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Film Art: An Introduction

Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages pdf online

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new! Chapter 6 | Film Futures pdf online

Figures Traced In Light

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How Motion Pictures Became the Movies

Constructive editing in Pickpocket: A video essay

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A Celestial Cinémathèque? or, Film Archives and Me: A Semi-Personal History added September 2014

Shklovsky and His “Monument to a Scientific Error”

Murder Culture: Adventures in 1940s Suspense

The Viewer’s Share: Models of Mind in Explaining Film

Common Sense + Film Theory = Common-Sense Film Theory?

Mad Detective: Doubling Down

The Classical Hollywood Cinema Twenty-Five Years Along

Nordisk and the Tableau Aesthetic

William Cameron Menzies: One Forceful, Impressive Idea

Another Shaw Production: Anamorphic Adventures in Hong Kong

Paolo Gioli’s Vertical Cinema

(Re)Discovering Charles Dekeukeleire

Doing Film History

The Hook: Scene Transitions in Classical Cinema

Anatomy of the Action Picture

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Preface, Croatian edition, On the History of Film Style

Slavoj Žižek: Say Anything

Film and the Historical Return

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Archive for the 'Film genres' Category

EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS and the myth of authenticity

Kristin here:

Back in the early 1990s I got interested in ancient Egypt and particularly the Amarna period. I started reading, attending conferences, giving papers at conferences, and eventually publishing scholarly articles. In 2000 I was invited to join the expedition at Amarna, registering statuary fragments. That work quickly grew into matching pieces, reconstructing a considerable portion of an important statue, researching in museums around the world, and now working on a large book on Amarna royal statuary. (You can read a bit about my work in this page of our website–badly in need of updating.)

So I watched Exodus: Gods and Kings with a somewhat different attitude than that of most other viewers. Now I don’t expect all films set in ancient cultures to be 100% authentic in their design and their depiction of events. Considerations of spectacle and general visual appeal take precedence at times. But Exodus goes a bit over the top. Even a one-time tourist to Egypt who was paying the slightest attention to the guide would spot some laugh-out-loud moments here.

The departure from historical reality here led me to think, as I often do, about the ways in which the makers of fiction films set in ancient Egypt and other early cultures tend to try and lend an air of authenticity by hiring an expert consultant who is listed in the final credits.

Something similar happens in educational documentaries of the type shown on The Learning Channel or The History Channel. There several experts may appear in talking-head segments, and additional scholars will be credited at the end as consultants.

My experience, however, is that in at least some cases, consultants’ advice is ignored, even in the documentaries. Filmmakers tend to do what they think will be most appealing to the viewer, and then credit the consultants anyway, as if they had actually guided the filmmakers throughout. I know this partly because several of my teammates and other Egyptologists have complained that it is not uncommon for their suggestions to be dismissed. I have been filmed a couple of times, though I ended up on the cutting room floor in both cases. My chunks of broken sculpture, which tell me a great deal and in some cases are very unusual and important historically, just aren’t visually interesting enough for the public–or so the assumption is. On one of these occasions I pointed out to the filmmakers that one object was more relevant to the point being made than the one they wanted to use. I was told that the one they wanted to and did use would look more attractive. I’m sure a lot of consultants more expert than I hear the same thing.

 

Too much history

One has to sympathize with filmmakers tackling a tale set in ancient Egypt. Its history just goes on and on.

The date for the unification of Egypt under a single ruler and the invention of the hieroglyphic writing system that made its centralized administration possible keeps getting pushed back as more discoveries are made. Now it’s at about 3100 BC. Pharaonic Egypt ended in 30 BC with the death of Cleopatra VII Philopator (yes, that Cleopatra) when she committed suicide, reportedly using a poisonous snake. To give a vivid indication of how long pharaonic Egypt lasted, Cleopatra lived distinctly closer in time to us (just over 2000 years) than she did to the building of the Great Pyramids of Giza (about 2600 years earlier). And those pyramids were built about 500 years after that unification I mentioned.

The challenge for filmmakers is that many of the things we think of as most emblematic of ancient Egypt happened far apart in time. The Great Pyramids of Giza were built around 2600. The introduction of horses and chariots was–well, nobody knows exactly, but perhaps some time in the 1640 to 1550 BC range. Yet filmmakers cannot resist the temptation to have people dashing about in chariots as they supervise the building of the Great Pyramids. Howard Hawks’s Land of the Pharaoh does it. Exodus: Gods and Kings does it. It looks good, but in modern terms it would be sort of like William the Conqueror checking his email to see how preparations for his invasion of Britain were going.

Apart from the problem of Egyptian history, Exodus mixes two different genres of story. The Exodus story is a myth based solely on texts, with no archaeological evidence to confirm it. Ancient Egyptian history really happened. That history can be portrayed authentically, while the Exodus story can be portrayed faithfully.  There’s a difference. Moreover, even people who believe that the Exodus really happened can’t agree at what point in that history it occurred. Probably the most popular choice for the Pharaoh of the Exodus is Ramses II, and the filmmakers have settled on that. He’s not called “Ramses the Second” in the film, and indeed ancient Egyptians didn’t think of their kings as numbered. Still, the fact that his father is Sety indicates that the Ramses in the movie is the second of the eleven Ramses that sat on the throne of Egypt over the years.

Absolute chronology is impossible to determine for ancient Egypt, but best estimate is that Ramses II reigned from 1290 to 1224 BC. (He lived to be 97.) That’s Nineteenth Dynasty, New Kingdom. The period I study is roughly 1353 to 1335, the reign of Akhenaten, who is Eighteenth Dynasty, New Kingdom, so not all that far apart by Egyptian standards. The late Eighteenth Dynasty and early Nineteenth were the pinnacle of Egyptian power and wealth: perfect for a sword-and-sandal spectacle.

Yet in making Exodus, the filmmakers have not solved the problems I’ve just mentioned. Time and space are oddly warped, and design concerns have trumped authenticity to a considerable degree.

 

Egypt compressed

Perhaps the strangest aspect of Exodus: Gods and Kings  is how it mashes together not only things from different periods but also localities that are actually many miles apart. The early part of the action is set in Memphis, which was genuinely the administrative capital of Egypt during much of its history. See the image at the top, which gives the best view of the city’s layout. The earliest pyramid ever built, the Step Pyramid of Djoser (constructed somewhere around 2630 BC and probably the one over on the left in the image), is part of the necropolis of Memphis, but it’s up on the high desert, well away from the city, which is down in the cultivated area. And what is that other step pyramid doing on the other side of the river? There was only the one step pyramid, and all the pyramids built as tombs for the pharaoh were on the same side of the river, the west. The pointed pyramid in the distance has been transported from Giza to Memphis. Admittedly, that’s only a distance of about fifteen miles.

But the pyramid is also shown under construction. Ramses II would not have built a pyramid for his own tomb, since long before that point pharaohs had started using rock-cut tombs in what is now known as the Valley of the Kings. That’s where he was interred.

In the film, the palace of Sety and later of Ramses is modeled on the temple of Amun at Karnak, way down in Luxor (about 350 miles away). The massive columns of the hypostyle hall, one of the most familiar tourist sights in the country, were indeed built by Sety and Ramses, but it’s a temple, not a palace. Temples were built largely or entirely of stone in this period, while palaces were mainly built of mudbrick and painted mud plaster. We don’t know nearly as much about palaces as we do about temples, because they tend not to survive very well. Pharaohs tended to travel around, staying in palaces built for specific purposes, rather than to erect one giant one to call home.

The road running out from the palace down which Moses, Ramses, and other leaders of the army depart is lined with criosphinxes, sphinxes with the heads in the form of a ram, the sacred animal of Amun (see bottom). These are copied from the criosphinxes that line the sacred ways leading up to Karnak from the west and south. These criosphinxes didn’t have colossal statues of gods standing in between them, though the filmmakers may have added them to give a hint at the multiple gods of the ancient Egyptians. Given the film’s title, one might expect a little more exposition on the gods of Egypt, to create a contrast with Moses’ monotheistic religion. Instead we get almost nothing relating to gods except entrail-reading, which was not practiced in ancient Egypt.

