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Lie to Me

I spent the past two evenings streaming the first season of this series via NetFlix, and valuing the experience.

The pilot episode introduces principle characters and simultaneously begs a little  for the suspension of audience skepticism as Tim Roth divines truth from the universe of facial expressions, mannerisms and body language of all things human, deducing implications and preventing ruinous consequences at superhuman speeds.

The first eleven episodes held my attention, although unexplained flaws in the superior inferential skills of the protagonist(s) tended toward redundancy in standalone episodes that linked together on the slender threads of recurrent behaviors exhibited by regular characters.  Episodes twelve and thirteen amply justified the tedium of slogging through familiar situations in episodes two through ten.  The promise of longform storytelling started paying off in Blinded and Sacrifice.  And my appetite for season two was expertly whetted by neatly set up callbacks to earlier episodes by the end of season one.

There is one bizarre inconsistency that centers on Agent Dupree. He’s a short, black FBI agent who swiftly becomes the boyfriend of Ms Tores, a regular high-secondary character.  Dupree makes recurrent appearances throughout the season, as another short, black FBI agent becomes a regular character.   I think the second guy wears mottonchops with moustache and goatee, but he’s practically indistinguishable from Dupree, who ends the season, hospitalized in a coma.

This show also tends to open segments with painfully blinding flashes of light that remind me of the interstitial transitions Angel (presumably) used to replicate  for the audience the experience of Cordelia’s agonizing visions.  It’s that class of unscrupulous manipulations that put me completely off LOST, initially: 

  • Auditory and visual f-bombs,
  • multiple-camera-angles that obfuscate,
  • didactic scores that signal viewer=puppet…

damned familiar devices need serious rethinking, just like the empty claims of aspiring to the “complete immersion” of the audience in the mise-en-scene.  That stuff is counterintuitive nonsense that degrades the bond of trust that must unite the storyteller with the audience in order to share the journey to the far end of the episode, season or run. 

Showrunners who depend on flash and boom to get a physiological start from an audience are like MBAs and CEOs who confuse short-term gains into honest profit.  It’s one of the surest earmarks of employees, surgery with cattleprod. 

A storyteller with a boss tends to become a meddle-manager of cattle.

08 Apr 10 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Comments Off on Lie to Me

The Man in The White Suit

This 1951 Ealing comedy is a perfect film that’s perfectly executed.  It invents a perfect synthetic fabric and populates the narrative with characters whose imperfections polymerize into the antithesis of the putative aspirations of industry, labor and the common man; criminally empty platitudes about development and progress.

The creation of an incredibly strong fabric that repels dirt, never wears out and practically can’t be cut sounds like the ultimate invention of the textile industry, but results in ever-widening circles of absolute and perfect panic as the people in the film who represent capital, labor and customers come to see this product as the  terminating element in their practice of business-as-usual.  Squabbling, pomposity, the vapid adherance to ridiculous rules…the flaws in people, traditional practices and mercantile relationships of producers and customers are used as gags to punctuate and illustrate the inutility of perfection in a world governed by absolute fools.

While the creation of this perfect product consumes the first half of the film, the inability of the characters to recognize value in its creator foreshadows the eventual discovery as generous people of vision and penetrating foresight grace the entire presentation with conspicuousness of their absence.  A cinematic environment filled with subtle and blatant class-intimidation, stupidity and pathological self-interest perfectly contrast and clash with the altruistic character whose sole intent is to realize the dream product.  And the intricate processes by means of which that perfectly-motivated individual achieves the ideal he’s dreamed about are expressed (primarily in pantomime) in this perfect film in perfect gags and situations that procede at a pace that’s uncommonly rapid in the entire body of conventional (slow-developing) British films.

I always object to the industry use of multiple camera-angles in storytelling, which leads me to believe that this perfect story might have been told even more remarkably by giving Sidney Stratton (Alec Guinnes) a constant (small canine) companion to represent a coherent audience-point-of-view throughout the film.  And fluctuations in volume levels (usually involving softspoken women and an incredibly loud, pedantic score) are always disturbing.  BUT these inherent flaws in the continuing evolution of 20th Century filmmaking are practically ubiquitous, and don’t significantly detract from the profound enjoyment of a perfect film.

