Gravity

Gravity is a movie that has to be seen in cinemas and in 3D if one wishes to get the best possible experience. As an active disliker of the current 3D cinema experience, I was originally sceptical. The friends I saw it with insisted, and I am glad they did. Never before have I ever seen 3D used so effectively as a dramatic device. Gravity does a lot to lend credence to the format.

There is a reason the 3D is so effective. Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men) composes every shot of Gravity with such care and intent that it becomes so much more immersive a film than one would expect a 3D movie to be. Previous high water mark Avatar used 3D as a way to give its richly imagined world a “reach out and touch it” immediacy. Cameron painted the screen with lush visuals for the purpose of transporting the viewer to another world. He didn’t really use his camera, his 3D, or his visuals to add to the film’s narrative richness.

In Gravity, Cuarón utilises the entirety of his frame to tell his story. Events happen in the background that cause ripples that affect what happens in the foreground in sometimes catastrophic ways. Background events drive characters to perform actions. This deliberate framing makes full use of the 3D format. The added depth increases the audience’s immersion in the scene, and it is incredibly powerful to see something small happen in the distance, only to have it grow in scale and menace as it moves towards Sandra Bullock’s character, and by extension, towards the audience, in the foreground.

I can’t help but feel the affect of huge chunks of broken machinery careening towards the camera would be dampened by a 2D screening.

The attention to visual story telling extends to the way the characters interact. There isn’t much in the way of character development, and the screenplay spends little time in establishing them before all hell breaks loose. However, characterisation is strengthened by the way the characters act more than by what they say. A particular scene involves George Clooney’s character attempting to calm another down as he tows them across space. The dialogue in this scene feels forced. Based purely on what is said, what is meant to be a poignant scene that sets up an entire character arc would feel flat. Being in a space suit, Clooney cannot directly look behind him, and instead gives a concerned glance into a mirror attached to his arm, while maintaining his cool tone of voice. It is a tiny moment, but one that breathes personality into a character the way the words they say could not.

Cuarón’s previous film, Children of Men, is the more thematically rich film, with a much more meaty narrative. It also boasted some very impressive sound design and cinematography. However, the technical intelligence on show in Children of Men is nothing compared to what is to be found in Gravity. Being freed from the constraints of terrestrial, practical film making, Cuarón orchestrates some of the most amazing long take shots I’ve ever seen. Additionally, Cuarón often frames the audience as part of the action. Often during some of the most dazzling moments, the film cuts to a first person point of view shot of Bullock’s character. It is us and not just Bullock trapped in an impossible situation. It is us fighting for life in an alien, incredibly hostile environment. And it is us who experience the majesty of the images Cuarón subjects us to. We are participants in the action rather than passive observers.

The sound design is equally impressive. Space in Gravity is soundless, and this soundlessness is played for maximum tension. Collisions occur silently in the background while characters remain oblivious, focusing on more immediate concerns. It is haunting to see such large scale destruction without hearing it. Positional audio is also incredibly well utilised. This is particularly noticeable in the film’s opening, when we see the earth and hear a voice in the rear right. The voice slowly moves towards the centre and then to the left as the setting of the film slowly drifts into view. It speaks to the incredible immersive quality of good sound design when you are given a sense of your place in the scene before seeing any of the principle players.

Cuarón played with diegetic and non-diegetic sound in Children of Men. An early series of scenes features the main character standing next to an explosion and a secondary character taunting him about a ringing in his ears. The very next scene makes it obvious to the viewer that ever since the explosion, a ringing simulating tinnitus was part of the soundscape of the movie, and this ringing continues for another couple of scenes. This experimentation continues in Gravity. Sound will often, and deliberately cut in and out, whether it is diegetic or not. During sections of Gravity, when a character is expected not to be able to hear anything, all sound, including the film’s score, drops out, only to reappear when the character is expected to be able to hear again. It’s another technique that Cuarón uses to not just frame his characters within the scene, but the audience.

Away from the technical side of things, the screenplay isn’t great, but is light and has enough character to provide some laughs and get the audience rooting for Gravity’s characters. The performances are amazing, and both Clooney and Bullock excel in their roles.

The film moves at a brisk pace and is over in under 90 minutes. It definitely does not overstay its welcome, a problem I seem to be noticing with more and more of its contemporaries. It is a movie that knows it has not earned 2 and a half hours, and so does not try to be 2 and a half hours long.

