Press Play launches its new director series On the Q.T., about Quentin Tarantino, with a look at his debut Reservoir Dogs (1992). Although it earned plenty of acclaim, the film also sparked two kinds of controversy. One had to do with the movie's content: its profanity, racial epithets, blood, and torture merged art house and grindhouse traditions in a fresh and unsettling way. The other controversy was aesthetic: Tarantino, a former video store clerk, quoted movie history so ostentatiously—even working pop culture rants into his dialogue!—that detractors accused him of being more of a gifted mimic than a real artist, a charge that has followed him throughout his career.

Funny thing, though: when you look back on the late '90s and early '00s, you see plenty of films that desperately wanted to be Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction. Truth or Consequences, N.M., Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead, The Usual Suspects, Two Days in the Valley, Mad Dog Time, and many others channeled what was presumed to be the Tarantino formula. Yet none of them has had the staying power of Reservoir Dogs. Why? The answer is contained in Reservoir Dogs' opening monologue about Madonna's "Like a Virgin"—delivered by none other than Tarantino himself—and in the scenes of the undercover cop, Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), getting into character as one of the crooks. Put these images together—a lover so good that he makes a sexually experienced woman feel like a virgin, and an actor so good that he fools hardbitten crooks into thinking he's one of them—and you have Tarantino's early career: a performance so extraordinary that it stops being performance and becomes an emotional event.

How does Tarantino do it? Press play to find out.

San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host of “Back at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.

Matt Zoller Seitz is one of the founders of Press Play. A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Criticism, he is currently the TV Critic for New York Magazine.

Ken Cancelosi is a writer and photographer living in Dallas, Texas. He is the co-founder of Press Play.

Art That Speaks to Everybody: A Father and Daughter Chat About E.T.

A Father and Daughter Chat About E.T.

[Editor's note: The following is an iChat between Press Play founder Matt Zoller Seitz and his daughter Hannah, a film student, about Steven Spielberg's E.T., which was released 30 years ago this week. It is the most recent installment in a series of dialogues about popular culture; earlier pieces discussed Cinderella, Fantasia and Harry Potter vs. Star Wars.]

Matt Zoller Seitz: Do you remember the first time you saw E.T.? Wasn't it during the 2002 rerelease when you were not quite five?

Hannah Seitz: I don't remember seeing it for the first time at all. But I do remember that when I saw it for the second time a couple of years later, I had no memory of the scenes where the government interferes and E.T. is dying. Was that because I was so traumatized during those scenes the first time?

Matt: Maybe you blocked it out?

Hannah: Maybe. Do you remember me not wanting to watch it at that point? In my mind there was a blank spot between the point where E.T. and Elliott are in the bathroom and the mom comes in, and then the part when Elliot sees E.T. come back to life.

Matt: I don't remember your not wanting to watch that part of the movie when you saw it for the first time, but I do remember you bursting into tears during the scene where the older brother finds the pasty, sickly E.T. lying in that drainage ditch. You were fine up to that point.

I am always a bit surprised by the length and intensity of all the medical stuff near the end. Steven Spielberg really twists the knife. It's like the scene in Dumbo where Dumbo goes to visit his mother in the iron cage. Or the "death" of the Beast in Beauty and the Beast. Stanley Kubrick used to say that he didn't like Disney movies because he thought they were cruel to children, and I don't think he was necessarily wrong in that description. But fairy tales are often cruel, or unrelenting, and we do want to feel things very intensely when we experience art. Some excess seems forgivable when a work is really, really cooking, in the way that E.T. cooks all the way through. It's operatic or symphonic. It's so powerful that it gives me the kind of feeling that I think you're supposed to feel in church, but that I never felt there.

Hannah: I haven't seen E.T. in a while, and this was the first time I really watched it as a film. I always knew it was a great story, but the lighting in the movie and the music really did give it a symphonic feel.

I also noticed an insane amount of religious or spiritual-like imagery. I know the most famous one is when E.T. comes out of the truck wearing the robe with his heart glowing in his chest, but I noticed a lot more shots than that one.

Matt: Such as?

Hannah: One of my favorites is when the brother and the sister first meet E.T. and they're in the closet. They're all kind of peering at him. There's even something in the background that looks like a stained glass window. Then it cuts to E.T., and he's encircled by a bunch of stuffed animals that look like they could be his disciples or something. 

Matt: I hadn't even thought of those images in that way, but you're right.

