All posts by oneillb

Ba-ba-ba dook! dook! dook!

Lately, I ‘ve been bitten by the horror bug.  You know when you start realizing that something you at first only found entertaining is transcending into obsession? Well I know at least Randy does with that crippling Scorsese addiction of his.  But it’s just one of those phases when I can’t get enough, and it’s all I want to talk about.

I want to briefly shed some light on a film that I think is excellent and that everyone should see, if you’re a fan of horror or not.  The reason I say this is because this particular film, The Babadook (Kent, 2014), is an example of a horror that explores one of the deepest, truest anxieties that exists in the world: motherhood.  The story follows a woman named Amelia (Essie Davis) and her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman).  Amelia is a single mother, widowed in the most tragic of circumstances.  On the day she gave birth to Samuel, around 6-10 years prior to when the film takes place, her husband was killed in a car accident while driving her to the hospital.  Amelia faces single parenthood with crippling depression, as she struggles to find a reason to move forward raising her child every day since she was forced to sacrifice the love of her life for a huge burden of responsibility.  She is unable to let go of her husband, and keeps a shrine of memorabilia in her basement to constantly convince herself that he isn’t gone from her life.

It is clear that at the time the film takes place, she is just about fed up.  Samuel is rather strange and introspective, likely as a result of his mother’s subconscious rejection of the child, and as the frames tick by Amelia loses more and more patience for her son.  She won’t even throw him his own birthday party- she forces him to share the day with his cousin so she doesn’t have to make the effort herself.  Samuel’s dejected strangeness becomes so pervasive that no one, not even Amelia’s own sister, is comfortable being around him.  Then, one night before Samuel goes to bed, he asks Amelia to read him a story that just happens to be lying on the shelf.  This story is called “The Babadook.”  Here are the contents of this book (follow this link for the actual picture book itself

If it’s in a word, if its in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.

If you’re a really clever one, and you know what it is to see, you can make friends with a special one, a friend of you and me.

A rumbling sound, then three sharp knocks, Ba-ba-ba DOOK! DOOK! DOOK!

That’s when you’ll know that he’s around, you’ll see him if you look.

This is what he wears on top, he’s funny don’t you think?

See him in your room at night, and you won’t sleep a wink.

I’ll soon take off my funny disguise (take heed of what you read), And once you see what’s underneath…

You’re going to wish you were dead.

As you might guess, The Babadook begins to haunt Amelia and Sam relentlessly.  In spite of her attempts to throw the book out and burn it, she can’t get rid of The Babadook.  However, this horrifying picture book isn’t all that it seems.  This is no simple children’s-story-gone-bad tale.  What Kent is doing here by using a creepy book is indicating Amelia’s slow descent into insanity as she fails to cope with the loss of her husband and her responsibility to her son so long after the accident.  Letting The Babadook “in” is really referring to Amelia’s increasing rejection of her child.  The creature is represented visually at times, and only Amelia and Samuel can see it, because it is only relevant to their relationship.

The story is really incredible to watch unfold when you start to see it in this light.  It is truly terrifying, but also sad enough to bring you to tears.  Samuel’s recognition of The Babadook and his simultaneous recognition of his mother’s struggle to move forward in her life is in itself a compassionate tale of familial relationships, and the interdependence and support that they rely on to press on through even the biggest and darkest of life’s obstacles.  Near the climax of the film, Amelia’s favorite picture of her and her husband is broken by the dark entity that has infected her house, and she is finally fully possessed by it; she has finally flipped a switch and gone dangerously insane.  She subsequently murders her dog, and chases Samuel.  After Samuel lures Amelia into the basement and subdues her, they confront The Babadook together, which takes the form of Amelia’s husband, and force it into submission, banishing Amelia’s depression into a compartment outside the self and allowing their two part family to finally move on.  As with most people who suffer from depression, however, the word “cured” is hardly ever appropriate – rather, the evil force of Amelia’s depression and insanity find their home in the basement where she keeps all of her memorabilia.  In order to move on, the past must be treated as what it is – the past.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t crying a little at the end.  It would be nice to always view evil in Horror films as though it were merely a killer with a mask, or a demon from another world, or some type of grotesque monster.  However, The Babadook highlights the type of potential evil that lies dormant in the hearts and souls of every human on earth – the struggle with despair, the destructiveness of loss, and the utter misery of loneliness.  It made me think of what Professor Sikand asked me after I finished giving my presentation last week – something like “where do you see the horror genre moving after minimalism?” Well, now I’ll say that I hope to see horror capturing the evil of reality in the way that The Babadook has.


Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt – Funny with a new gaze

I know I’m a little lat in the game with this, but I just read Christina Shaman’s post on Netflix as a platform for progressive T.V. shows.  In this post, Christina used Tina Fey’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt as her example as a progressive show available on Netflix.  I saw this, and got really really happy that I’m finding more and more people who love this show,  because I think it’s one of the best shows I’ve seen in a while – and not just because it features a cast in which a woman and a gay black man take center stage, but because it is genuinely hysterical.

Following Christina’s post, this post is really aimed at the fact that the show makes me, a white male, laugh.  Why is this relevant or important? I would argue that this is important because after watching a few minutes of Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, it became clear that television executives really don’t think that their dominant demographics will enjoy shows featuring scantly represented minorities in major roles unless that role involves making fun of them in some way.  Some rationalize this phenomenon using by declaring that it’s just not what their consumers want to see, and it is a consumer driven industry so they’re required to produce such lopsided representations as to make more money.

However, shows like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt challenge this notion by packaging and selling a type of goofy, ridiculous and frankly hysterical sense of humor that is dependent on two poor, enterprising roommates that aren’t weighed down by traditional gender roles.  The jokes gently probe at different a multitude of issues that society faces in the modern world, including (as Christina mentioned as well) jokes about race (people are more scared of blacks than werewolves) women (e.g. gold digging) the rich and entitled (Kimmy’s first boyfriend, Logan).  It really spreads the wealth when it comes to humor, and no one is safe from a jab or two.  It’s a lot easier even to respect this type of humor when it is coming from a typically voiceless group.  This reminds me a lot of the style South Park employs (albeit coming from a much different gaze); an open humor forum in which the protagonists are responsible for belittling literally every single demographic or organization of people who is flawed (so truly everyone).  This is a harsh, comedic yet socially responsible roast-model that does a good job of leveling the playing field and allowing stereotypes to move out of the realm of deep-seated hatred and into a world where differences are recognized, ridiculed and ultimately either accepted as silly and insignificant or condemned as cruel and in need of reform.  Kimmy’s gaze is vitally important in this way as she is both a boisterous woman and someone who was literally removed from 15 crucial years of society’s post-millennial development.  I’d love to see even more people give this show a shot and really try to view it objectively.  It’s really funny.

Birdman and Representations on Screen

During class I keep thinking of the recent film Birdman during many of the discussions we’ve been having.  It’s been relevant in several situations, most notably during our conversation on Monday about the burden of representations that you yourself cannot control.  Is it better to be represented poorly by someone who doesn’t belong to your particular demographic, or not be represented at all?  Is it better to have bad press rather than no press?  We talked about it briefly as it pertained to black representations in T.V. as white producers would be responsible for churning out popular content involving the gross stereotyping of black people.  We also talked about it in the context of homosexuality in film, where the mere transition to any representation at all on screen was enough to be considered a step in the right direction – even if homosexual characters were better characterized as caricatures.

In the context of Birdman, the main character, Riggan, is obsessed with recapturing the fame that he once had on screen playing a famous superhero (called Birdman).  He struggles to accomplish a level of sophisticated popularity by writing, directing and acting in a stage production, but he is constantly antagonized by a younger, stronger and more fit version of himself wearing the Birdman suit.   What Riggan is dealing with here is the desire to define his own existence in the entertainment world.  He wants to put his own image of himself out to the public, and gain a more desirable level of fame that he himself can come to terms with.  Riggan’s attempts to represent himself through entertainment are beaten and battered into the dirt at almost every corner – he can’t get a smooth production of his show at any point during the previews.  In one particular instance, he finds himself locked out of the theater in just his underwear after he had stepped out for a minute or two to have a cigarette.  In a crazed effort to get back into the theater in time for the final scene of the production, he marches straight through Times Square in front of hundreds of onlookers.  Within minutes, he is caught on dozens of outstretched camera phones, and he has unwittingly just starred in a youtube video that will go viral in a matter of days.

