28/09/2016

The Raid Redemption - Violence & Aggression

Thoughts On: The Raid

An elite squad of gunners break into a deadly trap, leaving them stuck in an apartment block they must break out of before being picked off.


In the previous post I used The Raid as a spring board to talk about audio dubbing in film. However, here I want to talk specifically about this movie and what it means on a wider cinematic scale. That means I'm going to be talking about action, fighting and violence in cinema. To start things off, I'll say flat out that I love this film and I'm in not entirely any against violence depicted through movies. Sure, there's grotesque things I won't watch, things like Cannibal Holocaust, and lines can be crossed when you physically hurt anyone or anything - but a cinematic depiction of violence in any form, or through any means can have its merits. And it's this that I want to talk about today. I won't be discussing violence like that seen in horror films, war pictures or serious dramas (link here to a relevant talk on Irreversible) but that in martial arts, shoot 'em, stab 'em, punch 'em up flicks. I'm essentially making a pragmatic and artistic argument for The Raid and films like it against this kind of view point:


The crux of the argument made here is probably best outlined with this paragraph:

There's obviously an audience for the film, probably a large one. They are content, even eager, to sit in a theater and watch one action figure after another pound and blast one another to death. They require no dialogue, no plot, no characters, no humanity. Have you noticed how cats and dogs will look at a TV screen on which there are things jumping around? It is to that level of the brain's reptilian complex that the film appeals.

This, to me, is an incredibly unsophisticated view of cinema. The dogmatic viewpoint demonstrated is later summed up to be in opposition of video-game-esque films (things like Hardcore Henry - which I loved) which confines cinema to realms which must have 'dialogue', 'plot', 'characters', 'humanity' and locations. Films do not work because of these things. They work with these things. Dialogue, plot, character and so on are there to help systematise a writing process, to lay down training wheels or prompting blocks that an artist may work off of. Conventions aren't good, they aren't bad, they are tools that may or may not be utilised. We all know a good film cannot be defined by such benign key words or technical terms. In all honesty, could the viewpoint provided here help 2001: A Space Odyssey? Could it make Pulp Fiction any better? Could it in any way evolve Irreversible, Slacker, Persona, Stalker, Un Chien Andalou, The Holy Mountain, Eraserhead? The answer is, no. Yes, these films are unconventional, maybe special snowflakes that miraculously came to be, but we have them. And that's what matters. Ignoring convention and pushing an idea to the extreme as to explore it opens up the cinematic art form, gives us new films, diversifies the landscape of cinema. And whilst The Raid isn't on the level of some of the films mentioned, it subscribes to the same basic idea of experimentation. This allows The Raid to stand as a brilliant example of why the plotless, the senseless, the evil, corrupt and violent needs to be captured on film, needs to be seen for what it's worth, not dismissed on some trumped up charges of what you think a film should be.

So, to talk about and make a case for The Raid we'll have to talk about two things. The first is violence. The second is aggression. Starting with violence, we should talk about truth. This is the fundamental reason why 'violent' films exist and there's a huge market for them. Fight Club says it best, but we live in strange times and as strange animals. There's a self-containment inherent to human interaction. There's a cap or filter called social rule that keeps one man from stabbing another. This cap, filter, containment is what we call goodness, love and humanity. And whilst these are essential ideas to our way of life, their mere presence is substantial evidence for the existence of something much darker within us all. Why are lions in the zoo kept in cages? Because we don't want them to escape and kill us all, because we can't let them roam free in open spaces with the rest of the animals otherwise they'd eat them. We don't want this in a zoo because it's grotesquely natural. Zoos are human constructs whereby nature and truth may be peered upon from a safe distance. The walls, glass and cages are what keep the lion, tigers and bears from killing us and oh me, oh my, is 'goodness' there to do the same thing. Laws, regulations, chemical bonds of love and trust are the much needed cage between the sadistic, murdering rapists within us and the weak prey around us. And so, we see our containment, our dire need for it. But, whilst sado-anarchistic tenancies need to be quashed, they cannot be lost. The evil within us needs breathing room. This is the fundamental and very plain reason why a lot of questionable things exist in our cultures, things that stretch far away and from violent movies. To deny this, to derogatorily refer to aggressive and not entirely civil aspects of human nature as sourced from the lower 'reptilian complex' or brain, is to deny reality. Yes, we've constructed cushioned and easy societies around us, but that doesn't mean we've changed our internal biology. In saying that, it's obvious that living under completely civil terms fails to push itching buttons. So, not only is there a human hankering to indulge in spite, meanness or aggression (even playfully) that is being ignored, the everyday pokes at this open wound.

To understand what I mean, all I have to ask is if you understand this image:


This scene (link here) from Office Space is brilliantly comedic, but holds a truth. The comedy obviously comes from the fact that they are beating the shit out of a printer, an inanimate object, as if it were a mortal enemy. But, the underlying truth, the reason why this scene resonates, why the film makes sense to so many, is that our bodies and the chemicals it produces haven't got the firewall to detect and understand that the printer isn't a mortal enemy - it simply knows that it's pushing all the right buttons. And whilst we can rationalise in our higher minds, there's a need for catharsis. For, in the end, rationalisation is a mere form of reconstruction, reconstructing reality as to adhere to an agenda of the biological zeitgeist - an idea of social conduct as to preserve general humanity. Without rationalising, by acting upon chemicals, or at least simulating such an idea, we come upon truth because there's a tangible admittance of the dark in us all. The everyday dictates us to be polite, to navigate complex social routines, to skate on thin ice. Violence is a means of declaring truth, is a call to say it how it is, to speak from a biological centre, a darker crux - voicing the yin instead of the yang once in a while--if you'll have it.

After all, throughout human history there has been a solid understanding of balance. Whether it's articulated theological, philosophically or scientifically, we know humans aren't perfect, that perfect is a constructed idea that is inachievable, that a balance between downfall and uprising is what leads to resolution in the human psyche. And in saying that, recognising violence as a way of speaking truth through actions - maybe a perfect way of communicating certain emotions - we have to also recognise fear and weakness and the contradiction or lie they produce in us. Violence and truth, in the context discussed, may be equated to perfection. But, because there's a recognition that, despite wanting to voice our truths through a fight, through violence, there is always a chance we may not be heard as we wanted - that we may loose - the lie of cowardice isn't a bad one, simply a human one. To balance truth, violence, these perfect ideas of communication, with the fact we all know we aren't Bruce Lee and don't want to die every time we try to express some form of anguish, we just watch Bruce Lee in another cushioned reality...