That closet, which is really E.T.'s sanctuary or home, is a sacred place, part womb and part cave of contemplation. It's almost a geographical metaphor for what happens when Eliott invites him into his life. There is nothing more intimate than inviting somebody you don't really know into your room. And since Eliott's closet is the place where all the toys are stored, the symbol of the childhood innocence that Eliott is still clinging to, it's as if the boy is inviting the alien right into the center of his personality, into the deepest place.

When the devout try to bring somebody into their faith, they often couch it in terms of an invitation. Invite God into your life, let Christ into your heart: that kind of language. Spielberg and Melissa Mathison, who wrote the screenplay, are brilliant at encoding that into the images.

Hannah: I love that scene where E.T. is listening to Elliott's mom reading Peter Pan to Gertie. E.T. is a great character because it's easy to look at him as a figure of wisdom, considering he's super-intelligent. But he's also very childlike, in the sense that's he's very curious and forms attachments easily.

I think that's one of the beautiful things about Elliott's connection with E.T. When Elliott first meets E.T., he doesn't immediately think of him as a higher, more intelligent species that needs to be studied, like the scientists and government workers do. As soon as he meets E.T. he begins to show E.T. around, and he doesn't immediately question what E.T. is or where he came from. And when Elliott does inquire about E.T. and what he's capable of, he does so in a very innocent and non-pushy way.

Matt: Spielberg is a humanist filmmaker, one of the greats, and you can see that come through in the way that he depicts the meeting of different cultures or even species. E.T. and Eliott's relationship is founded on open-mindedness and mutual trust and empathy—as Michael tells one of the researchers near the end, it's not that Elliott thinks what E.T. thinks, it's that he feels what he feels—and that's why they have such a strong and pure friendship, so strong that you can't even classify it.

At various points E.T. is like a mentor to Elliott, the dad that he recently lost to divorce, a friend, an older brother, a younger brother, and a pet. And towards the end, when the full extent of his power is made visible, he becomes angelic or supernatural. And at every point Elliott goes with the flow and accepts wherever the relationship is going. The reverse is also true, of course. Both characters change in relation to one another depending on what's happening in the story.

Communication might be the most important theme in Spielberg's filmography. Close Encounters, E.T., Amistad, Munich, pretty much every one of his films contains one or more scenes of different beings learning to speak to each other, and discovering they aren't as different as they thought.

Hannah: The idea that E.T. has a power that allows him and Elliott to feel each other's feelings is very metaphorical of friendship. In the beginning of the movie, Elliot makes the mother cry by saying his father is in Mexico with some woman named Sally. Michael says, "Dammit, why don't you just grow up! Think about how other people feel for a change." When E.T. comes along, Elliot is really forced to grow up by feeling E.T.'s emotions. He has a deep mutual connection with him, and towards the end it's clear that Elliott has matured a great deal, and made sacrifices as a result of being so connected to E.T.

Matt: Yes. There's a wisdom in the boy's face during that final shot that wasn't there at the start of the film, and all the changes have come about organically, as a result of his living through these extraordinary events.

Hannah: I also love how it portrays the government workers. Although they are the antagonists, the movie doesn't necessarily portray them as evil people who only want to harm E.T. They are, after all, trying to keep him alive. They aren't coldhearted people. They just don't understand how E.T. functions, like Elliot and his siblings do. In a way, their ignorance is really what drives their role as antagonists.

Matt: That's true.  

Hannah: It always sort of gets to me when Keys is talking to Elliott at the end and he says, "He came to me too, Elliott. I've been wishing for this since I was nine years old."

Matt: As you read more about film history you may eventually come across articles about Spielberg that were written in the '70s and '80s when he first became a cultural force. He was described as being culturally very conservative for a young Baby Boomer, and in some ways that's true. But the optimistic way he depicts human understanding, and cosmic understanding, is very much in tune with hippie values. He's a lot more countercultural in his worldview than some of the overtly counterculture filmmakers. He really believes people can make up their minds to be good, to do the right thing, to overcome ignorance and build bridges, that war and violence is rarely necessary, and so forth. All the stuff that modern popular culture tells us is for suckers, Spielberg actually believes in. And I like that about him.

Are there any particular things you noticed about the tone or style of the movie, the way it moved and looked, that spoke to you?  

Hannah: The lighting. Every shot in Elliot's house was lit in a way that represented the content of the scene. A lot of the lighting felt very eerie, or sometimes kind of quiet and lonely.

