The Freedom of Art House Cinema

I’ve been known to enjoy art house films from time to time: experimental films that most people balk at and say are a waste of time. I believe quite the opposite, although I do have my limits. There are times when the experimental becomes too experimental, and the art house films because too artsy, but in general I enjoy them from time to time.

I remember taking a film production course in college that was entitled Advanced Video Production. The first day of class our professor told us how the course was going to have us tap into the side of our creative selves which in regular film, and regular art for that matter, we may not always be able to tap into. He explained how anything around us can be inspiration and potential art pieces.

This is where I think the art house cinema is a great thing to consume every once in a while. It allows freedom. Freedom of thought and freedom of action. The filmmakers had some crazy idea and then just went with it. Art house cinema does things no mainstream film would dare to do: consistently strange cuts, abstract montages, surreal color palettes, heightened sexuality or violence, long takes, extremely slow pacing, etc. If the director/writer has a reason for making the film then that heart will show through in the final cut.

It also gives young filmmakers and writers a reason to get a little crazy in their work. Not everything has to be a clear-cut narrative with a happy ending. We can get weird and abstract. We can get extremely semiotic with what is on the screen. We can experiment and see how far we can take something. If anything, it’ll help us reel it in when we do the more traditional narratives.

As with anything, however, it can be taken too far. I’ve seen many art house films that are atrocious and difficult to get through and at the end I’m wondering what the hell did I just watch? Sometimes I won’t even finish it. However, if you get through one and it leaves you thinking and not disgusted for having watched it, then maybe there was something in it that really touched you. Explore what that may be and you may just discover what your art may have been missing.

 

Christmas Movies

It is that time of the year again: the holidays. This inevitably means holiday specials on television, ridiculous consumerism, and Christmas movies. Every year in my family we have several films we have to watch. Each year we have to watch It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Miracle on 34th Street (1947), and practically every version of A Christmas Carol (specifically the 1984 and 2009 versions). A Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) has recently become a tradition as well, and this year I finally got members of my family to watch A Christmas Story (1983). There are certain classic television specials we have to watch too: A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964). These are  all films (there are others too), that I thoroughly enjoy watching. There is something about them which are timeless. I believe part of it is because I am a nostalgic person, and these films hearken back to my childhood (most of them anyway). The magic of Christmas as a child can be relived, even if just for a brief time, through watching these movies.

These films are also well made endeavors and elicit feelings of joy when the credits begin to role. It’s a welcomed relief from the heavy drama & art films I tend to watch during the rest of the year. If you ever want to regain a sense of your childhood just pop in a Christmas movie you grew up watching (or, if you don’t celebrate, any film from your childhood that you liked).

Of course, it is incredibly easy to get a Christmas movie wrong. Very wrong. The modern Christmas movies just don’t feel quite right for me. There are exceptions like the 2009 version of A Christmas Carol which I think is absolutely brilliant, but all too often, however, we are treated to silly comedies which rely on cheap jokes, and I just don’t care for that.

Nevertheless, the holiday season is well underway. Let’s cherish the memories of yesteryear;  this is the only time of the year where it is socially acceptable to watch holiday films, so let’s take advantage of that.

The Problem with Genres

It is autumn and that means the leaves are changing, the nights are getting colder and the days chillier and shorter (my favorite time of year), and I can start burning autumn scented candles and the holidays are right around the corner. The first holiday? Halloween. Halloween is right around the corner. It’s only about a month away, and with Halloween comes horror films. People love to get scared around the end of September and throughout October. American Horror Story is in full swing on television, new horror films are coming out in theaters, and old classics are resurrected for the next month and a half. I’m not the biggest fan of horror films, but sometimes I think some so-called “horror” films aren’t really horror films at all.

The genre is horror, but what does that mean? It has to be scary? It has to explore fears and the dark side of humanity? These elements can be in a good drama film too. So what’s the difference? Are genres really all that important? (There are many film theories based entirely around genre, so I won’t say genre is completely irrelevant, but it is at least something to question.) Take for example a horror film I like that I really don’t consider just a horror film.

It is “The Exorcist”. I love that film, but I don’t get scared at it. Granted, I will admit it has many elements of a traditional horror film (those exorcism scenes!), but at the end of the day it is really a film about the love of a mother, and the faith of a disillusioned priest. The really scary stuff doesn’t come until maybe halfway through, and even then they are isolated scenes. I think the film is more a cross of a drama and a horror than just a straight horror film.

However, I can definitely see why it was, and still is, labeled a horror film. It definitely takes things to the next level (heads spinning, levitation, etc. etc.), but there are some others that don’t necessarily fit the horror bill exclusively. A lot of these horror films play out more like a drama, but because they feature something supernatural, or something considered “scary” they are deemed horror, and this can turn some people off. I hold a belief that I will watch any movie once, regardless of genre, because every film deserves a chance, but some people run the other way when they hear a film is a horror film. What if they gave them a chance and saw that these films were drama films with some trace elements of horror? (Or they could get scared out of their wits because its one of those films which is definitely just a straight horror film, but I digress.)

