotel. He meets a girl. And he falls in love with her. It's basically a 90 minute movie about a one night stand.

But, if you know anything about Kaufman, you'll know that things are never that simple. Every character that Michael perceives in the movie has the same voice and the same face (whether they are male or female, they are voiced by Tom Noonan). This is an extremely original and clever way of showing Michael's inability to connect to anyone.

But when he meets Lisa, he's immediately attracted. Why? Because Lisa doesn't sound like everybody else (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh). She doesn't look like everybody else. She's her own person.

Finally, somebody different. Somebody unique. Somebody to make a connection with. Right?

I don't want to give anything away, so I will say no more. But I highly recommend this film. I don't remember a film that made me feel so many different feelings all at once like this film did. So go out and see Anonalisa.

Documentary for Social Change

Most people that I've encountered that hope to make it in the documentary world have some form of passion for social justice. Of the many news outlets and organizations I've encountered, the most effective at producing social change has been Witness. With tag of "See It, Film It, Change It", the organization works to train citizens to be active in social movements through the power of film and photography. Citizen journalism that is collected is often turned into larger films that are used as evidence in international cases. I find their series on Gender Based Violence to be highly effective. The cover issues from sex worker safety to feminicide to equal pay in a range of countries. The series is worth watching not only because they are great short films, but also because they are giving agency back to the people of these areas. Oftentimes documentaries for social change take a distant gaze and a bias based on the filmmaker's history. Instead these films bring you into the minds of the women, making them the agents of social change. This story is interesting about the differences in women's work. 

Style in a Doc

My favorite nonfiction work is that which displays some finessed styling, whether it be premeditated or conceived in the editing room. Short of framing the shot, it is difficult to style, both visually and aurally, what is supposed to appear as "real life." A short and recent example of nonfiction work I believe to be successful in maintaining visual interest comes in an episode of Refinery29's "Sound Off" series, below:

Introducing viewers to Brazilian female rapper Karol Conka, this video oozes style. What I find most appealing are its:

-capturing of natural light (0:03 is a staged shot but does not detract from the documentary feel)
-humorous matching of sound to picture (0:46 and 1:43 obviously came along in the editing room)
-occasional POV as a "follower" (4:12 and more)

These aspects combine to make an interesting video--visually, aurally, and story-wise. Should I decide to pursue my doc idea of following around certain women of Ithaca, I would aim to conjure up a similar sense of intimacy and interest (i.e. follow the subject(s) around, use positioning to make what occurs naturally as beautiful as possible, play with sound and speed when editing) as is achieved by this episode of "Sound Off."

The Graduate

     I've been watching a lot of dramatic comedies lately to get into the mindset of what I want my movie to 'feel' like. The Graduate might be the most famous dramatic comedy, or dark comedy, of all time. So I rewatched it to try to get a quick master class of funny/sad that Mike Nichols seemed to do so well

     The Graduate is a movie that seems to defy explanation. Even Roger Ebert was greatly divided on the film. When he first saw it he called the movie "the funniest American comedy of the year". When he reviewed it again for the 30th anniversary special he called it "a movie about a tiresome bore and his well meaning parents."

     What I think divides the younger and older Roger Ebert, and people in general, is that Dustin Hoffman's character, Ben Braddock, doesn't really change. The beginning of the film tells a lot thematically. Ben is on a moving walkway in an airport and while he is "moving forward" he is not walking or moving himself anywhere. People pass him and he watches them go by. Ben is also facing towards the left, which in traditional American film means going backwards or against the grain.

    Throughout the course of the movie Ben doesn't do much. He sits in his pool and ignores his family friends. The main conflict of the film, Ben's affair with Mrs. Robinson, is started not by Ben but by Mrs. Robinson. The argument can be made that Ben changes when he falls in love with Elaine and follows her to Berkley and then again follows her to her wedding. 

     But Ben's reasons are still completely selfish. He is in love with Elaine because she is in the same "not moving" position he is. There are several moments where this is implied in the cinematography, most famously the runnning scene.

   This begs the question that is asked every god damn semester in every film class. In film, does the main character have to change? I'd argue no. Ben doesn't change much in The Graduate. But what does have to happen is that audience has to see that the character has the ability to change but, for whatever reason, does not. Nichols shows this inability to change as a tragedy as Ben and Elaine pull away. What we thought was a happy tale of romance is just the characters realizing they haven't changed.