13 Mar 10 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Comments Off on The Man in The White Suit

Dark Passage

It’s a better film than Lady in the Lake that presents a far less convoluted plot and utilizes first-person camera quite a bit more effectively.  Although there is no commentary on the DVD I saw last night, the behind-the-scenes featurette narrator described the “first-person camera” technique with that term, which really does convey enough information to make “ontogenic” comparatively obsolete.

Delmer Daves’ treatment of his storyline is significantly less pedantic and literal (fundamentalist) than Montgomery’s, and Dark Passage (according to the featurette narrator) benefited greatly from the use of a much smaller camera.  Bogart’s role as Vincent Parry is made instantly more sympathetic by means of Parry’s spoken-to-nobody narrative, a trait that’s later explained in the film as a habit he picked up in prison.  Whether talking to himself (and to the audience) or to an on-screen character (in the familiar voice of Humphrey Bogart — like radio-cinematography) this device crystalizes and differenitiates several of the viewer’s Bogart-expectations from the viewpoint of this  story’s specific protagonist.  We not only see the world through Parry’s eyes, we also hear his thoughts, and that’s a vitally important literary dimension stripped from the reductive Montgomery cinematic variation of (a very literary) The Lady in the Lake.

Now that I have a couple of mainstream Hollywood experiments in first-person camera to compare with one another, the first, most obvious stumbling block in both films is the choice of the white, male protagonist as the one-and-only empathic POV from which each story is shot.  I have absolutely no problem gazing into the deliciously classy mystery known as Lauren Bacall, but I’d actually much prefer to see this story shown from the perspective of Irene Jansen, Bacall’s character.

Hanging out for the past several years at erotic photographic websites and forums, I’ve come to the conclusion that the women photographed are used primarily as projections screens for familiar male erotic/romantic fantasies.   The moment in The Matrix when the hot, openly-inviting blonde in the hot red party dress arrests Neo’s attention electrifies the first-person presence with an empathic lightning bolt, but its a device that operates on the locker-room level of conversation, like smalltalk between guys.  “Did you see the sash on that one?!”  How it feels to be a beautiful woman in public space composed largely of eyeballs, urges, contempt and lurid imaginations locked upon your every gesture — seems like a universe of fascinating stories Hollywood hasn’t bothered to tell, empathically nor otherwise.

The most fascinating aspect of Sex in the City, for me, was the long-desired opportunity to sense  mundane reality from the perspective of four attractive women, who converse with unprecedented candor.  The show never quite managed to provide the intimate glimpse I wanted from the high-heeled moccasins of an unqualified sexual-attention-target, but Dark Passage didn’t even try.  I wish it had.  Ultimately, the primary strength of the film resides in superior casting.  Bogart and Bacall do very fine work (that inevitably pales by comparison with To Have and Have Not), but the first half of the film belongs to Tom D’Andrea as the cab driver, who hands the film off to his exact-opposite;  Agnes Moorhead’s toweringly bitchy performance as the incredible Madge,  the unopened lock within which sits the riddle that drives the action and the heart of the film.

Casting 1946/7 San Francisco as the backdrop also works wonders for me, in that LA locations are less resonant (for me) in the noirs of the very same era, and the recognizable/articulated LA intersections don’t drip with the same desire to physically contextualize Ft. Point, Hyde Street, Powell & Market…, and the theoretical seven hills between the Ferry Building and Ocean Beach that Sam, the cabdriver, alludes to in the story he relates to Parry in the midst of the formation of an amazingly strong empathetic bond between two strangers, a theme that’s repeated throughout the film, and contrasted with relentless interrogations.