The choice of Memphis as the main city setting is a dubious one. Sety I founded a new city east of the Delta, and Ramses II built it up into the new main royal residence and capital of the country, Piramesse. I mention this not to be nitpicky. In fact, at the beginning of his reign, as he is in the film, Ramses quite possibly was still primarily residing in Memphis. The point really is that the Bible specifies that the Exodus began with the Israelites leaving “Rameses” (spelled thus in the King James translation, “Exodus” Chapter 12, 37). It’s not absolutely certain that this Rameses is identical with Piramesse, but no other candidate has been discovered, and it seems likely. Piramesse lies well north of the Red Sea and due west from the land bridge from Egypt to the Sinai peninsula. Heading straight for Canaan, the Israelites shouldn’t have had to deal with the Red Sea or any parting thereof to get where they wanted to go. Still, it makes a vivid story.

Piramesse is also quite far from any pyramids or other spectacular, familiar Egyptian structures, and out in the flat lands north of the beginning of the Delta. Plus a lot more people have heard of ancient Memphis than Piramesse, so one can understand the filmmakers’ choice of cities.

 

Familiar and not so familiar mistakes

Another thing that film designers of stories set in ancient Egypt invariably do is to put many of the male characters and even extras in the striped headcloth called the nemes. That’s the one that forms a sort of triangle on either side of the face. Guards, overseers, officials, all wear the nemes. In this hanging scene, for example, the chap at the far left in the frame below has one, as has the man in the middle ground, just to the right of the scaffolding. So do the men lined up at the back of the scaffold. But the nemes was a royal headdress. Only the king could wear it. The royal uraeus, the rearing protective cobra worn above the forehead, was also confined to the king, and during some periods his wife. We see Moses wearing one when going into battle, which would not have been allowed.

And speaking of this scene, hanging was not a method of execution used in ancient Egypt. In fact, execution as such was fairly rare, but someone who rebelled against the state or the gods might be burned alive or impaled. On the whole, severe punishments involved loss of property or hard labor, like being sent to the pharaoh’s quarries or mines–likely to be a death sentence in itself.

In two or three shots of the palace, we see peacocks wandering around. There were no peacocks in Egypt at this point. I suppose the designers thought that these showy birds would add to the spectacle and the sense of vaguely decadent luxury. There were, however, other options. For example, ancient Egyptian royals and nobility loved monkeys and kept them as pets. They are frequently depicted in reliefs and paintings, mainly in tombs, sitting under their owners’ chairs, though favorite dogs or cats often occupy that spot instead. A particularly lively monkey appears in the image to the left, from the tomb of a prominent Eighteenth Dynasty official, Anen, on the west bank at Luxor. The monkey is leaping under the chair of Queen Tiye, and beneath it is what appears to be a cat embracing a duck in a friendly fashion (left). That seems pretty visually interesting to me.

In the film, Ramses’ army includes cavalry, but ancient Egyptians didn’t ride horses into battle. The troops were either in chariots or on foot. The horses originally introduced into Egypt were too small to be ridden by someone fully astride their backs. Consequently saddles were unknown in Ramses’ era. The rider had to sit well back on the rump, as Egyptians still do today when they ride donkeys. In the Memphite tomb of Horemheb (last pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty and first of the Nineteenth, depending on whom you ask), there’s a rare depiction of a man riding a horse in exactly this fashion (right). He’s probably a groom, taking a horse from one of the chariots visible at the upper right to tend to it elsewhere.

Exodus: Gods and Kings also dusts off that Hollywood cliché of showing legions of Israelite slaves laboring under the lash to built the Great Pyramids. The main sources of this notion are Herodotus (writing about 2200 years after the event) and the book of Exodus in the Bible (perhaps written close to 3000 years after their construction).

In fact the Great Pyramids were built by paid laborers. Many of these were part of a permanent workforce who lived in a village near the plateau. Others might have been part-timers, such as farmers whose fields were under the inundation for four months out of every year.

The claim in the film is that the Israelites have been enslaved in Egypt for four hundred years. Four hundred years before Ramses II’s reign, Egypt was falling apart, with the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Dynasty pharaohs fighting for control. The country was declining into the Second Intermediate Period, with part of the land controlled by the Hyksos, a foreign group of rulers. There were probably few if any slaves being brought into Egypt at the time, let alone a huge group like the one posited.

Slavery in ancient Egypt is still not fully understood, but clearly it was a more complex and flexible system than the sort of slavery that we think of today. There weren’t all that many slaves in the Old Kingdom when the pyramids were built. The big influx came with the expansion of the empire in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Dynasties, when Egypt conquered southward into Nubia and northeastward into the Levant. At that point prisoners of war became the main source of slaves. They would either serve the pharaoh and his institutions or be awarded to the military officers who had served well in combat. Slavery didn’t become the basis of the national economy, ironically, until the Greeks took over.

Slavery took a variety of forms. It could be a punishment for wrongdoers, but it could also be a way of going bankrupt, working off debts by serving the creditor. There is evidence that slaves had legal rights, such as owning property. There are recorded cases, perhaps exceptional, of slaves gaining training in professional skills, including writing. Some could rise to management positions, even supervising freemen in their masters’ estates. In some instances, slaves married or were adopted into the families they served. Slavery covered a wide range of circumstances, but it didn’t extend to the sort of mass oppression portrayed in Exodus: Gods and Kings.

I could go on, but a few more brief examples should suffice. The Great Sphinx, which is located in front of the central pyramid at Giza, is placed out in the desert instead. Colossal statues of Ramses were not built of individual blocks of stone. Even his collapsed colossus at his mortuary temple, which weighed about 1000 tons when intact, was made of a single giant piece of granite. Huge sphinxes would not be built in the middle of residential areas, let alone slave dwellings, as are the ones we glimpse in the film.

And finally, the golden helmet that Ramses wears into battle is based on a queen’s protective vulture crown. His wife, Nefertari, would have been the one to wear such a crown. The real Nefertari is shown wearing several embellished ones, including this one with large plumes and a sun disk, in her spectacular painted tomb. The vulture’s head acts as a uraeus in this case, though it has rather bizarrely been replaced by a snake on the version given to Ramses.

     

Don’t get me started on the camels.

 

Research with a little twist

To be fair, the publicity surrounding Exodus didn’t make a lot of big claims to authenticity. There was some attempt, however, to promote its faithfulness to historical fact. The Hollywood Reporter ran one brief paragraph in a piece on possible Oscar nominees for best production design.

Arthur Max, production designer

Before creating ancient Egypt’s Royal Palace of Memphis, Max took a research trip up the Nile to visit the Luxor Temple and the Temple of Amun [i.e., Karnak]. He also made stops at the British Museum, the Petrie Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Egyptian Museum of Turin. The $150 million production spent 16 weeks building large sets at Pinewood Studios, and CG was used to extend their monumental scale. “Each column is 10 feet in diameter and about 70 feet high,” says Max. “All the furniture is hand-built–there’s not a lot of ancient Egyptian furniture around. All the murals are hand-painted in traditional pigments. They even re-created period sculptures like a 42-foot high head of Ramses the Great.

Some of the other design people, however, freely admitted to a concern with flashiness over authenticity. Variety ran a story on the costumes:

Those who have seen Janty Yates’ work with Ridley Scott in period epics like “Gladiator” and “Kingdom of Heaven” know they can expect a feast for the eyes that’s grounded in research, but also offers what she called “a little twist.” Translation? A bit of extra sheen in a metal breastplate, or, in the case of Scott’s biblical saga, “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” dressing Ramses entirely in gold, or making T-shaped garments for the plebes that look “quite hot,” per Yates.

Another Variety story of the same type is  very misleadingly entitled “Making It All Look Real” (in the print edition; the online title is “Artisans on Making ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’ Look Authentic”). In fact, the piece is about how authenticity was sacrificed to design considerations.

Filmmakers strive for period authenticity–up to a point.

Take Ridley Scott’s “Exoduc: Gods and Kings.” Set decorator Celia Bobak said she took certain liberties. For example, tables in ancient Egypt were low to the ground–a look that she felt contemporary audiences might find laughable.

Similarly, cinematographer Dariusz Wolski requested the use of silk fabrics to enhance the film’s warm, golden-color palette, even though linen and wool were more period-specific.

Bobak added that materials used for creating the furniture “were anything but authentic,” but were made to look so by a team of painters who paid attention to surface decoration and detail.

Working with production designer Arthur Max, a frequent Scott collaborator, Bobak researched the period by visiting the Cairo Museum and Egyptian archives in Europe. Once the duo established the look of each set, prop makers, graphic designers and carpenters brought everything to life.

Why modern audiences would laugh at low tables is unclear. I suspect that decision had more to do with staging the scene where Ramses threatens to cut off the hand of Moses’ “sister,” which he is holding down on a table top. That certainly would have looked silly with the characters bending over a low table.

