Archive for September 2006
More from Vancouver from DB:
Bong Joon-ho, one of the most talented Korean directors working now, has in a few years proven himself adept in many genres. His first feature was the charming comedy Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000), and he followed that with one of the best recent cop movies I know, Memories of Murder (2003). Now The Host has broken Korean box-office records and won tremendous praise at Cannes last spring.
Naturally, there’s been a buildup of interest for the three screenings of The Host scheduled during the festival. The opening one is sold out, and the others are nearly full too. This morning there was a Forum discussion with Bong, moderated by Tony Rayns, and it proved to be a very interesting conversation.
Bong had wanted to make a monster movie ever since his childhood, when he looked out his window at the Han river and imagined a creature like the Loch Ness monster rising out of it. Eventually he was able to summon up the money to do so. The budget for The Host ran to about $11 million US, nearly half of which was used on special effects. (Bong points out that the ordinary Korean film is budgeted at about what he spent on fx.) He contracted the CGI out to several firms, including Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital and The Orphanage, a San Francisco company.
To save money Bong cut several monster shots, instead simply suggesting the creature’s presence through other means. He was inspired by Spielberg’s handling of Bruce the shark in Jaws: faced with Bruce’s constant mechanical failures, Spielberg used point-of-view shots and Williams’ score to signal when the shark was nearby.
Will there be a Host 2? Bong says that if there is, he wouldn’t be directing it. He envisions the possibility of something like the Alien series, where different directors turn each installment in different directions.
Tony Rayns set up the context for the discussion with his usual aplomb, and the audience coaxed Bong into wider comments. One listener asked what makes Korean audiences so eager to support their local movies. Tony pointed out that Korea has the most cosmopolitan and film-loving population in Asia, and Bong talked of the expansion of the market, with The Host going out on more than 600 screens. Also, Tony added, Korean movies tend to be very good.
I can’t refrain from a personal note. Bong greeted me warmly, and he reminded me that we met in Hong Kong in 1995, when his breakout short, Incoherence, screened at that festival. At that time he told me that he had read the (pirate) Korean translation of Film Art: An Introduction. I was happy that our book might have contributed a little toward his film career, and he cheerfully autographed my Vancouver catalogue with a little tribute to the textbook. Sometimes I forget that film researchers can affect filmmakers.
I was pleasantly reminded again at tonight’s reception. There I met Reg Harkema, an Ontario director, who became obsessed with Film Art‘s discussion of La Chinoise and nondiegetic inserts….so much so that Monkey Warfare, his film in this festival, is full of them! (Have to catch that.) And Ho Yuhang, director of the Malaysian movie Rain Dogs, knew Film Art but was more interested in my Ozu book. His autograph in my catalogue reads, “My friend, that f*cker, bought the only Ozu book left in the store. Damn!” Yuhang is also a big fan of film noir and he’s now scripting a crime movie.
Apart from hobnobbing with directors, I saw the disturbing docu Rampage, about black family life in one of Miami’s most poverty-plagued neighborhoods. All the young men, including one serving in Iraq, want to be rappers, and the most talented of all is only 14. But can he and his brothers survive gang warfare? I thought that the editing and sound were a little too aggressive, even somewhat sensationalistic, but as the film goes along it raises very tough issues concerning filmmakers’ ethical responsibilities. The question of whether the presence of a film crew changes the situation it’s filming is brought to the surface with really unsettling results.
I ended the day with pure fun. Tokyo Loop is a string of animated shorts, in varying styles, all aiming to comment on life in Japan’s metropolis. I’ve long thought that animated filmmakers don’t get enough credit, because we forget that they have to acquire an enormous understanding of how creatures and objects move. I was reminded of this again in seeing Tokyo Strut, a record of human and animal movement conveyed solely by dots of light, and the very funny Dog & Bone. Other filmmakers record movement, but animators have to know how to create it.
Finally, a greeting to Marlene Yuen and Ted Tozer, who despite my best efforts to hide my operating tactics, spotted me counting shots in screenings at Vancouver last year. Ted, if this interests you, check the CineMetrics website on the first page of this site.
Screening over 300 films across 16 days, the Vancouver International Film Festival is a banquet for movie lovers. I’m here for about half of the event.
Gorgeous weather, a lovely city (mountains + water = hard to beat), and cheerful, hospitable people have already made this a lot of fun. Arriving in the afternoon, and fortified by a quick Japanese meal (soba; more on this later), I went off to several hours of moviegoing and socializing.
The festival is particularly strong in Asian cinema, programmed by the indefatigible Tony Rayns; the festival also gives the “Dragons and Tigers” prize to young Asian filmmakers. It was while serving on that jury last year that I came to fall in love with this festival. There are over 40 Asian programs this time, including Ann Hui’s My Postmodern Aunt (starring Chow Yun-fat), Tsai Ming-liang’s I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, and Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Hana (his last film was the very touching Nobody Knows). A special treat is Bong Joon-ho’s The Host, already a cult monster movie that has Hollywood studios fighting for the remake rights.
