All posts by Sean Cavanagh

Mockumentary Break: What We Do in the Shadows


Recently, we’ve been watching quite a few documentaries (and I think that we are continuing to watch documentaries for the rest of the semester), but I wanted to call to attention a film form that is not often used, but can still be incredibly brilliant: the mockumentary. Mockumentaries are films that follow fictional events and characters, but are stylized to parody documentary films (with interviews, b-roll, etc), and even though they are fairly uncommon, it is developing film form that could become extremely popular in the future.

This past weekend, a few friends and I watched What We Do in the Shadows, a 2014 mockumentary that follows a house of vampires trying to fit into the modern world. It was a hilarious film, and I don’t want to give away too much about the plot, but it was funny comparing this film to some of the documentaries that we have seen in class (WARNING: If you do plan on watching it, be warned that some scenes can be pretty graphic. These aren’t Twilight vampires). Because this was meant to be a parody, the creators had a little more fun with the gags and took the film’s subject a bit less seriously, but there were still interesting questions raised, like how involved should the filmmakers be in the “plot” of a documentary. In this film, the camera crew is often directly addressed by the characters, to the point where they become characters in the film themselves (they even run away from the werewolves like the vampires do). Obviously, they’re fictional characters, so they don’t exactly follow the same rules as people do in the real world, but at the same time, if the focus of the film is on particular subjects, should the filmmakers be included? Which is more realistic?

Because of their humorous nature, I feel like mockumentaries have greater capabilities than documentaries do in a sense. They aren’t bound to the “truth” like documentaries are, but they are still capable of tackling real world issues or problems, but addressing them in a creative, indirect way. Even though What We Do in the Shadows doesn’t take itself too seriously, it still addresses issues of isolation, guilt, lost love, and escaping your past. A documentary can do the same thing, yes, but with a fictional plot, sometimes its easier to discuss controversial topics.

Use of Graphics in The Hunting Ground

The Hunting Ground was an amazing film on multiple levels, but I thought that it had the best use of info graphics out of any documentary that we’ve seen this year (in all honesty, probably better than most documentary films that I have seen recently). I thought that they were not only visually beautiful, but they could be both funny and heart-wrenching at the same time.

The scene that really stood out in my mind was the “Commercial Scene,” where a narrator discussed different college’s punishments for sexual assaults (including having to write a paper to discuss your feelings about the situation). Instead of just showing these facts listed against a black screen however, they showed the different college seals and actually animated them to change from a positive to a disappointing negative when the narrator discussed how foolish the punishments actually were. I thought that this was incredibly well-animated and was much more effective than simply reading the facts, because, in addition the narrator’s sarcastic tone, we, as an audience, visually saw that the colleges were disappointing, and were not properly addressing the issue of sexual assault. Not all graphics work well, but I feel like these not only fit the tone of the film, but added a huge amount of depth to it.

Documentaries: Role of an Interviewer

Whether it be in journalism or film, when it comes to interviews there is no one more powerful than the interviewer. Many people assume that the subjects, or interviewees, are the key to an effective interview, and while in some cases this may be true, oftentimes a strong interviewer is required to manipulate a session in just the right ways, not only to get the best responses from interviewees, but to gain the most insight into the subject at hand.

That being said, this raises an interesting question: how active should an interviewer be during not only the interview process, but in the final cut of the interviews/film? Is it better for the interviewer to remain an invisible presence in the film, like in Miss Representation,  where the audience only hears the interviewee’s edited responses, rather than hearing the questions being asked? Or is it better for the interviewer to be an active character in the film, like in Inside Job, where they interrupt and directly interact with the interviewees, inserting their opinions into the film? Which feels more realistic, or relatable? Or does it depend on the medium or the topic/message that the film is trying to convey? I am sure that there is no concrete answer to these, but they’re pretty interesting to think about.

Life, Animated: Adaptation or Continuation?


I thought that the coolest part of Roger William’s talk last week was when he was discussing his latest project Life, Animated, about the story of Owen Suskind, the young man with autism who found comfort and expression in Disney films. I could probably go on about how awesome his story is, and how cool the amount of access that Roger and Owen got into the Disney Animation archives is, but what I thought was really interesting was that, towards the end of this discussion, Roger mentioned how the film was actually based on a book written by Owen’s father, Ron Suskind.