While Daves’ camera treatment of Parry is vastly more lyric and sympathetic than Montgomery’s take on Chandler’s material, it’s worthy of note that the corpse of Parry’s closest friend, George Fellsinger, is photographed in coverage from a point far beneath the floor (that’s magically turned to glass) in another yet alternative camera technique (extremely steep angles [that invariably tell their very own stories]) I’ve been longing for decades to see employed by innovative filmmakers and photographers.
  The visually sympathetic treatment of the fugitive protagonist is counterpointed by the battery of grueling, relentless, spontaneous interrogations that intensify the identification of the audience with Parry, while the forces that move the women in the film seem permanently condemned to be utterly mysterious; Miss Jansen’s wealth and idealism are superficially explained, but Madge Rapf’s psychotic persistence (and fall) bleeds unexplained madness through every frame of a film that traces Parry’s dogged determination to reveal the truth about his wife’s murder, while leaving a trail of dead people that terminates in Peru in one of the Hollywood’s strangest (and yet most spiritually satisfying) “resolutions”  to a murder mystery, ever.   Dark Passage is one very peculiar film.

I liked it a lot, largely because, as the featurette narrator says, there are fascinating secondary characters everywhere you look in a film that makes a good deal more emotional sense than The Lady in the Lake, and also did very little business at the box office.  Go figure.

Just as Focus is a film about (antiSemitic) intolerance that derives from the personnel manager’s story (that starts and ends early) in Gentleman’s Agreement, I like attempting (and failing) to reframe these classic films from the alternative perspectives of other characters locked forever in place in these narratives.   Madge’s motivations are probably beyond my comprehension, but Irene Jansen’s feel like they belong to somebody I already know.  The nearest thing to an example of the tree I’m barking up is evident in StopLoss, a film in which male comradeship is exquisitely characterized by a female director (Kimberly Pierce) with, unprecedented sensitivity and empathic eloquence.  Also, go figure.

29 Apr 09 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | 2 Comments

Empathic Camera

Although it’s a more conventional method of naming this otogenic/subjective camera thing, “empathy” is a term that’s deadlocked in controversy.  Wikipedia reveals about a dozen slightly/widely varied interpretive definitions from cognitive slants to affective and the terminally-inarticulate.  I’m drawn to the empathic camera shortcut by the generally more-communicative impression that it pertains to something vaguely familiar, when introduced into conversation, without the need to dive into the etymology of “ontogenic”.  The problem with “subjective camera” (the term most frequently used) is that it’s even more vague and misleading than “empathic camera”.

Lick a postage stamp and stick it to your forehead, right between your brows.  Rather than a simple postage stamp, it’s a NewAge, high-tech, HiDef, wireless movie camera that records visual imagery largely as you see, although not exactly.  It doesn’t blink, it’s field of view, automatic aperture, sensitivity and frame rate make it functionally different from the way your eyes work…and it doesn’t move (as your eyes do when you roll them in their sockets and otherwise use them to express an emotional state to the rest of world), and it’s fitted with a microphone.  It’s also visible as it sits there on your forehead like a third eye — which might incline other people to keep their distance.

I mean that calling that device a “subjective camera” starts off on the wrong foot in several superficial ways, but far more importantly, the term fails to communicate the fact that your subjective experience is not well communicated to another person who is using your “subjective camera” to monitor your experience.  It’s a small, wireless objective camera that happens to be stuck to your forehead.  If you shield your eyes from the sun, it records the movement of your hand and a change in ambient lighting, but your cramped calf, the toe you stubbed on the doorstop, while walking out of the movie theater into bright afternoon sunlight…can only be pieced together inferrentially by the observer with the aid of sound cues and an acute empathic understanding of your subjective experience.  The observer’s empathic facility complements the shortcoming of your forehead camera, in order to make sense of your experience.

Mirror neurons deserve a great deal more attention and study than I’ve devoted to them since yesterday.  It does appear, however, that a plethora of fun associations have been tied to the idea that motor neurons in the brains of monkeys are enervated by the actions of proximal others.   Now, I’m still intrigued by the right/left brain hayride we entered upon 40 years ago, so far be it from me to go all hard-science-skeptical on the mirror neuron enthusiasm, but the most attractive fragment of information I’ve noticed thus far is that they’re located in the motor (rather than sensory) cortex of experimental subjects, which implies to me that the domain of ACTION is the understated key that lies beneath the fascinating extrapolations drawn by folks who believe (as I do) that empathy is hardwired deep into the human organism.