Films, martial art, shoot, stab and pun 'em up movies, are a form of expression, an expression for the reptilian brain. To claim there is higher truth, a greater purpose to cinema and people is to deserve a resounding 'fuck you'. It's a lie and we all know it. We've all been watching these kind of movies or their equivalent in spiteful passive/aggressive reality TV, and felt that chemical rush of exhilaration; an understanding that the body needs and likes these terrible, terrible images. And it's in this lie that we recognise the unsophisticated, thoughtless, gormless and very childish viewpoint put forward by someone suggesting senselessness is bad. Senselessness is levity, is synonymous with relief, numbness and ecstatic reprieve. This is what truth, what violence in cinematic form afford us - senselessness A,K,A entertainment.

The counterargument to my claims of 'truth' are to suggests that people don't like real violence, that if we want actual truth we should get into a street fight or at the very least watch a real fight: boxing, wrestling, MMA. I've already touched on this by saying we need balance and aren't perfect. But, to re-articulate, violence is an internal need, is the annunciation of aggressive emotions. The simulation of violence works fine in supplying aggressive feelings. It allows us to balance civil tendencies, to exist in a cushioned and nice society, but feed ourselves small sips of prehistoric necessity juice. But there's more to say around this idea, and it comes to the forefront when we parry cinematic violence with real violence seen in boxing or MMA. I'm personally a fan of mixed martial arts and so like to see real fights, but there's a distinction--and it's quite an obvious one--between the real and cinematic. Cinema heightens, putting the mind's eye in control. A real fight is crazy, it has its basis in an idea of chance, in the idea that anything can happen. This isn't so true in cinema. We want the bad guy to lose, and in the back of our mind, know he probably will. However, you can't guarantee that your favourite football team will win every game, just like you can ensure that your chosen fighter will win every match in stunning fashion. You want to see these things and when you do under such circumstances it's that much more satisfying, but cinema allows for manipulation, allows for a degree of control. And it's in this that I find the negative comparison of games and movies to be lacking thought. Games bridge the gap between action movies and real life...




There's a clear progression here. At the bottom we, the audience, have minimal control, at the top we have the idea of control, of predicting the narrative, and in the middle we have the most amount of control you get outside of actually fighting. All of these are simulations, we perceive them and the chemicals in us start flowing - we are locked in and entertained. Games and movies are so similar because they provide an audience control, a way of hacking the system that is our bodies into achieving a rush. Each of these forms has their nuances that transform the means of this rush and so to discuss this I turn back to cinema alone. Control and fantasy are deeply intertwined in my view. As I've said before on the blog: control, the fantasy; control the fantasy. And by this I mean to suggest that the tangible things in life aren't always under our control, that palpable reality is something beyond our absolute reach. Control is a dream, is something we wish we had. To them take control, we must invade the dream space, we must control the intangible things in life - that which fit under the umbrella of fantasy. In other words, control is the fantasy, so, take control of the fantasy. This is what cinema is. It's creating and controlling the dream space. And in dreaming of control, we also dream of truth--something we've touched on. Therefore, in our cinematic dream space we insert violence to summon a feeling of control over our lives, over our bodies, to glimpse at an idea of truth. But, because 'fantasy' is tantamount to fabrication, there can't really be real truth - not of the violent type. This why we accept cinematic violence. This is why we want cinematic violence. This is what cinematic violence means to us as people, as humans.

So, having started from a far-back, wide-angled viewpoint, we should zoom in on the subject and film at hand with our second major point. We've talked about violence, now we've got to talk about aggression. Forgive me for seemingly quoting myself here (link to what I mean) but, violence doesn't really exists in cinema. I know we've talked about it as if it does, but art works off of emotions, off of a chemical rush incited by packets of photons hitting our eyes, sound waves bouncing off our ear drums (in the case of film). There's essentially an emotional discussion between art and consumer, with feelings such as anger, happiness, sadness and so on being the tools of communication. The Raid focuses on the emotion of aggression. It doesn't take it as a theme to comment on. It embodies the emotion of aggression and makes us feel it. It's almost cinematically transcendental if you wanted to see it as such. But, whether it wants to be or not, whether it tried to be or not, The Raid represents a crucial element of film as an art. It communicates emotions that we otherwise wouldn't see in more 'sensible' and 'human' films The Raid dared to embody and emphasise a simple idea of aggression being an entertaining factor of a movie. The film was essentially made off this premise, and drove it to its very edge by taking away plot-points, back story and character. And for the film to have worked so successfully speaks volumes for what this psudeo-art -house picture tried to do. It wanted to entertain, to use the emotion of aggression to tell a story. In this is triggered all the chemical pathways in us, up-heaving the essential human drive to survive as a singular unit...


... and with someone at your side...


... and is there not humanity in that idea? Is there not a human need for action, to react and act upon will and assert an idea of determinism? It's not Hamlet with all his To Be Or Not To Be, his inaction and skull...


... but, there's art in here. And it's the technical craft of this movie that drives this point homes. I mean, why is Tchaikovsky, feathers and anorexia art...


... but not this:


After all, we are watching a dance here. It's the martial art, the expression of self through movement and body language that is at the core of why the eye is drawn to these kinds of films. No, we aren't seeing true martial arts in a pure form (because this is cinematic and so needs and elements of fantasy and control). No, this is not ballet, but there is an irrefutable connection between dance and fight choreography. Like I said, art, dance, is the expression of emotions through movement and body language. There is motion in fight choreography, the emotion expressed is aggression via implied violence and the body language communicates a truth, an idea of internal evil, a will to survive and a will to destroy, a will to protect oneself and a will to hurt another.

This is the crux of all fighting films - most centrally, The Raid Redemption. They are there to move us, artistically. Not, artistically...


... but, fucking artistically!


