About two weeks ago, the esteemed film critic Matt Zoller Seitz – who currently writes for The New York Times – asked me to do a lead illustration for his essential film blog The House Next Door. When I got the email, partly inspired by my recent Negative Space cartoons, I gulped so hard that Matt may have heard it from overseas.
As soon as he started mentioning key words like “minimalist,” “violence,” “obsession” and (most importantly) “Saul Bass,” however, I knew this was an offer I could impossibly refuse.
To read more about the fascinating film project below and to see my poster in a size that does the epic subject more justice, get thee to The House Next Door (clicking it there will enlarge it)!
A woman in trouble, all right… 😉
A friend of mine warned me that in some religions, it’s considered sacrelegious to depict Kubrick. Oh well, too late now…
I’ve been thinking about how to properly follow up this series after its first entry, which could’ve easily been mistaken for my contribution to the Contemplative Cinema Blog-a-Thon. For a creative mind, there’s nothing more dangerous than to be pigeon-holed too early. Brace yourselves, then, for a 180 degree turn as I take you to the dark side of my filmmaking spectrum…
Below is a trailer I’ve edited for Universal Pictures to promote a range of budget horror DVD-titles (how low can you go, right?). The coolest thing about this project is that it was a truly no-holds-barred affair, since the company intended to show the trailer before screenings at the Amsterdam Fantastic Film Festival. Once they gave me their list of titles, the client pretty much gave me carte blanche, as long as I made sure that the end result would appeal to a pack of raving gorehounds. Ha! Say no more! They didn’t even blink when I suggested music from bands like Rammstein or Sepultura (I ended up with a mix of Christopher Young’s soundtrack for Hellbound: Hellraiser II, Rammstein and Soulfly). For an editing assignment, that’s about as good as it gets.
Lemme tell ya: For the next three days, my colleagues didn’t dare to enter the editing suite. Hell was empty, and all the devils were here…
But enough talk. Gorehounds rejoice! Crank up the volume and grab hold of your chair. WE – HAVE – SUCH – SIGHTS – TO – SHOW – YOU!
This is the first of a series of posts devoted to stuff I directed or designed. Each entry will feature a low-res YouTube version of a commercial, leader or trailer, production notes, and sometimes a look behind the scenes. For questions or remarks, leave a comment and I’ll be happy to reply! ______________________________________________________________
First up is a 25 second public announcement for the Dutch Brain Disease Foundation. Don’t worry: it’s not as dull as it may sound. Although the budget for this project was limited, we shot it on 35mm film with a stripped-down crew and (for the most part) available light. Before we move on, have a look at it first. The only thing you need to understand from the Dutch narration is that brain diseases are more common than we’d like to think they are.
When we prepared for this film, I told my DP Remko Schnorr that I wanted to avoid the hand-held, grainy, high-contrast “bleach bypass” look that is commonly relied on to simulate a documentary feel. Instead, I decided to go for subtle values and static, a-symmetrically composed shots to give the film a frozen, photographic feel. In line with this visual approach, Remko suggested we could “develop” certain parts of the image more than others in Telecine, and I loved that idea. As a last impressionistic touch, we put a very fine stocking fabric before the lens that subtly defused the highlights.
In terms of sound, I steered clear of desolate, reverbing piano chords. Thomas Newman be damned–just the ambience of the forest and a brief moment of silence would do. We had a sound recordist on the set who did his work in between takes, just so he wouldn’t have any trouble with noisy cameras or planes going by. It also allowed me to cue the actors while rolling.
In order to make the twist in the film work, I had to make sure that viewers would devote most of their attention to the wrong woman. For this reason I placed the old lady on the right side of the bench, which is always more interesting to Western audiences than the left, because of our reading habits. (Turn the page of a comic book and your eyes will automatically be drawn to the bottom right corner of the spread. Why? Because that’s where the next cliffhanger takes place!) The girl was dressed in muted colors to merge with her surroundings, while the black coat of the old lady practically burns a hole in every frame. The walker was tactfully placed nearby the old lady instead of the girl, and like the handkerchief around her neck, it’s blue.
