Monday, 29 February 2016

Introducing the Crime Cast-A-Thon

Okay, so this was something of a last-minute decision. I wasn't originally planning to run anything this month, but I've been going through a difficult time and needed something fun to do. I'd imagine I'm not the only one who could benefit from a fun activity in March, so why not make a Cast-A-Thon? They're a straight forward mental exercise and there can be fun in bringing together your favorite characters. Now because this was so last-minute, I haven't managed to design a banner. I guess this one will be a more informal blogathon, but if all goes well I'm sure a few of us could benefit from this. Now that's out of the way, so let's get started on my lame excuse for why you're doing this amazing action-packed story.

I got a job for you. We'll need about six or seven other guys. You see, I've got a score the likes of which people like us only dream of. You remember those old stories about the Maltese Falcon? Yeah, I know. It disappeared when it was stolen by pirates back in the 1600's and nobody knew what happened to it. Mr. Gutman tried to track it down in 1941 but only recovered a fake. Well, funnily enough, it was just discovered last week. Apparently it was at Warner Brothers Studio this whole time. One of the janitors was cleaning out the vault and found it in a case that supposedly contained a lost Michael Bay film. Now it's been cleaned up and is scheduled to be displayed at the MacGuffin Museum of Ancient Artifacts. This is where you come in. I need someone who can get into that museum, steal the falcon, and get out before anyone notices.

It's not going to be an easy job. The museum will be locked and heavily guarded after hours. The falcon itself will be kept on a weight-sensitive base, with sensitive glass that will no doubt trigger the alarm if damaged, but before you can reach the Maltese Falcon you'll have to bypass a number of other obstacles in order to steal it, plus you will need an exit strategy. I'm offering good money for the Falcon to be successfully obtained, but I'm going to have to trust you to bring together the most efficient crew of thieves to get the job done. Do you think you can handle it?


  1. Assemble a team of five-ten characters from crime movies to serve as your crew.
  2. For each character you choose, include a few words about why you chose them and what he/she can contribute to the heist.
  3. You cannot choose two or more characters from the same film. Different characters from the same franchise are acceptable as long as they do not appear in the same installments.
  4. There must be gender and/or racial variety. Failing to meet this requirement will result in your inevitable failure and subsequent arrest.

A bit simpler this time round, but I hope it will still be a fun activity for anyone interested. There isn't a banner this time round (at least not unless I can find time to make one), though if you want to design some kind of image you are free to do so. The deadline is March 31, when I'll be able to release the blogathon I had actually been planning in advance. When this is done, I'll try to remember to post a list of links to everyone who participated.

So good luck in trying to steal the Maltese Falcon. You should be able to pull it off with some cunning wit and a few tricks up your sleeve. That should be it for now. To get you into the mood, here is my good friend Kate Bush with an song about thievery (and a weird music video to go with it).


Saturday, 27 February 2016

The Oscars Are Pointless

So it's Oscar Season again, and almost time for the big event, but this year things have been different. There's been a huge backlash against the general lack of non-Caucasian actors nominated this year, as though this is anything new. Throughout the Oscar's history there have been very few black actors nominated, and nearly all of the exceptions, such as Hattie McDaniel (Gone With the Wind) or Lupita Nyong'o (Twelve Years a Slave) are films that deal with racism. In other words, about 95% of black actors are only recognized by the Academy for playing roles that required their character to be black. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with making a film about racism, but it is telling that this seems to be the only way for many black actors to gain recognition.

This has been the major issue that has led to people boycotting the Oscars. Quite a few of my brothers and sisters in blogging have written extensively on this particular topic, and yet I have remained silent on account of the distrust I already have with the Academy. It has in the past been respected as an institution, but the truth is it is nothing more than an elaborate marketing plan based on obvious biases. It is seen as an honor to be nominated, let alone win, and suddenly this creates a sense that some movies are more "artistic" than others. All of a sudden I have to go see a film I have no interest in just because it won Best Picture, even when there was another far better movie that same year which was not even nominated.

The racial controversy may be at the forefront of media attention now, but it is far from the only bias the Academy has displayed. It has already been long known that the Awards are notoriously biased when it comes to genre, meaning some films are more likely to get awards than others. Dramas in particular seem to be the most popular choices, especially romances and period pieces. Once in a while the odd crime thriller (The Departed, No Country for Old Men) or western (Dances With Wolves, Unforgiven) manages to win, but a really good science fiction, fantasy (The Lord of the Rings excepted), or action movie can rarely hope to even receive a nomination for anything higher than best visual effects or sound mixing. Very rarely to I find that the movies which do win actually deserve their awards.