But it didn't make itself too obvious. The house still felt very real and homelike, no matter what the lighting was. I think the house itself was also one of the best features of the movie. Like you said, it was sort of a temple to innocence and childhood, which was a very magical environment for E.T. to be in. Also the layout of the house felt real and comfortable, not like most Hollywood movies where homes are well furnished and spotless.

Matt: With whom did you identifying with when you watched the movie this time? I ask because when I re-watch movies I've seen many times, my point of view changes.

When I was a kid I used to identify with Elliott, then after a certain point I started to feel more of a connection with other characters, probably because I was maturing. I went through a phase where I would imagine what this experience must have been like for E.T. This time, though, I thought about Mary, the mom. The way she was always emotionally wrung-out and kind of distracted really spoke to me as a single parent. When you're in that situation it's completely plausible that an alien could be walking around behind you in a bathrobe and you wouldn't notice.

And this time I was with Michael, too. The moment where he goes into Elliott's closet and curls up in a corner looking at all the toys and stuffed animals destroyed me.   

Hannah: I can't really say whom I connected to. I'm really bad at answering that question. I'm really not the type of viewer who connects to the characters.

Matt: What kind of viewer are you?

Hannah: I don't know. I don't really connect to characters, like, throughout an entire movie. When I do feel emotionally connected, it sort of just jumps out at me in a particular moment or scene.

I'm a film student now, and although I don't like to admit it because of my high school freshman finicky-ness about the future and careers and such, filmmaking or writing may possibly (emphasis on possibly) be something I want to do with my life. When I write, I usually write about realistic characters and situations, and I would say I'm pretty good in that field. So it was a weird experience watching this movie last night, because after it was finished and I had soaked it all in, I just felt this weird surge of jealousy. Art is made to affect and speak to people, and generally when it does so, the audience is limited, be it by age, ethnicity, gender, etc. I think it's one of the most amazing things in the world when you can create a piece of art that speaks to everybody. E.T. really is a timeless movie that you can enjoy when you're a little kid and appreciate just as much when you're on your last legs. It's really an incredible thing to be able to make something like that.

VIDEO ESSAY: A Death Foretold: Foreshadowing in MAD MEN

VIDEO ESSAY: A Death Foretold: Foreshadowing in MAD MEN

This video essay and its accompanying text also appear today on Vulture, the blog of New York Magazine; the staff of Vulture asked Press Play's editors to contribute a piece on Mad Men, and this was the result.

[Editor's note: this article and the accompanying video contain spoilers for all of season five of Mad Men. Read or click at your own risk.]

Now that Mad Men has drawn to a close and we prepare to spend the rest of the summer looking back on a particularly dense season, we can reflect on all the clues that led to one of this year’s biggest plot turns — Lane Pryce’s suicide. The show’s death obsession dominated recaps and comments threads throughout the last twelve weeks, and with good reason. Every episode contained one or more hints that a major character would die. Indeed, more so than any other season of Mad Men, this one earns the adjective novelistic. No single episode can be considered wholly apart from any other; each chapter replenishes the death/mortality motif in imaginative, sometimes playful ways.

This video essay, titled "A Death Foretold," collects a few of the more obvious and subtle predictors from season five. The piece is a joint effort by me; writer Deborah Lipp, who recaps the show for my IndieWire blog Press Play and co-publishes the Mad Men–centric blog Basket of Kisses; and Kevin B. Lee, the site's editor-in-chief and in-house cutter. It's not meant to be comprehensive; we originally compiled a three-page list of death references, then realized if we put them all in one video it would have been as long as a Mad Men episode! But we hope it'll offer the show's fans another pretext (as if we need any) to pick apart the show’s narrative architecture and argue about whether a cigar is just a cigar.

A critic, journalist and filmmaker, Matt Zoller Seitz is the staff TV columnist for New York Magazine and a finalist for the Pulitzer prize in criticism. He has worked as a movie critic for The New York Times, New York Press, and New Times Newspapers, and as a TV critic for The Star-Ledger of Newark. His video essays about Terrence Malick, Oliver Stone, Kathryn Bigelow, Budd Boetticher, Wes Anderson, Clint Eastwood, Michael Mann and other directors can be viewed at the The Museum of the Moving Image web site. Seitz is the founder of The House Next Door, a website devoted to critical writing about popular culture. His book-length conversation with Wes Anderson about his films, titled The Wes Anderson Collection, will be published in fall 2012 by Abrams Books.

