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: 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: 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?
Watch: Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’ Is All About Power Struggles and Blocking
Any good story ultimately involves a power struggle of some sort, whether it be between two characters or between a character and his or her own mind. Character X wants something Character Y has: since the story of Cain and Abel, this is the most basic plot vector there is. In the scene from Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’ shrewdly and economically analyzed here by YouTube’s Evan Puschak, aka ‘The NerdWriter," Gavin Elster wants Scottie Ferguson to take his questionable case very much, but Scottie is reluctant. The conversation we witness between the two of them is all about power: who has it, who wants it, who takes it away, how it can float between two individuals like a cloud. And that power play is show through blocking, though the way the two men occupy the space they share: who stands. Who sits. Who’s in the foreground. Who takes up more screen territory. If you turned the sound off on this scene, you’d be able to tell what was happening with only the slightest bit of extrapolation. And that is the nature of true drama, as we see it on film.
Watch: Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ is a Game of Perspectives
Consider this story: a woman steals some money, runs away with it, goes to a small motel, is murdered by the proprietor. Moderately interesting by itself, possibly with some potential for suspense–but this is not necessarily a gripping tale, especially when you add on an extra storyline: the woman’s sister comes after her, followed by a private detective, both of whom are murdered. Again, it’s interesting: if you saw it in the newspaper, you might "tsk" at it and then move on. And then, even if you add on the eccentric twist–the murderer dresses up as his mother–you still have a bare bones story. Of course he was a psychopath: look what he did! Alfred Hitchcock turned ‘Psycho’ into a classic by using this skeleton story to construct a madhouse of a tale, something like a cross between a house of mirrors, a surrealist novel, and a collage of tabloid headlines. One of his primary lines of attack, as shown in this brilliant video essay by Julian Palmer, was to constantly shift the perspective from which the story is told, so that viewers’ sympathies are perpetually changing, at times moving into uncomfortable territory as we find ourselves looking at the world through the eyes of Norman Bates, of all people. In a sense, the suspense becomes less about the murder, or its investigation, than about what we, as viewers, will discover about ourselves and our sympathies next.
Watch: ‘The Dark Knight’: Mapping Out the Action
As complex and, in a sense, limitless as Christopher Nolan’s ‘The Dark Knight‘ might be, with its heady urbane mood, its panic-inducing sense of foreboding, and the presence of Heath Ledger in the role that may have driven him over the edge, there is also a pre-ordained quality to it that slows one down. You wouldn’t necessarily be curious where its characters go after they step off-screen; you wouldn’t wonder what they’re thinking; you probably wouldn’t speculate on their past lives. The world of the film is laid out within the limits of the screen. This partially due to the film’s previous life as a comic, a work in a form in which frame after frame after frame sends a louder and louder message: Look in here. Don’t look out there. All of the information you need is right here. Because the comic upon which this film is based is better than average, the film itself is superior; other films based around frames, not always so much. This brief but densely packed piece by "Glass Distortion" places the storyboards for ‘The Dark Knight’ up against the actual film for an examination of an especially fraught chase scene, a move which reminds us how carefully the film was deliberated. It’s hard to say if the film’s over-planning works in its favor, or if it’s merely a horse for the director to hang good performances on. Whatever the case, this 49-second piece will give you a unique and revitalizing look at the way movies can be made.