Everything about the old lady is a little “off”: her uncomfortable pose and facial expression, the hair on her forehead–whereas the girl beside her looks relaxed and perfectly healthy (the client was on the set to make sure her body movements were medically correct).
I found out that I could provoke different viewer expectations by reversing the order of shots in the editing stage. The sooner I succeeded in convincing the audience that something was wrong with the old lady, the more they would identify themselves with the poor girl next to her, seemingly unprepared for the critical situation that unfolds before their eyes. As such, the film builds up to a dramatic moment that never comes, then releases the tension and introduces subtle tragedy in the unexpected.
One of the reasons we were able to shoot this on 35mm was that Fuji liked the message of the film enough to give us seven (!) reels of 3-perf stock for free. Usually, 35mm has four perforations with an invisible space between the frames. 3-perf needs one perf less for every frame because it eliminates this space, saving you 25 percent of film stock. Not that we used all of it, mind you: We saved the rest for two other projects! I’ve grown tired of extensive coverage as an editor, you see, so I always try to shoot as economical as possible. Most of the angles were made up on location, but I ended up using every set-up. Trust me, the Dutch really are cheap…
The only hand-drawing I do these days is the occasional storyboard or logo sketch, so when the idea for this cartoon popped in my head, it seemed like a good excuse to pick up on an old love of mine. Drop a comment if you like it and maybe I’ll post more in the future. I’m still not sure if I’ve found the right balance between wacky and naturalistic, but I love the combination of fineliner strokes with digital coloring and added film grain.
I’ve been suffering from a major digital handicap since my laptop broke down. The situation is still far from ideal (as I type this on an ancient iMac, I’m sitting on my living room’s wooden floor), but at least I’m online again. Expect new posts in the days to come.
Happy New Year, y’all!
Greetings, regular Negative Space readers!
It was my intentionÂ to post a little more beforeÂ going off to Denmark for Christmas – in case you’re wandering: my wife’s Danish, soÂ that’s whyÂ – but my glorious Powerbook suddenly refused to work properly. (If you’re reading this, Jim Emerson: apparently, it’s a global thing.) So now all I can do isÂ write you this little messageÂ onÂ my father-in-law’sÂ cranky old beige PC (the horror!). Make no mistake: cutting edge technology here on the countryside of Brandstrup, Lolland…
Be sure, though, to check back here on the first of January. If everything goes according to plan, I’ll be publishingÂ my first (and perhaps only–we’ll see where my muse takes me) Lost in Negative Space film-related cartoon. No, I’m not kidding. And for January, I’ve beenÂ cooking upÂ a new series of YouTube posts dedicated to myÂ commercials, TVÂ and motion designÂ work,Â offering a few glimpsesÂ behind the scenes.
In the meantime: Have a merry, merryÂ Christmas!
All this talk about the uncertain future of film criticism seems to run parallel to another hot topic among worried cinephiles: the decline of cinema. The two are connected, obviously, and although I’m definitely in the minority on this one, I’m optimistic about the fates of both.
In a contribution to Andy Horbal’s pretty damn amazing film criticism Blog-a-Thon (how much evidence for the improving health of film criticism do you need?), Annie Frisbie at Zoom In Online articulated a collective concern in a fine post called Film is about to disappear over the historical horizon:
Cinema has always meant reverence, the hush of a dark theater (sans cell phones), the flicker of light on my face almost tangible, waiting for the dream to continue. It seems to me that the digital age has taken the magic out of movies. (…)
This year brought Half Nelson and Little Miss Sunshine, but it also marks a year when I saw fewer movies in the theater than I did when I was in college in the suburbs without a car. I find this depressing. I’m losing the plot. I need a miracle.