The irony is tangibly thick – despite his best efforts to avoid meaningless fame on screen, he is thrown right back into the midst of reluctant celebrity status.  Representation is funny in that way – no matter how hard you try to present your own image, or the image of those around you, the dominance of popular opinion will easily break the delicate path towards self satisfaction.  It feels this way with social justice in film – in spite of deeply emotional and concerted attempts to correctly and fairly represent the opinion of those who have failed to hold a voice, there will always be a more dominant effort to crush that movement and feed consumers what they want to see, and what they’re comfortable seeing.

Reaction to Brokeback Mountain

Right after watching a film for the first time, I typically don’t have a strong reaction to it, because I can’t really sort through the thoughts in my head and create a linear idea.  This is exactly how I felt after watching Brokeback Mountain, perhaps even  more so than usual – I just couldn’t really grasp what my own reaction was to what I had just seen on screen.  So what I did was I took to, in my mind one of the more reliable sources for popular/critical film evaluation, and I clicked on the first review I saw that gave the movie a 100.  To paraphrase the article using its own words, it said this :

“Brokeback Mountain has been described as “a gay cowboy movie,” which is a cruel simplification. It is the story of a time and place where two men are forced to deny the only great passion either one will ever feel. Their tragedy is universal.”

We really touched on that first point in class, and lead a little bit into the second part.  But it’s really an important idea to reiterate about this film that being gay isn’t necessarily the most important theme – It’s really a lot about passion and sacrifice, and the words “their tragedy is universal” speaks volumes to this.  It might be hard to conceptualize Brokeback Mountain as a universal story, especially if your sexual identity doesn’t seem to match up with the characters.  But I gather that one thing most people in the world deal with is the loss of passion at some level, whether it be a sexual passion or a completely different form – say music, sports, etc.  There are many, many instances outside of sexual identity in which people feel trapped, false, abused or misunderstood, and I think Brokeback Mountain is one of the most heartfelt representations of this.  There will always be times when we are forced to conform to something that we don’t draw joy from, while our hearts will long for something better, fiercer, and more full of life and feeling.  Jack and Ennis happen to have a sexual attraction but it’s not the only thing that they’re missing – they’re missing a concept of free expression in their lives.

Peter Sellers is Dr. Strangelove

A week after watching the fabulous Doctor Strangelove (Kubrick, 1963)I was left with a number of fantastic thoughts in my head about the film.  Every shot had something interesting that I liked, every joke had some type of humor that I could understand and relate to, and there were even some surprisingly solid action sequences to keep my brain alert and focused.  What stood out to me the most, however, was an outstanding performance from Peter Sellers, something we briefly touched on in class last week but really (I think) needs to break the surface of conversation more than just once.

Seller’s performance wasn’t limited to one or two very impactful scenes, it was dispersed gradually over the course of the entire film as a sort of satirical glue that kept the mood light in the face of apparent seriousness.  Of course, he also wasn’t limited to just one character, as we saw him perform wonderfully as Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, President Merkin Muffley, and as the iconic Dr. Strangelove himself.  What Sellers accomplished with all of these three characters was a perfect, diametrically opposed perspective from the perspective of the character he was conversing with at the time.  As Mandrake, Sellers plays a light-hearted spritely British captain who functions almost as a counter-point for the surly, cynical and insane Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden).  This opposing character structure is hugely instrumental in providing a balance that keeps the satirical mood in place the way it should be.  The reason General Ripper’s perspective seemed so ridiculous to us was because at every point that Ripper would make a dark, brooding comment on the clear and present danger of the Communists, Mandrake would react in such a way that reduced the paranoid negativity to a simple, perhaps even endearing grumpiness, and then he would proceed to try to make Ripper feel better by keeping a positive attitude.  In his role as President Muffley, Sellers would accomplish the same effect, though playing the opposite side this time.  This time Sellers would be providing the dark seriousness that Ripper provided, and it would be his character’s dark realism that General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) would provide a comical balance with, once again forging the satirical effect.  Finally, in his culminating role as Dr. Strangelove, Sellers becomes responsible for the absurdity that rounds the film off, playing a handicapped German Nazi doctor (or general or scientist or something I really don’t know) who fights back the urge to refer to himself, President Mandrake, as Adolf Hitler.