I found Gravity to be the most intelligently staged film I have seen in a long time. It’s not weighty in its themes, but is a show of pure film making talent. It is also a film that concerns itself with telling a story and ratcheting up tension above being scientifically accurate. While it’s depiction of a Kessler syndrome is chilling, the actions undertaken in the film are impossible given the orbits and locations of the places the characters visit in their journey towards salvation.

A suspension of disbelief is strongly advised.

I found it a case where the film was so well made and so exciting, that real life implausibility was of little concern. I found myself in a similar situation with a particular sequence in Jurassic Park. The sequence in question was staged with such skill at building tension and excitement, that the discrepancy in the height of the T-rex pit when the car is eventually pushed over the edge was inconsequential. There are times when one shouldn’t let fact get in the way of enjoying incredibly well made fiction.

SPOILERS FROM HERE ON IN

I do believe that something has been made of the fact that Bullock’s character is made to appear incompetent and reliant on the men in the movie to keep her alive. While this is true to an extent, it is moderated by context. Bullock’s character of Dr Stone is a civilian noted as mission specialist. She is on the mission because she has specialist understanding of the upgrades being done on Hubble. She was not an astronaut, she was not in the airforce, and she was given very minimal training (six months) in preparation for her mission. She is a medical doctor, a profession not generally known to be comprised of incompetent or unintelligent people. In fact, the entire mission required her to be there in space making very specific upgrades to Hubble, based on her research into medical technology.

Clooney’s character, on the other hand, is a seasoned Astronaut who has conducted a number of space walks. It is to be expected that if something were to go wrong, Clooney would be the one to remain calm, while Bullock would panic, having never been in that situation before.

Throughout the rest of the film, Bullock shows a level of resourcefulness and quick thinking that ultimately gets her back to earth in one piece. Had she been a truly incompetent character, she would not have been able to manage piloting a craft with controls labelled in Chinese. She would have died off before getting to that point.

On the other hand, there is the low oxygen hallucination scene where Clooney returns to magically explain to Bullock how to get out of her situation. This scene can be read as problematic, where even in death, the male character is required to move the action forward for the hopelessly disheartened female character. I will not begrudge anyone for viewing this seen as such. It was a point in the film, where just for a moment, Bullock was taken from being resourceful and quick thinking back to being reliant on a man. It was a bit jarring and undercuts her development into a powerful agent free from male intervention.

I tried rationalising this through the use of psychological schemas, but I was unhappy with the outcome of the exercise as it was still problematic. I shall explain the thought process for those interested.

Schema are mental frameworks used by individuals to reduce the amount of information the brain is required to process in day to day life. You can think of a schema as a script. You have a specific schema for ordering pizza, for example. You know what the transaction involves, and you act it out in accordance to the schema, or script, contained in your mind.

Applying this to the mission depicted in the movie, it is fair to say that Bullock’s character would develop a schema that had Clooney, as commander of the mission, being the source of information about what to do in emergencies. Thus, when low on oxygen, and with higher level cognitive functions presumably close to shutting down, her brain resorted to her schema related to this particular mission: New survival information will come from a commander as a commander is naturally more knowledgeable about what to do in this situation. This lead to the hallucination of Clooney that facilitated Bullock’s brain in making her aware that she herself knew of a solution to her current predicament. Ultimately, it was her own ingenuity that saved her life, but filtered through her schema that told her she should expect survival advice to come from a more experienced source.

All well and good until you realise Clooney is still a man! Her brain’s shorthand for the context of the mission involved a man being in a position of power over her, thus it is still a problematic scene.

So much for that fix, eh?

I am a Criticiser, not a Critic, and I matter.

Come with me on a little journey. It was a lazy night spent procrastinating in front of the computer. My anxiety was getting the better of me, and instead of working on my assignments, I took to twitter to bury myself in a sea of Jurassic Park rerelease buzz. You see, Jurassic Park has a special place in my heart. It has a special place in the hearts of many people who were 5 years old in 1993. It’s just the way things work

It was during this browsing that I came across an article on Film.com, superficially about Jurassic Park. I read it and realised I was tricked into something much more interesting than an article discussing the flaws in Jurassic Park, that clever writer…

And it was this article that got me thinking about why I do not consider myself a critic, even when my friends have told me otherwise. No, I am not a critic. I do not have nearly enough of a knowledge to actually critique works of cinema, discuss the social, political and cultural significance of the pieces, or talk in depth about any problems they have on a thematic level. At times I wish I did, but I do not have the capability or the will to absorb a library’s worth of information.

