Watch: Steven Spielberg’s Artistic Strength Depends Upon His Humanity
Fans of Steven Spielberg say he gets them at their gut; critics of Spielberg say he goes corny too often, and in so doing betrays his craft. Both viewpoints hinge on one attribute: his ability to capture moments of what we call, for lack of a better word, humanity, or times when human sloppiness, idiosyncrasy, even stupidity, might achieve resonance, even luminosity. This video essay by Andrew Saladino does an excellent job of calling out these moments, explaining Spielberg’s technique in executing them, and discussing their relevance to Spielberg’s work. Whether it’s an alienated scientist playing with mashed potatoes in ‘Close Encounters’ or a boy crying for his mother (or any mother) in ‘A.I.,’ the ability of Spielberg’s films to drop anchor, to reach his viewers in a memorable way depends on his skill at observing those viewers and the way they act when they think no one’s looking.
Watch: David Fincher’s ‘Gone Girl’ Retells Euripides’ ‘Medea’
Every story you know and love originated in ancient times. David Fincher’s ‘Gone Girl,’ adapted from Gillian Flynn’s brilliant, acidic novel, is no exception. You’ve been listening to, reading, and witnessing tales of revenge, tales of escape, and tales of murder for as long as you can remember, but you may not have made the link, when doing so, between the modern-day film you’re watching or story you’re reading with the dramas of ancient Greece, the dramas with themes and ideas so enormous they had to be screamed to be fully realized. This video essay by Ivana Brehas makes its crucial point, which is that ‘Gone Girl’ is a retelling of Euripides’ ‘Medea,’ in a calm but firm manner, Trent Reznor’s soundtrack circulating beneath the methodical analysis, an analysis which bears down upon barbarism, betrayal, and a level of discomfort in the relations between two people that would be enough to curl most viewers’ toes for an indefinite period of time, doing so through point-by-point comparison which, as presented here, makes perfect sense. One would have to imagine that Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike would have had to have ample PTSD therapy after dipping their toes in Flynn’s sea of dysfunction, but hey, perhaps not. The story of Medea, of revenge, of escape, of rage, is in our narrative bloodstream. We see these stories, and we are horrified by them, but we aren’t that horrified–because we recognize their essential truth.
Watch: Guillermo Del Toro Thinks in Pure Colors
Shame on anyone who says watching a film is passive! When you watch a film, you’re actually doing several things at once. First and foremost, you pay attention to the nuts and bolts of the story. Almost as gripping, though, is what your retinae are doing. In certain filmmakers’ work, and Guillermo Del Toro is one of these filmmakers, the visual play acts as a complement to the story, such that if you were in a certain mood, you might simply look at the colors and not even notice the plot-character-setting scenario being laid out before you. This video by Quentin Dumas takes us on a lush tour of the colors Guillermo Del Toro likes best: red, blue, and yellow. These colors have meaning, certainly; who could deny the importance of a deep, decadent red in a dark film like ‘Crimson Peak,’ and who could consider the use of blue, the color of night, in the revelatory and mind-stretching ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’? These colors are coded, yes–but don’t try to figure out the code. You won’t be able to. Accept that they have an effect on you: a weakening of the resolve, a quickening of the pulse, the vaguest sense of dizziness. The less you try to figure out the "why" of these feelings, the happier you’ll be.
Watch: John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’ Scares Us With Simplicity
If fear made a sound, what would it be? That’s a trick question, somewhat, because fear and silence, the complete absence of sound, are inextricably linked. John Carpenter understood this when he made ‘Halloween.’ We can’t say, of course, that the film is completely without an audio component, given that its soundtrack is one of the most famous soundtracks in film history, but we can say that Carpenter’s approach, in his acute sound editing, in his spare production design, was to narrow the viewer’s field of attention so that whatever was happening to his central figures at any given moment was the only thing readily noticeable–making the scenes of attack in the film all the more frightening, given that they seemed almost as if they could be happening to us. As Julian Palmer indicates with this excellent video essay, the actions in the film occur in something of an aesthetic still chamber, and are all the more harrowing for that.
Watch: In Andrea Arnold’s ‘Wuthering Heights,’ Music Is the Film’s Soul
Emotions cannot always be expressed in a straightforward conversational manner. We gesticulate, we make facial expressions, we shift our body language… or perhaps we sing. Usually the singing is self-directed, and the emotion being expressed isn’t necessarily nameable. There are many moments in Andrea Arnold’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ when characters simply sing, either to themselves or to each other. This new video essay by Filmscalpel gathers together some of these moments, and the overwhelming sense one gets, in watching the moments unfold, is that the chief emotion being expressed is a desire for contact, for recognition, above and beyond the emotion being expressed. And what more basic emotion could there be for a human being to express, either in public or in private?