Deborah Lipp is the co-owner of Basket of Kisses, whose motto is "smart discussion about smart television." She is the author of six books, including "The Ultimate James Bond Fan Book."

Kevin B. Lee is Editor in Chief of IndieWire’s PressPlay Video Blog, Video Essayist for Fandor Keyframe, and contributor to Roger Follow him on Twitter.

VIDEO ESSAY: Cruel Summer: ROCKY III (1982)

VIDEO ESSAY: Cruel Summer: ROCKY III (1982)

This video essay is part of the "Cruel Summer" series of articles; this series examines influential movies from the summers of the 1980s. The previous entries in the series covered THE BLUES BROTHERS (1980) and STRIPES (1981).

[The following is the working script of the video essay above. It was modified during the editing process.]

He’s one of cinema’s most beloved heroes. He represents strength, decency, and determination. Born and raised on the streets of Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love and the birthplace of democracy, Rocky Balboa stands for all that is good about America.

Taken together, the first two ROCKY movies tell a human-sized story of triumph, with the original ROCKY as a Bicentennial fairy tale about a bum winning his pride and the love of his girl, while ROCKY II shows him becoming a man and champion.

But how do you continue a story that everyone assumed was complete? Well, if you’re writer-director-star Sylvester Stallone, you look within yourself, and the rapidly changing tastes of the movie-going audience, and you come out ready to ROCK.

ROCKY III continued an American tradition by transforming the stage of Rocky into a 4th of July fireworks show. It used compact storytelling and groundbreaking montage editing to create a new kind of fist-pumping summer crowd-pleaser.

The opening montage recalibrated the viewer’s ability to take in multiple pieces of information simultaneously. Made nine months after the launch of MTV and one year before FLASHDANCE, ROCKY III is the first instance of a major Hollywood entertainment embracing MTV-style editing. A kind of ROCKY 2.5, the sequence caught us up with our favorite characters, introduced the themes of fame and becoming soft, and kicked the story into motion by letting us see the villain all but stalking Rocky—with everything held together by Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” a piece of working-class pop perfection.

Stallone used his overnight success following the release of ROCKY to inform ROCKY III’s portrayal of how celebrity can lead one to be isolated and lose touch with everyday life. Rocky—and Stallone—had become such outsized characters that some self-criticism was necessary.

But Stallone places all this thoughtful reflection in the background of the movie. What’s front and center is keeping the movie in constant motion. Shorn of nearly 30 minutes, ROCKY III compresses its story without sacrificing emotion. Some viewed this as an indication that audiences' attention spans were growing shorter, but what it really said was that audiences were able to process events and plot points at a quicker pace.

The story of ROCKY III shows Rocky getting a comeuppance courtesy of street fighter Clubber Lang, who’s enraged by Rocky’s softening. Rocky takes the challenge, but his trainer Mickey knows it’s a bad idea.

It’s only the 30 minute mark when Roc loses his title and, in a plot twist that shocked audiences back in ’82, Mickey dies from a heart attack. Normally these events would’ve occurred at the halfway point of the movie, but ROCKY III was so relentless in its pacing that the movie felt halfway over by this point. The death of the beloved Mickey gave weight to the remainder of the story, reminding us of the dramatic pull the ROCKY movies have on audiences.

The rest of the movie shows Rocky returning to the top, as former adversary Apollo Creed offers to train him. Apollo wants Roc to go back to the beginning, to get back in touch with his roots as a street fighter. How does he plan on doing this? He teaches him rhythm—to dance around the ring.

It must be noted that a lot of the elements of ROCKY III—from the cocky hero to the musical montages to the shaking of the hero’s confidence from an early defeat to the death of a friend—would become key elements of several popular movies throughout the 1980s. ROCKY III created a template for success.

Everything leads up to THE SHOWDOWN, which, following the car chase, became the defining movie sequence of the 1980s. What made the climax of ROCKY III different from all the others is that it’s the only one that doesn’t compress the final fight into a montage. Instead, it plays out in something approximating real time. It’s a three-round action sequence that pummeled the audience into submission, as ROCKY III set a new standard in summer entertainment. ROCKY III trained us to demand more bang for our buck.

San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host ofBack at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.