What I can do is criticise cinema. I can point out more technical flaws. I can discuss things that dragged me out of the experience. I can talk about things that reminded me that I was still a man sitting in the dark of a theatre, surrounded by other people watching a dance of light and sound for 90 minutes and up.

This is everything wrong with modern film critique, I agree. It is not everything wrong with modern film criticism. The ability to differentiate between the two, I believe would serve to only benefit consumers and those interested in the world of cinema.

A film is not its themes and its cultural identity in a vacuum. It is a product of technique, or lack thereof. Having a discussion of the more thematic side of cinema can only serve to enrich our culture and promote intelligent analysis and discourse about art and its importance.

Having a discussion about the flaws of a film can serve on a more consumerist level. Perhaps I am taking a leaf from games reviewing, where a discussion of the mechanics and technical accomplishments of the game seem to take precedence over discussion of the narrative, both textual and interactive that the game affords. It is a very consumer-centric approach, treating the game as a product, and not as a work of art. It informs potential customers, the layperson, whether a product is worth their money or not. It is a service that is not without its merit.

Let’s look at two cases.

Jurassic Park.

Jurassic Park is a film with some (at times severe) flaws. The assault of the T-Rex on the cars at night comes to mind. You will find numerous explanations for the sudden appearance of the cliff on fansites across the web. Their dedication to resolving this issue makes me look like a person with a passing interest in the film. It is also a film in which I can overlook these flaws, because it is otherwise so well crafted, provides such a sense of wonder and terror with such a deft hand, that I find myself swept up in the experience. I have seen this film at least 40 times since its release, and I am actually craving another watching right now.

Could it have been the masterful score? The amazing sound design? The visual effects that still stand up today? The wonderful performances by its actors? The witty dialogue? The wonderful handling of both the light hearted moments and those meant to terrify? I think it’s a perfect storm of all these elements that make Jurassic Park a film that holds up after 20 years.

Prometheus, on the other hand, was a film with ambition. It was a film that tried to seem intelligent. It was a film with incredible flaws to match its incredible cinematography. It was a glorious mess of a film. It was wonderful to look at, yet did not offer anything in particular that stood out visually. It had interesting art direction, but many of the curiosities it offered were discarded quickly in favour of the next pretty/grotesque thing to look at. It had a sweeping score, that felt out of place with the rest of the film. It attempted to ask questions and prompt a discourse of some incredible and deep concepts with the audience, but ended up only hinting at the existence of these concepts. It was also a film with some uneven performances, quite horrible dialogue, and a not so wonderful sense of time.

These are all flaws, yes, and they stood out more to me in prometheus than the massive flaws in Jurassic Park did.

Yes, Prometheus had some interesting talking points, more so than Jurassic Park, but I really could not afford to engage with them because the film dropped most of them as quickly as they were raised. The score, the dialogue and the narrative of the film kept dragging me out of the moment, reminding me that I was a man in a cinema, watching a show of light and sound desperately trying to be more than the sum of its parts, and failing.

Its thematic weight was artifice as flimsy as the world it took place in. It did not allow me an opportunity to ponder its more interesting aspects because its flaws kept coming hard and fast. They were loud, louder than what the film was trying to achieve.

In fact, I enjoyed Mr Scott’s interviews about the film’s themes much more than the film itself. They were stimulating and provocative, and made me sad that the film did not live up to this.

I believe my take on the film, as a film, a product to be consumed as a whole, is valid. I believe that discussions of how the film’s flaws overshadowed the film’s positives is valid. I believe my opinion that the film could have been much more if it weren’t for its shortcomings, and that the film may disappoint people because of this, is important.

And I believe it is just as valuable as an after the fact dissection of the film in the context of its promotional material, the thoughts of its director, and its relevance to greater themes of spirituality, religion, and science in society at large.

Because a film is more than a statement, it is also a product.

“War has changed…”

When I was a kid watching cartoons I always got annoyed that the section of the wall that turned out to be the secret door was always a different colour.

If you are wondering what the preceding sentence had to do with a Fallout 3 quote, let me tell you it had absolutely nothing to do with it.