One of the less obvious biases about the Academy Awards is that they are also structured around putting Hollywood front and center, and a very specific brand as well. The so-called "Best Picture" nominees are almost universally American-produced live-action feature films. There are in fact at least six other "best film" categories: Best Animated Feature, Best Animated Short, Best Live-Action Short, and Best Foreign-Language Film, and Best Documentary. The fact that all of these are in separate categories and seemingly ineligible for Best Picture (the presentation of which is always saved for last, making it seem the most important) creates the sense that the Academy perceives any film nominated for these awards as being of lesser quality than their American-produced period dramas.

There is no reason to break up the categories like this. By doing so, it creates the impression that some types of film are more meaningful than others. The fact that only English-speaking films can be nominated for Best Picture indicates that they are more important than any others made in a different language. It also implies that shorts, animated films, and documentaries are somehow inferior styles. This is an obvious sign of bias on the part of the Academy, which appears to look down on specific styles of film in favor of others. If was truly supposed to be giving Awards to the best films, than the Academy would be more inclusive, and films would be nominated based on their quality, not on what language they were made in, their runtime, or whether they were used live actors. This bias towards Hollywood might make more sense when one understands where the Awards came from.

The Academy was first founded in 1927 by Louis B. Mayer, as in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and the first Awards were presented in 1929 at a private meeting that lasted 15 minutes. The reason why these awards were created and publicized was to prevent the studios from being unionized. His plan was to present the awards as a way of making it appear that the studio was treating its employees well without actually doing anything, thus deterring them from joining labor unions. Of course, the studios were eventually unionized, and yet the Oscars continued to this day. It is a bit strange, isn't it? Now what started as a way for studios to cheat workers out of their rights has become an expensive marketing strategy to make it appear that audiences need to see their films.

Looking at these facts, it becomes clear that the Oscars nothing more than a dated relic of a bygone era, and one that is no longer needed. Whatever way you look at the Academy Wards, it all comes down to money and what will attract the most attention. The Awards are not given out for the benefits of the Artists or for audiences. It is all about the studios and the people who run them. They are the ones who benefit most from the extra income that inevitably comes from the people who watch the Oscars each year and who then purchase copies of the winning films afterwards. People are complaining about racial bias in the Oscars, when in fact it is the Oscars themselves that are the problem.

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

The Color Purple and Fellini

Steven Spielberg shocked audiences when he announced he was working alongside author Alice Walker to adapt her novel The Color Purple. The book, published only three years earlier, had been a huge success, but had also sparked a massive controversy due to its content. The movie, though a commercial success, was just as controversial among audiences. Some praised its emphasis on strong female characters, while others criticized the fact that nearly all the black men depicted are treated as monsters. It was a very unusual approach to its subject, largely because The Color Purple is not so much a story about racism as it is about sexism within the black community.

The critical reception of this film varied drastically. Even today, it is a film people either love or hate. Even Walker herself expressed mixed feelings. Overall, it's not a particularly great film. While the feminist aspects can be satisfying to witness, the characters are hard to tell apart, the story is hard to follow, and the ending is padded out to make the film much longer than it needs to be. In addition to all this, it is not even original. When one examines the basic plot and arc of the color purple, a few parallels start to become surprisingly clear. There is a young woman whose family basically sells her to a man who promises to treat her well but turns out to be abusive. Most of the film centers on the relationship between these two, with another individual with whom they frequently cross paths and who tries to help the young woman.

If this sounds at all familiar, it is because this story has been done before. All  The Color Purple did was relocate the setting and introduce a predominantly black cast. The plot is actually taken from a 1954 Italian film directed by Federico Fellini, La Strada. In this movie, a young woman by the name of Gelsomina is literally bought by a travelling circus performer who goes by the name of Zampano. The rest of the film centers on him treating her like garbage, with another character known as "The Fool" constantly trying to help her.

This particular narrative was produced in a very different social context. Fellini was borrowing the ideas of Italian Neo-Realist filmmaking, a movement characterized by the use of low budgets, unknown actors, an emphasis on location shooting, and the depiction of everyday problems faced by working class individuals. La Strada is not a perfect example of Neo-Realism. The only way it fully resembles that movement is in its subject matter, but the influence is still evident. The struggle here was one of class and impoverishment, but in order for it to be used in The Color Purple a few changes had to be made.