A critic, journalist and filmmaker, Matt Zoller Seitz is the staff TV columnist for New York Magazine and a finalist for the Pulitzer prize in criticism. He has worked as a movie critic for The New York Times, New York Press, and New Times Newspapers, and as a TV critic for The Star-Ledger of Newark. His video essays about Terrence Malick, Oliver Stone, Kathryn Bigelow, Budd Boetticher, Wes Anderson, Clint Eastwood, Michael Mann and other directors can be viewed at the The Museum of the Moving Image web site. Seitz is the founder of The House Next Door, a website devoted to critical writing about popular culture. His book-length conversation with Wes Anderson about his films, titled The Wes Anderson Collection, will be published in fall 2012 by Abrams Books.


For the love of Yul, please re-cast the MAGNIFICENT SEVEN remake

For the love o

nullSo apparently Tom Cruise is going to "star" in a remake of The Magnificent Seven, which itself is a remake of Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai.

What does "star" mean? The Variety story doesn't say. But you have to wonder whose shoes Cruise he going to fill, or try to fill. Yul Brynner's? Steve McQueen's? Charles Bronson's? James Coburn's?

I can't get my mind around any of those possibilities — not just because John Sturges' first remake is still vivid in my mind, but because Cruise basically played man-boys until he was pushing 40, and it wasn't until very recently that I got used to the idea of him playing a character with any gravitas at all.   But what the hell, let's play the casting game. Let's pretend Cruise isn't attached (unless you want him!) and that you run the studio bankrolling the picture. 

Me? I'd prefer Bruce Willis/Brynner and Woody Harrelson/McQueen. True Blood's Chris Bauer in the Bronson role. Joel Kinnaman from The Killing in the Coburn role — or for a splash of color, Chiwetel Ejiofor. Cruise might be effective as Robert Vaughn's dandy of a gunman; the pathos inherent in that part might catch people by surprise. George Clooney would be fun, too; Mag Seven newbies might be so thrown by his star wattage that they'd be, er, taken aback by the arc of his character, he said, treading lightly around spoilers for a 52-year old movie. Any plausibly Latin newcomer could play the Horst Buchholz part, and would surely do more with it than Buchholz did. Brad Dexter's character should be played by somebody as big (or big-seeming) as Dexter, I think. I rather liked seeing Dolph Lundgren in The Expendables — he's a better actor than his typecasting as stony-faced killers indicates — so maybe he's the right guy. The hammy bandit Calvera is henceforth marked "property of Benecio Del Toro," who would be even harder to understand than usual with all those shreds of scenery lodged in his teeth. Now it's your turn.

Matt Zoller Seitz is the TV critic for New York Magazine and publisher of Press Play.

Nicolas Cage is big; it’s the pictures that got small

Nicolas Cage is big; it’s the pictures that got small

nullThe pictures may have gotten small, but Nicolas Cage is still BIG. More often than not, he acts in CAPS LOCK mode. He HOLLERS and SCREECHES and FLINCHES VIOLENTLY and SHUDDERS LIKE HE'S BEING LOWERED INTO ICY WATER and STARES IN TREMBLING AWE like a guy who just glimpsed a portal into another dimension and is trying to figure out WHAT THE FUCK THOSE CREATURES WITH THE TENTACLES ARE!!!

It took me a while—decades, actually—to accept a couple of facts about Nicolas Cage. One: when he's being subtle, as in National Treasure, It Could Happen To You, Windtalkers and a few other movies, he's good, sometimes affecting, but he tends to lose his special quality; and (2) there's something to be said for a performer whose screen presence is so ridiculously big, and often so knowingly anti-realistic, that it obliterates commonly accepted distinctions between good and bad, believable and unbelievable, and instead becomes an uncanny event, something you evaluate less than you witness. The CAPS LOCK nature of Cage's acting makes him a natural subject for video mash-ups—so much so that my friend Jason Mittell proposed the essay topic "Nicolas Cage as an Axiom of Remix Cinema." Everything Cage does is so vigorously sculpted, underlined, boldfaced and bracketed that you can lift moments from different movies out of context, string them together, and create firecracker-strings of weirdness. And a helluva lot of videos have done just that.

The best, for my money, is Harry Hanrahan's masterpiece "Nicolas Cage Loses His Shit," a symphony of shit-losing backed by a track from Clint Mansell's Requiem for a Dream score. The music track makes it — ties it together like The Dude's rug did his room — because Requiem for a Dream is about junkies being slowly dragged down into a whirlpool of masochistic yet unnervingly romantic agony. It's music fit for a star who can't help doing what he does: a man possessed.