Really, what I would like to talk about this entry is a bit of a personal taste issue. I am talking about sound in Killzone 3.

Killzone 3 was a game that could in no way live up to the hype. One could say it pandered to the fans a little too much with the characteristic heavy killzone feel being watered down to make it feel like a slightly more weighty console Battlefield game. The attempts at making it colourful were well handled, I suppose, if an almost entirely out of character and inconsequential jungle stealth mission count for anything. Characters were omitted from the story without explanation (Natko, where did you go you annoying SOB?). But all in all it was a fun game. Except for the end. The end was one of the most disappointing ends in my recent video gaming history. It is really funny how much better Portal 2’s end felt while boiling down to the same thing. Both games were ended by the player pressing a single button, yet Portal 2’s ending felt immensely more satisfying. This is not what I want to talk about, however.

What I would like to talk about is sound. Particularly sound in multiplayer. The multiplayer portion of Killzone 3 was an interesting beast. It gave with one hand while taking away with the other. The ability to search for matches that suit your preference (Killzone 2: Pistol only? Sure, why not?) replaced by a somewhat shoddy matchmaking system that dumped you into a hopefully playable game (It did get better with time though). It, however, added Operations mode which was basically a mini campaign complete with cutscenes! Well done Guerilla Games, well done. But during beta, I noticed something that at first made me deeply uncomfortable, that then went on to give me immense joy.

This something special would later be dubbed “overly enthusiastic death sounds”. Yes, I felt joy at hearing people screaming and whimpering in agony as they bled out of their many bullet wounds. This, of course, is not because I am sadistic. No, it is because it gave the game a sense of authenticity that some may condescendingly call “Grim Dark”. By the way, Tvtropes was linked. Consider yourself warned. After all, it is war. I think it goes beyond saying that war is hellish. It was flavour like this that made me especially fond of the Killzone brand.

However, beta ended, and with it, so did the gloriously hideous and disconcerting death rattle. Or rather, with feedback from the community, GG patched it out with patch 1.12.

You can try your luck looking for the original screams here.

I’ve seen excuses that amount to “But soldiers are meant to be badass! No way they’d be screaming in pain and fear when they’re bleeding out!” Needless to say, I do not find that an appropriate excuse. I wonder, would, for example, Saving Private Ryan have been as effective if the scene where the medic bled out after being shot in the stomach didn’t have him crying hysterically after realising he was going to die. Steamboat Willie!!

It’s no secret that war shooters are big business. EA has recently stated that Battlefield 3 has reached 10 million sales. I find it disconcerting that consumers are happy to engage in bombastic military wank while being unable or unwilling to consider the darker or more depressing side of conflict. It’s all good to engage in war as long as the war experience plays out like a big budget action film and not like embedded war footage.

This really just makes me miss Six Days in Fallujah, a game that aimed to depict conflict in a more realistic, terrifying light by making the game play out like a survival horror game.
Unfortunately the game was cancelled due to it representing an actual conflict. And by cancelled, I mean the publisher that had originally had no problems with it decided to drop it as soon as it became controversial. Never mind that it was developed under the supervision of soldiers who fought in said conflict under their grace. Still, this is a particularly touchy subject since, well, real people died and this made their family understandably upset.

There is argument to be made that games are escapist fantasies, and for the most part they are. For example, Test Drive Unlimited 2 is basically a rich person simulator. What would you do on an island if you had lots of money and could afford a bunch of supercars? However, lumping all games into the escapist bucket is selling interactive media short. Games can be so much more than elaborate Skinnerian conditioning machines.

I urge those of you with a strong constitution to play Freedom Bridge. It is a very simplistic experience, and yet something so very soul crushing. Sure there are some in the comments that argue such a simplistic example of interactive media cannot be meaningfully classed as a game, but that is opening a whole other can of worms. It doesn’t change the fact that it is a piece of interactive media that sheds light on some of the horrors faced by people.

Some may argue that Killzone 3 being a work of fiction should not have to depict people dying in such a pathetic way. But if it is a creative work crafted by artists committed to a vision, what is there to say that they cannot make it as horrific as they want to? If it makes the end user uncomfortable, maybe it would make them think twice about the nigh on fetishistic portrayal of military paraphernalia and scenarios in their medium of choice.