The Color Purple has more or less the exact same setup. In this case, the man who the audience comes to know as "Mister" rides up to the protagonist's family farm and asks her father for his daughter's hand in marriage. While no monetary gain is involved for the father, there might as well be. He almost instantly agrees to let Mister take Celie away as though she were merely property he no longer needed. This is not unlike Zampano approaching Gelsomina's mother and paying to take her daughter away. Adding to the parallels is the man's public image. Both Mister and Zampano feign kindness and only reveal their true selves once the girl is taken away.

To bring these ideas further, the three major characters featured in Fellini's La Strada all have counterparts in The Color Purple. Mister is Zampano, Celie is Gelsomina (although admittedly a somewhat stronger version), and Shug is the Fool. All of them fill out very similar roles. Mister purchases Celie from her family and then treats her like crap. Shug tries to give Celie hope. Celie herself is taken without any say and forced to take Mister's abuse (though unlike Gelsomina she does eventually stand up to him and escape). Then a circus caravan is replaced by a farm, with issues of working class poverty being replaced by racism and misogyny.

The outcome of the events in The Color Purple is noticeably different from that of La Strada. In the latter, Gelsomina submits to Zampano despite having every opportunity to get away from him, only to eventually be abandoned. Zampano ends up killing the fool, and Gelsomina is later mentioned to have apparently died from the trauma of watching this happen. Celie in The Color Purple actually does manage to stand up to Mister (though not until very late in the film) and eventually escapes with Shug to a better life. However, for the abuser there is still a similar fate in store. Both Mister and Zampano find their lives spiraling downwards at the end. Their worlds are crumbling around them as they face the consequences of their actions.

Examining the details closely reveals a simple unfortunate truth: The Color Purple has plagiarized the work of Federico Fellini. It is more or less a complete remake of the 1954 Italian film, right down to the individual characters, only rewritten to appear to deal with different themes. Alice Walker's iconic novel is nothing more than an all-black rip-off of an earlier Italian film relocated to rural America with only a few small changes to distinguish it from its predecessor.

Friday, 12 February 2016

Why Christian Metz is the Worst Film Scolar

Christian Metz (1991-1993) has often been considered an important film scholar. Many a film studies professor has incorporated his extensive work into their curriculum. According to many film scholars, Metz is crucial for his work in trying to study film as a language. His own words on his efforts were "I want to get to the bottom of the linguistic analogy in film." What does this mean? What is a "linguistic analogy" and what does that have to do with film analysis? The truth is, it means nothing. It's just jargon. All Metz has done is said a completely nonsensical phrase and inserted a massive amount of professional-sounding terms to make himself appear smarter than he really is. If any of my professors are reading this essay, than let me take this moment to apologize now, because I am about to explain that Metz is far from a scholar worthy of academic research. He is nothing more than a hack, whose work is at best common sense ideas buried under a thick layer of overly-convoluted terminology, and at worst nonsensical garbage.

From the aforementioned quote, it is obvious that Metz's writing is based heavily based on making himself sound more professional than he really is. His essays are constantly filled with heavy jargon, and based on pointless ideas. We can see this in his essay The Imaginary Signifier, an overly convoluted paper that attempts to explain why people are able to emotionally connect to a film. To do this, he identifies the audience as a "voyeur," supposedly passive, and begins referring extensively to Freudian ideas before finally concluding that it has something to do with "primary" and "secondary" identification. What are these special ideas that according to Metz are the key to understanding how audiences respond to movies? Well, Primary identification is the camera, and secondary identification is the characters.

In other words, according to Metz, his long-winded ramble about Freud has been trying to say that the reason people get invested in a film is because they relate to the characters and the way the shots are set up. This is what he refers to as "secondary identification." Congratulations, Metz. Nobody had ever figured that out before. Of course people relate to well-written characters. What makes a film like Apocalypse Now so compelling is exploring the psychology of the people involved in its narrative. This is one of the major problems with Michael Bay's films; he fails to give his characters sufficient depth and thus fails to give the audience any reason to be interested in what happens to them.

Of course, Metz is also basing his research purely on a specific model of filmmaking. He was French by birth, and so his material is likely based on a mix of local and American films. He completely disregards other styles of filmmaking. There are movies that would easily challenge his claims. For instance, Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey has very little in the way of character development. While they have personality and emotions, there is no one individual with whom the audience can connect to on an emotional level. What makes the film so compelling is its vision of the future, and the way Kubrick opts to convey it primarily through the use of visuals and music.