The most troubling Cage mash-ups are the clip reels from Neil LaBute's remake of The Wicker Man. The first one (dated 2007) went viral in a huge way, soon to be held up as proof that the film was poop, its star the worst actor who ever lived. While the out-of-context clips of Cage freaking out are funny enough, they're also unfair to Cage because they shame him for doing something he was specifically hired to do—and does better, or at least more colorfully, than anyone else. I don't think the remake works, exactly, but when you're watching it, there's no doubt that its overheated ludicrousness is intentional: not kitsch, but about style. ("How'd it get burned how'd it get burned HOW'D IT GET BURNED??!!???") Who better than Cage to play a truth-seeker, cycling desperately through fairy tale woods, terrorizing little masked girls and disguising himself in a bear costume? Cage makes as much aesthetic sense in this movie as Gary Cooper did in High Noon. And yet YouTube burned The Wicker Man onto Cage's new calling card and cemented the public notion that he was a rotten actor.

The musical remixes of The Wicker Man were no less problematic, but at least they had a good beat and you could dance to them.

By 2011, the notion of Cage as Crazypants Mega-Ham was so pervasive that Conan O'Brien proposed Nicolas Cage film clips as a replacement for the US government's recently-discontinued "Threat Level" warning system.

Which brings us to Adam Lucas's mash-up "Cage Does Cage." Ostensibly a tribute to avant garde compose John Cage's "4'33" ", wherein musicians do nothing but sit for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, the piece collects snippets of Cage reacting, brooding, etc., without dialogue. Occasionally the actor exhales, sips a drink, or hems and haws while trying to figure out what to say, but for the most part the piece is a hell of a lot quieter than the Cage-mashup norm.

I wouldn't say the video works as a John Cage tribute, because, as Peter Guttmann points, out, the composer's piece "breaks traditional boundaries by shifting attention from the stage to the audience and even beyond the concert hall. You soon become aware of a huge amount of sound, ranging from the mundane to the profound, from the expected to the surprising, from the intimate to the cosmic – shifting in seats, riffling programs to see what in the world is going on, breathing, the air conditioning, a creaking door, passing traffic, an airplane, ringing in your ears, a recaptured memory. This is a deeply personal music, which each witness creates to his/her own reactions to life." Nothing like that happens while you're watching "Cage Does Cage." Let's face it, this video exists because the composer and the actor happen to share a last name. Rather than turn viewers' reactions into the subject of the piece, as "4'33"" does, "Cage Does Cage" keeps the focus on Cage the actor, whose subtlest moments as a listener/reactor/paralyzed spectator are still charged with intimations of future shit-losing. (Indeed, at one point Lucas uses a clip from Vampire's Kiss that was also used in the previously-linked "Nicolas Cage Loses His Shit," but cuts before Cage's pained, fearful expulsion of breath.)

Nevertheless, the video is intriguing, because it's so different from every other Cage mash-up. Its emphasis on reaction and silence casts further doubt on the notion that Cage is a bad actor, as opposed to a performer whose preferred aesthetic doesn't jibe with fashionable definitions of what's good. Even when Cage is being subtle, as he is in many of the clips collected by Lucas, there's an exaggerated (or perhaps "dancer-like") grandness to the way he listens, gathers his nerve, lies down on a floor, or stares out of a train compartment window. It's that silent-film thing again: small viewing window, big actor. But that's not a knock. There's an internal logic to what Cage does and how he does it. You can see this more clearly by observing the quiet Cage than the manic one.

Perhaps the most sensible response to Cage isn't, "What a freak" or "What a bad actor" but "Your mileage may vary." If all acting is small, acting itself becomes small, too; then cinema itself starts to shrink from stylistic risk, for fear of being thought too big, too wild, too "unreal." As Willem Dafoe recently told Press Play columnist Simon Abrams, "I think in many ways, naturalism has ruined movies … I often like understated performances where the actor disappears. I like that a lot. But this imitation-of-life stuff doesn’t always tap into what’s beautiful about the language and the poetry of film."

A critic, journalist and filmmaker, Matt Zoller Seitz is the publisher of Press Play and the TV critic for New York Magazine. His book-length conversation with Wes Anderson about his films, titled The Wes Anderson Collection, will be published in fall, 2012 by Abrams Books.

VIDEO ESSAY: Spike Lee’s free-floating, dolly shots collected, stitched together and deconstructed

VIDEO ESSAY: Spike Lee’s free-floating, dolly shots collected, stitched together and deconstructed

This video essay by Richard Cruz collects Spike Lee's loopy, free-floating dolly shots into a music video. In the process, it makes them less jarring than they were when they first appeared in Lee's films. You know what I'm talking about: a shot where a major character is still, or perhaps moving subtly, while the background moves at an unrealistically fast speed or whirls wildly, creating the sense that the character is sort of hovering through the air, or perhaps moving on a conveyor belt or turning on a merry-go-round.