Watch: Lars von Trier’s ‘Melancholia’ Captures the Experience of Depression
If you’ve ever been immersed in the condition known to clinical psychologists and others as "depression," but really too indescribable to fit within one label, then Lars von Trier’s ‘Melancholia’ should have great resonance for you. Evan Puschak, aka "The Nerdwriter" on YouTube, makes the great point (one of several) at the beginning of this piece that von Trier’s film inscribes the physical experience of depression in his cinematography, in his painfully slow pacing, and in Kirsten Dunst’s performance as Justine, one of her most memorable, strange performances yet. Von Trier uses slow motion quite frequently, and yet here it has special poignance as it recalls the feeling many depressed people have that time has slowed down, that each second feels like sixty, each minute feels like a lifetime, and that were a rogue planet to crash into Earth, it might not be such a bad thing.
Watch: What Lies Between TV Shows’ First and Last Frames?
There is a pressure on any work to create, within its span, a tiny world whose life begins at the film’s opening credits and ends with its closing credits. It would seem that for TV dramas, that pressure is doubled because of the additional boundary the TV screen, so much smaller than a movie screen, places on it for containment. This video piece by Celia Gomez, inspired by Jacob T. Swinney’s near-canonical study of the first and last frames of films, shows us some shocking correspondences between many shows’ opening frames and closing frames, among them ‘Mad Men,’ ‘The Sopranos,’ ‘Lost,’ ‘The Network,’ and, oddly enough, ‘Frasier.’
Watch: Quentin Tarantino’s Choreography in Slow Motion
In Quentin Tarantino’s films, movement is everything. If his characters are not moving, they are about to move. In ‘The Hateful Eight,’ the maneuvering of the devious travelers around each other in Minnie’s Haberdashery, with its rambling architecture, is every bit as important as the words they say to each other, or the shots they fire at each other. The ability of a Tarantino character to move or not move can often be telling: consider the lonesome death of Vincent Vega on the toilet in ‘Pulp Fiction,’ or the sky-bound pirouettes of Uma Thurman’s Bride in the ‘Kill Bill’ films. So when Tarantino slows down the motion of a character in one of his films, whatever the external reason may be, the ultimate take-away is this: Tarantino notices. He is attentive to human movement, to human physiognomy, almost with the attentiveness of Eadweard Muybridge. When he slows down a character’s motion, then, we, as viewers, are intended to see everything: muscular shifts, the different ways clothing falls on the moving body, the beauty of the body moving through space–and we are supposed to consider what the movement might mean. In his sixth (sixth!) video piece on Tarantino, Jacob T. Swinney brings us up close to Tarantino’s study of motion by focusing on his slo-mo scenes. What do we learn? Well, why don’t you look and tell me?
Watch: Alejandro González Iñárritu’s ‘The Revenant’ Creates a World of Stillness
When watching Alejandro González Iñárritu’s ‘The Revenant,’ these lines by Wallace Stevens came to my mind many times.
Among twenty snowy mountains,
the only thing moving
was the eye of the blackbird.
How could they not? The film tells the tale of human activity crushed to near-silence by the enormity of the landscape–but not quite. Within each frame, there is a trickle of movement, indicating that whatever assault the natural world may offer, be it from punishing cold or sexually aggressive bear, the human urge to colonize and explore will endure, and yet that endurance will take place nestled within a stillness more immense than anything the merely human mind could imagine, a stillness that has been on Earth for millions of years, impenetrable, impassible, unchangeable. Tom Williams’ beautiful video piece gives us a view of that stillness, but it also points up the importance of its opposite. The story of one wanderer across a frozen landscape then becomes, in a sense, the story of America.
Watch: Spike Lee’s ‘Chi-Raq’: The Blossoms of Violence
How many people do you know who’ve been shot? This was a question that occurred to me as I watched Nelson Carvajal’s latest, a video essay on Spike Lee’s recent cinematic leap into rhymed verse ‘Chi-Raq,’ a film whose eccentricity grows on you. Carvajal approaches the film from an up-close perspective, that of a Chicago resident who has, in fact, known many people who’ve been shot, in Chicago, which is becoming one of the country’s most violent cities. Carvajal does not do voice-over much–this may be his first video essay with voiceover, if my scholarship serves–and he has chosen a nice place to deploy the technique. Where better, indeed, than in a piece about this film, which addresses the matter of gun violence head-on in a way which doesn’t seem head-on at all? The presence of the editor here makes the essay’s central argument, which is that critics back away from ‘Chi-Raq’ because they can’t handle the reality it depicts, quite convincing. After all, neither the quality of the film’s direction nor the brutality of the state of affairs the film satirizes can really be questioned. Can they?