In my celluloid fantasia Nighthawks – a fictional essay in which New York City is overtaken by movie characters as diverse as Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver), Barbarella, Alvy Singer (Annie Hall), Vincent & Jules (Pulp Fiction) and Marge Gunderson (Fargo) – a cute little mass-murdering rodent by the name of Mickey Mouse voiced a similar sentiment:
People don’t care anymore. They used to look up to us in the dark, in awe of that eye-enveloping screen, absorbed in the magic of the moment, hanging on to every word we uttered. Now they’re just killing time, flipping channels, skipping chapters, moving us around with game controllers, navigating content, shuffling context, downloading us to tiny portable displays they command with their thumbs…
At that moment, Dressed to Kill‘s Kate Miller briefly interrupts Mickey to remark:
If they’re doing all of these things, doesn’t that mean they still care about us, only differently?
Mickey, however, won’t listen:
You don’t mind being reduced to mobile wallpaper? I mean, where’s the allure in that? Face it, to the modern consumer we’re a hip accessory at best. An excuse for further browsing without sense of destination. It’s sad when you think about it. They watch but they don’t see. Deliverance has become a dirty word, attention spans are shrinking by the minute. Viewers expect to be transported, but they won’t let us take over the wheel. So they keep driving in circles, blissfully unaware of the fact that, without surrender, there is no journey.
Too many cinephiles grumble about like Mickey; few are as open-minded as Kate. To complain about the rapid decay of cinema with a sense of melancholy is to put the lid on an era. That way of thinking, understandable as it may be, is a bit of an insult to the fine films that are made today. (For those of you snorting in the back: In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a Golden Age of Asian cinema happening right now. Genre films, art house, animation… the works.)
It’s rare for a medium to die. People have predicted the end of radio since the introduction of television, and radio’s still here. The medium even branched out to podcasts, streaming channels and audio books. Likewise, cinema isn’t dying–it’s evolving. The real question is, into what?
Annie Frisbie’s post payed tribute to a classic 1999 essay by Godfrey Cheshire entitled The Death of Film, The Decay of Cinema. Cheshire’s towering article envisioned a future where movies would still be made, only they would “increasingly be like Titanic, splashy spectacles made for a global 12-year-old whose main education comes from you-know-what,” lacking “nuances of tenderness and tragedy, of profound inwardness and chivalrous discretion, and of the individual artist’s very personal way of envisioning the world.” With a frame of reference restricted to blockbuster fare and a certain brand of Oscar contender, there’s plenty of truth to Cheshire’s vision, but a wider perpective reveals how much his prediction has dated.
Just look at the massive popularity of viral videos and audio-visual mashups at YouTube, MySpace and iFilm, of video podcasts, of DVD, Home Theatre and online rental services like Netflix, of devices like the video-iPod, the PlayStation Portable, PDAs, laptops, camera phones and software like BitTorrent and Final Cut Pro. A quickly expanding part of cinema is making a gradual shift from a collective, linear experience to a private, interactive one. Yes, the quality of user-generated content is still far from consistent (to put it mildly), and oh yes, all these ultra-flexible digital networks and continually updated interfaces can easily lead to pointless “browsing without sense of destination,” but I can imagine no better antidote against Cheshire’s “CGI blockbusterdom” doom scenario than this small-screen revolution. Who knows, we may be on the verge of a filmmaking Rennaissance. Picture it: A cinema of intimacy… discovery… a quirky perspective unfiltered by authority, corporate investment, analog distribution or popular demand… the bittersweet fruit of obsession and shameless self-indulgence… the mystique of a message shrouded by an ever-fluctuating context, offering audiences the challenge to guess the right questions, rather than the right answers.
If this is the end of cinema – and I’m not convinced it is – it’s only the end of cinema as we know it. Now is a time of transformation. The key to appreciating the change, I believe, is a wise notion of fellow-blogger Girish Shambu: Art is meant for use. That may be your miracle right there, Annie. Go ahead, give it a try. Mickey was right about one thing: Without surrender, there is no journey.