 

 Yes, there was an expert consultant

With this sort of personal research and devil-may-care attitude, combined with the highly selective use of actual historical fact, you might assume that the Exodus project didn’t hire an expert consultant. In fact, they did. They didn’t flaunt their consultant in the credits, though, as such films tend to do. I scanned the credits for the name Alan Lloyd, but I didn’t spot it. It must be there somewhere, since it’s listed on the imdb Full Cast and Crew for the film. There it’s way down at the bottom, under Other Crew:

Dr. Lloyd is listed as “technical advisor (Doctor),” which might convey the impression that he was on the medical team. I don’t know why the filmmakers buried him in this fashion, since Dr. Alan Lloyd is an actual, reputable Egyptologist. He’s currently the president of the Egypt Exploration Society, which has been a major British institution fostering Egyptological work since 1882. He retired from the University of Swansea in 2006, with a substantial record of publication and other scholarly activities. His specialties include Herodotus, the Graeco-Roman period in Egypt, and ancient warfare.

Dr. Lloyd also is a big film fan and admires Ridley Scott, as an interview with him on the writing studio site reveals. There he expresses enthusiasm for the film and the experience of working on it. In particular he speaks of the care taken concerning texts:

One particularly clear indication of this was that they continually came back to me to provide them with copy for Egyptian texts, and this was sometimes hieroglyphs, and this I provided them with, and indeed they used it.

They also, at times, wanted material in hieratic, which was the script that was normally used for letters and documents, and I produced that material for them.

Particularly interestingly, and I don’t know how many people in the world would pick up on this, or even whether it was used, but they wanted text of the Ten Commandments, but not in English.

They wanted it in Hebrew and I gave them the Hebrew text written in the old Hebrew alphabet, not the one that everyone is familiar with. It is the proto-Hebrew alphabet, which is very different.

All the texts in the film flitted by so fast that even an expert couldn’t judge them, but I assume they were accurate. We get one glimpse of Moses writing the Commandments on a tablet, but the view is from opposite him and we see the writing upside down. (By the way, in the Bible, didn’t the Lord himself write these?)

Oddly, toward the end of the production, the filmmakers only showed Dr. Lloyd selected sequences from the film. The same interview continues: “Professor Lloyd has seen footage from the film and says that some of the sequences he watched, including the Battle of Kadesh and the plagues visited on ancient Egypt by an angry God, are ‘brilliantly’ realized.”

To be sure, the long montage sequence of the plagues is probably the best thing in the film. Moreover, given Dr. Lloyd’s expertise in ancient warfare, it seems likely that he was consulted particularly on the battle scene. It’s certainly  more authentic than most of the film’s other scenes. Six-spoked chariot wheels, yes. Plumes on the royal horses’ heads, yes. Bows and arrows, yes. The chariots themselves look fairly close to surviving ones from the New Kingdom. My guess is that Dr. Lloyd pointed out that cavalry was not used in that period but was told that showing warriors riding horses (with saddles) was more visually interesting than mere foot soldiers.

Perhaps Dr. Lloyd was not shown the entire film because of all the inaccuracies in the other scenes. Or perhaps I am being too suspicious.

Hollywood remains in an ambiguous position in regard to historical authenticity, especially in spectacular tales set in ancient times. It plays well in the publicity, but when the designers come up with their visions, it’s awfully easy to dismiss it.

 

A final comment

There has been much criticism of the filmmakers for using white males for the lead roles. True, it’s hard to think of Christian Bale and especially Joel Edgerton as an ancient Canaanite or Egyptian. But to give the film some credit, the moment I saw John Turturro as Sety I, my unexpected reaction was, Wow, he looks like a Ramesside pharaoh. Specifically, like Sety I.

How can we know? For a start, Sety’s mummy happens to be one of the best-preserved that has come down to us. Even so, it’s hard to tell from a mummy what the man looked like, though he obviously had a beaky nose, a long chin, and prominent, high cheekbones. In the early 20th Century, artist Winifred Brunton studied Egyptology alongside her husband. They worked in Egypt, and during that time she painted a set of portraits of the pharaohs and their families, based on paintings, sculptures, and mummies. They’re actually fairly plausible as conceptual paintings. Although they’re not scientific evidence, they’re still held in some regard by Egyptologists–though obviously the depiction of the skin color of the ancients does look too European. Her portrait of Sety I is at the right below. She shows the pharaoh as a younger man, but to me the resemblance is there.

         


The only source I could turn to for frames from the film was the set of online trailers. I can’t be entirely sure that all of my illustrations are in the final film, since occasionally shots from the trailer get dropped.

The photo of Ramses’ helmet was one of many of his golden costume taken by blogger Jason in Hollywood during the current “23rd Annual Art of Motion Picture Costume Design” exhibition, which takes place in the pre-Oscar period.

For those interested in birds in ancient Egypt, a catalogue of a recent exhibition at the Oriental Institute in Chicago is available as a pdf online for free. No peacocks, but storks, pelicans, hoopoes, geese, and many more, as beautifully rendered in tomb paintings and other ancient artworks.

Anyone visiting Bologna, whether for Il Cinema Ritrovato or any other purpose, can wander over to the Museo Civico Archeologico, just off the Piazza Maggiore, and see the original of the relief of the horse-riding groom and other magnificent scenes from the tomb of Horemheb.

For a good, brief Associated Press summary of evidence against the Great Pyramids being built with slave labor, see here. For a longer but accessible account of the work of Mark Lehner, who has long excavated at Giza and discovered the village of the pyramid workmen, see here.

Winifred Brunton’s portrait of Sety I appears in her Kings and Queens of Ancient Egypt (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1926).

Genre ≠ Generic

The Shape of Night (Nakamuro Noboru, 1964).

DB here:

I didn’t plan it that way, but it turns out that a great many films I saw at this year’s Hong Kong International Film Festival would have to be categorized as genre pictures. Not, admittedly, Shu Kei’s episode of Beautiful 2014, which interweaves flashbacks and erotic reveries in a purely poetic fashion. And not Tsai Ming-liang’s “sequel” to Walker (2012, made for HKIFF), called, whimsically, Journey to the West. Here again, Lee Kang-sheng, robed as a Buddhist monk, steps slowly through landscapes, some so vast or opaque that you must play a sort of Where’s-Waldo game to find him. (You have plenty of time: there are only 14 shots in 53 minutes.)

But there were plenty of other films that counted as genre exercises. Yet they mixed their familiar features with local flavors and fresh treatment, reminding me that conventions can always be quickened by imaginative film artists.

 

Keeping the peace, in pieces

Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014).

Take, for instance, The Shape of Night, a 1966 street-crime movie from Shochiku, directed by Nakamura Noburo. Nakamura was the subject of a small retrospective at Tokyo’s FilmEx last year, and this item certainly makes one want to see more of his work. A more or less innocent girl falls in love with a yakuza, who forces her to become a prostitute. In abrupt, sometimes very brief flashbacks, she tells her life to a client who wants to rescue her. The film makes characteristically Japanese use of bold widescreen compositions, disjointed close-ups, and mixed voice-overs from her and the men in her life. In retrospect, everything we’ve seen has been seen in other movies, but Nakamura’s handling kept me continually gripped and often surprised.

Or take That Demon Within, a Hong Kong cop film that premiered at the festival’s close. Dante Lam has made several solid urban action pictures, especially Jiang Hu: The Triad Zone (2000), Beast Stalker (2008), Fire of Conscience (2010), and The Stool Pigeon (2010). They’re characterized by wild visuals and exceptionally brutal violence, and That Demon Within fits smoothly into his style. The new wrinkle is that a boy traumatized by the sight of police violence himself becomes a cop. He’s then haunted by the image of the cop from his past, while he’s also caught up in a search for a take-no-prisoners robber.

His hallucinations and disorientation are rendered through nearly every damn trick in the book, from upside-down shots and blurry color and focus to voices bouncing around the multichannel mix.

There are dreams, too (seems like almost every new film I saw had a dream sequence), and scenes under hypnosis, and men bursting into flame, and action sequences that are visceral in their shock value. I thought the movie careened out of control pretty early, and its nihilism wasn’t redeemed by an epilogue that assured us that this possessed policeman was, at moments, friendly and helpful. In this case, the storytelling innovations generated some confusion about exactly how the hero’s breakdown infused what was happening around him.