This doesn’t have to apply solely to horror films either. (There are some horror films, I will admit, that could not be categorized as anything other than horror, but that’s a different article for a different time.) How about comedies? Aren’t there many comedy films out there that play with your heartstrings and could be considered a drama? Or what about a drama film that can get pretty funny at times? Couldn’t you classify that as a comedy? A dramedy?

And then you have the films which are marketed all wrong. Take for instance, “The Village”. Now, the film itself is extremely flawed, so I won’t even go into that, but it did have potential. The problem (well, one of the many problems I should say), with that film was how it was marketed. I still remember the marketing for this film back when it came out. They made it look like a straight horror film. The website they had was creepy as hell with red marks on doors and those sounds of the woods and all that. People went to go see the film. There was no horror. Maybe a scene. Maybe. But that was it. The film is really a romance, not a horror, and not really a thriller either (what defines a thriller?). People went in thinking they were going to get scared, and when they weren’t scared they trashed the film. Now, like I said, the film has many things going against it, but I think if it was marketed as a romance it may have been slightly less trashed. But who knows.

You see this all the time (“The Rite” was labeled as a horror film, but it is really a drama about lost faith), and I think that is where genre fails. I think most films could be categorized into two or three different genres. Very rarely does a film fit solely into one genre. It’s extremely difficult. All genres share traits of each other and it creates this massive grey area. What defines a comedy from a drama from a thriller from a horror from a western (isn’t a western just a drama that takes place in the old west?).

I am oversimplifying some of this, but the point is the same. How can we label a film? Labeling a film can help it, and it can hurt it. I haven’t really provided any answers in this article, but let me close with a thought: instead of defining a film by its genre, why don’t we look at a genre label as a poorly drawn road map to what the film may be? This way, we go in with open minds, and know that the film probably has, at the minimum, the elements which define the traditional genres. Read the reviews. Watch the trailers with caution (they can be misleading!), and watch the film for what it is, not what you were told it was.

 

Georges Méliès; or the Father of Cinematic Wonder

When I think of the history of film there are a handful of names which come to mind, and one of them is Georges Méliès. Some of you may know him from Martin Scorsese’s 2011 film “Hugo”. Part of the reason I loved that film so much was because I was already very familiar with the works of Méliès. He made such films as “Voyage to the Moon” and “The Four Troublesome Heads” and “The One Man Band”. Why is he so important? He was one of the first filmmakers to begin to see the possibilities that cinema could provide. Before Méliès almost all films were just actuality films (slice of life documentary films). Méliès was an entertainer and a magician and brought that sense of wonder to his films by using special effects. Now, his films still seem like filmed stage productions, but there is also a great sense of wonder watching them because he is able to make things happen which people could only dream of. Here are two examples.

The first one is called “The Four Troublesome Heads” from 1898.

This film cannot help but make you smile. He had no films to base these special effects off of, so he essentially created them himself. Just imagine what audiences probably thought of it back 1898 when they saw a man take his head off multiple times! Of course, by today’s standards, this is easier than ever to replicate, but back then it was new and exciting and paved the way for all other special effects to follow.

Take a look at “The One Man Band” from 1900.

This another fun little film of his to watch. He brought magic to the screen at the turn of the century where it is still employed today. You can see, however, that these films really did feel like just filmed theatre, but it was a start. Remember: there was no such thing as a green or blue screen, or computer editing systems. All these effects had to be done by hand with the film stock and camera; filming scenes multiple times with parts of the film blocked out. It was meticulous but the final product was worth it.

People came to forget Georges Méliès, however. He became a toy salesman for years as he lived in obscurity. He was rediscovered in the late 1920s and he began to get the recognition he deserved. I am glad that he lived to see the turnaround in public recognition of his works. Without him cinema would not be what it is today. The events in “Hugo” never happened, but it was true that he was a toy salesman and had fallen on hard times. I always love revisiting his films because of that fantastical world he creates. There are so many of his films which you can watch online and enjoy, and I highly recommend doing so.

No article on Georges Méliès, however brief the article may be, is complete without talking about “Voyage to the Moon” from 1902. The film also goes by the title “A Trip to the Moon”. This is one of the most important films ever made in the history of cinema. Along with “The Great Train Robbery” from 1903, this film is considered one of the first narrative films of considerable length. It is about 13 minutes long, and includes many special effects. However, unlike the other films which I have included on this post this one does not look entirely like staged theatre. Méliès built sets and explored what cinema could do. This is also the film which includes the iconic “face of the moon” shot. Unlike those others films this one actually has a simple plot which carries the film just as much as the special effects. Perhaps I will write another article in the future dedicated completely to this masterpiece, but for now just take a gander for yourselves and you will know why it was ahead of its time.

