Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Camera Technique: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Visual effects! Hurrah!

This movie was a tad...odd, even by my standards. It definitely requires multiple viewings. Director Terry Gilliam is known for dabbling in the bizarre with such works as Jabberwocky, Time Bandits, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Brothers Grimm, and of course a plethora of Monty Python films. According to IMDB: "After the death of Heath Ledger, production was shut down for a few months. Then it was re-started when Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell agreed to complete Ledger's role. The film's fantasy premise—and some clever rewrites—allowed the actors to play a man whose appearance changes as he travels between imaginary worlds." (IMDB Trivia). This worked out really well, as IoDP relies pretty heavily on CGI, miniatures, partial sets combined with bluescreen, and all that good stuff to aid all of the fantastical elements. Also, your heart has to melt at the fact that all three of the actors who took over the role gave 100% of their received income to Ledger's daughter in order to secure her economic future. Crying yet? I had better move onto the gifs.

Taken from this Tumblr.

Here we have Mr. Nick (Tom Waits!) emerging from a mirror. This character is basically Satan, so of course he has his own CGI flames added in post-production. Valentina (Lily Cole) has her soul taken away as per her father's deal with Mr. Nick. After a dance routine—oh yes—she blows a kiss goodbye and is sent into hellfire. Mr. Nick seems disappointed at having finally won...but there is more yet to come for both characters.

Taken from this Tumblr.

This gifset best exemplifies the kind of VFX used in IoDP. Looks pretty crazy, yeah? This movie does not even try to integrate effects in a way that makes them seem realistic. The whole point is to be dreamlike and visually astonishing. Check out this article for a much more in-depth look into all of the VFX.

Another intriguing idea that Gilliam had was to base certain scenes on famous paintings, such as the above by Grant Wood. Neat, huh?

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This post follows criteria focusing on sound and music.

Last class we watched another multiple award-winning movie: Gavin Hood's Tsotsi. Released in 2005, this film represents a snippet of a thug's life in Johannesburg, South Africa. It was brilliantly adapted from a novel of the same name by Athol Fugard. In this post, I will explore how the soundtrack affected the tone and message.

Rated R for strong language and some violent content.

Tsotsi features Kwaito music, which has been defined as the modern music of South African townships. According to the film's main website, this genre was used to "add to the authentic feel of ghetto street life." To the ears of Westerners, this kind of music sounds similar to gangster rap and has been likened to American hip-hop with its violent beat, guttural tune, and primarily vitriolic lyrics sung in street-slang. Because of its origins in Johannesburg townships, Kwaito truly represents the urban culture through its local lyrics, which are present nearly everywhere amongst the youth of that region. Again from the website:

This is irrefutably linked to the film's story. One of the beginning scenes shows Tsotsi and his gang leaving his shack and making their way through town. We get our first taste of Kwaito with poet and musician Zola's Mdlwembe. Watching Tsotsi, Aap, Butcher and Boston make their presence felt within the community played well against the music. It did not define them; rather they defined it. Later in the film, when the gang (minus Boston) are headed toward the house owned by the baby's parents with the intention of robbing it, another song from the genre blasts from the speakers as they crest a hill. It is as though the music acts as their personal soundtrack—which, don't lie, everyone wants—meaning that it is not just an added effect but an important part of the characters' lives. The musical side of things was made even more interesting when I found out that Zola actually had a feature role in the film as Fela, the other gang leader. This illustrates just how well respected contributors to Kwaito music are. If you spread the music of the people, you help to give them a voice in all sorts of matters.

The Gang
Left to Right: Boston, Butcher, Aap, Tsotsi, Tsotsi's grieved reflection

In addition to this genre, Tsotsi features more melodic tracks created by Mark Kilian and Paul Hepker ft. the traditional folk vocals of Vusi Mahlasela. Stolen Legs, On the Tracks, and Bye Bye Baby are just a few examples. These melodic songs contrasted nicely with the harsher dance numbers. They represented touching flashback scenes and intimate moments between the main character, Miriam, and the baby. This allowed for much-needed lulls in an otherwise consistently violent story. It also added layers to Tsotsi himself: the hardened street kid hiding his desire for tender mothering. It is also possible that these tracks were laid down to highlight the struggle between 'iconic Africa' painted on the walls of the nursery and the modernistic age that has ripped apart the people via classicism. This is a theme evident throughout the entirety of the film.