More consistent, largely because it didn’t try for the subjectivity of Lam’s film, was the Chinese cop movie Black Coal, Thin Ice. My friend Mike Walsh of Australia pointed out that the mainland cinema’s bleak realism seems to be starting to blend with traditional genre material. Director Diao Yinan explained, “My aim was not only to investigate a mystery and find out the truth about the people involved, but also to create a true representation of our new reality.” The opening crosscuts the grubby detail of bloody parcels churning through coal conveyors with a couple entwined in a final copulation before breaking off their relationship.

The mystery revolves around body parts that are showing up in coal shipments around one region. After a startling shootout in a hairdressing salon, the case remains unsolved for several years. The surviving detective, a shabby drunk, returns to track down the culprit, but in the meantime he runs into a frosty femme fatale. “He killed,” she says, “every man who loved me.” Needless to say, the detective falls for her too, especially after ice-skating with her. Diao’s film reminds us that you can create a neo-noir in two ways: By taking a mystery and dirtying it up, or taking concrete reality and probing the mysteries lurking in it.

There were even two Westerns. Another mainland movie, No Man’s Land, was unexpectedly savage coming from the director of the super-slick satires Crazy Stone (2006) and Crazy Racer (2009). Now Ning Hao has given us a bleakly farcical, Road-Warrior account of life on the Chinese prairie.

A wealthy lawyer brought out to the wasteland to negotiate a criminal case becomes embroiled in primal passions involving men with very large guns, very large trucks, impassive faces, and almost no sense of humor. It’s a black comedy of escalating payback (involving spitting and pissing), and it exudes sheer masculine nastiness. Completed four years ago, it found release only after extensive reshoots demanded by censors. Yet even in its milder state it remains true to the spirit of Sergio Leone’s jaunty grimness, bleached in umber sand and light.

Itching to see a Kurdish feminist political Western?  You’ll find Hiner Saleem’s  My Sweet Pepperland welcome. A tough policeman (= sheriff) is dispatched to a remote village in Kurdistan to keep order (= clean up the town). A young teacher (= schoolmarm) leaves her oppressive family to teach there as well. A warlord (= town boss) and his minions (= paid killers) have terrorized the locals, while marauding female guerillas (= outlaws) bring their fight into town.

These time-honored conventions shape a story of stubborn courage taking on complacent viciousness. In key scenes, our sheriff faces down big, hairy, scary killers.

     

USA frontier conventions, it turns out, work pretty well in a Muslim society too. The Hollywood Western’s continued embodiment of American values transfers easily to the former Iraq. “Our weapons are our honor,” the chief thug says, in a line that resonates through our history right up to now. Yet things we take for granted bring modern change to the wasteland. The sheriff assigns himself to the village in order to escape an arranged marriage, as the woman he finds there has done. She is vilified by both the locals and her male relatives, who would prefer death (hers) to dishonor (theirs). In the process, both he and she become heroic in a righteous, old-fashioned way.

A killer proposes a compromise while sneakily drawing his pistol. The cop shoots him and remarks: “I don’t do compromise.” Neither does My Sweet Pepperland.

 

Gangs of New York, and elsewhere

The Dreadnaught (1966).

From March to May, the Hong Kong Film Archive has been running a series, “Ways of the Underworld: Hong Kong Gangster Film as Genre.” It’s packed with classics (The Teahouse, To Be No. 1, City on Fire, Infernal Affairs) as well as several rarities (Absolute Monarch, Bald-Headed Betty, Lonely 15). I managed to catch three titles, all previously unknown to me.

The Dreadnaught (1966) has a familiar premise. Two orphan boys indulge in petty theft after the war. One, Chow, is caught but gets adopted by a policeman. He turns out a solid young citizen. Lee, the boy who escapes, grows up to be a triad. When the two re-meet, Lee is attracted to Chow’s stepsister. Some years later, Chow is now a cop and vows to smash Lee’s gang. After a struggle with his conscience, Lee agrees to help.

The film’s main attraction is the shamelessly flashy performance of Patrick Tse Yin. Tse would make his fame in the following year in Lung Kong’s Story of a Discharged Prisoner, famous as a primary source for A Better Tomorrow. With his sidelong smile, his endlessly waving cigarette, and the dark glasses he wears at all times, Tse in The Dreadnaught looks forward to Chow Yun-fat’s charismatic role as Mark in Woo’s masterpiece.

Another icon of the period is Alan Tang Kwong-wing. He played in over 100 films, mostly romances and triad dramas made in Taiwan. Westerners probably know him best as the producer of Wong Kar-wai’s first two features, As Tears Go By and Days of Being Wild. Wong had worked as a screenwriter for Tang. Onscreen, Tang had a suave, polished presence marked by his perfect coiffure; he was known as the Alain Delon of Hong Kong. His company, Wing-Scope, specialized in mob films during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

New York Chinatown (1982) shows Tang as a young hood whose ambitions to dominate the neighborhood are blocked by a rival gang. Eventually the police decide to let the two gangs decimate each other. This leads to an enjoyable, all-out showdown involving surprisingly heavy armaments. Shot quickly on location (passersby sometimes glance into the lens), the movie gives a rawer sense of street life than you get from most Hollywood films. There’s also a scene in which Tang, apparently attending Columbia part time, corrects a history professor lecturing on Western imperialism in China. Although the film circulates on cheap DVD in 1.33 format, it’s a widescreen production, and it was a pleasure to watch a fine 35mm print at the Archive.

The biggest revelation of the series for me was Tradition (1955), a Mandarin release. This is considered one of the earliest pure gangster films in local cinema. It’s a fascinating plot about a boy raised by a triad kingpin in the 1930s. When the godfather dies, the young Xiang is given power over the gang and the master’s household. Trying to be faithful to the old man’s principles, Xiang finds himself unable to control his master’s widow and daughter, who are led astray by the widow’s worldly, greedy sister. At the same time, Xiang must ally with other triads to smuggle aid to the forces fighting the invading Japanese. He is torn between devotion to tradition and the need to adapt to modern materialism and the impending world war.

Tradition is redolent of film noir, not only in the sister-in-law’s fatal ways (she seduces the old master’s weak son) but also in the film’s flashback construction. Tracking back from a ticking clock, the movie begins with Xiang meeting the master’s daughter after his gang has been decimated in a shootout. The film skips back to Xiang’s childhood and takes us up through the main action before a final bloody confrontation with police and the corrupt family members. At the end, the camera tracks up to the clock, closing off the whole action.

Even more tightly buckled up are director Tang Huang’s obsessive hooks between scenes. A final line of dialogue is answered or echoed by the first line of the next scene; a closing door or character gesture links sequences in the manner of Lang’s M. Most daringly, when sister San starts to light a cigarette in one scene, we cut to her puffing on it in a tight close-up—a gesture that takes place in a new scene hours later. This and other admittedly gimmicky links look forward to Resnais’s elliptical matches on action in Muriel.

Fortunately for us, the Archive has published Always in the Dark: A Study of Hong Kong Gangster Films. Edited and partly written by Po Fung, it is an excellent collection of essays and interviews. It is in Chinese, but it includes a CD-ROM version in English. It’s available from the Archive’s Publications office.

 

Behind the scenes at Milkyway

Johnnie To and a recalcitrant crane during the shooting of Romancing in Thin Air.

Sometimes a genre film becomes a prestige picture. This happened, in spades, with The Grandmaster. If awards matter, Wong Kar-wai’s film has become the official best Asian film of 2013. I missed the Asian Film Awards in Macau (was watching early Farhadi films), but the event was a virtual sweep: seven top awards for The Grandmaster, including Best Picture and Best Director. After I got back home, the Hong Kong Film Awards gave the picture a staggering twelve prizes, everything from Best Picture to Best Sound.

Unhappily, nothing in either contest went to the other outstanding Hong Kong film I saw last year, Johnnie To Kei-fung’s Drug War. It lacked the obvious ambitions and surface sheen of Wong’s film. Many probably took it as merely a solid, efficient genre picture. I believe it’s an innovative and subtle piece of storytelling, as I tried to show here.

Mr. To presses on, as prolific as usual. He has finished shooting a sequel to Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, a rom-com that found success in the Mainland, and he’s currently filming a more unusual project in Canton. More on that shortly.

During the festival only one recent To/Milkway film was screened, The Blind Detective (I wrote about that here). But Ferris Lin, a young director from the Academy for Performing Arts, presented a very informative documentary feature on To and his Milkyway company. Boundless takes us behind the scenes on several productions, particularly Life without Principle, Romancing in Thin Air, and Drug War. It also incorporates interviews with To, his collaborators, and critics like Shu Kei.