Before I get lost in an irrelevant monologue about going through the motions and the explosively fascinating universe of neat ideas that the mirror neuron conversation initiates…back to the camera-thing:

That forehead camera, no matter how sophisticated the integration of its parts, falls far short of reproducing and recording the entirety of your subjective experience; and therefore makes demands upon the experiential vocabulary of the person who is trying to see your world through your “eye”.  Likewise, the army of NASA analysts struggle to interpret the vision of Mars provided by a Rover, and the camera’s view is not nearly so much subjective as empathic, because the integrative functionaries that read the monitor interpret findings and make decisions about the next move the Rover makes based on an empathic grasp of what’s around the corner (from several million miles away).

The audience in Robert Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake were  lured to the film on the falsely advertized premise that THEY would be Phillip Marlow for a couple of hours.  What they weren’t told was that the fascinating inner dialogue between Chandler and Marlowe would be entirely inaudible to them; that Marlowe’s thought processing was confined to another medium (another channel of telemetry) that in 1947 could only be accessed by reading the book.  I know how NASA scientists feel by virtue of their body language, and not from the neologistic doubletalk with which they communicate with one another. 

The 1932 and 1941 movie versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde were serious uphill slogs for me, for several reasons that needn’t be hammered mercilessly here, beyond saying that they weren’t much fun.  I’m hoping that Altered States will be a more enjoyable treatment of exacly the same idea, substituting primitive impulse and proto-human mentality for “EVIL”.  I remember Altered States fondly, but that was also true of St. Elsewhere, Hill St. Blues, Highlander and Kojak…  Some old and influential stuff that delighted me once upon a time has absolutely not held up beneath the weight of comparison with many more recent offerings to which it gave rise.

So the postage stamp camera (in my mind) remains “ontogenic” because the willingness of the audience/observer to empathize is practically non-negotiable.  The facility of the ontogenic camera to tell an engaging story cannot depend upon the talent and life-experience of the viewer to fill in the blanks left vacant by the failure of the filmmaker to provide them.  The challenge (for example) lies in filming Chris Lavery’s interacton with Marlowe in a way that leaves their interpersonal dialogue intact, but simultaneously layers in (like commentary tracks don’t yet quite manage to do) Marlowe’s internal evaluation of the tanned, brawny, skirt-chasing weasel whose snowballing indignation eventually surprises even Marlowe, when Lavery spits near his own feet, on his own rug and stands confrontationally before Marlow, “like watching the veneer peel off and leave a tough kid in an alley.  Or like hearing an apparently refined woman start expressing herself in four-letter words.”  

Chandler invested in Marlowe’s inner monologue a self-reflexive view of Marlowe’s vision of the outside world that simultaneously contrasted with and greatly sharpened the reader’s perception of the scene, gradually revealing the inner-speaker as an aspect of the reader’s experience, different from cursory expectations of Marlowe.  That’s empathic storytelling.  Getting that degree of communicative complexity from a camera won’t be easy, and the devices I’ve seen used in 1932, 1941, 1947 and here&there since then provide no reason for optimism anytime soon.  Dark Passage should arrive tomorrow.  Who knows?

28 Apr 09 Posted by | Uncategorized | | 10 Comments

NYT Review of LitL

Published: January 24, 1947


Having seen “Lady in the Lake” yesterday at the Capitol, this corner now can confirm what the advertisements have been saying all along. The picture is definitely different and affords one a fresh and interesting perspective on a murder mystery. YOU do get into the story and see things pretty much the way the protagonist, Phillip Marlowe, does, but YOU don’t have to suffer the bruises he does. Of course, YOU don’t get a chance to put your arms around Audrey Totter either. After all, the movie makers, for all their ingenuity, can go just so far in the quest for realism.

As the star and director, Robert Montgomery permits the camera to do most of his “acting,” the result being that his image is only observed when it can naturally be reflected through a mirror. And, since the story is a first person affair, the camera on occasion observes the detective seated at a desk relating his tortuous and exciting adventures in locating the missing Mrs. Chrystal Kingsby.