Every time I've seen a Lee film in a theater, audiences have begun tittering and pointing at the screen whenever Lee busted out this type of shot. It's as disruptive as it is flamboyant — deliberately so, I'm guessing. The Spike Lee dolly seems to be trying to find a way to signify "subjectivity", or otherwise put a conceptual frame around a certain moment in a story. This is typical of Lee. His features are never, strictly speaking, "realistic." They're more expressionist, like the films of Martin Scorsese, one of Lee's biggest influences. As such, they give themselves the freedom to bend the visuals and suggest what characters are feeling, or maybe what the filmmaker is feeling about the characters at that point in the story.

Sometimes the device works brilliantly, or at the very least, in such a way that you can see what the director was going for, even if he didn't pull it off; my favorite examples are Larry Fishburne seeming to glide through campus at the end of School Daze — a musical polemic of a movie — hollering "Waaaake uuuup!"; Anna Paquin's private school student, drunk and high, floating through a nightclub in The 25th Hour ; Theresa Randle in Girl 6, gliding through her apartment while jazzed on her own sensuality or fearing an attack by a creep who's phone-stalking her. But other times the Spike Lee dolly just feels weird. The shot of Lee's gambling addict gliding through the park in Mo' Better Blues made the character seem as though he'd been replaced by a Muppet (maybe because Lee's gestures were so stylized and herky-jerky). In the finale of Malcolm X, when Malcolm heads toward the church where he's about to be assassinated, I think we're supposed to feel as if he's being pulled along by destiny or history or somesuch; but because the more conventional parts of the sequence convey this so effectively already, it just feels like a bad idea that somehow made it into the final cut. (When I saw the movie on opening night in 1992, the crowd burst into ironic applause and laughter when that Malcolm X  people-mover shot appeared onscreen, and somebody behind me said, "And here I was, thinking he might get all the way through a movie without doing that!")

Most of Lee's floating dollies owe a debt to shots in Scorsese's Mean Streets. Scorsese filched the idea from Vincente Minnelli's 1949 film of Madame Bovary, which conveyed romantic delirium at a grand ball by putting the actors on a fast-whirling dolly platform so that they seemed to be whooshing around the ballroom like astronauts in centrifuge training. Over the last quarter-century, though, Lee has pretty much owned this kind of shot, and he's explored it in increasingly surprising, sometimes bizarre ways. I used to call this type of shot "the Spike Lee people-mover shot," because it was usually framed so that we were looking at the characters head-on while the background receded behind them; the effect reminded me of riding a conveyor belt in an airport terminal. But Lee has gone way beyond that since the early 90s, to the point where we go into a new Spike Lee movie wondering what sort of variation he'll wring on it this time.

What I love most about this video is how it neutralizes whatever observations one might have about the appropriateness or inappropriateness of a shot in a given Spike Lee film by placing them all together in a single short video. The shots' inventiveness, showiness and beauty take center stage. You're no longer watching characters in a story, but living sculptural objects driving through a series of spectacular and sometimes haunting settings.

Matt Zoller Seitz is publisher of Press Play and TV critic for New York Magazine. Richard Cruz lives in New York City and you can visit his web page here.

VIDEO – Motion Studies #1: The Substance of Style

VIDEO – Motion Studies #1: The Substance of Style

For the next seven weeks, the Oberhausen International Short Film Festival will present "Film Studies in Motion", a Web Series curated by Volker Pantenburg and Kevin B. Lee. This series, available on the festival's website and Facebook page, presents weekly selections of analytical video essays on the web, in preparation for Pantenberg and Lee's presentation  "Whatever happened to Bildungsauftrag? – Teaching cinema on TV and the Web", scheduled for April 28 at the festival.

Press Play will track the series, posting four or five of the selected videos each week as they also become available on the Oberhausen website.

The following introduction to the series is taken from the Oberhausen International Short Film Festival website:

Anyone who has an internet connection and wants to expand their understanding of cinema can behold the remarkable abundance of analytical video essays on the web. Proliferated in just the last five years, these meticulous readings of title sequences, thorough investigations of film style and montage decisions, dialogic inquiries of acting or mise en scene have created a genre in its own right. They can be found on websites like IndieWire's Press Play, Fandor, Moving Image Source and Audiovisualcy, on the last of which curator Catherine Grant has categorized these works under the term "videographic film studies." The essays are expressions of a cinephilia 2.0, fueled by weblogs, internet-journals and streaming platforms, produced from DVDs and digital media, laptops, and DIY editing software.