The following article is my contribution to Andy Horbal’s film criticism Blog-A-Thon. Visit No More Marriages! for an up-to-date table of contents.
One is Hip or one is Square (the alternative which each new generation coming into American life is beginning to feel), one is a rebel or one conforms, one is a frontiersman in the Wild West of American night life, or else a Square cell, trapped in the totalitarian tissues of American society, doomed willy-nilly to conform if one is to succeed.
–The White Negro: Superficial reflections on the Hipster (1957) by Norman Mailer
What’s a rebel to do these days? According to the gospel of Armond White, film critic of New York’s premier alternative newspaper the New York Press, the Hip are the new Square. In review after review, White makes it abundantly clear that hipster is the most insulting label he can think of. In fact, it’s his umbrella term for everything he calls smug, glib, trite, obtuse or smart-ass, which by the way he tends to do quite often. Say goodbye to Mailer’s “psychopathic brilliance” of Hip, quivering with “the knowledge that new kinds of victories increase one’s power for new kinds of perception.” Enter White’s endless tirades against the mindless evil of hipster mentality eroding pop culture, embodied by the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Todd Haynes, Richard Linklater, Christopher Nolan, Peter “the hipster’s Spielberg” Jackson and any critic empty-headed enough to praise them.
Armond White’s style of criticism couldn’t be more different than that of his NY Press colleague, Matt Zoller Seitz. If this were the X-Men universe, we’d be talking about the militant Magneto (a mutant terrorist with a serious superiority complex, eternally at war with humanity) versus the noble Professor X (a peaceful telepath who seeks coexistence of human- and mutantkind by means of education). While White keeps his ivory tower firmly locked, Seitz has plugged into the blogosphere and founded his very own Xavier’s Institute with The House Next Door, a school of gifted youngsters that embraces respectful discourse and mutual understanding. The militant spends most of his time criticizing his peers, the telepath surrounds himself with them.
White more or less articulated his view of film criticism in Slate’s Movie Club, where he answered Salon‘s Stephanie Zacharek as follows:
As for the “art” of criticism: No amount of fancy wordplay can excuse the destructive effect of praising offal like Before Sunset. (That’s not a personal attack, it’s a defense against the injury of bad criticism and poor taste.) I don’t read criticism for style (or jokes). I want information, erudition, judgment, and good taste. Too many snake-hipped word-slingers don’t know what they’re talking aboutâ€”especially in this era of bloggers and pundits. That’s why a hack like Michael Mann gets canonized while a sterling pro and politically aware artist such as Walter Hill is marginalized. Let me be more blunt: I am not the least bit interested in reading the opinions of people who don’t know what they’re talking about. There, I’ve said it.
Indeed, he said it. It’s one thing to challenge the opinion of others, it’s another to proclaim absolutes in the name of Good Taste. A true provocateur doesn’t hamper by discouraging thought, but stimulates others to think differently. Why is it that some critics judge like punishing Old Testament Gods when their function is not to damn or win souls, but to sharpen minds? A critic’s pen should serve as a whetstone, not a sledgehammer.
Contrarians like Armond White aim to prove that there is something inherently wrong with the limited world view of another, while their actual concern is to establish a few limits of their own. By consistently taking the opposite stand, they reveal themselves as just as much a fashion victim as the hipsters they so despise. While the latter slavishly embrace the latest trend, the former just as predictably oppose it. Both the hipster and the contrarian poses attempt to overthrow a shared enemy: the dominance of mass culture.
Which, in this day and age, begs the question: What mass culture? With the millions of niche markets currently out there, what’s left of it, really? By the same token: Is there still a single definition of hip? In a time where one icon means everything to one subculture and entirely nothing to the next, what is this nonconformist rebelling against?
It’s like everybody’s hip now. It’s exhausting. There’s no discovery. It’s not original.