Urban life v. the outskirts.

I am definitely not an expert when it comes to the analysis of music (which is why this post is a bit short). In addition to that, I presume no knowledge concerning African-rooted genres. Still, I was able to appreciate the stylistic choices and see at least a few connections between them and other messages weaved throughout Tsotsi. Even without a background in this area, you will most certainty still appreciate the film and its story.

Rubbish narration, but a good example of the two distinct styles of music.

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Friday, October 11, 2013

Camera Technique: MirrorMask

I took me a while to find some pre-made gifs that show the use of transition in Dave McKean & Neil Gaiman's 2005 film MirrorMask...but, evidently, I did. ;)

First, my favorite of the gifs (all are sourced from various Tumblr accounts):

Above, the animated wipe starts from the right and moves horizontally to the left. It is really creative because, rather than just occurring on its own, the transition is forced by two drawn characters as they turn a page in a sketchbook. This specific scene really sets the tone for the movie with its artistic style.

Lens flare is not in our textbook (Anatomy of Film 6th ed. by B. Dick), and while I certainly am not particularly fond of this effect *cough*Abrams*cough*, it works well in these two scenes. In the first gif, the main character Helena is going through a kind of dream-within-a-dream sequence, and the transition from scanning the surrounding environment to her mother touching her face—bridged by the flare—helps pull the audience back into the immediate moment.

In the second gif, Helena places the MirrorMask on her face and turns to her friend Valentine. This makes a sort of distortion similar to that created with swish pan but, rather than a blur, there is a flash of light. Valentine is revealed in the mask's reflection, completing the transition.

Time Lapse
This scene goes through a transition via the use of time lapse. Basically, the recording is sped up like in those science videos that display a flower blooming in a matter of seconds. Looking at it more closely though, the lights of the circus sign do not appear to be in hyperspeed...so, editing/VFX magic? If you know the more technical term for this, please leave a comment.

Overlay/Contrast Cut
Lastly, another gif of The Campbell Family Circus. This shot actually captures a lot of detail as Helena runs toward the tent, which is reflected in the pool of water on the asphalt, thereby creating continuity with the theme of duality. The blank papers from her bedroom wall are overlaid on this image, allowing the audience some insight into the fact that the scenes are connected. The drawings have disappeared; ipso facto, transition your arse over to the big top, pronto!

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Thursday, October 10, 2013

Whale Rider

This post follows criteria, using the historical framework. Also, spoilers!

This past Saturday we saw Niki Caro's Whale Rider, first broadcast in 2002 and set in beautiful New Zealand. The major focus of this narrativeoriginally written by Witi Ihimaerais on a young Māori girl named Paikea (played by the remarkable Keisha Castle-Hughes) and her desire to be seen as an equal by her old-world grandfather, Koro (played by Rawiri Paratene). I was in the group that presented during class, so I have collected a lot of information on Māori art, culture, and history. In this post, I will touch on the cultural traditions of the Māori, oral folklore, and the obsession with male leadership. I also plan on briefly discussing the matter of destiny and the film's ambiguous ending. Let's get started!

Rated PG-13 for brief language and reference to drugs.

As said during the presentation, the Māori migrated to New Zealand from Polynesia. [Remember what Maggie presented about Kupe and his octopus? Yeah, that guy.] This means that they brought over some of their customs and beliefs. It is also important to know that the Māori were evolving from a Neolithic culture and, as such, theylike the rest of the worldcreated systems to conserve resources. One of these systems is known as Tapu. Anything, anyone, or anywhere that is labeled as such becomes 'taboo' and is seen as being sacrosanct. This was most often enacted by tohunga (priests) in order to connect people/places/things with spiritual ties and to protect resources from overexploitation. There were consequences for the violation of tapu...most notably, death. As we saw in the movie, Pai breaks tapu when she handles a taiaha/fighting stick and performs mau rakau/stick fighting with one of the boys being taught in the school. Koro discovers this and is enraged not so much at the fact that Pai took up a taiaha, but that a girl disarmed one of his male students. He scolds and banishes her from the area despite the fact that they are related and she was just defending herself. I found it interesting that when the boy with whom she had been sparring told Koro that it was not her fault, he snapped at him to go wash his face because he had been crying. This exemplifies the dominance of  macho behaviour in Māori culture...but I digress into the feminist approach.