There's beauty, there's honesty, there's art, in admitting the darker, nastier side of humanity. There's reprieve in accepting and indulging in this. And The Raid, for me. stands as a modern testament to an emotionally diverse cinema, one that incorporates a more brash and hardened view of entertainment. To deny the film on the grounds of violence or aggression is just simple-minded in my view. To deny the film on the grounds that it wasn't broad in its emotional range, in the genres it infused is to want to simplify cinema, is to force it into a check-boxed and boring realm. Sure, you can say you don't like violence and aggression, that you like a certain type of film and dismiss the movie on personal terms, but, with objectivity, this is a difficult film to prove to be of poor quality and in bad taste.






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The Good The Bad The Ugly/Nausicaä Of The Valley Of The Wind/The Raid Redemption - Dubbing

Thoughts On: Audio Dubbing


A talk on three major examples of audio dubbing in film.

    

I just rewatched The Raid Redemption. The first and second time I watched this movie, I loved it. This third time was different. This time I watched a dubbed version of the film instead of a subtitled one. What this seriously highlighted was the weakness of the first act - which was already apparent, but overlookable as character building and general plotting is not the point of practice in this movie. I still love this film for what it is though, and my thoughts around it will be put up soon, but the dubbing of English over Indonesian was horrific. It almost hurt to have to look past the terrible lines and concentrate on the action. It only hurt so much because the original version with subtitles wasn't so bad. The voice acting was fine. It suited facial expressions and the moment of the scene. The major problem with the dubbed version of The Raid is then quite simply bad English voice actors - there's no other way to put it. And in seeing this I felt the bubbling urge to question why on Earth anyone would ruin their film with English dubbing. Whilst, from an artistic angle, this is a perfectly valid question, from a marketing point of view, this is banal and quite stupid. The Raid was obviously meant to be sold additionally to English-speaking markets and having it being sold as a 'non-English-language film' hurts its marketing potential. So, the real pain of hearing this shit version of the film is in the rushed and brazen no-give-a-fuck-ness of the marketing people shoving a new audio track over the original.

But, to come away from the rather vapid (though realistically valid) argument of selling potential and to get back to an idea of artistic quality, of a viewers experience, it's seems so easy to want to call a huge ban, an immediate stop, on dubbing in film. But, the truth around audio dubbing is much like the truth of CGI. Good CGI like good audio dubbing is something you won't notice, is something that makes great cinema feasible. To this effect, I mean not to talk about audio dubbing or ADR that is there to replace broken pieces of audio or to boost the quality of a film. I mainly want to talk about the use of dubbing over the use subtitles. There are three key classes of this in my opinion. There's the lower class we should all avoid like the plague as presented by something like The Raid. This is bad English dubbing with shit actors used over a film that is perfect as is, that only needs subtitles to be understood. The second class is best presented by something by Studio Ghibli. It's something like Nausicaä Of The Valley Of The Wind that doesn't really need English dubbing for it's older audience, but quite clearly will attract younger kids who may not be able to read. To not provide a chance to see this movie to children makes no sense for Studio Ghibli artistically or from a marketing view point. But, whilst the dubbing is done with ok actors and fits quite well into the movie because some amount of effort has clearly been put into the recording, the writing isn't great and can, at time, stick out like a sore thumb. Moreover, animation and audio dubbing are something that come hand-in-hand, so with Nausicaä Of The Valley Of The Wind we also see a much broader representative of not just good dubbing, but dubbing for animated film. The last key class of audio dubbing is a special type. The likes of A Fist Full Of Dollars, Once Upon A Time In The West or The Good The Bad The Ugly (why Leone liked such long titles, I'll never know) stand as iconic not despite the dubbing, but (in part) because of it. The audio isn't necessarily great, but it's embedded so deeply into the style that it becomes a feature of the film. This is something true not only of Leone's spaghetti westerns, but many older films, especially from realist periods where audio technology wasn't great and so had to be worked with in artistic nuanced ways. Essentially, what I want to do is explore these three classes so we can work towards a broader understanding of dubbing in respect to movies, and so where we should be accepting it, looking for it, or maybe hoping to see it.

So, we'll come back to The Raid to start things off. Out and out bad audio dubbing. Audio is an incredibly important factor of films. It's often said that editing or cinematography are the hidden stitches that hold together movies. Whilst this is true, audio is an incredibly significant factor that anyone can pick up on, understand and judge. This makes sound more important than the editing or cinematography to an audience because there's a wide platform of acceptable looks to a film that can be assumed to be a director's/cinematographer's/film's style. Moreover, the editing of a film, whilst felt by an audience, is only considered primarily on a wider scale - if the viewer is paying attention to your narrative. When we think about editing having first seen a film it's easy to think not of the beat of cuts, the lengths of shots, but the feel of sequences, the pacing of the movie in general. This culminates into a broad assessment of both the look of a film and the editing of it upon first viewing to the audience. And, no, this isn't an excuse for bad editing or cinematography, just reasoning why sound is something so important. It is pushed the to the forefront of an audiences perception. We firstly see a film in terms of action, movement and so on, but then hear it. The layers of a film's depth are perceived in that order. After lightning comes thunder, just like after the lights of a screen comes sound - after that, the judgement of writing, directing, acting and so on. But, first and foremost, we watch and listen to movies. Recognising this in context of The Raid, in the context of a purely entertaining movie with little focus on character, plot, subtext and meaning, is imperative. You aren't watching The Raid to pick up on grand philosophies of the universe, on the nuance and stretch of a character's life - you aren't really watching The Raid for a lesson on technical direction and choreography either - even though you could. You watch The Raid to see tremendous fight sequences, to hear and see character motivation and experience the thrill of cinematic combat. In this, sound is a huge emphasis of imagery - which is why the sound design is so pronounced. We hear the slap, pound and crunch of skin, flesh and bone throughout the film to be given an idea of consequence, so that the film is imbued with some sense of verisimilitude and weight. This has the ear leaning on sound to better experience the imagery of the fights. To then bookend fight sequences with shit dubbing is torturous. There's an almost literal reeling away of the ear. Like I said, you have to ignore the shit dialogue to stay in the film. For the film to push and pull your perceptual eye to and away from the film is not only frustrating, but detrimental to the experience of the movie. In the end, it's simply tiring as your constantly being locked out of sequences before having to pull yourself back into the interesting ones.