     My goal for this semester is to make a movie where a character is given multiple opportunities to change but ultimately fails to do so. I think it's a powerful form of story telling that encourages introspection. While it is easy to say this, and showcase a movie in which this happens, it will be difficult to pull off. It will require constant rewriting and meticulous shot planning. I never thought I would say this but I disagree with Roger Ebert. The Graduate is a film that stands the test of time. Not as a comedy, but as a complex movie about depression and the selfishness in passiveness. 


World star hip hop is a video blogging site that averages a total of 1.1 millions views per day. Although some of the content is kind of sketchy the website Alexa 983rd for worldwide traffic. It all started as a hip hop site in queens to appeal to hip hop fans world wide. But ten years later it became "The CNN of ghetto." The website posts fights, brawls, robberies, twerk videos. You name it world star has it. But despite all the fucked up content it has to offer, World Star can display the truth behind underprivileged living, and the struggles that come with that culture. At the end of the day, World Star Hip Hop is going to keep blowing up, and until the world will become less shitty, shitty content will exist on the internet

Binaural Audio

Sound is extremely interesting when you sit down and think about it. From the volatility of its nature to the seemingly endless uses and applications for it, sound is all around us on a day to day basis. However, very little thought goes into how that sound is received in various situations. Since the inception of speakers and headphones, sound has been received more or less as it was given, head on. That was until the inception of Binaural Audio; audio recorded on microphones designed to mimic human ears. I could attempt to explain this more in detail, but I figured the guys who are pioneering this technology, 3Dio, could do a better job...

Binaural recording is the process of capturing audio using two microphones that are shaped like human ears. When audio is recorded using a conventional microphone, sound is typically captured without any physical obstructions blocking incoming audio waves, other than the body of the microphone itself. Binaural microphones capture audio the same way your real ears hear sounds.  The ears (pinnae) dramatically alter the incoming sound waves, but our brains understand these alterations as directional cues.  In addition, the time delay between the ears gives us proper left/right directional cues.  When you listen to binaural recordings using headphones, the result is natural "human" three-dimensional sound that gives the listener the sensation of being in the space where the audio was recorded.

What is a documentary?

The other day my professor asked our class to define the word "documentary." The whole class sat there stumbling over words and trying to find the correct answer. As a documentary studies major, I came into Ithaca College thinking that I knew the answer. As my time at IC has passed however, I am now more unsure than ever; is there a firm definition that explains documentary?

I typed "documentary definition" into a Google search and the response was,"a movie or a television or radio program that provides a factual record or report." Thinking back, that probably would have been my definition when I first started college, but I now realize there is one major flaw in that definition... the word "factual."

After taking several different documentary courses, attempting to understand what makes something factual sends me into a mild existential crisis. Due to human nature, everyone sees facts and truths differently. As humans, we are inherently subjective rather than objective, therefore can a documentary ever be completely objective and factual? What may be the truth for the producer, may not be the truth for other people. 

Let's say, for example, I produce an entire documentary about the positive impacts of refugee communities in the United States. Then, after the film is finished, someone (Donald Trump?) states that my portrayal is completely inaccurate and refugee communities actually have a negative impact on U.S. society. Since someone disagrees with what I have portrayed, does that mean my film is not factual and therefore not a documentary? I would argue no, but other people may disagree. 

The word "documentary" may seem pretty straightforward at first glance, but it is really quite complex when people take the time to think about it. 

How would you define documentary?

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Birdwatching in Film

Birdwatchers, or as they call themselves, "birders", have never been properly depicted in film. To common folk, past movies about birdwatchers have been accurate enough, but to hardcore "birders", Hollywood is laughing stock because when it comes to accurate portrayal of birds in their movies, they miss the mark every time, apparently.

Nicholas Lund of Slate Magazine points out that after many big Hollywood blockbusters about specific subjects (such as Karate Kid with karate, or Top Gun with airplane flying) there is often a national excitement about the subject but that has yet to occur with "birding".

Two movies came out in 2014 about "birding":

A Birder's Guide to Everything (2014)

The Birder (2014)

But by far the biggest movie about "birders" was the 2011 blockbuster starring Jack Black, Steve Martin, and Owen Wilson, The Big Year (2011):

The Big Year (2011)

The issue is that none of these movies have brought "birding" to the attention of the masses and none of them have done an adequate job of presenting "birding" in an accurate fashion. 

The burden is on the young ambitious filmmakers of the world to make a captivating and accurate movie about "birding" that will make it the next worldwide craze.