Those words were spoken by futurist Faith Popcorn way back in October 2005. That was when the L.A. Times published an article entitled Fads are so yesterday, which announced that coolhunting itself, even the whole notion of “cool,” was just a trend. In January this year, Maclean’s columnist Andrew Potter took this observation to the next level:
(The) mass-media ecosystem has disappeared, replaced by the rip/mix/burn culture of the Internet with its blogs and podcasts, in which there is no longer any distinction between producers and consumers. The really interesting bit is not, as Faith Popcorn would have it, that everyone is cool; it’s that no one is. Trends appear as nothing more than brief consumerist shivers, passÃ© the moment they appear (…)
Aha! So, should we be mourning the end of trends? The kids certainly aren’t, argues Potter:
Having never really experienced the tyranny of mass society, they don’t feel any great urge to stand against it. That is why they adopted the word “random” as their preferred term of approbation. The people who have a problem with the death of cool are aging hippies and other stubborn counterculturalists who remain attached to the idea of a mass society and its right-wing agenda of cultural conformity.
Clear enough. But that leaves us with one final mystery to solve: If cool’s out, what is in? Potter explains:
The prevailing aesthetic is not cool, but quirky, dominated by unpredictable and idiosyncratic mash-ups of cultural elements that bear no meaningful relationship to one another. Appreciating the anti-logic of quirk is the only way to navigate the movies of Wes Anderson (Jeff Goldblum in an “I’m a Pepper” T-shirt!) …
Hold on. Quirky? Idiosyncratic? Wes Anderson? Help me out here–who denounced Syriana in favor of Sahara and Transporter 2? Who called the universally acclaimed Nicole Kidman only “moderately talented”? Which critic belongs to the whopping 8% of idiosyncratics that Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat (2006) couldn’t get to smile?
Wouldn’t you know it… Armond White is a hipster.
You need to love this, don’t you?
The hard evidence, courtesy of DVD Talk:
Take a good look at the DVD cover art for Evils of the Night (which is taken from the film’s original poster) and you see the definition of an exploitation film. We see a buxom blonde whose blood is being drained from her body by tubes as skeletal hands reach for her and a quartet of skeleton-head aliens look on (as the cousin of the Millennium Falcon flies past). Of those things, only the buxom blonde appears in the film. Don’t be fooled by the trashy goodness that this movie promises. This movie gives bad movies a bad name. (…)
The “aliens” are simply actors in silver outfits, with the females wearing crazy shoes. The “spaceship” is just a disco light ball being lowered through the trees. (…)
The bulk of the movie takes place at night (hence the title) and for the most part, it’s nearly impossible to tell what’s going on. (…)
Most films of this ilk typically fall into the “so bad they’re good” realm where one can perform a Mystery Science Theater 3000-like commentary to the movie. Evils of the Night is so pointless, boring, and difficult to see that its ponderous nature will scare off even the hardest fan of trash cinema.
When Bob Cumbow, author of Once upon a Time: The Films of Sergio Leone and Order in the Universe: The Films of John Carpenter, emailed me a few months ago with a new idea for a 24LiesASecond essay, tantalizingly titled “David Lynch Folds Space,” I went nuts! Gone was my contributing-editor cool, and up jumped a drooling fanboy.
As a teenager – I was thirteen at the time – I found Lynch’s Dune (1984) as puzzling as anyone who’d never read Frank Herbert’s novel. Nonetheless, the concept of “travel without moving” as explained by Princess Irulan in her opening monologue, always made perfect sense to me. Why cross all those light-years from galaxy to galaxy when you can simply fold the distance? You can’t, of course… but the idea just seemed so obvious, so right!
Bob’s plan to apply the very same concept to David Lynch’s work was a stroke of genius (Mel Brooks didn’t call Lynch the Jimmy Stewart from Mars for nothing!) and we had lots of fun speculating on the subject in our email correspondence.