Sitting at the monitor with his cigar, To may seem distant, but actually he is wholly engaged. We see him help push a crane out of the mud and shout commands to his staff. To confesses that he may scold too much, but the dedicated cooperation he gets confirms his demands. The team gives its all, as we learn when they explain the tension ruling the three days of rehearsal for the sequence-shot at the start of Breaking News. For The Mission, made at the time of Milkyway’s biggest slump, the actors supplied their own cars and costumes.

To remains a complete professional who has perfected his craft, albeit in the Hong Kong tradition of “just do it.” He doesn’t rely on storyboards or even shot-lists, only outlines of the action, and he adjusts to the demands of the locations. The Mission had no script, but the entire story and shot layout were in his head. For Exiled, he didn’t even have that much and simply began thinking when he stepped onto the set each day. It’s hard to believe that precise shot design and sly dramatic undercurrents can emerge from such an apparently unplanned approach. In its recording of To’s unique creative process, Boundless provides a vivid portrait of one of the world’s finest contemporary directors.

To continues to challenge himself. He is currently trying something else again, shooting a musical wholly in the studio. Its source, the 2009 play Design for Living, was written by and for the timeless Sylvia Chang Ai-chia. It won success in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the Mainland. In the film Sylvia is joined by Chow Yun-fat, thus reuniting the stars of To’s 1989 breakout film All About Ah-Long. The project also indulges the director’s long-felt admiration for Jacques Demy. There is no 2014 film I’m looking forward to more keenly.


Special thanks to Shu Kei and Ferris Lin of the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. Thanks as well to Li Cheuk-to, Roger Garcia, and Crystal Yau, as well as all the staff and interns of HKIFF, and to Winnie Fu of the Hong Kong Film Archive.

Journey to the West (Tsai Ming-liang, 2014).

The other Kurosawa: SHOKUZAI

Shokuzai (2012).

DB here:

This year’s trip to Brussels and the Royal Film Archive of Belgium was more low-key than usual. The Cinematek’s mini-festivals were suspended this year, with Cinédecouvertes to resume next summer and the L’age d’or competition to get its own slot in the fall. The usually reliable Écran Total series at the Galeries Cinema was gone, replaced by mostly recent releases. The Cinematek’s main venue was featuring America in the 1980s (not to be despised, but these items were familiar to me) and Antonioni, because of the current exhibition devoted to him in the Musée des Beaux-Arts. And even my archive viewing was slimmed down to only a few days, as I watched some 1940s American features too obscure even to circulate on bootleg DVDs.

I wasn’t exactly bereft of choices, and I could occupy my time preparing for my Antwerp lectures on Ozu, but I was angling for something special. Luckily, our old friend Gabrielle Claes, recently retired as Director of the Cinematek, called my attention to a one-off showing of Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s Shokuzai (“Penitence,” 2012) at Cinéma Vendôme, a local arthouse. The bonus: Kurosawa in person! So of course Gabrielle and I went.

Before and after the movie, I began thinking about his career and his place in recent Japanese film history.

 

Making waves in the 90s

 Sonatine (1993).

During the 1990s a new generation of Japanese directors came to international attention. Thanks to home video formats, as well as to a rising taste for international crime and horror films, western audiences became aware of filmmakers from many countries who unabashedly worked in low-end popular genres. The success of Hong Kong films in 1980s festivals had made programmers open to Asian pulp fictions. Soon commercial companies saw a fan market for video versions of movies that were unlikely to get theatrical distribution outside Japan. These films changed forever the image of Japanese cinema as a refined and dignified tradition.

Admittedly, Western views of Japanese film were probably too sanitized. Ozu never shrank from bawdy humor, Mizoguchi could display acute suffering, and Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and Sanjuro were exceptionally bloody by 1960s American standards. Still, things had gotten quite wild in later years. Films that weren’t widely exported, such as those exploiting juvenile-delinquency, yakuza intrigues, and swordplay, as well as the softcore erotica known as “pink” films, would have shown western audiences something quite surprising. In the 1980s, charmers like Tampopo, The Funeral, and other export releases could hardly have prepared audiences abroad for the cinema of shock that was becoming common at home. Perhaps only Ishii Sôgo’s Crazy Family (1984), widely circulated in Europe and America, hinted at what was ahead.

The oldest provocateur was Kitano Takeshi (born, like me, in 1947), who came to directing after a solid career as a comedian. His Sonatine (1993) established him as master of the impassively violent, disturbingly amusing gangster movie. I don’t think anyone can forget Sonatine’s elevator-car shootout, which is unleashed after an awkward, semicomic passage of passengers behaving as we all do in an elevator, adopting neutral expressions and avoiding each other’s eyes. The most celebrated director of this group, Kitano influenced action filmmakers around the world and probably helped spark a revival of interest in classic yakuza pictures.

Other directors were younger and got their start in more marginal filmmaking. Tsukamoto Shinya had worked in Super-8 since childhood and made his breakthrough film, Tetsuo (1989) in 16mm, which became a cult hit on worldwide video. Soon Tetsuo II (1992), Tokyo Fist (1995), Bullet Ballet (1998), and other films showcased a frenetic, assaultive style that was the cinematic equivalent of thrash-rock. Miike Takeshi made several V-films before he hit international screens with Audition (1999), and soon his earlier theatrical releases Shinjuku Triad Society (1995) and Fudoh: The New Generation (1996) became staples of cult screenings and video collecting. Miike pushed things over the edge. Even Kitano did not dare to show a schoolgirl assassin firing deadly darts from her vagina.

I don’t mean to suggest that these directors were sensationalistic all the time. Miike made children’s films, a discreet heart-warmer (The Bird People in China, 1997), a mystical drama (Big Bang Love Juvenile A, 2005), and classical swordplay sagas (Thirteen Assassins, 2010). Kitano developed his interest in prolonged adolescence through sentimental drama (A Scene at the Sea, 1991), Chaplinesque road movie (Kikujiro, 1999), symbolic pageant (Dolls, 2002), and self-referential absurdity (Takeshi’s, 2005, and others). Still, these two directors have often returned to the downmarket genres that launched their reputations.

Nor do I want to suggest that all the filmmakers emerging to wider awareness at this time were roughnecks. Kore-eda Hirokazu began his career in documentary films, followed by the solemn, elemental Maborosi (1995). Kawase Naomi, one of Japan’s few women directors, won acclaim with the sensitive rural drama Suzaku (1997), and Suo Masayuki became a top-grossing export with his satiric comedies Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t (1992) and Shall We Dance? (1996). Yet Kore-eda, widely respected for his nuanced family films, made a movie centering on a sex dolly (Air Doll, 2009), and Kawase had worked for years on autobiographical documentaries dealing bluntly with family tensions, old age, and women’s oppression. Suo’s debut was a pink film called Abnormal Family: My Older Brother’s Bride (1984) in which an affectionate parody of Ozu’s style was used to present copulation, teenage sex work, and a golden shower.

In sum, in Japan the distance between serious art and more sensual, not to say shocking, cinema isn’t that great. To take a more recent example, who would have expected that the director of the quiet, deeply moving Departures (2008; Academy Award, Best Foreign-Language Film) would have learned his craft in a series centering on men who grope women on commuter trains? (Sample title: Molester’s Train: Seiko’s Ass, 1985.)

 

Mysteries, mundane and supernatural

Shokuzai.

Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s career fits the trend I’ve sketched. Born in 1955, he started with pink films and V-cinema, but the theatrical release Cure (1997) won festival berths and international distribution. It presents the now-familiar mixture of mystery story and supernatural tale, in which a detective with personal problems investigates serial killings and begins to suspect that the murders are performed under some mesmeric influence. In Charisma (1999) the supernatural elements dominate, as a police officer tries to understand the powers of a tree that can magically regenerate itself. Pulse (2001) locates the otherworldly forces in the Internet, where ghosts take over people’s lives and eventually lead humans to flee Tokyo.

Kurosawa’s films became perhaps too quickly identified with what was known as J-horror. His taut, slowly unfolding plots and calm but menacing style did have something in common with the Ring series (1998-2000) that was becoming popular at the time. At the same time, Kurosawa draws on a some story elements common across Asian crime and horror films:  revenge, often by a parent or elder figure in the name of a lost child; the suggestion that childhood, especially that of girls, has a corrupt and sinister side; and a sense that modern technology such as computers and cellphones harbor demonic threats. But I think that his films were more thematically ambitious, even pretentious, especially in the case of Charisma, with its ambiguous ecological symbolism. And like his peers, he wasn’t interested only in suspense and shock. His mainstream family drama Tokyo Sonata (2008) attracted western viewers with no knowledge of his spookier side.