The same could also be said of many early films. There was hardly anything relatable about the early films of the Lumiere Brothers, and yet they still proved a success. Their films were generally under a minute long, and consisted for the most part of everyday occurrences. The Arrival of the Train at the Station is just that: a train pulling into a station. There is nobody for the audience to connect with, and yet it still proved to be popular. In this case, it was the novelty of film itself that engaged audiences. The very idea of a moving picture was so radical that it alone was enough to excite those who saw it.

This same idea can be seen the work of Georges Méliès. As a magician, his primary interest was creating illusions, and this was the main goal of his films. The "story" was usually nothing more than a means to present his then-revolutionary illusions. In fact, several of his films lacked a plot of any kind. The Human Playing Card and The Prolific Magical Egg were both essentially magic shows, where Méliès would present on a stage and use his editing techniques to make things appear, disappear, and transform. The audience is not expected to connect or relate to Méliès, they simply enjoy the brilliant illusions he able to create.

Going on this logic, it would suggest that the film apparatus itself is responsible for the audience's reaction, and not characterization as Metz claims. Audiences in the early 20th century were drawn to the theaters because of the novelty of moving pictures, not necessarily for a specific story. Of course, this same reasoning is not as applicable today. Usually when one goes to see a movie today, they are expecting a good story. This in turn leads me to a simple conclusion: there is no universal film language. Metz seems to maintain otherwise, ignoring the obvious evidence and questions to be raised by what he has already said.

Metz's concepts of "primary identification," when taken at face value, could therefore appear to be more accurate, as it highlights the importance of the camera which would seemingly be supported by the aforementioned early films. However, that would at best a very loose interpretation of his claims that only applies to films made before 1920. Metz goes a step farther to claim that the audience actually relates to the camera itself. Understandably, once the jargon is removed Metz's theories start to sound a lot more stupid. Metz actually thinks that the viewer sees "himself" (Metz, and many of his contemporaries, only seem to consider male spectators) as the camera. This does not happen.

It is true that the camera can play a crucial role in shaping the audience's emotions. There is a reason why this has to be carefully planned early on; the director has to figure out where to place the camera, how to compose the shot, and what types of lenses to use. This much is true, but claiming that the audience can relate to the camera is a major stretch. Even in the early days of film, audiences weren't relating to the camera as though it were a person, they were simply amazed because nobody had ever managed to create moving pictures before. It was the novelty of the motion picture itself, not the apparatus used to make it, that captured their imaginations. This same novelty also ended as soon as films became commonplace. This is absurd to think in such a way.

To justify his claims, Metz refers to the work of Sigmund Freud, a man whose work has absolutely no connection to film studies. More specifically, Metz refers to the obsolete and equally ridiculous idea of "castration anxiety" as an analogy to support his claims about audience reactions to film. Apparently, the fear of castration gives the viewer a sense that he is missing something, and subsequently this is what contributes to the "disavowal" which allows him to fetishize a film as real even if he knows it is fictional (he gives this the strange name of "voyeurism"). Obviously, this is based on some extremely biased claims.

Outside of using obsolete psychoanalytical practices, there is the strange fact that the spectator is always referred to as male. Metz seems to be under the impression that only men go to see movies. He incorporates Freudian concepts that only address male sexuality (Freud reportedly had trouble discussing female sexuality) and makes no attempt to address a female spectator (a flaw pointed out by Laura Mulvey a few decades later). In what way does Freud's "castration anxiety" explain how a woman is engaged with a film? It does not, and Metz never addresses this at any point. He is speaking purely from an obsolete male perspective and explaining absolutely nothing.

Nowhere is this clearer than in his so-called "Grand Syntagmatic" which aims to break down the ways in which film functions as a language. According to Metz, the shot represents a type of "grammar" that can allegedly be broken down into eight basic categories. He identifies these categories of "autonomous shots" as the single-shot sequence, non-diegetic insert, subjective insert, displaced insert, explanatory insert, parallel syntagma, bracket syntagma, descriptive syntagma, alternating syntagma, a "scene", episodic sequence, ordinary sequence. His tactic could not be even more confusing, a fact made ironic when one realizes that these ideas have already been documented and have much simpler names.