The argument against subtitles - it takes you out of the movie because it takes effort to read - is then paradoxical, if not, then at the least it's a lesser of two evils (not that subtitles are bad at all--to me at least). Subtitles should always be taken over bad dubbing for two key reasons. The first is of the draw of an image. The second is of character. When you accept you have to read dialogue you are focused on the screen. You are distracted from general composition, but your eyes are glued. This has more parts of your brain firing, your mind more active and so your viewing capacity much broader, more lucid and dexterous. Reading subtitles ensures you are paying attention to a film. I even turn them on from time to time to assess the writing of a film with greater accuracy - it's almost like reading a screenplay. Instead of reading the action and scene descriptions, you see it, and when viewing a film with a writer's eye, you should be able to describe it in you head. This is a great exercise for screenwriters. Not only can you scrutinise dialogue, see what things may look like on the page with a good actor reading lines, but you can test your creative ability to describe a scene or action. What's more, you see specifically what you need to describe to write cinematically. You can see one shot as a sentence so that when it comes to writing your own scripts, you can visualise a movie, knowing what you'd need to say for a reader to see certain kind of shots. For example, you could see a close-up of a crime scene that cuts to a silhouetted figure, that then pulls into an establishing shot of the room. As a screenwriter, it can be hard to put those kind of cinematics down on paper in a literary kind of way, in a way appropriate for spec that doesn't require technical filmic language of shots and cuts. By being able to describe each shot of a film, or of your vision, without saying close-up, wide and so on, you build your ability to tell cinematic stories on the page and guide a reader's eye. That means this isn't just a technique for screenwriters, but for writers in general. By practicing turning cinema into literature you can really strengthen how you write and your control of imagery - something I try to do, and something I'd recommend to anyone. Coming back to subtitles, we see them as a means of captivating the eye, of putting perceptual emphasis on imagery - the crux of cinema and how you tell your story.

The next key reason why subtitles can aid a film comes down to character. By leaving an actor's lines in tact and in the language they were said in, you are maintaining a sense of verisimilitude that is incredibly hard to otherwise replicate in post-production and with another actor. Such is incredibly obvious, but there's also a nuance to subtitled films - also a benefit to those who don't understand the language. In silent films, the absence of a character's voice leaves a part of their persona a mystery, it allows us to assume they sound a certain way. This is an idea best expressed in Singin' In The Rain:


Lina  Lamont is a huge silent film star and the crowds love her. But, only because they don't know what her voice is like and how she actually speaks. We're even fooled into this with the intro of the film. We never hear Lina speak, assuming she's an aloft, posh actress - a real villain and threat to Gene Kelly's, Don Lockwood. But, as soon as we hear that horrible voice she loses all stature and is the immediate butt of almost every single joke. What this makes clear is the power of a voice on character. It can completely revolutionise the way we look at someone for the good or for the bad. What's then clear is that, with bad voice acting, you are really hurting the actual core of a character as seen by an audience. You are essentially ruining script work and having all lines grind out of unsynced mouths in the worst way possible. The mystery inherent in a character speaking another language (even if we know what they are saying via subtitles) is an undefined factor that often works in their favour. To explain, I have no idea what an Indonesian accent sounds like, neither do I know the different dialects or could accurately pick up on what would be classed as bad Indonesian acting - in terms of voice. This allowed me to simply assume certain parts of Rama's, Mad Dog's, Jaka's and other character's personas throughout The Raid. And because I like the film, I want to see their characters in a favourable light, so I (subconsciously) add in that layer of character that isn't supplied by me knowing their dialect and what that suggests about where they're from, how they grew up, who with, what around and so on. What this all means is that subtitles can, when used right, be a huge aid in characterisation.

Having spent some time on the worst kind of dubbing, we should turn to our second example, Nausicaä Of The Valley Of The Wind. I love Nausicaä, as do I many other Studio Ghibli films, but I often stay clear of English dubbed animated films. This is for reasons of character and craft discussed in the previous section. But, more than this, there's an inherent element of precariousness in dialogue from animated films. This is because of the heavy focus of visuals in animation. You can find few better examples of pure cinema outside of animation - especially when you push further away from the silent film period of the 20s. Animation often makes dialogue redundant because of the pure telling of a story with images and often because the artists that work in animation are so good with this kind of story telling. To understand what I mean you simply have to recognise that there is no animated equivalent of 12 Angry Men, Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, Pulp Fiction or Before Sunrise. These kinds of films have influence from theater and radio. Animation is influence by visual arts - painting, sculpting and so on. Dialogue shouldn't be a major focus of an animated film's narrative, as films from Studio Ghibli demonstrate. In fact, there's such a lack of dialogue - especially of the expository kind - in Studio Ghibli films that the Disney (English dubbed versions) had to add more in. In Spirited Away this was to explain to English speaking audiences what features like bath houses were as it was assumed that certain aspects eastern culture wouldn't be understood simply through imagery by westerners. On top of this, with Nausicaä we do see a lot exposition. And this is due to the incredible world building capabilities afforded to animators. However, with having the ability to construct such amazing worlds comes the consequence of trying to explain them. This has Nausicaä speaking out loud a lot in the first act to no one but herself, which brings the film down a notch. In English this is quite distracting not only because it's so upfront, but because of the task of translating. This is a huge and unfortunate pitfall of watching foreign films - amine alike. Translating from other languages, especially those like Japanese, is incredibly awkward as the structure of syntax differs so much. This is why Japanese anime sounds so awkward when dubbed. They were written and animated to be seen in Japanese and so hold the structure of a language that will not translate smoothly to English. When it comes to dubbing over other languages in English you are faced with two issues. Firstly, there's actually getting an accurate translation that conveys original intent, and then there's having it sync up. As is made fun out of in...


... phrase lengths differ between languages--which allows the joke of the continuing lines of dialogue after Wayne's said such a short sentence in Cantonese. Whist we see a hyperbolised example in Wayne's World, it's true that when dubbing audio editors run into problems putting over the real translation of lines that also match the length of time by which the mouth of a character moves. This essentially demands re-writing and further takes a film away from it's original idea - away from what, in all likelihood, it was designed for and what made it good. Whilst subtitles aren't a complete fix of this, they do allow language barriers to dissolve slightly with better articulation and the subtracted task of syncing voice and phrases. The argument for subtitles over dubbed animated films is then quite obvious, but a poignant one nonetheless.