The policier aspect is evident from the start of Shokuzai. Originally a five-part TV drama broadcast in weekly installments, it starts with the rape and murder of a schoolgirl, Emili. Her four playmates have seen her attacker ask her to leave the playground with him, so when she’s found dead, the police and Emili’s mother Asako press the girls to identify him. Through fear or trauma, none of the girls can remember what he looked like. Asako summons all four to her home and demands penitence from them in the future—in ways each one must find for herself.

After this prologue, Shokuzai downplays supernatural elements in favor of character studies of the four surviving girls, with a “chapter” devoted to each. The young women live separate lives and their paths don’t intersect; only the implacable Asako reappears in each thread. By the final installment, Asako has more or less given up tracking the killer, but when one young woman accidentally recognizes him, on TV, Asako pursues him and discovers the roots of the crime in her own past.

This is pretty much modern thriller territory, with a whiff of Barbara Vine/Ruth Rendell in the film’s effort to trace how a single event resonates terribly through innocent lives. As with such thrillers, the strength of Shokuzai seems to me to lie largely in characterization and atmospherics. Each young woman is given a distinctive personality, and each one’s professional and personal life fifteen years after the crime is presented with a teasing, hypnotic deliberation. Sae is a meek, sexually immature nurse who is lured into marriage with a rich former schoolmate; his seemingly harmless obsession turns domineering. Maki becomes a schoolteacher herself, and her relentless, demanding methods soon antagonize the local parents—until she unexpectedly proves herself heroic. Akiko has become a hikikomori, a recluse, and is only briefly drawn out of her drowsy existence by the daughter of her brother’s girlfriend. The good-natured little girl in effect reintroduces Akiko to childhood. In the penultimate chapter, the sexual bargainer Yuka seeks to seduce her brother-in-law and to take revenge upon her sister for being their mother’s favorite.

Each young woman is associated with an object or gesture seen in the prologue: a French doll, a bloody blouse, a policeman’s kindly squeeze on the shoulder. At one level, these bits of the past take on psychological impact. The trauma around Emili’s death suggests sources of the grown-up women’s neurotic behavior. Maki, the girl who after the killing rushes frantically through the school looking for someone in authority, becomes an all-controlling schoolteacher. Akiko’s bloody school blouse will find its fulfillment in a brutal crime involving a girl’s toy.

Yet these associations carry extra resonances. It’s partly because of the quietly ominous way Kurosawa films commonplace objects like a ruby ring or a jump rope. Maybe there is a whiff of the supernatural after all, given the unexpected connections revealed between the men in the women’s later lives and the little girls’ fetishes and rituals. Fate plays such cruel tricks that it might as well be malevolent magic.

The demand for expiation and the mother’s implacable intervention in an investigation will remind many viewers of Bong Joon-ho’s Mother (2009, South Korea) and Nakashima Tetsuya’s Confessions (2010). Asako’s characterization gets fleshed out in the fifth episode, which presents two crucial flashbacks leading up to the crime. One even replays a moment leading up to the murder, supplying a previously withheld reverse-shot in the manner of Mildred Pierce’s replay. (Some things don’t change.)

Presumably the recurring flashbacks to the prologue were also motivated by the rhythm of the weekly TV broadcasts. Viewers couldn’t be expected to recall everything from earlier installments.

You can object, as critics have, that the revelations in Shokuzai’s finale are creaky and far-fetched. Raúl Ruiz, in Mysteries of Lisbon, embraces the arbitrariness of old-fashioned plotting, with its felicitous accidents, secret messages, and hidden identities. He scatters these devices freely throughout his story, making them basic ingredients of his film’s world. Instead, Kurosawa introduces most such devices at the last minute, which makes them more surprising but also more apparently makeshift. Still, you can argue that once you eliminate purely supernatural causes for the creepy things we see and hear, audiences will embrace convoluted plots (as again, in Confessions) to rationalize their thrills. As so often in popular narrative, no coincidence, no story.

 

Quiet elegance

Kurosawa uses long takes, fairly distant framings, and solemn tracking shots to heighten an atmosphere of dread. The questioning of the children is played out in an extreme long shot, refusing exaggeration but conveying very well the flat, obdurate refusals confronting the cop.

In the Q & A after the screening, Kurosawa explained that he didn’t alter his filming style much for the television series, although he found himself writing more dialogue than he would have included in a theatrical feature. His  visual technique displays a dry, precise elegance–the Japanese might say it possesses shibui– and it has, as far as I know, no equivalent in current American cinema. The compositions are painstakingly exact, though they’re not as rigidly geometrical as Kitano’s planimetric images and they don’t self-consciously evoke Ozu in the way Suo’s do.

Everything lies in plain sight. The bright, saturated tones of the childhood prologue contrasts sharply with the wan color schemes throughout the present-day sequences.

     

Kurosawa’s staging has a clarity and point that’s rare today. He often lets significant action unfold without interruption. For example, in Yuka’s flower shop, he gives us a shot lasting nearly a minute. Yuka’s sister has come to voice her suspicion that her husband has had sex with Yuka. Kurosawa moves the two women around the frame discreetly, sometimes hiding their facial reactions, and using the Cross to shift their positions both laterally and in depth. A single step forward can mark rising tension as the sister demands an explanation, and a retreat from the foreground can create a mini-suspense about Yuka’s reaction.

     

     

After hiding Yuka’s reaction in the distance, Kurosawa creates a mini-climax by having her turn abruptly to the camera before bending over and sobbing.

     

Kurosawa saves the cut, as David Koepp might say, in order to ratchet the drama up. In a closer view we can watch the sister, ashamed of her suspicions, consoling Yuka and succumbing to her lies.

     

Contrary to what proponents of intensified continuity will tell you, you can build an engrossing scene without fast cutting, tight close-ups, and arcing camera movements. Like American directors of the studio era, Kurosawa always knows the best place to put the camera, and he keeps things simple and direct.

Kurosawa’s patient, compact staging has its counterparts in the work of Claire Denis, Manuel de Oliveira, and many other European filmmakers. It’s just that it’s a bit unexpected in the 1990s Japanese iconoclasts. For all their self-conscious extremism, they have wound up reinvigorating certain classic techniques of cinematic expression. This is just one of many reasons to catch Shokuzai on a screen, big or little, near you.


You can see some trailers and extracts from Shokuzai here, but you have to sit through a wretched Peugeot ad every  time.

Shokuzai is coming to the Vendôme on 24 July.

On the earthy side of Japanese culture, which I think feeds into the 1990s trends I’ve mentioned, see Ian Baruma’s Behind the Mask.

P.S. 23 July 2013: Adam Torel of the ambitious Third Window Films writes to tell me that the company is releasing Eyes of the Spider and Serpent’s Path on DVD in September. Third Window distributes other recent Japanese films, including items by Miike and Tsukamoto.

Jack and the Bean-counters

Kristin here:

I don’t know about you, but back on January 16 about the last thing on my mind was the release, still six weeks away, of Jack the Giant Slayer. It wasn’t a film I was planning to see. Not many people were, as it predictably turned out. I was more concerned with a recent release, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, and whether the decision to turn a two-part film into a trilogy had adversely affected the narrative. I posted my some-good-news-some-bad-news entry that day.

 

Not as giant as they might think

It turned out on that same day there were some fans of fantasy films and/or Bryan Singer, the director of Jack, who were exercised about the recently released poster for the film (reproduced above). I discovered this from a Hollywood Reporter story  published in the wake of Jack’s disappointing opening weekend, when it grossed $27.2 million domestically. The story led off with an anecdote about the poster kerfuffle:

When Bryan Singer sat down at his computer in mid-January and read Internet comments criticizing a new Warner Bros. poster for his big-budget epic Jack the Giant Slayer, he fumed. He didn’t care for the cartoonish image of the film’s stars brandishing swords and standing around a swirling beanstalk. So Singer complained on Twitter. “Sorry for these crappy airbrushed images,” he wrote Jan. 16, irking Warners’ powerful marketing head Sue Kroll. “They do the film no justice. I’m proud of the film & our great test scores.” An insider confesses, “Bryan felt like he had to apologize to his fans.”