In making the camera an active participant, rather than an off-side reporter, Mr. Montgomery has, however, failed to exploit the full possibilities suggested by this unusual technique. For after a few minutes of seeing a hand reaching toward a door knob, or lighting a cigarette or lifting a glass, or a door moving toward you as though it might come right out of the screen the novelty begins to wear thin. Still, Mr. Montgomery has hit upon a manner for using the camera which most likely will lead to more arresting pictorial effects in the future.

Since Raymond Chandler provided the story and Steve Fisher wrote the screen play, one can rest assured that the plot isn’t lacking in complications, romantic and otherwise. Marlowe, naturally, has a weakness for a pretty client and runs into plenty of trouble with the police and assorted strangers the deeper his investigation goes. Clues sprout and evaporate, or end up as blind leads, until the spectator is nicely but firmly confused. This bewilderment doesn’t extend so much to the identity of the lady found in the lake as it does to how Marlowe will go about solving the mystery.

Mr. Montgomery has the least acting to do, but his scenes are played with ease and conviction. His Phillip Marlowe is somewhat more cynical and sneering—a characterization which is developed more by the tone of his voice than anything else—than the previous conceptions of the detective we got from Dick Powell in “Murder, My Sweet” and Humphrey Bogart in “The Big Sleep.” You can take your choice of the three and still be happy. Audrey Totter, who is blonde and fetching, gets her first really important role in this picture and handles herself most credibly. Lloyd Nolan, Jayne Meadows and Leon Ames do very well by supporting roles, which permit them to develop sizable characterizations.
LADY IN THE LAKE, based on the novel by Raymond Chandler; screen play by Steve Fisher; directed by Robert Montgomery; produced by George Haight for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Philip Marlowe . . . . . Robert Montgomery
Adrienne Fromsett . . . . . Audrey Totter
Lieutenant DeGarmot . . . . . Lloyd Nolan
Captain Kane . . . . . Tom Tully
Derace Kingsby . . . . . Leon Ames
Mildred Havelend . . . . . Jayne Meadows
Chris Lavery . . . . . Dick Simmons
Eugene Grayson . . . . . Morris Ankrum
Receptionist . . . . . Lila Leeds
Artist . . . . . William Roberts
Mrs. Grayson . . . . . Kathleen Lockhart
Chrystal Kingsby . . . . . Ellay Mort

In heated conversation wth the guys from Heroes, David Thorburn indicated that the entertainment industry failed for twenty years to tell stories effectively in that medium, and not until the middle/late 60s did they get it halfway right.  I worship at Professor Thorburn’s temple, but the statue devoted to Kojak just puts me uptight.

Montgomery tried to project the subjective experience of reading a compelling novel (that was cobbled together from earlier short stories) onto The Big Screen in an age when movie cameras were as tiny and agile as Robbie the Robot.  Montgomery also smooshed a lot of the bitter, irrascible, curmudgeonly Raymond Chandler into his largely-unpleasant, unheroic portrayal of Phillip Marlow.  And prevented the (medium-BigDraw) star of the movie, himself, from appearing (more than momentarily) onscreen.  In retrospect, the film describes  a lot like a recipe for disaster.

It was a very bold, upstream, mainstream industrial experiment that failed for several reasons; none of them definitive.  If (for the past 20, 40, 60 years) filmmakers had worked assiduously at sidestepping Montgomery’s errors in filming ontogenic/subjective camera studies, maybe the challenges facing transmedia storytellers would be significantly different.  Maybe not.

Whether and how this movie or novel relates to the titular reference embedded in Arthurian legend remains to be seen, but I confess a certain affection for the notion that Marlowe’s powers of observation liken him to Merlin, his obsolete idealism puts me in mind of Arthur, and the contradiction of an intermittently sleazy boyscout kind of smells like Lancelot.  There’s also an attractive allusion in The Lady In/Of the Lake to the continuing, unresolved determination whether the sword or the pen is the more mighty Promethean instrument.  I tend to lean toward the camera, but each tool is essentially a technical implement wielded by creative imagination in various media, so they’re fundamentally one (and the same) means to the end of profoundly effective communication.