The last example of dubbing lets us leave the subject on more optimistic terms.

    

What Leone proves is that audio is a little more versatile than what I've suggested so far. And in all honesty, I have no succinct reason why the dubbing on these films, though not to great, works so well. The key argument I can put forward for Leone is the heightened scope and size of his films. In the same way certain films simply need over-acting, some films may need artificial sound design. And to see what I mean by over acting you just have to look at anything that's enjoyable but has...


... this guy in. Though that is an extreme example I could also point to someone who, because of the context of comedy, works the craft of  over-acting a little better:


Moreover, we can look further down the scale of over-acting and come to Jack Nicholson.

  

Neither of these films contain subdued and subtle performances, but they work for their characters. And looking further back into cinematic history, from Brando to Jimmy Stewart, Ingrid Bergman, Claudette Colbert, Clark Gable, Keaton, Chaplin, we are seeing much more emotive styles of acting that wouldn't really fly today in a modern film, but worked back then (and when you watch them now) nonetheless. What this all suggests is an idea of naturalism and fantasy. In the same way images don't have to stay true to reality and acting or writing doesn't have to portray truly real people, audio doesn't have to reflect reality either. You can work with the foundations of fantasy in the filmic back-catalogue as to bend the rules of the expect and produce something cinematic. In other words, films can construct their own rules around a touch-and-go basis of audience expectations. You can imbue new elements into a film that some (me included) would say you should stay away from - dubbing included. If you can find a way for it to work, for it to entertain, to support a story, then anything from overacting to audio dubbing is something that could be experimented with - but with caution and knowing the limitations and difficulties of the mechanism.

In the end, subtitles are my go to. I'll only watch a dubbed film if I can't find a subtitled version - and for all we've discussed so far. This provides us all incite into certain aspects of audio's role in the cinematic arsenal, but doesn't really say dubbing shouldn't be apart of it. Audio dubbing, especially over other languages is a tough task, one that should be approached with caution, but with works like those of Leone as inspiration, dubbing can become an art in itself that stands iconic over your personal style.






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27/09/2016

The Verdict - Revelatory Set-Up

Thoughts On: The Verdict

A divorced, alcoholic and failing lawyer, Frank Galvin, takes on the case of a neglectful anaesthetisation by a renowned doctor.


This is a very good film. The strongest elements are the direction and character work. The directorial choices in framing and blocking throughout are interesting and add a meaningful layer to what would otherwise be a run-of-the-mill court-room drama. And in saying that we should pick up on the plotting, which is nothing special. The narrative moves forward in a predictable manner with the major plot points providing little tension or dramatic pull. In such, I mean to, in part, reference the plot twist which **SPOILERS** was obvious from the beginning with Laura surely being there to deceive Frank **SPOILERS OVER***. However, what elevates this film is its parallel running plots of character and story which build into a rather compelling film. As said, the plot of the story isn't much of a reason to see this film, instead see A Few Good Men, Philadelphia, Anatomy Of A Murder or Judgement At Nuremberg - each hold similar, but more distinct and memorable narratives. But, a good reason to see this film is in the cinematic portrayal of change in a character. Its intertwined into the narrative quite beautifully, but really shines through in the first five minutes. So, with The Verdict I want to talk about the opening.


From this opening shot comes through a great philosophy of character. What the light draws our attention to is the pinball machine and the mostly empty glass of beer. The depth in the image is muted both by colour and the maze of tree branches which render the background uninteresting to the eye. Moreover, the shadow spliced over the foreground further constricts the eye's wanderings. We only pay attention to the beer and pinball machine. What this does is define this silhouetted figure by the items around it - what's more of an interesting nuance of this still is Paul Newman's name--we get to have his role as actor defined before the role of the actual character who is still unknown to us. So, with the only things defining our character being the beer and pinball machine, we know he likes to drink and that he likes to indulge pointless games. This image then tells us of the character's will to waste his time, to fill it with meaningless, possibly poisonous, distractions. This is a great opening shot because it's called back to throughout the film as a way of assessing Frank's (the silhouette's) idea of meaning in his life and what he does. He usually plays badly, he does not enjoy the game in the beginning because he only wants distraction, he plays without a means to an end. This reflects his work as a lawyer - something we'll come to shortly - and suggests that he later finds a finite element to what he plays as a pointless game (both pinball and a court case) because he finds moral meaning in his vocations - he gets a high score, finding drive and a means and ends to what was a perpetually futile pursuit. That aside, after the credits run we jump into a shot of money that pulls to our first look at Frank as he then offers comfort and reassurance to a woman during a funeral. There's repetition of this funeral sequence and all the while we haven't been told anything concrete about his character. The philosophy of characterisation as echoed through from the opening shot now becomes clear. Frank is come upon through banality, we discover him as nothing interesting with ambiguous shots and scenes suggesting something of personage purely subtextually. What is happening is a delayed illumination. We're being coaxed slowly into the truth surrounding Frank, being lead down an ambiguous road before hitting a sign, sudden realisation of where we are and who we are with.

With Frank being kicked out of the funeral home, exposed as a drunk who frequents the bar, who lets the singular location define him early on, we start to see how broken he is, how abnormal his seemingly normal actions are. This is only emphasised by the movement into his office - where we find out he's a lawyer. And it's here where the opening ends for me. The point and purpose of this opening act are of misdirection and revelation. We're told of a seemingly normal character, given information that implies he's not the best of people and with the added notion of who he actually is - a crook and cowardly lawyer - we see context and truth, Frank as no more than an 'ambulance chaser'. This kind of characterisation is probably the most efficient and poignant means of telling an audience about your character - and something most noteworthy about this film. What is happening when we see Frank in ambiguous lights is that we're being led on a short mystery, we're invested in the images telling us his story as we wonder 'what is there worth?' and 'why are we being shown this?'. This kind of atmosphere is hard to sustain and is most effective during an opening because an audience is waiting to have the film define itself, they are trying to judge the narrative, anticipate what kind of movie they're about to see. This means you have significant quotient of their attention and so some amount of liberty to experiment with pace, character and narrative - but all under a very precarious guise of attentiveness that will quickly snap away if you make too many banal or poor moves. So, with a slow move towards the crux of Frank's character, his emptiness, his alcoholism, his corruption, we are not only invested in him and the narrative, but being mead into a more empathetic perspective. Essentially, with him being presented initially as a shell, as just a guy in a bar playing a game, we come to a theory of reflection. Characters with provided gaps--these gaps could be of their behaviours, the way in which we present them, not putting forth their face, voice, internal monologue, indicative splices of character--we are allowed room to fill ourselves in. For the same reason why silent film is so poignant (link here to a talk on this), or archetypes are so emotive, Frank as a person we don't immediately get all the facts on becomes someone we're wanting and willing to understand - we're willing to step into his shoes. This means that when we see him as a liar, a shady person trying to exploit old women at funerals, we don't immediately assume he's the bad guy, simply our broken protagonist. This point is emphasised further with symbols often associated with goodness (religion and law) often being juxtaposed with our broken protagonist as clear implimence of their wrong-doing, of them as antagonists - the bad guys.