Vancouver is also very strong in Canadian cinema, as well as documentary, experimental, and international work. Like all great festivals, it’s actually several festivals in one: No way you could see everything you want to see. It was so exciting last year that I determined to return and try to see even more new films.
Festivals are important to us film lovers, because you want to keep up with creative work being done all over the world. Living in the US makes it hard, because so many wonderful films–sometimes masterpieces–don’t get released theatrically. Marketing a film in a country as large as the US requires massive amounts of money, and many interesting films just won’t attract a big enough audience to pay back costs. Also, I’m afraid that some Americans are narrowing their tastes in movies, so that they won’t give a “foreign film” or a “little movie” a chance. Festivals exist to do just that.
So I’m happy to report that my first day yielded real riches. Yokohama Mary is a documentary about a mysterious bag lady who walks the streets, sleeps in the corridor of an office building, eats at Burger King, and paints her face a blinding white. Urban legends have grown up about her. Was she a celebrated prostitute? A woman grieving for her lover? She has become an icon of the city, inspiring novels, books of photographs, and a play. But now she’s disappeared. The filmmakers assemble a rich array of documents, including surveillance-camera footage, and they interview people in the neighborhood to try to understand how she lived and why she vanished. Mary’s life is a capsule history of the seedy side of postwar Japan, and the film is at once gripping and poignant, with a wonderful ending in which the filmmakers find out her fate.
Walking on the Wild Side is a picture of contemporary China that couldn’t be more unflattering. Three young day laborers drink, molest schoolgirls, and generally raise hell before they set out on a path of petty crime. These are the most unlikable protagonists I’ve seen in a long time, but the movie, shot on low-def video, is fascinating in taking us behind China’s economic miracle.
Back to Japan for my final movie of the day, the thoroughly peculiar Tachigui: The Amazing Lives of the Fast-Food Grifters. Directed by Oishii Mamoru, best known for his animated Ghost in the Shell, it invents its own urban legend, that of spectral figures who haunt fast-food restaurants. Oishii traces the history of postwar Japan through the changes from soba shops to burger joints, visited by a series of ghostly figures out of mythology and pop culture. The animation, mixed with documentary footage and still photos, is unlike anything I’ve seen before, at once photo-realistic and curiously flat, with soft edges and abrupt, spasmodic action. Again: No way you’ll see this at the Multiplex.
Today promises to be no less exciting. It starts with a panel discussion with Bong Joon-ho about The Host and includes, I hope, a Brazilian film, Kore-ed’s Hana, and more Asian shorts. Will post again soon.
For more about the festival, and the films I’ve mentioned, check here: www.viff.org
In Film Art: An Introduction (Chapters 1-3) we argue that a movie’s form engages the viewer actively. As a result, we try to show how formal choices can shape the viewer’s response. For instance, a filmmaker who wants to tell a story tries to arouse curiosity, suspense, and surprise (along with other emotions, of course), and narration–the flow of story information–helps him or her do this (Chapter 3). A nice confirmation of this point is offered in Christine Vachon’s new book, A Killer Life: How an Independent Film Producer Survives Deals and Disasters in Hollywood and Beyond (Simon and Schuster).
In the script of One Hour Photo, director Mark Romanek carefully set up an opening stretch that slowly built suspense about Sy, the photo clerk who will take an unhealthy interest in his customers. But then came the studio marketers, who hinted at the film’s premise in advertising. As a result, preview audiences knew a little more than they were supposed to about where the story was going. In test screenings, the first act (the first 25-30 minutes) seemed to drag.
After consulting with Francis Ford Coppola, Romanek decided to begin the film late in the story, with Sy being arrested as a criminal. But the audience isn’t told exactly what he’s done. Then the plot flashes back to the original opening material. “This one change,” says Romanek, “rendered the first act more compelling. The first act played out almost exactly as before, but now the audience is paying closer attention. They’re now put in the position of trying to discover clues as to what Sy might’ve done. They’ve gone from passive viewers to detectives of a sort. And the first act came alive again” (p. 232).
Vachon’s book offers other intriguing examples of how filmmakers try to shape viewers’ responses through choices about form and style. It’s also a fascinating survey of the daily life of an independent producer. Vachon produced Safe, Boys Don’t Cry, Far from Heaven, and other widely admired films. And she never lets the reader forget that financing and ticket sales drive even the low-budget sector.
I am a full-time writer based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I got my master’s degree in film studies at the University of Iowa in 1973 and my Ph.D. in film studies here in Madison. I have occasionally had guest teaching positions in a number of places: here at the University of Wisconsin, the University of Iowa, Indiana University, the University of Amsterdam, and the University of Stockholm. In early 2001 I was the News International Visiting Professor of Broadcast Media at Oxford University, which was a lecture series rather than a teaching position.