I started researching the book after the discussion (I’m considering buying it actually, because the reviews are pretty positive and the story that Roger told us seemed awesome), and found that a whole website was created around it, and that many of the posts tell not only Owen’s story, but the stories of numerous other children with autism who found comfort in Disney. It made me realize how Owen’s story is a continually growing process, and how it has continued past the events of Suskind’s book, and will continue past the events filmed by Roger Williams. When I found that the documentary was using the same title as the book, I was afraid that Roger was going for an adaptation of sorts (which raises the question of whether or not documentaries can be adapted from source materials faithfully, the way that some films can be adapted from fiction novels), but I realized that instead of being an adaptation, it is more like a continuation of the book. It deals with the same character, and similar themes, but it shows a new side to Owen, an older side, and serves as an update and hopefully an expansion of what the book provides. It’s not a sequel, but rather a Part II to a story that I think is far from over.

The link to the website is posted below and I definitely think that it is worth checking out.

Surrealism in Animation: Disney’s Destino

I think that the textbook briefly mentions this short film in the Surrealism subsection, but I wanted to give Disney’s Destino a little bit more attention than that, because I believe that it is a true experimental masterpiece. The short film was originally a collaboration between Walt Disney and Salvador Dali, combining Dali’s surrealist imagery and paintings and making them move through. The project began in 1945, and if it had been released at the time, it would have been a revolutionary artistic experience, and an enormous player in the avant-garde film movement. However, because the company did not have the technology to make their exact vision come true, and because WW2 had taken a devastating toll on European and U.S. entertainment economies, the project was eventually put in the Disney Archives.

In the late 1990’s, the project was unearthed from the archives, and with the updated animation technologies at the time, was finally completed and released in 2003 at a few film festivals and on DVD. However, despite the film’s revolutionary techniques and artistic style, it has not been given the attention it may have received back in the 1940s. I think that a part of this is because most people associate Disney with their animated features, particularly princess films, that there really isn’t a market for experimental short films. However, I think that Destino is one of the most interesting pieces to come out of Walt Disney Studios in the early 21st century, and is worth a close, critical analysis as both a film and a piece of art.

In terms of plot, I don’t want to describe anything or give any of the imagery away, because it is worth watching, and is very open to interpretation. Some people see it as a social commentary, others view it as a tragic romance, but the cool thing about experimental films, just like Salvador Dali’s paintings, is that they do not have to fit a particular mold or moral code. It takes a little while to get into, because the tone of the film is very 1940s, but if you watch till the end, you might be confused, but it definitely gives you a lot to think about.

The Title “Persepolis”


It has been a couple years since I’ve read the graphic novel Persepolis, and I am not sure whether or not they explain the title in the novel, but I realized that “Persepolis” isn’t actually said or directly referenced in the film, so some people walk away confused as to why the novel/film is titled that.

Persepolis (translated to “city of Persians”) was the ceremonial capital of the ancient Achaemenid Empire (an empire centered around Iran between 550-330 BC) and now a famous area of ruins in Fars Province, Iran. It was once a spiritual and social center, where a variety of religious ceremonies took place, and its close proximity to a river also allowed it to be an economic hub as well. Since the fall of the  Empire, the city slowly decayed over time, but is now considered an area of architectural masterpieces, with my archeologists praising its statues and depictions of religious figures.

By titling her novel/film Persepolis, Marjane makes a reference to the old days of her country, drawing parallels between the life she lived with the society that existed in the same place millenniums before. When Marji is young, she expresses a strong desire to become a prophet, and even though she enjoys many modern fads, she seems to have a deep respect for the past. The title indirectly reflects this, and almost expresses Marji’s sadness and regret over the turmoil that her nation has suffered, even after it was established, more or less, so long before she was born.

Marji Unanimated: The Author Since Persepolis


While watching Persepolis, it is very easy to get lost in the plot and the beautiful animation style, sometimes to the point where we forget that it is a true story and that the character Marji not only existed, but is still alive. Her story didn’t end with the taxi drive from the airport, or with her grandmother dying, but continued long after that.

Since Persepolis ended, Marjane Satrapi has obviously become a famous graphic novelist, having published Persepolis Parts I and II in 2000, four-five years after the story of Persepolis ends (when Marji leaves Iran for good). After moving to Strasbourg, France, and following the immense international success of her debut work, Marjane continued to write graphic novels, including Embroideries and Chicken with Plums, which have won multiple awards and many of which also address the civil tensions in Iran.

Since the success of the Persepolis film in 2007, Marjane has also continued her career in the film industry, continuing to work with Vincent Paronnaud (the co-director of Persepolis) to create other films such as a live-action adaptation of Chicken with Plums and a comedy-horror film The Voices (a film starring Ryan Reynolds and Anna Kendrick). She has also made multiple public appearances (including some at Parliament) to advocate for the rights of women in Iran and internationally, continuing her messages and beliefs in Persepolis.