What the overriding philosophy of characterisation inherent to the opening of this film then does is produce the illusion that we know Frank well, even though we've only seen snippets of his character over a few minutes. And that's where the poignancy of this technique comes. By teasing an audience with glimpses of character, by taking their hand and slowly leading them towards a revelation of a thematic crux of their personage (their core internal conflict) you are allowed to make explicit the purpose of the character, where his downfalls and shortcomings reside as to imply how he will change, whilst implying to a viewer that they are actively apart of this - that they have stakes in the outcome of the impending character arc. All in all, you've managed to set up a film and character by demonstrating their motivation and implying to the audience the plot's agenda. This is great writing as it's by and for the viewer, and in the case of The Verdict, lays down all solid ground work for narrative meaning and thematic subtext. It's made clear with the opening and conversation that segues into the nuts and bolts of the first act that this is a film about a change in Frank (as posed by the direct question 'what's going to change?') under a moral guise of action, under a question of: how do you act, how do you incite change, what can you do to turn things around?

And such is the rest of the film. But, whilst the great opening thins out into a mediocre plot and waning moments of character, what's laid down with the first 5-7 minutes are solid foundations, are what should be inspiration as to how to set up a character driven narrative.






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19/09/2016

Ferris Bueller's Day Off - Inconsiquentiality And Living In The Moment

Thoughts On: Ferris Bueller's Day Off

Ferris, his best friend and girlfriend take a day off school to run about Chicago in a stolen Ferrari.


In the last few posts I've been talking about plot, narrative and character quite a bit. In doing so, I've been touching on points the forms of movies/scripts and of the devicive function of characters. In Ferris Bueller we see a use of form and of characterisation that implies an alleviation and imbues the film with an idea of presence, one that works toward creating a masterpiece of entertainment. So, to discuss this form we have to look  what this movie is trying to achieve. All narratives have a purpose, they have a beginning and end. The beginning of Ferris Bueller starts with a faked illness...


... and ends with one...


Ferris' goal is, quite obviously, to take a day off. For him, there is no true path, he constructs one doorway into undefined time and one out - that's all. This is the film in essence. It sets itself up not really for a plot, but for a loose period of time to work with, as does Ferris. He covers himself for around 6 hours of doing whatever he wants - of hopefully having a good time. There is nothing planned about his day, he does as he pleases. This, quite possibly, suggests something about how John Hughes wrote Ferris Bueller in the 'less than a week' that he did. It doesn't imply that Hughes didn't plan the script, that he just threw in a draft whilst having a good time, it implies that he knew the premise of his story - having a day off - and so only needed to set that up, fill the time, and then find a way to close things down. This expresses itself in the narrative. There's a simple meandering through Chicago with no expressed direction (geographically, or of plot). If we were to see the film solely from Ferris' perspective, we'd simply be running from one fun set-piece to the next. However, inserted into the smooth running of events (up until they get the car back) is somewhat flippant conflict.

The source of this kind of conflict is inescapable and built into the film. As to paraphrase what Jeffery Jones (who played the principal) said: we know that Rooney is not going to win. Watching the film we don't really see tension in this guy...





We are simply wondering how is he going to fail? Where is the next joke coming in? In a certain respect, this predictability isn't something good, it's seemingly a downfall of a movie. However, we know this is not a thriller. Ferris Bueller is a comedy/teen adventure. And with comedy often comes...


... often comes an idea that we are in on a joke. We see the world as the protagonist does, and in doing so can see what is funny. This is why Ferris talks to us in the beginning. He tells us his 'plan', about himself and his view on the world. From 'sounds kinda childish, but so is high school' to 'I could be the walrus, I'd still have to bum rides off people' he works toward aligning us with a rebellious teenage outlook. Essentially, we are made to feel his freedom, his disdain for Rooney and so can see--as he does--the outcome of his day. This is such a significant piece of writing as it creates a narrative for a character and by a character. In short, instead of seeing Ferris' story we are made to see a story surrounding him through his eyes. This is, when you see it in this way, transcendental cinema. We aren't just watching things on a screen, but having what's on screen be a platform to a different state of thinking and being. But, this is probably something you wouldn't easily pick up from this film because it entertains so well - as is the point. If a film made you see the world, feel the world through another's eyes, allowed you to watch cut away scenes of the opposing 'bad guy' and not see his agenda, but his downfall - and under the guise of other emotions (one's other than joy, rebellion and so on) - this would be a much more significant detail easily picked up on. In fact, this kind of cinema is a little beyond rationality. And it's in this that we'll be able to break down why transcendental films, films that have you see the world as we do Ferris' when we watch his film, of other genres are incredibly rare. Ferris Buller, as a film, is a somewhat irrational cinematic experience because it's essentially teenage propaganda. We are forced to see the world without consequence, a world in which everything is fine and skipping school is great. Granted, Ferris and the film aren't completely anarchistic, but they are in certain respect and for selected time periods (a day). By aligning ourselves with a rather immoral kid, one that advocates skipping school for fun and to an audience of whoever's listening without any reasoning beyond having to slow down, or any balancing of his ideal, we essentially stop thinking for ourselves. This is how the film manages to be transcendental - to have us embody his outlook. And the reason why other more serious films can't do this is 1) they often deal with emotional extremes, and, 2) when dealing with serious subject matter you have to be balance in order to not be criticised and ignored.