Ordinarily, though, I’m based in the Department of Communication Arts at the UW, as an Honorary Fellowship. That basically means that I agree not to teach and the Department agrees not to pay me, but I have a title, a campus address, University Internet access, and a library card—all very handy things in doing my work.
To make a living, I have collaborated with David on Film Art: An Introduction (first published in 1979 and now in its 8th edition) and Film History: An Introduction (first published in 1994, with plans for 3rd for late 2008).
In between revising these textbooks, I have the luxury of working on whatever research projects intrigue me. One of my main interests is close formal analysis of films. My dissertation was on Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, and that became my first scholarly book in 1981 when Princeton University Press brought it out as Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible: A Neoformalist Analysis. In 1988 Princeton also published my second book of analysis, this time of ten films, as Breaking the Glass Armor: Neoformalist Film Analysis.
The history of film styles also fascinates me. For a long time I have been working on a study of what I call the “commercial avant-garde” movements of the post-World War I era in Europe: German Expressionism, French Impressionism, and Soviet Montage. Early on I realized, however, that we simply didn’t know enough about the norms of ordinary commercial cinema to provide a context for studying early avant-garde cinema. Investigating those norms has resulted in three books. In 1978, I undertook to trace the initial formulation of the guidelines of American filmmaking. That project resulted in a collaboration with David and with our colleague Janet Staiger on The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Technique to 1960, published by Columbia University Press in 1985.
I also needed to know more about how many American films would have been showing in Germany, France, and the Soviet Union at the time when their avant-garde movements arose. We all know that Hollywood films have long dominated world markets, but when and how did that start? I wrote a monograph, Exporting Entertainment: America in the World Film Market 1907–1934 (British Film Institute, 1985). More recently, I investigated the norms of German filmmaking practice in the post-World War I era by looking at the films of the great director Ernst Lubitsch in Herr Lubitsch Goes to Hollywood: German and American Film after World War I (University of Amsterdam Press, 2005). With all this historical background established, I’ll return to the avant-garde movements project.
Although The Classical Hollywood Cinema ended its coverage in 1960, David and I have both been concerned to demonstrate that the same basic guidelines that were formulated back in the silent era are still to a considerable degree underpinning the ways in which American films are being made now (something that not all historians agree on). Having focused largely on the silent cinema, I jumped forward to Hollywood filmmaking since the 1970s, looking at the narrative structure and tactics of ten modern classics in Storytelling in the New Hollywood: Understanding Classical Narrative Technique, published by Harvard University Press in 1999. As a follow-up, I turned my Oxford lecture series, which dealt with the similarities and differences between film and television narrative structure, into Storytelling in Film and Television (also Harvard, 2003).
To a considerable extent, this interest in Hollywood norms also led to my forthcoming book, The Frodo Franchise: The Lord of the Rings and Modern Hollywood (University of California Press, 2007). Here I cast my net wider and examine the larger phenomenon of this hugely successful franchise, examining the film’s making but also its marketing via the Internet, its merchandising (particularly DVDs and video games), and its impact on world cinema.
Alongside my film work, I have taken on some research projects in other fields—hobbies, as it were. During the 1980s I became interested in the writings of the comic genius P. G. Wodehouse and especially his Jeeves-Wooster series. I launched into a project to analyze the series and its historical background. In 1985, I was fortunate enough to become the Archivist of the P. G. Wodehouse Archive, and I have visited England at intervals ever since to update the inventory. My book, Wooster Proposes, Jeeves Disposes, or Le Mot Juste, appeared in 1992 from James Heineman.
Shortly after I finished that book, I took a tour of Egypt—expecting it to be my one and only visit there. Instead, I found another fascination: not just ancient Egyptian history, but the art of the Amarna period, the era when the pharaoh Akhenaten strove to impose the world’s first monotheistic religion on the country. I began studying the subject, attending Egyptological conventions, and eventually presenting papers at them. In 2000 I was invited to join the Egypt Exploration Society’s Expedition to Tell el-Amarna, where I have worked for three-week stretches during six seasons. My task is to inventory the many hundreds of statuary fragments found in the ancient city and to make matches between them where possible. During this work I have reconstructed surviving portions of a granodiorite statue of Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiti. (For information on this work, see amarnaproject.com.) The inventory was completed in 2006, though I hope that more statuary fragments will be found. In the meantime, I am visiting museums around the world to examine their holdings from Amarna and am sifting through the accumulated data to write a study dealing with the kinds of statues that stood in the ancient city and where they were located.
I have also long been a fan of the work of J. R. R. Tolkien, and indeed, several years ago I began researching a book on his novels. That got set aside when I seized the chance to write a book on Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, interviewing many of the filmmakers and watching the late stages of post-production on The Return of the King. With that project safely in press, I hope eventually to be able to return to the book on Tolkien.