In Cold Blood (1967) – Scene Analysis

A filmmaker can employ many techniques, whilst making a film, which can have a profound effect on the audience. A film that I enjoy quite a bit, although it definitely has its shortcomings, is the 1967 crime film called “In Cold Blood”. The film itself is based on a book by Truman Capote, which in turn was based on true events. I won’t go into the specifics of the film in case you haven’t seen it, but I am going to analyze a powerful scene from the film.

You’ll see in this scene a few things which stand out. The first is the lighting. The character in this scene is Perry. He has been arrested and is awaiting the gallows during this scene as he remembers his troubled past. Notice how his face is in half shadow. This signifies an inner conflict with the character. He doesn’t want to admit that he has come from a bad place, but he knows it to be true. He doesn’t want to give in to the truth, hence a conflict within himself. The shades of grey around him are very somber and denote a melancholic atmosphere, which makes sense since he is on death row.

Another important aspect of this shot is the window to the right. There are two important aspects revolving around the window. Although, I am sure there is probably some more meaning if we dig a little deeper. In any case, the first aspect that I notice are the bars which cross up and down the window. It creates a prison like effect. This visual component not only reminds us that he is physically inside a jail, but that on some deeper, spiritual level he is also in a jail. Rather, he is trapped within himself and within his past, and all that he has done. He feels, in this moment and in the past, that he simply cannot escape from himself.

The second aspect is probably one of the most powerful aspects of the film. Notice the reflection of the rain on his face when he is talking. It makes it look like he is crying. There are moments when the reflection passes perfectly under the eye to create the illusion of giant tears. This is very important when we consider the context of the scene. He can’t bring himself to cry, but his exterior world enables us to see how he feels on the inside.

One final note: notice the camera angle and shot length. Most of this scene is just one shot fixated on Perry. I think that the director did this because he wanted us to be fully invested in every word that Perry was saying. By minimizing the edits it focuses us into the moment which we are watching. The camera angle is also peculiar. It is slightly angled up, which usually denotes that the character is powerful. In this moment you could make the argument that Perry is not powerful since he is about to die and is being punished. But consider this: maybe he is in a position of power in regards to himself. He is at least acknowledging his past and starting to come to terms with the present. Doesn’t this give him a little power on the matter?

Filmmakers have the power to show the audience the inside of a character’s mind without having to add unnecessary dialogue or voice-overs. There are so many techniques which can be used to do this. I think that this scene shows us some very interesting, and powerful ways to do so.

 

The Legend of the Scarecrow (2005)

A while back I had a mission to watch as many short films as I could possibly find. I just started searching the internet for anything I could find.  One day I stumbled across a short animated Spanish film entitled “The Legend of the Scarecrow”, directed by Marco Besas. This film, despite being only 9 minutes in length, is one of the most powerful short films I have ever seen. Themes of being an outsider and just wanting a friend are very prevalent in this film. I will not write much on it because the film does a better job explaining its own meaning, and does it beautifully I might add, than anything I could ever write here. It is so beautifully crafted that it always deserves another viewing (in my opinion, of course). I will say, however, to pay attention to the animation style and the music; both these elements really add an extra layer to this brilliant little film. I highly recommend setting aside 9 minutes and watching it, you won’t regret it.

A Trip Down Market Street (1906)

In The Vault: Volume 3 I recommended a short film from 1906 called “A Trip Down Market Street”, and I decided to go more in detail about why someone should see this film, even if only once. The video below is truly silent as there isn’t even a musical soundtrack, so I suggest putting on some classical music in the background before you press play.

There are some versions online that add music, and some that add sound effects, but I can never find one that has the right score, and sound effects just seem so out of place in a film made before the late 1920’s, so that is why I chose the one above. That being said, the content is still the same content. It’s still the same visuals which I believe are very powerful. I understand that some minor parts of the film were staged; some of the people and cars reenter the framae multiple times throughout the film. However, for the most part, this is a candid film. Most of the people in it are not actors at all, and it offers a beautiful glimpse into the past. The film itself was filmed at the front of a trolley car as it travelled down Market Street, and you can even see people look directly into the camera at several points throughout its duration.

This little movie from 1906 was filmed within weeks of the devastating San Francisco earthquake of 1906 where most of the city was leveled into a pile of smoldering debris. This is a rare glimpse into what San Francisco looked like before the earthquake. It is also an amazing glimpse into life before traffic lights. As I watched the film something stood out immediately: the systematic chaos of Market Street. People, cars, horses, carriages, and trolleys shared the road together. There were no stop lights, and there were no sidewalks or crosswalks. It was essentially a free for all. How different from today where it is a crime to walk into the street outside a designated crosswalk.

I love history, as I have mentioned in previous posts, so this film is like a portal into the past for me. When I watch it I am transported into a time in which I never lived. How I would love to travel back in time, even if just briefly. There is something magical about old films such as this one; they have the ability, as does any film, to thrust us into the past and let us forget that we live in a completely different world.