In the end, I truly believe with patch 1.12, Killzone 3 lost something of itself. It watered down part of its character and compromised itself to make people consuming it feel more comfortable with their current schema of how military should be depicted in video games rather than challenging them to alter their perceptions.

As a little bonus have an educational (somewhat NSFW) video about War crimes in the Modern Warfare trilogy:

Enjoy!

Tr00 Kvlt or not Tr00 Kvlt

American Apparel, you are more amazing than your sleazy porn aesthetic let on.

Explaining why I find the black metal shirt not to be a good idea is probably beyond my capacity, but what is learning and growth but pushing beyond the limits of our capabilities?

Let us start off by saying they take this very seriously (read from Dead’s suicide onwards).

So yes, commercialising something like Black Metal can seem like an incredibly stupid thing to do… to certain people. Black Metal is an ideology. I know I am risking a lot by comparing it to Punk, but in the same way that the commercialisation of Punk served to undercut its aesthetic and raison d’être, commercialising Black Metal kind of goes against everything it stands for. The word Kvlt (pronounced cult) exists for a reason, and that’s because for purists, most Black Metal isn’t Black Metal enough! And most of this non-Kvlt material is stuff that I can’t listen to because it’s so damn obtuse and alienating to most listeners. As a friend of mine had said (albeit about extreme metal in general):

“to me it just sounds like every single person playing an instrument in that band is having a seizure”

Another bad analogy, if bands like Keep of Kalessin are the Black Metal equivalent of Greedo shooting first, an American Apparel Black Metal T-Shirt will be the equivalent of being forced to watch the entire Prequel Trilogy in some sort of perversion of the ludovico technique.

Or hell, it may as well be analogous to this:

To people who don’t care about the consequences of printing a culture onto a t-shirt and then selling it to clueless teens that attempt to look hard, I’m sure there are plenty of Cradle of Filth merch at Hot Topic. Well, not as much as I had expected, but you get the point.

ps. I am aware of how horrible the title of this post is.

On Movies and “Fun”

I have seen this argument a lot when talking to people regarding movies. I have questions regarding the point of movies. Are they really there to entertain? I think film is a medium that is considered to be art, and I am pretty sure art’s purpose isn’t just to entertain. If art were just for entertainment, then I’m pretty sure we could replace all works of art with blue ducks and nothing of value would be lost. I do recommend watching the linked episode of Dilbert. At the very least, it will explain why blue ducks.

One of the interesting qualities of the film medium is that unlike a painting, it is not static. In ways it allows audiences to feel more involved in the events being depicted. How much impact would “Jurassic Park” have had on film goers if it were nothing but a slide show? Sure, “Jurassic Park” may have been a bad example being a major major blockbuster movie.

Also that point wasn’t related to the purpose of this post anyway…

I wonder if people are as harsh on stage plays as they are on films they do not find ‘entertaining’. Would a play such as “Waiting for Godot” worked if it were a film and not a stage production? I do not think so. There’s an expectation one has when going to the theatre versus going to the cinema. One is ascribed a sense of culture and civility, whereas the other is seen as a means to allow audiences to leave their brains at the door and sit and drool for 2 and a half hours.

It is sad then that films that strive to be more than mere titillation are so often looked down upon as pompous or masturbatory while other media gets off relatively scott free. One need just take a look at Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games” to see what I mean. When the film begins it appears to be your average home invasion film. However, the film subverts audience expectations and toys with them as much as it toys with the protagonists. I am sure you can find a number of user reviews on imdb deriding the film for this very reason. It’s not ‘entertaining’ when the audience is made to feel like a monster for appreciating films of its genre, yet it has interesting points to make.

Why is film not allowed to be challenging, bizarre, nonsensical, and in some cases profoundly unwatchable? It adds texture to an otherwise bland tapestry of creative works in the medium. One can only take so many ineptly crafted, lowest common denominator action/romantic comedy/other comedy/horror films a year. At least I hope that is the case. Not every film has to be a “Star Wars” or “Love Actually”. What a boring world we would live in if that were the case. Just take a look at the state of modern First Person Shooters if you do not believe me.

It’s perfectly okay to dislike a movie, but to say it fails as a movie because it failed to be ‘entertaining’ when it was trying to be something entirely different is just not on. If a film has no other reason to be than to be ‘entertaining’ and still fails, well… Okay fine. You win that one.