August 31, 2012

And The Award Goes To...?

For whatever reason, very few people outside the industry (and shamefully, plenty within it) understand that films need art departments. Not just overblown Tim Burton monstrosities, but all films.

In my short career, there have been few things more frustrating than explaining to a Producer that a Lead Man is an actual, professional job title, much less that the film we're working on together requires one. To be fair: art departments are historically esoteric. They didn't exist in their fullest glory until well after the birth of cinema (after Gone With The Wind, as the story goes), and their shape and size can fluctuate wildly between any given film.

As an example: at the Academy Awards, exceptional Production Designers are awarded Oscars for Art Direction, despite Art Director being a completely different job (although they often share the award). It sounds like a simple thing, but things like that snowball into a general lack of understanding about who does what, when, and why it's important.

Fortunately, that one small issue is about to change. In revising rules that govern eligibility for "Best Song," the Academy also revised it's award aimed at the art department. According to the press release:
Upon the recommendation from the Designers Branch (formerly the Art Directors Branch), the Art Direction award will be known as the Production Design award.
It's an incredibly simple change, but it's one that I already relish.

As a PD, the very beginning to the very end of a film is a struggle for creative influence. You show up to work each day over-worked and covered in paint, carrying boxes of seemingly random crap (tape, glue, paper bags full of distressed junk, etc.), and when shit hits the fan you somehow expect to be taken as seriously as a Cinematographer whose gearset requires a million dollar insurance policy. The Cinematographer comes across like a scientist on safari, with an array of battle-hardened minions, and you look like a Kindergarten teacher.

You fight against an improperly proportioned budget, a punishing schedule, sometimes open hostility towards the finer details of your artistic goals, and an overall misunderstanding about the defining characteristics of your department. It's even worse when inexperienced Producers or Directors hire PD's so close to production that your capacity for creative input is hamstrung by ever mounting logistical concerns.

Hell, I think it's appallingly obvious and disappointing when Directors (even supposedly great ones) fail to incorporate a skilled art department... but admittedly I'm biased. So while this change from the Academy isn't much in practice, I hope the new nomenclature signals a greater awareness of the department as a whole. Films will be made better if filmmakers know what Art Departments can and should provide. There are plenty of PD's out there who can't wait for the chance to prove it.

August 17, 2012

The Master, and 70mm.

Last night I had the chance to see Paul Thomas Anderson's newest, THE MASTER, several months ahead of it's scheduled release. It was presented by The Music Box in Chicago from a 70mm film print, all as a charitable benefit for The Film Foundation.

First, the print: It was beyond gorgeous. I've not seen anything like it before, and that saddens me, because it made me want to see everything in 70mm. Unlike IMAX, 3D, and possibly even the new 48 FPS technology (all of which are turning film exhibition into a bit of an arms race), this "enhancement" over standard 35mm or digital projection was subtle enough to help the visual language of the story without reading like a gimmick. It added clarity, texture, and detail to every composition, and this film warranted the added scrutiny.

It's really a damn shame that the Music Box is one of the few places in the country capable of showing this film, or any film for that matter, in 70mm. In the short term, there's potential for a followup screening this coming winter in Chicago, but I don't know where the issue goes from here. I typically embrace a forward-facing, march-of-progress kind of attitude about film as a medium, but I have to admit this screening converted me. Color me a preservationist, after all. I've just never seen something digital, not even in a 4k color correction suite, match what I saw in that theatre. Not by a long shot.

Second, the film: It was really quite special, and I loved it. There, I'm glad I got that out of the way.

But really: THE MASTER is a hugely ambitious, emotional inquisition. Anderson's choice to use a post-war America (coupled with a quasi-Scientology-based religion) as a backdrop is incredibly effective. I loved the questions it raised (motherhood, authority, self control, religion, sexuality....lots of heady subjects), and I loved that for every scene spent revealing something new about the characters, it managed to raise even more questions about who they are and where they were going. It felt larger-than-life, but in a way that was very true to life.

I suspect audiences will be turned off by a number of things, not the least of which is the episodic nature of the plot. It's more of a journey through time, as opposed to the more traditional, Joseph Campbell-style "hero's quest." I can't see how the film would work any other way, though. As strange as it sounds: I wouldn't trade the confusion I felt at the end of this film for anything.

Also, the characters are exceptionally intense, for lack of a better word, in a manner that should be familiar to anyone that's already seen THERE WILL BE BLOOD. Having said that, the film is also hilarious. While these characters do feel like real people, they yell, lie, scheme, and make mistakes at a rapid clip.

There's a pervading sense of violence and animalistic sexuality that travels wherever Freddie Sutton (Joaquin Phoenix) goes, and watching Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) try to understand and contain him is just utterly fascinating.

Finally,  I don't think the impact of this film will be encapsulated by a Rotten Tomatoe's score, a weekend box office draw, or a batch of Academy nominations. There's something timeless and powerful at work in THE MASTER, and while it doesn't have a signature "I Drink Your Milkshake!" scene, I think it'll manage to get under a lot of our skins in the long run.

I hope it does, anyway. It certainly got under mine.

August 12, 2012

Notable Quotables.

Charlie Kaufman:
‘That’s two hours I’ll never get back,’ is a favorite thing for an angry person to say about a movie he hates. But the thing is, every two hours are two hours he’ll never get back. You cannot hoard your two hours.

Found Object: "This Is My Home"

Real life is stranger than fiction, and I loved this little movie.

This Is My Home from Mark on Vimeo.

August 8, 2012


I'm back in Chicago after 9 weeks in LA for Medeas.

I ate amazing food, contracted a poisonous rash from a rare plant, and found a tarantula in my bag, among other things. Early indicators are indicating that the movie will become something brilliant. I loved every member of the cast, I met some amazingly talented LA movie folks, and finally got to see the friends of mine who were smart enough to move out there years ago.

For now I just want to sleep in my bed. Is there anything better in the world? One's own bed. It's the best place on earth, sometimes.