This week is an initial sampling of exemplary works from the emerging genre of online video essays on cinema. Combined they cover a wide range of subject matter (a genre, a sequence in a film, a cinematic motif, a director’s body of work). They demonstrate a variety of stylistic approaches to the video essay form, using an array of techniques: montage and rhythm, split screens, narration, creative use of on-screen text, etc. These works, some of them conceived as multi-part series, are made typically on computers with consumer-grade editing software, but they display an ingenuity that is comparable to that of the films they explore.

Today's selection:

The Substance of Style, Pt 5: The prologue to The Royal Tenenbaums, annotated
Matt Zoller Seitz (2009)

What better way to kick off the series than with an opening credit sequence, unpacked in such a way that can only be done via video essay?

Volker Pantenburg is assistant professor for Visual Media with the main focus “Research of the Moving Image” at the media faculty of the Bauhaus-Universität Weimar. 

Kevin B. Lee is Editor in Chief of IndieWire’s PressPlay Video Blog and contributor to Roger Follow him on Twitter.

LUCK RECAP: A Herd of Two

LUCK RECAP: A Herd of Two


Episode seven of Luck at first feels like a placeholder, until you look back over it and realize that the universe is reordering itself beneath the surface of things. In the pilot, most of the characters seemed detached from life, or isolated; but now, with just two episodes left to go until the end of the season, they've formed or deepened relationships. More importantly, given the show's seeming belief in kindness as good karma, a lot of the characters have taken responsibility for another human being or fellow creature.

Horse trainer-owner Walter Smith seemed terrified and nearly paralyzed by that letter from the estate of the Colonel sticking him for a $140,000 bill, but now that he's got himself a lawyer (Bruce Davison) who seems serenely confident in what he's doing, Walter seems a bit more relaxed. The moment where Walter moves to pay the lawyer in cash and is politely refused is a wonderful example of how trust can make the more cynical social niceties unnecessary. (It also indicates that Walter has probably never had a lawyer before; he's used to the economy of the track, which seems to be based around paper money changing hands.) After being berated by Walter last week for taking an unauthorized crop to Gettin'-Up Morning, Rosie the aspiring jockey asks Joey Rathburn the agent to intercede on her behalf, and Joey counters by subtly indicating that if he's going to be acting as her agent, he should actually be her agent; Rosie agrees, and another formalized partnership is born.

Lonnie, arguably the least essential member of the Foray Stables, tries to expand their operation by claiming another horse, Niagara's Fall. The animal nearly wipes out during the race; Leon, who was kind of a disaster in earlier episodes, responds quick, preventing worse injury. But rather than earn the group's unabashed contempt (or at least Marcus's), the mishap seems to get written off as the sort of thing that happens when four guys go into business together. The group itself seems to be maturing in the way that an individual matures; its individual members are deepening and softening as well. Jerry, a genius-level race picker who has can't stop blowing his horse winnings on poker games, enters a high-stakes tournament, and does surprisingly well. He seems emboldened by his erstwhile poker partner, the ex-card dealer Naomi (Polish actress and model Weronika Rosati). They get it on in the parking lot, and later in the episode he returns with her to the hotel and interrupts a meal between the other three amigos with a wonderfully unconvincing "Hey, guys, what's up?" nonchalance. Anybody who's ever tried to introduce a new lover to a circle of friends while pretending that the aura of sex isn't hanging over everything can relate.

You can read the rest of Matt's recap here at New York Magazine.

Matt Zoller Seitz is co-founder and publisher of Press Play and TV critic for New York Magazine.

VIDEO ESSAY: A close analysis of the Season 1 title sequence from THE WIRE

VIDEO ESSAY: A close analysis of the Season 1 title sequence from THE WIRE

[EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is the very first video essay collaboration between Press Play founder Matt Zoller Seitz and editor-in-chief Kevin B. Lee: an analysis of the opening credits for Season 1 of The Wire, exploring how the images highlight themes of the season and offer predictive snippets of future plot twists. It was originally published at Moving Image Source in 2008. The piece is narrated by critic Andrew Dignan, from a written essay originally published at The House Next Door. To read the original article in full, click here.]