So, coming back to Ferris Bueller we see a cinematic technique that, in this form, is harmless, good fun that demonstrates what great characterisation can do for a movie and a cinematic experience, but in other form may seem ridiculous, irrational or quite possible dangerous. To clarify, it'd make sense to reference a previous talk on Fury (link here). With that film we talked about anti-war and pro-war films with Truffaut's quote:

"There is no such thing as an anti-war film"

Applying such an idea to this topic of a film embodying a character's perspective which in turn contorts our view of the world, we can have an understanding of why no film can be anti-war - just as it can't be pro-war. To construct a completely polar war film, you'd have to take the Bueller approach and give us a singular character, one that really resonates with us. Maybe he'd break the fourth wall to solidify that bond. We'd then follow him into war where he'd have to sustain our bond, one that is based on the idea that he is the one with more power - the one we're listening to. To sustain this he couldn't be shown as too weak. He the couldn't face any true conflict. The reason why is that good conflict holds a philosophical debate at its core, it asks us our opinion, it asks us to reflect, to consider a wider view than the film concentrated on a singular and polarised perspective could hold. To bring this idea into a war sequence you'd have to take away all true, compelling conflict of the serious nature and produce something like...


... the war sequence near the end of Duck Soup. Essentially, Ferris would be having his day out on the battlefield. He'd be overpowered, spurting off jokes like Deadpool and you'd bassically have a comedy. Profoundly connective films of this type are then equal part resonant and, for a lack of a better word, stupid. This balances the scale, and the balanced state is what we call good entertainment. After all, it's the facilitation of numbness that is the art of the blockbusters. It allows us to forget reality and sit back in a vacuum between an undefined here and there of consciousness that loosens our grip on feeling just enough to let time simply slip by.

So, in saying that Ferris Bueller is equal parts resonant and stupid, interesting and banal, it'd seem apparent that I'd not need to talk about it much. In fact, I could talk about Fast and Furious, Deadpool, Star Wars - any good popcorn movie - as to get this point across. So, why Ferris Bueller? This comes back to conflict. As I said, all good conflict holds at its core a debate to be had - between good and bad, right and wrong, the antagonist and protagonist. There's is then 2 types of conflict. There's internal conflict and external conflict. These are self-explanatory terms, however, internal conflict is emotional, it's in a characters head. External conflict is physical, a character must face it. All the conflict that we've talked about with Ferris so far (Rooney, finding his way out of school, back into his bedroom so nobody found out) was physical. But, as we touched on, Ferris does put forth some reasoning. It's teenage propaganda, high school is stupid and I could be the walrus. At the core of such an idea is not just a debate on school systems, work, society, on life's purpose, but the art of the blockbuster--as discussed--and so the purpose of living as suggested to an audience. As we've talked about before, films are largely about space and time (link here). To apply the idea of filling time (as does the second act of this plot) to a human search for numbness, we can begin to explore what Ferris Bueller suggests about entertainment and why we like it a certain way. We see internal conflicts as subjective pines. We see external conflicts objectively, see them as effecting many (as they do) and so something personal to ourselves as well as others. All true, complex and cinematic conflicts (that come to mind) offer an arc of conflict, quite possibly a cycle of conflicts. An internal conflict, say...


... not liking the world as is, may force you to behave in certain ways, maybe cut your hair, hold tighter to your military background, wait for threat, dare danger to cross your path, and when that's not good enough, seek it out.


This cycle of internal to external conflicts, if unresolved, leads to the destruction of both the inner and outer worlds. This is the narrative arc of Taxi Driver. It allows Travis to sink deeply into himself, project his internals onto the world as to take them all out and start again. But, of course 'starting again' is a lasting question of Taxi Driver, leaving Travis' cycle of internal and external conflicts ambiguously open. Not all conflicts across all films are left open though, otherwise every film would be like this, No Country For Old Men, Citizen Kane or Memento (most things with ambiguous ending). With many endings comes resolution, and resolution brings the settling of conflicts physically and then mentally (or vice versa). For example...


... the bad dragon is destroyed, everyone realises the good in the rest of the dragons so they all adopt them, embrace them into their culture and live happily ever after. One conflict solves another, just as one conflict can lead to another. In the cinematic realm, the domino effect runs both ways I suppose. They fall down, they fall back up, but you just have to tip one. However, with Ferris Bueller and films like it, there's an inherently one sided conflict. Because we know Ferris is never in any real danger, only feel the pressure of a building laugh or 'I thought so', you can basically negate the physical conflict. However, if internal conflicts lead onto external conflict in a domino effect kind of way, when you take out one half of the dichotomy how can the dominoes fall? Ferris can't feel like he's going to have a day off, yet know he's going to take one and everything will be fine, and still have problems to come. This is why all true moments of fear, of angst and interpersonal conflicts have the rhythm of a joke. They essentially build to a punch line, us laughing at ourselves for thinking the physical conflict was real. To wrap things up in a perfectly poetic bow, this actually turns all the physical conflicts we see Ferris to be facing into internal conflicts of ourselves. Hughes works the audience to imply physical conflict and because the form of his film suggests otherwise (that everything is going to be all right) he not only constructs a brilliant comedy, but a convoluted lesson in writing.

Hughes teaches us that you can create spaces of nothingness, you can then reduce a film to little more than an audience watching and feeling that nothingness. Coming back to the opening of the essay we have to look at these two images:



All starts as it ends, and all to explain the illusion that is entertainment. We are cheating our minds into forgetting time. We indulge in a stagnant and constant internal conflict - one already solved by the second act - as to abandon our own. In other words, Ferris just has fun, nothing other than that. There is then a true investment in the unreality that the mind can conjure with Ferris Bueller. It feeds us propaganda, fools us into believing we see a moving narrative time and time again like a horror movie that only ever uses jump scares, tricks us into seeing the world as a delinquent does, but most importantly tricks us into having a good time about it. Ferris essentially asks us to live in the moment, shows us what's that is like, then implores that "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't slow down and look around, you might miss it". But, having said all that, he has made us forget time, the moment, suspend ourselves from it, as to miss what we have have slowed down to inadvertently see. This renders his only reasoning for watching him... pointless? He tells us to live life, recognising we just done so vicariously, and for what?