24 Apr 09 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | 4 Comments

Every Other Day

Writing here daily isn’t an objective that interests me, but every other day feels like an ambition I might actually be able to pull off.  Looking back at the first two installments in this blog, I realize I haven’t connected ALL of the necessary dots to present my peculiar points of view satisfactorily, even to me, let alone to another, more skeptical reader; you. 

While nobody sane would accuse me of failure to beat dead horses with the clearly very limited and spotty comprehension I possess of the issues they signify, I’m also reluctant to go back re-edit what I’ve already written.  Still there are gaps in continuity, spelling and sentence structure that demand some form of address, so I’ll try to press forward every other day in adherence to the plan while answering questions, incongruities and misleads already left dangling.

The first of these (that I remember) is a brief review of The Lady in the Lake, the Chandler-based film in which Robert Montgomery directed and in which he appears as Philip Marlowe: 

It didn’t suck, but now that I have several pounds of unread Raymond Chandler’s writing parked on my desk, I can say with confidence that it’s the first-person narrative eloquence with which Marlowe describes everything that most clearly distinguishes the character’s perception as eminently engaging…and that’s exactly what’s missing from the innovative approach Montgomery took in creating a film that is 90% talking heads and exposition.  Laying pipe is not very interesting.  On the other hand, there are fascinating technical achievements everywhere in this film.  The most striking of which are very long sequences in which non-star actors emote at the camera, evoking the impression that the viewer actually IS Philip Marlowe interacting with, relating to and talking at Audrey Totter (principally) who in the course of the film undergoes astonishing, nearly plausible, and entirely fascinating transformations from one kind of moderately-stereotyped 40s female character to another; gold-digging, indispensibly efficient, phoney career-girl to fiancee, asylum/confidante…and stuff like that.

The bottom line on my take of this lonely example of mainstream Hollywood Bmovie  subjective camera experiment is that it didn’t quite work, and it sure didn’t suck, but that it fails by taking a too-literal approach to the subjective camera technique, while purging the most important magnets that draw attention to Raymond Chandler, Chandlerisms.  That’s no knock on snappy banter, of which there’s nearly as much as is found in moderately engaging screwball comedies, but the glue that holds the convoluted story line together is nonstop exposition, which leads very swiftly to wholesale audience disengagement.

Doubt works the same nerve.  Shanley says that the final act of the play is staged after the audience leaves the theater to discover that the person with whom the just saw the presentation seems to have seen an entirely different theatrical event.  Four principle players very beautifully extract from their parts the crossroads at which the audience’ expectations depart from familiar stereotyped conclusions about who those characters are.  They’re us.  I got caught early in the film in the course of  Father Flynn’s first sermon that hinges on the comforting ubiquity of doubt.  It’s Shanley’s brilliant statement that the faith that draws the faithful together is shadowed by an equally universal and powerful phenomenon that is widely under-reported, and that that uncertainty is just as effective at uniting  those of us who can but don’t afford one another the benefit of doubt.  Gossip and intollerance are the handmaidens of faith, while empathy and capacity for liberal non-interference smell like weakness in contrast with the other thing.

It’s a fascinating film that strikes at the heart of the (evangelical, fundamentalist) certainty that sexual preference is optional.  Sexual perversity is a one-way street.  There is strength in uniformity of thought.  We know the souls of other people.  This movie beats the holy crap out of Joe Versus the Volcano and Moonstruck as  fables to contemplate seriously.  The nerve it works (in common with The Lady in the Lake) is audience credulity, by refuting traditional cinematic audience expectations and substituting the challenging theatrical imagination in its unaccustomed place. 

I’d get off on a camera in the writers’ room and at table reads.  Commentary MP3s by writers, actors, crew and directors who are in no way associated with the production they’re discussing is, in my mind, the next logical step in transmedia branding, because the expensive logos that come before titles (and after the legal gobbledygook) on DVDs are all about the distribution of proprietary intellectual property, a term which is at least four kinds of oxymoron bent on preserving the time-honored fiction that the house always wins (at the expense of culture).  There are stars of cinematic commentary, even now, rising above the horizon.  Alain Silver is the only one of them I’ve thusfar encountered, but the time of that new industrial complex is only a moment from dawning.

18 Apr 09 Posted by | Uncategorized | | 1 Comment