An excerpt from David Lynch Folds Space: Because He Is the Kwisatz Haderach!:
Folding space consists in bringing two spatial points together by collapsing the space between them, thus eliminating the need to move from one to the other. Duneâ€™s â€œexplanationâ€ of travel without movement, of the folding of space, is a sly announcement of not only the vision but the technique that David Lynch brings to the screenwriterâ€™s and film directorâ€™s art.
So early in Lynchâ€™s career, in only his third feature film, we have a pseudo-scientific articulation of the artistâ€™s unique way of seeing the world, and of remaking it. For folding space is a near-perfect metaphor for the way David Lynch makes movies.
For a mind-bending trip to the epicentre of Lynchian logic, read Bob’s whole article at 24LiesASecond. If you like it, don’t hesitate to drop a note in its dedicated thread at the 24Lies Article Feedback forum, or comment on it here.
The spirit of RenÃ© Magritte haunts this mesmerizing commercial for the Dutch insurance company RVS. If I ever find out who directed this, I’ll plan an assassination to take over his/her job. The song Come Wander With Me is from Jeff Alexander, sung by Bonnie Beecher, lifted from an old Twilight Zone episode. Very nice.
Most of you will have seen the cut-down version by now (without the clown): The latest Sony Bravia ad, directed by one of my favorites, Jonathan Glazer, who once more shows a penchant for channeling Stanley Kubrick. Like the previous Bravia film, this was all shot in-camera, as the following behind-the-scenes documentary will show you.
And just because I think you guys deserve it: Here’s a a taste of Mike Figgis’s arty sleazefest for lingerie house Agent Provocateur. The four-part series Dreams of Miss X was shot in night vision and stars Kate Moss in very little clothes… Hello? Are you still here?
When I read Frank Miller’s 300 a few years ago, I very much doubted if this graphic novel could ever be successfully adapted to film. Not because the story was too vast and complex to survive the translation, in a way Neil Gaiman’s intricate Sandman saga is; or too outrageously blasphemous like Preacher by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon. No, simply because of Miller’s virtuoso use of extreme comic stylization within a historical framework.
Nevermind that we’re talking about the ancient battle of Thermopylae, in which King Leonidas and his personal guard of 300 Spartans held off an army of one million (give or take) Persian warriors in a narrow gorge. Faithful reconstruction my ass! This is Frank Miller’s tall, mythical take on the historical event, existing in a universe all of its own. The swollen hyperboles, the ferocious violence, the supreme machismo and glorious heroism–it all worked to great effect on the page. Any attempt to approach this material in a less stylized manner, I figured back then, would make it seem utterly ridiculous.
That was before Robert Rodriguez pushed the envelope of comic book faithfulness with his film version of Sin City (2005). Doubt turned into hope: Here was a movie that dared to stray from the medium’s inherent photorealism with expressive lighting, a digitally controlled color palette and (most importantly) all-CGI-backgrounds. The method proved so flexible that it even allowed the makers to match each shot of the film to every drawn panel in the comic. From the moment it was announced, I realized it was a wise move to follow a similar route for 300 (2007). And judging from his surprisingly solid remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004), Zack Snyder is just the man to pull it off.
Last month my hopes were rewarded by an awe-inspiring teaser trailer. Apart from the stunning imagery (watch this comic-to-screen-comparison to get a sense of how much Snyder sticks to Miller’s vision), this trailer excels at what the comic medium is incapable of showing: actual movement. Anything is possible now… Hear my inner geek roar!
Plausibles are complaining about the movie’s “hard-to-swallow” premise, being: humanity on the brink of extinction because of an unexplained crisis of infertility. They have no idea what they’ve just witnessed. Children of Men may very well carry the most relevant and potent metaphor of our times and manages to do it justice.
CuarÃ³n has entered the Big League, that’s for sure. One instantly classic long take inside a driving car combines total chaos with laser precision film-making, bringing to mind the Spielberg of Munich and War of the Worlds (2005). I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more successful blend of gritty realism and stylized storytelling.