A "single-shot sequence" for example, is according to Metz, a single continuous action that occurs over one shot. There is already a name for this: it's called a long take. This is a style that has been popularized by a number of films. Before Metz, the idea fascinated Alfred Hitchcock, who attempted to utilize it in Rope. Though cuts were used, it was only due to technical limitations of the cameras used, and they were made to appear continuous. Hitchcock himself would later state that he would have shot the entire film in one take if it had been possible. More recently, Gravity used the same approach, with the entire first fifteen minutes happening in a single shot.

This is just one of many examples of how Metz's schematic shows only that he has no idea what he is talking about. All this man has done is made a fool of himself. He has no brilliant ideas or worthwhile ideas. His writing is garbage polished up to look like it is something of a higher quality than it really is. His theories fall apart as soon as they're examined (and that is assuming one can actually figure out what he is trying to say), and he does nothing but coat far-fetched and ridiculous ideas in professional-sounding Jargon and references to Freud; yet his work continues to be studied on an academic level. His work is still promoted by film scholars as a crucial part of understanding film, and it makes no sense why this should still be happening. Metz is not a director worthy of study, he is a writer of nonsensical jargon who thinks he is smarter than he really is, and his work should not be covered in such large detail.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Thursday Movie Picks: Star-Crossed Lovers

Star-crossed lovers, a classic staple of the romantic narrative. We've heard this old story before. Two people enter into a forbidden love affair. The precise nature of the romance might very, but in the end, whether it is the circumstances surrounding the relationship, politics, social standards, or some other unforseen obstacle, it is inevitable that the story will end in tragedy. It's as if the stars themselves were against them (or at least they would be if astrology actually meant something, though the term was coined before people really understood how the universe worked).

The name comes from William Shakespeare's classic tragedy Romeo and Juliet, where the title characters were the children of two warring families. Romeo, desperate to win back a girl who dumped  him, ends up sneaking into a party hosted by a rival family where he meets Juliet. The two of them instantly fall in love, but in the end are blinded by it to the point where they are ready to leave everything they've ever known behind and find themselves literally dying for each other. It's a tragic tale about just how destructive love can be, though it can do good as well; their tragic tale is what finally brings peace between the two families.

Of course, Star-Crossed lovers existed in literature long before Romeo and Juliet (Shakespeare himself incorporates the very similar story of Pyramus and Thisbe into his A Midsummer Night's Dream), and there have been quite a few since. That's what this week's Thursday Movie Picks Meme is all about. I'm tasked with finding three films that centre on star-crossed lovers. Seeing as I've never been the most fluent in the romance genre, this is a bit more challenging. I feel it's best to avoid the obvious choices, so I won't be including any film versions of Romeo and Juliet.

Still, I have a few other good examples to choose from. For the sake of variety, I've decided to try out a few different couples for this one. I've got one heterosexual pair, as well as gay and lesbian star-crossed lovers. That seems like an interesting combination, and I've also tried to find some choices that the other participants aren't as likely to think of.

Bonnie and Clyde (1968)

As the title implies, this classic crime film tells the story of Bonnie and Clyde, a legendary duo who became notorious bank robbers in 1930's America. They were able to do a lot of damage with the crimes they did commit together, but in the end, it all came crashing down on top of them. The police did not take kindly to their actions and eventually gunned both of them down, unarmed, in the middle of an open street in broad daylight. It's a tragic tale, but one with far more action than you would normally expect from a love story.

Brokeback Mountain

Ang Lee's famous "gay cowboy" film begins in the 1960's (and continues into the 70's), so unsurprisingly life is difficult when two men find themselves attracted to each other. These two lovers manage to surprisingly well given how long their affair lasts and the challenges they face, but in the end they are lovers in a world that sees their relationship as morally wrong. That has a way of complicating even the most intimate relationships, especially when they have to keep their true feelings a secret from everyone around them.

Mulholland Dr. (2002)

Okay, so this one's a bit more subjective, but while I seem to find that every time I watch it I get a different impression of what's going on, the romantic aspect of the film cannot be refuted. One thing that this film tries to do is show the darker side of Hollywood, and one of the ways it does that is through a romantic sub-plot. In the final act, we get a story centring around romance between upcoming actress Diane and Camilla, one that ends in heartbreak as the unfortunate reality of Hollywood filmmaking becomes apparent. The precise sequence of events (and how they connect to the romance between Betty and Rita, played by the same actresses) are somewhat ambiguous, but the star-crossed aspect is definitely there.