This gesture annoyed studio executives, who demanded that Singer take it down. He hasn’t. The apology won him some points with the fans, as some sample tweets in response show:

Do any current Warner Bros. executives know who Saul Bass was? More to the point, do the studios have any idea how much fan devotion is gained by directors like Singer, Peter Jackson, and Guillermo del Toro, who try to communicate directly with the fans as often as they are allowed to, and even sometimes when they aren’t? If the studios did have any idea, they would encourage directors to hold question-and-answer sessions on fan sites and communicate via social media far much more than they do now. I suspect studios give up tens of millions of dollars in free publicity by treating fans as potential spies, spoiler-mongers, and authors of vicious reviews based on trailers.

 

Ring? What Ring?

This disappointment with Jack’s poster reminded me of an incident that happened late in the filming of The Lord of the Rings. I describe it in The Frodo Franchise:

On 16 Dcember 2000, New Line’s president of domestic theatrical marketing, Joe Nimziki, met with the director concerning the Rings publicity campaign. One of his purposes in visiting Wellington was to meet the cast, who would be involved in the upcoming press junkets, parties, and premieres. The occasion soured when the filmmakers and actors saw the proposed poster design. Based on its audience research, New Line had concluded that Rings would appeal primarily to teenage boys, and the design was busy and garish. The actors backed Jackson up, threatening not to participate in the marketing campaign if it proceeded along those lines. Jackson had a mock-up poster made, featuring muted tones and a simply design centered on an image of the One Ring. The design was not used, but it gave New Line a sense of what the filmmakers considered appropriate. (p. 81)

When I made my first research trip to Wellington in 2003, I had no idea that this incident had occurred. Someone high in the production mentioned it to me out of the blue during an interview, which led me to think that this person considered it important and wanted me to mention it. After nearly three years, it obviously had remained a sore point. (I did describe the incident, but in general I portrayed the few mistakes I mentioned in my book as part of a learning curve that the studio benefited from.) Unfortunately I have never seen the offending poster design. I have seen one of what were apparently two mock-up copies of Jackson’s version made, on the basis of which I wrote the brief description above. The design was too muted in color and minimalist in layout to be useable, but it evidently served its purpose.

Obviously there’s a big difference between the handling of these two offending poster designs. New Line, which produced The Lord of the Rings, took the trouble to show the cast and crew the planned poster and acceded to their wishes about replacing it. As a result, the cast participated in the many press junkets and other publicity events. I’m not sure which poster design for The Fellowship of the Ring convinced the cast, but the one at the bottom of this entry was the main one used. Definitely better than the one for Jack at the top.

Warner Bros. presumably did not bother to show Singer the poster, or test it on fans, or do anything to make sure that it would boost rather than dampen potential moviegoers’ enthusiasm. It is as conventional a poster as one could imagine for such an expensive film.

The irony in all this is that New Line also produced Jack the Giant Slayer. Due to various post-Lord of the Rings failures, primarily The Golden Compass, New Line is now a production unit within Warner Bros. It doesn’t handle its own distribution or marketing, having been downsized by about 80 percent. Warners takes care of everything except the production itself.

 

Doesn’t amount to a hill of beans

Jack’s opening weekend’s gross was followed by a nearly 64 percent drop during its second weekend. It just went into second run last week, so its theatrical life is rapidly tapering off. In the same Hollywood Reporter story that alerted us to the poster tweets, author Pamela McClintock called Jack “the latest in a string of dismal 2013 domestic releases.” She added,

Revenue and attendance are both down a steep 15 percent from the same period in 2012, wiping away gains made last year. Jack may have cost far more than any of the other misses, but in assessing the carnage, there’s a collective sense that Hollywood is misjudging the moviegoing audience and piling too many of the same types of movies on top of one another.

I think that collective sense is shared by almost every ordinary viewer. Jack the Giant Slayer. Really? For that matter, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters? Upon merely hearing these titles, I didn’t expect them to be hits. In the wake of The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series, Hollywood has been pushing fantasy harder and harder, but there is a limit. I think that has been reached with the mini-trend toward adapting fairy tales with adults in the lead child roles. Making Jack a “giant slayer” (grammar-police note: this should be “giant-slayer”) doesn’t hide the fact that this is really “Jack and the Beanstalk” re-titled by committee.

Recently Variety reported that the success of Alice in Wonderland early in the year (it was released in March, 2010) has led studios to release films of the summer-tentpole type well before the traditional Memorial Day weekend opening of the summer season: “Warner Bros. started this year’s March madness with the pricey Jack the Giant Slayer, which never sprouted.” Disney’s Oz the Great and Powerful opened one week later.

Now there’s a film I wanted to see, and many others did, too. It’s currently still in first run and pushing toward the $500 million mark worldwide. With a reported $215 million budget plus publicity costs, that’s not a big hit (it’ll probably become profitable in Blu-ray, streaming, etc.), but it’s doing a lot better than Jack. Jack’s budget is reported at slightly under $200 million, with marketing costs of over $100 million. As of now it has grossed a little under $200 million worldwide. A week after Oz, The Croods appeared, aimed to some extent at the same audience as the two films that preceded it. In short, Hollywood is not only making a lot of children’s fantasies, adapted to a broader audiences including adults, but it is releasing them opposite each other.

 

Fans? what fans?

This is not to say that all such films fail. I found Oz a clever film, better than most critics have given it credit for. It presents an imaginative riff on the 1939 The Wizard of Oz as if it had been made using classical storytelling techniques but with digital technology.

But back to that claim that “Hollywood is misjudging the moviegoing audience.” It’s hard to imagine a group of executives sitting around a big table and seriously thinking that an expensive digital extravaganza based on “Jack and the Beanstalk” would bring people flocking to theaters, yet they did. Why? Possibly because they are out of touch with the fandoms they depend on.

Back when I was researching the Lord of the Rings online fandom and its relationship to New Line’s publicity department, it seemed that Hollywood was beginning to understand fans. It was a hard learning process, but New Line’s executives reluctantly gave some big websites occasional access to sets and once in a while sent them news exclusives. Such openness, grudging though it was, generated free publicity and goodwill. The studio also allowed Peter Jackson to interact with fans, though in strictly controlled circumstances.

Warner Bros. is a different animal altogether, and it has squandered much of what goodwill New Line gained in those days. The Jack the Giant Slayer poster controversy provides perhaps one clue as to how indifferent studios now are to their public and how much their insularity can damage their bottom lines.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, made by New Line under the tight control of Warner Bros., has of course done very well financially. It grossed over a billion dollars worldwide–though just barely, at $1,017,003,568. If we could adjust worldwide figures for inflation (impossible due to different inflation rates in different countries), each installment of The Lord of the Rings would undoubtedly turn out to have earned more. This despite all the surcharges for the many 3D screenings of The Hobbit.

Why didn’t it do quite as well as the previous entries in the franchise? Perhaps some people who had liked Rings were put off by their perception of The Hobbit as more of a children’s film. Perhaps it was partly the reviews, which were considerably less enthusiastic than for any of the three parts of Rings.

I wonder, though, if Warner Bros.’s lack of interest in the fans might have had something to do with it. Consider what New Line had done for fans in the marketing of Rings as compared to what Warner Bros. has done with The Hobbit. New Line started a pioneering website, managed by Gordon Paddison, that drew millions of fans long before The Fellowship of the Ring appeared. Gordon Paddison, now running his own publicity firm, has created a Hobbit website as well, but it’s primarily a large ad for the Blu-ray and DVD, with none of the free wallpapers and other items that were so popular on the Rings site. Even a live online event from March 24, during which Peter Jackson answered fan questions, was re-posted there without the brief preview footage from The Desolation of Smaug–an unkind cut that annoyed fans greatly. This was especially unfair because to log in to the live event, one needed a code enclosed in the Blu-ray/DVD package, and the Blu-ray release hadn’t occurred in many part of the world by March 24. Not good public relations.

The main online publicity venue for The Hobbit has been Jackson’s own Facebook page, where ten production vlog entries were posted at wide intervals. These later became the main supplements for the theatrical DVD release. Given the breezy, open tone of these vlog entries, it seems possible that they can be credited more to Jackson’s initiative than Warner Bros.’s.

New Line also licensed a company to create a fan club for The Lord of the Rings, complete with an excellent bimonthly magazine. A considerable amount of effort was put into the eighteen issues that appeared, including interviews not only with the filmmakers but with the makers of licensed tie-in products. Fans were encouraged to send in questions for the interviewees, and some of these got included. The names of the charter members of the club were run in a crawl after the credits of the extended-edition versions of the DVDs, a process that, even at a rather fast clip, ran for about twenty minutes. This won huge loyalty from fans, even those who joined later and didn’t get into that crawl-title.