But, to me, that is the lasting pun of the film. We live for the intangible. We want to feel a certain alleviation, this thing we call happiness, by doing things that aren't arduous, that allow us to forget what is passing by. We abstract ourselves from time, to let the space around us compound into 'memories made'. And I suppose that's the silly cycle of life. All we live for is numbness, an escape, a voidal reprieve to be looked back on and re-experience through the mind's watery eye. We live to sustain an internal conflict, a distracting questioning of the self and the world around it whilst refusing to recognise reality beyond a hope for one day contorting into our own fantasies. Why? For what? In all honesty it's not having the answers for that question that probably have us want to escape it.

So... in the end... just live your life. Go on. What are you waiting--you get the point. Go away.







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Ringu - Action, Reaction

Thoughts On: Ring (1998)

After watching a cursed video, Asakawa and her ex-husband have 1 week to live, 1 week to figure out the mystery of the tape and alleviate their curse.


With Rings (the third in the American series) coming out soon, I decided to rewatch the Japanese classic. The interesting aspects of this movie, to me, are to do with the mystery elements - and the subsequent implication of how this movie was written or envisioned. Plots are largely consistent of reactive and active characters or moments. It's moments of decision and comprehension that then make up the plots of movies. In Ringu we see Asakawa as a mostly reactionary. Events happen around her, things like relatives dying, her son coming across the tape, her ex-husband wanting to pursue the history of the videotape. She then reacts to such situations by following the trail of the mystery or emoting her fears, doubts such and so on. This makes her reactionary because the film is essentially devicive, meaning the plot is self-preservative as it moves the narrative toward a clearly pre-decided end without the instilled idea of self-determinism given to the protagonist. This idea of reactionary and action-driven characters draws up a dichotomy of perceived power. By having a character be action-driven, someone like Dau-su in old boy or Andy in Shawshank Redemption...

  

... you are essentially creating a narrative about freedom, about revelation and perseverance. This means we see Dau-su or Andy grow and develop in their prisons before breaking out - Dau-su then looking for answers, Andy happiness. But, action-driven, decisive characters and reactionary ones are confusing terms. No character is completely reactionary, nor is one completely self determining. And in this we see the dichotomy of perceived power. The audience, by having a character be action-driven or reactionary, will see them as weaker or stronger. The best two examples of this would probably be in...

  

... The Matrix and Rocky. Yes, Neo is fed the pill, taught, essentially walked along the path to realise he's the one. Yes, Rocky is given a chance, the platform, motivation and training. But, both of these characters kick ass in the end, the rise from their humble beginnings to respective heroes. They start reactionary, but transcend the diminutive implications of such an idea. In seeing this, we can understand the idea of determined and self-determining characters to be a writer's device, a means of setting up an arc.

However, when you keep a character reactionary throughout your film, there's a conjured question of: why? Why do we need this specific person to take us through the plot if they add nothing to it? With horror films this reactionary imperative is key to making a character two things. The first is a shell for the audience. When a character isn't very distinct, but broadly brushed, largely archetypal, we are allowed to see ourselves in them. The why? concerning the character is then answered by the idea of working an audience. It's a bit like reading your star sign. Anyone can find something in their reading, but believe it personally talks about them when they're just ambiguous or banal aphorisms that make us feel good. Star signs, like certain flat characters are their to facilitate emotional reaction, to entertain. The second reason for somewhat flat characters is an idea of weakness. When a character simply reacts, they are made to seem weak, and when we align ourselves with them, we take on and understand their helplessness. We see this in...

  

... but that is used to set up Kevin's arc. In horror films, there is a sustained weakness, helplessness, or reactionary(ness(??)) because we need to feel pressurised by the threat of horror - the whole reason why we see a horror film.

But, and this is where we come back to Ringu, there is trope here, an almost symbiotic relationship between horror and mystery. We see horror genre crossovers also with action, thrillers and very rarely comedy. But, with Ringu, I'm left questioning if the right melding of genres has occurred. In fact, I think this with an awful lot of horror films. The reactions of Asakawa to the discoveries she makes don't seem to make sense. She may be a reporter, but why would she decide to track down the history of the tape? Yes, she's searching for answers, but the means by which she comes across them are questionable. Especially when you consider the end. Spoilers for anyone who hasn't seen the film. But, to save herself, Asakawa must perpetuate the curse by showing a copied tape to her ex-husband. This leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth as she seems kind of evil in the end - maybe just selfish - but what should have been a question to the audience supported and expressed through the preceding narrative. Essentially: is it wrong to save your own skin? When is it right? And so, to embellish this scene, make it more poignant, it would have made a lot more sense to turn this into a drama - to have it be confined and entirely centred on the ex-husband/wife and son relationship. Combining this with an implimence that Asakawa knew the rules of the game (even subconsciously) instead of having her just stumble upon them in the end, would have strengthened her character greatly, would have complicated her, forced rewatches as we would want to understand her not as a reactionary character, but an action-driven one. And in replacing the mystery elements with simpler dramatic one, there would have been an awful lot more room for simple conversations. And this is something I wish to see one day in a good horror film: for the characters to actually question their situation, not just accept it. I mean, to actually see ghosts and curses and so on would lead to a much more complicated reaction than...




... yes, they are all bad examples, but you get my point: the simple reaction shot. Instead of ending a scene with Asakawa scared, putting down the phone or whatever, before jumping to the ex-husband or groups of girls explaining things, wouldn't it make more sense to have her talk things out, to have dramatic segments of questioning, consideration, doubt, worry... a whole load of other things we'd all do?

In saying this, I don't think it should be the rule of all horror films to be slow, confined and concentrated, just that with elements of this we'd have stronger characters, more poignant pivotal scenes and an interesting plot - one that'd have to be explained and pulled apart by characters--at least in part and to the best of their ability. The final note is then of action and reaction. Both are devices that allow us to imbue characters with certain reasoning, to have them communicate with the audience a little better. Both devices should be used in a way that supports a narrative. Sometimes a narrative needs to drive itself forward, sometimes it needs to be stopped, manipulated, questioned or even pushed in a completely different direction. Characters can be the singular wild card, the singular body capable of contorting the rules, in a cinematic realm. They are tools that allow for more complex, more nuanced and unexpected story telling - only if used correctly - the way in which your narrative needs.





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