Also, in case any of you were worried about her love life (because, let’s face it, from what we saw, Marji kind of got the short end of the stick with that one in the film), since Persepolis she married Mattias Ripa, a Swedish national, and the two have lived in Paris since then. And another interesting thing to note is that Marji speaks six languages (Persian, French, German, Swedish, German, and Italian)!

Keys in the Fish Tank


After The Graduate, we talked a lot about how water was used throughout the film to symbolize both Ben’s escape from reality, but also his feeling of being pressured in his life because he is “just drifting.” We payed a lot of attention to the scene where he is standing at the bottom of the pool in his scuba gear, but I don’t think that we brought up how this scene–and the major themes of the film–was actually foreshadowed at the beginning of the film during Ben’s first major interaction with Mrs. Robinson.

When Mrs. Robinson asks Ben to drive her home, at one point he nervously throws her the keys, only to have her toss them back at him. She misses by a long shot (obviously on purpose to flirt with him), but in doing so, ends up throwing the keys in the fish tank. This simple act is symbolic of how Mrs. Robinson interrupts Ben’s “drifting”  and adds a purpose/direction to his life (an inappropriate direction, of course, but at least she gets him to actually do something). But what is really cool, is, if you look carefully, you’ll notice that the keys knock over a statue of a frog in the fish tank (it’s hard to tell, but it seems like it is wearing scuba gear of some sort), that bears a striking resemblance to the pose that Ben makes while he is standing at the bottom of the pool. The film uses a whole bunch of these little nuances through muse-en-scene, but I thought that this one was especially worth noting. Even from the beginning, the film was telling us where it was going.

An Animated Femme Fatale

I’m not sure how many of you have seen it, but if you haven’t, I think that Who Framed Roger Rabbit is an excellent film to watch, because it combines a variety of topics that we discussed in class. It merges elements from a  variety of film genres, from animation and musicals (it has two songs, one that I linked, and another one towards the end), to the hard-boiled cop crime film, and especially film noir (with its black and white flashbacks, cynical protagonist, and of course, its femme fatale). It is essentially a revisionist-hybrid of all of these genres and serves as a satire both for them and the animation industry as a whole.

I could probably write multiple posts on this one film, but I wanted to call attention to its use of the femme fatale character, Jessica Rabbit, because we spent a good portion of class today discussing the femme fatale archetype and its role in film. Jessica Rabbit has, in many ways, become almost a modern symbol for the femme fatale, as she is an incredibly mysterious, sexualized character who flirts with almost any male lead, while hiding her ulterior motives. I don’t want to give away too many details, because the film is definitely worth watching, but behind her overly sexualized look, she is an incredibly complex and manipulative character, a quality of the femme fatale character.

However, Jessica works best when viewed as a satire of the character trope, as her body proportions are extremely exaggerated, her dialogue is overly mysterious (she even pokes fun at herself), and her “dark side” seems almost forced upon her (noted through her line “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way”). These suggest that the creators of the film were aware of the stereotypes associated with the femme fatale, in addition to how integral they are to a mystery plot, but wanted to put a new spin on the character.

Below is a link to Jessica’s famous scene in the film,  which pokes fun at, and references, a variety of other femme fatale scenes (it emphasizes how they are mostly viewed as sexualized characters, but also plays with their mysterious nature and relationship with the protagonist).

A Different Take on the Movie Musical


I found this article about how sound was recorded for Les Miserables, the 2012 musical starring Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, and Russell Crowe (the best part of the article is the video that it features interviews with the cast discussing what the process of singing live was).

I think that it is interesting to compare a musical film like Les Miserables to Bride and Prejudice, not only to compare style and production values, but also to see how the songs were recorded and featured in the film. In Bride and Prejudice, all of the songs were pre-recorded and laid over the visual footage of the film, so the actors had to mime what they were “singing” on film while shooting. Even though that makes the sound a little more polished, the visuals can get a little funky when the lyrics don’t always sync up perfectly with the actor’s lips (it can occasionally look a little cheesy).

On the other hand, Les Miserables goes for somewhat of a more natural, Broadway-style approach by having the actor’s sing live, and while this is pretty interesting, it also sets up enormous risks and imperfections in the performances. The voices and music may not sound as impeccable as they would in a recording studio, but maybe that is what the film was going for. Either way, their decision to use live-footage of the singers was hit-or-miss with audience members, some who found it a fantastic divergence from traditional musical styles, while others found it too distracting. It is an interesting take on making a musical regardless and it would be interesting to see if more movies will take this approach in the future.