Although it was not mentioned specifically in the movie, another aspect of Māori culture is the idea of mana, i.e., power and prestige. Entire tribes exhibit mana whenua to show dominance over their land just as individuals show that they possess mana tangata through their whakapapa (genealogical) connections. I cannot help but think that Koro has some major issues concerning the display of his personal mana. He is old school and probably considered an elder, or a kaumatua, by everyone in the community. In order to uphold his appearance, he clings to how things once were and attempts to fill generational gaps with an onslaught of heritage appreciation in the form of whakapapa trials (performing haka dancing, honoring ancestors in the wharenui/meeting house, testing wairua/spirit by throwing his rāhui whale tooth into the ocean, etc). The disappointment he feels in both of his sons is unfairly shifted onto Paikea. Her mere name is an annoyance to him for a reason I will dissect in the following paragraphs, and even at her birth Koro only cares about her dead twin and the lost lineage (symbolism of the frayed rope). His wife was having none of that nonsense though. Nanny Flowers is a pretty cool lady.

Paikea sitting in her father's waka (canoe) like the Whale Rider of Māori legend.

Storytelling is a sacred activity in Māori culture. It was all spoken word before literacy came to New Zealand with the Europeans and their missionaries. One of the most well known folkloric stories that has survived the test of time is that of the Whale Rider Paikea. Yes, this bloke and the girl in the film share a name because her father wanted to spite Koro for not grieving the loss of his daughter-in-law. Anyway, the myth goes that Paikea's brother Ruatapu became angry when their father elevated Pai's rank. Ruatapu's mother was a slave-woman, so her son could never be as respected as his brother. This pissed him off enough to build a waka and lure all of his high-born brothers (including Pai) into it and later try to drown them out in the ocean. While Ruatapu was busying murdering the other brothers, Pai recited an incantation that called the humpback whales to carry him back to shore. Fin. [Pun intended.] So, Ruatapu's father was kind of a jerk, Koro was (at times) a massive dick. Pai called and rode the whales. Other Pai did the same. Hmm...

Yeah, well, Māori society is patriarchal. Because of that origin story, all leaders in the tribe have been first-born males, giving no chance to anyone who might actually do well in said role. Rachelle mentioned during the presentation that it is a fundamental belief in their culture that women lead from behind. This gives them some modicum of power—Nanny Flowers and her poker circle, Uncle Rawiri's girlfriend, the school teacher, Pai herself—and that is probably why it is so difficult for Koro to accept Pai's own mana. He is bound by custom and fears his tribe's loss of respect for tradition, so he himself cannot welcome Pai as a leader until she proves, time and again, that she is 'meant to be' the next Whale Rider. Her father's choice to sire her "Paikea" is an insult to Koro because of the name's all-important meaning...but, eventually, the elder 'changes his mind' about her. D'aww.

This trailer shows a few of the cultural aspects present in the movie.

Pai was brought up to appreciate her heritage. Compared to all of the first-born boys in the village (and her own father), she appears best suited for the role of tribal leader. She takes the time to learn mau rakau, listens in on Koro's lessons, and memorizes that heart-breaking speech in honor of her beloved grandfather. She calls to the whales and they beach themselves. It is only when Nanny Flowers reveals to Koro the carved whale tooth that Pai retrieved from the bottom of the sea that he realizes she was always meant to be their leader. She was also riding a gigantic whale sooo that was a bit of a clue. :\

Pai at her recital, dedicatedly wearing tribal dress and tā moko face paint.

That brings me to the film's conclusion. Did Paikea die? What was said to Koro on the telephone before he went to the hospital? Did he die of heartbreak, and were they both spirits on the waka celebrating the fact that the tribe had finally come together over her sacrifice? (There was another major advancement on that front: women were performing haka and rowing the canoe alongside their male counterparts. Huzzah!) It seems to me that Caro wanted to leave all of that up for interpretation by her audience. I first saw this movie around the age of eleven and I did not remember seeing any scene after Pai let go of the whale underwater. It is possible that my eyes were drowning in tears at the time (some movies can do that to me so easily), but I find such a large gap in memory hard to reconcile. Was it simply my brain assuming that the girl was gone? Dunno. Deep stuff, that. How do you interpret the ending? I know in class everyone was going a tad mental over the whole thing, so share your thoughts!

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