For The Hobbit, there was no fan club and no magazine. I can imagine that the Rings fan club generated a relatively small income for New Line compared to the many other licensed items, but it created much enthusiasm among fans. The film’s official Facebook page is a feeble substitute.

For decades people have been saying that Hollywood executives are out of touch with their audiences, make too many movies, spend too much on their movies–especially in age of special-effects-based blockbusters. It’s an old complaint but one that may be a genuine and growing problem as executives with no personal film production experience control the output of studios owned by huge corporations.

The Hollywood Reporter story that began with the anecdote about Singer’s apologetic tweet ends with some insight:

Privately, studio executives concede that Jack was a feathered fish, neither a straight fanboy tentpole that Singer (X-Men, Superman Returns) is famous for nor a pure family play. “Sometimes you simply have a movie that is rejected,” laments one Warner executive, a common refrain these days in Hollywood. “You can spend as much as you want, market it a zillion different ways, and it still doesn’t work.”

Someone might point out that Jack and Rings are not comparable projects. Rings was adapted from a beloved classic and already had a significant fan base. Jack was not based on a novel and had no such fan base. But I believe that the big studios view fantasy as a genre with a broad, somewhat unified fan base consisting of people who will go to see just about any fantasy film. The failures of not only Jack and Hansel and Gretel but also of others like Mirror, Mirror show that that’s not the case.

 

The answer is out there

One solution to the studios’ isolation could be to get on the Internet, keep tabs of the huge amount of fan opinion already there and appearing every day, and get a sense of what the real audience wants.

For a start, there is no “fantasy” fandom. There are fandoms around specific stories or series or movies or games. They create websites and Facebook pages and videos. Many fans are quite smart and understand the conventions of the fantasy genre. They know how the industry markets things to them. (Witness all the accusations that fly when a studio repackages a film yet again as a DVD/Blu-ray with only minimal changes in the supplements.) They know exactly what they want marketed to them and what they don’t want. Richard Taylor, the head of Weta Workshop, which designed many of the collectibles as well as the Rings and Hobbit films, is a hero to fans. Affluent Rings fans who get married can commission Daniel Reeves, the calligrapher for the franchise, to design their wedding invitations. Denny’s Hobbit meals, on the other hand, are viewed variously as merely amusing to downright offensive.

There are also rivalries among fandoms. Ask a Ringer and a Harry Potter fan who is the greater wizard, Gandalf or Dumbledore, and watch the feathers fly.

There was a vivid example of this just last month. The MTV Awards nominations for 2012 were posted for fans to vote on. In the Best Hero category there were Snow White (the Snow White and the Huntsman version), Batman, Catwoman, Iron Man, Hulk. and Bilbo Baggins. Shortly into the voting, Snow White was at first place with 13,556, with Bilbo dead last with 226 (left).

Snow White beating Iron Man and Batman? Ringers realized at once that this was not an overwhelming vote for Snow White but for Kristen Stewart, and it was happening because of the Twihards–the devotees of the Twilight series.

Rallying around, Ringers began trying to get people to Vote Bilbo. Fans created memes for tweeting and re-tweeting. TheOneRing.net, the biggest Tolkien website, got involved in helping coordinate individual efforts into a unified campaign to spread the word. Spiegel Ei posted a  amusing video on Vimeo, “put a ring on it #VoteBilbo,” in which Bella Swan (Stewart’s character in the series) meets several Rings characters, reads Tolkien’s novel,  researches it on the Internet, and abandons her world for Middle-earth. The short film was so clever that MTV’s website even featured a news story , linking to it–a strange case of bias that may have helped sway the voters. (The # symbol in the title comes from the fact that fans could vote only by tweeting for one of the six nominees.)

Even so, during the final exciting week, the MTV vote seesawed back and forth between Snow White and Bilbo, but the Ringers’ campaign won out, with Bilbo attaining a margin of just over 100 thousand:

Measured by the box-office records of all the films, Snow White would seem to be least popular. Yet it wasn’t the ticket-buying audience as a whole voting. It was the hardcore fans–and mostly fans from a different fandom at that.

Cliff “Quickbeam” Broadway has posted an excellent rundown of the campaign on TheOneRing.net, “When Fandom Comes Together: How #VoteBilbo Rallied the Ringers.” It conveys how a large number of devotees worked very hard for free to create an almost professional-level campaign for a character and film they loved. All this within the space of a few weeks.

I’m not saying that a studio marketer could go onto the Internet and find hard facts on fans’ likes and dislikes. It’s something one gets a feel for by looking at the message boards on TheOneRing.net or checking out The Leaky Cauldron (the biggest Harry Potter fansite) or liking a bunch of directors’ and films’ Facebook pages. By the way, it’s odd that Peter Jackson has a FB page that, with its nearly 800 thousand Likes, has become the main online publicity site for The Hobbit, while Bryan Singer doesn’t even have a FB page. Does that suggest any systematic approach in WB’s publicity campaigns? True, Jack has a FB page, but these days every film does.

What sorts of things can you learn by looking at such sites and pages? It’s interesting, for example, that Cliff’s fandom story includes one of many images that were devised by fans for the twitter campaign for Bilbo, one not from Rings or The Hobbit, but from Game of Thrones (right). Ringers would instinctively know that Lord of the Rings fans would be far more likely to read George R.. R. Martin’s book series or watch the TV adaptation than would Twihards. Not only would they recognize the image shown (the character played by Sean Bean, who was Boromir in The Fellowship of the Ring), but they would know that “Snowwhite is coming” is a riff on a portentous line from Game of Thrones, “Winter is coming.”

It is also interesting that TheOneRing.net catered to the slightly older-skewing demographic that is far more important in Rings fandom than in Twilight fandom. As Cliff says: “We have an audience that included older-generation folks who had never used Twitter, so we gave quick and easy instructions to help guide our friends toward their goal.” New Line’s audience research, which originally convinced them that teenaged boys were their primary audience, didn’t reveal that other big audience–which most Ringers would know about.

These little details may not be important in themselves, but picking up many of them from fan discussion adds up to an overall view of characteristics and attitudes. Fans are also quite clear on their likes and dislikes as far as directors and stars go. Just the other day on a thread on TheOneRing.net, Lusitano gave his opinion concerning future possible adaptations of material from Tolkien’s The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales: “If in the future they end up being adapted, it is only sensible to give them to someone else [other than Peter Jackson]. Tim Burton, perhaps? ” Such an adaptation would, I think, be unwise, but a producer who went down that road ought to be interested in that opinion.

Clearly from the way most studios treat most fan sites, they aren’t particularly grateful for any of this. They also don’t seem to recognize that the most devoted fans working for such sites or posting on their own FB pages, YouTube, and Vimeo, have an extraordinary expertise concerning one fandom and often several.

Possibly the studios do closely monitor fansites. Certainly some people in the Rings filmmaking team read TheOneRing.net. When Guillermo del Toro was slated to direct The Hobbit, he even joined the Message Boards and participated in discussions fairly frequently. Naturally the fans adored him for it. If he had stayed on as director, would WB have allowed him to keep up that practice? Probably not unless he cleared every contribution with the studio publicity department.

I’m not saying that cruising online fan outlets would guarantee that the studios would get such a feel for their public that all the films they greenlight would be successes. There are always inexplicable flops. Why did audiences who flocked to Tim Burton and Johnny Depp’s Alice in Wonderland reject the same team when Dark Shadows appeared? Was it just the difference between the sources: a universally known classic book vs. an old TV show with a devoted but small cult following?

Still, when I hear about such incidents as the ones I’ve described here, I can’t help but feel that the fans are a far more valuable source about potential audiences than the studios realize. Why do studios not identify certain particularly knowledgeable and devoted fans as experts and hire them as consultants? Or at least quietly study what they say and do and benefit from it? Maybe then they would know what many of us already know: that the impending failure of some films, like Jack and Hansel and Gretel, is bone obvious from the start.

All this is not to say that Jack the Giant Slayer is a bad film and not worth seeing. It has gotten some surprisingly good, if not rave reviews, though its score on Rotten Tomatoes is only 52% (and 61% among fans). It’s just that WB should have known what they were getting into.

David Bordwell
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comments about the state of this website go to Meg Hamel.