The amount of responsibility that Sellers had in this movie was pretty unbelievable, especially considering how incredibly the movie turned out.  I guess the point that I want to make is that In the midst of numerous discussions about auteurship and the role of the director in the vision of the film, what makes any film great is big-time execution from big-time actors.  I give Stanley Kubrick a 10/10 for casting Sellers in this multifaceted role, because I’m really not sure that the film would have been as good without him, and while Kubrick scores an A+ as Dr. Strangelove’s Brigadier General, Sellers gets an A++ as the film’s Sergeant.  Every stage of the film is dependent on a classy performance from Sellers; every major hard-hitting satirical moment revolves around him as its nucleus. Really just phenomenal.

Blair Witch Project: Playing with the Apparatus


In a classic masochistic effort, I decided to watch a horror movie the other night. Armed with pop-corn, a beer, and several deep breathing exercises, I turned on what I had heard to be a great ride – Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick/Eduardo Sanchez, 1999). From what I had heard, there was a distinct realism in this film’s approach that made it so revolutionary, and I had been told numerous times from the mothers of my friends that they walked out of the theatre in 1999 thinking they’d truly just seen found footage of a historical event. What could possibly bring this level of terror to a bunch of clever, educated people in a movie theatre?

It was pretty easy to tell while I was watching exactly what these people were reacting to. The shaky camera captures the world around it as a grainy, pale shadow of itself, contributing to a growing sense of dread before we even know the terrors that lie ahead. Most of all, it makes the footage feel truly authentic, as the characters are armed with the same technology that a pedestrian film maker would be armed with – a jarring realization to make when you find yourself sitting in a 12 dollar theatre seat with a 8 dollar jug of popcorn on your lap. The perfectly borderline-amateur cinematographer and her crew are making a documentary about the Blair Witch, a legend surrounding a small Maryland town, and naturally they want to find footage in the woods where this Witch supposedly lives. I noted immediately that in this sense, right off the bat, this horror movie becomes a movie about making movies, notably exploiting the strength of the documentarian, which is in his/her aggression towards uncovering and revealing the reality of something – a reality which we know in our study of theory is inherently limited by the mechanical capabilities of a camera. These limits define our sense of horror throughout the film, as what we interpret to be the “reality” that these characters are facing is really only what the camera chooses to reveal.

Further, it is interesting to think of this film as a reaction to the campiness and glossiness of many films (not just horror) that were produced in the decades preceding the millennia.  We talked about this aspect a little in class, about how it could potentially be seen as a revisionist genre of sorts, with this attitude of “hey look at us make 240 million dollars off of a 60,000 dollar budget while you struggle to make 10 million off a 50 million budget.”  It seems like realism is often the film world’s reaction to cinema that has become too predictable and too surreal to even have a shot at borrowing reality.  Maybe it’s better just to hit hard and fast with your own vision as Myrick and Sanchez did with The Blair Witch Project if you want to bring about change in the film industry.  After Blair Witch, we saw the ascendancy of shaking and candid cameras in the early 2000’s, culminating (in my opinion) with the Paranormal Activity franchise, which saw budgets around 15-30 thousand dollars produce hundreds of millions in return, as movie-goers were brought to their knees in terror at the simplest oscillations of a few cameras in a dark house.  Pretty brilliant stuff if you ask me.  I really think The Blair Witch Project can be looked at as a significant moment in film history in which the word “reality” was truly ringing in people’s heads as they walked out of the theatre (and hid under their bed for a few days).

Benjamin XVI – The Unconscious World of Film

“The most important social function of film is to establish equilibrium between human beings and the apparatus”

After a series of installments in an essay dedicated to “Art in the age of its technological reproducibility,” Benjamin arrives in the 16th section to a point about a certain “equilibrium” between humans and the apparatus of film making.  What Benjamin ends up referring to here is the “insight into the necesseties governing our lives” that film can provide.  I found this to be a very interesting statement, especially with the specific examples that Benjamin uses – “…its use of close-ups, by its accentuation of hidden details in familiar objects, and by its exploration… through the ingenious guidance of the camera.”  Benjamin is drawing our attention to the very attention to detail that films provide us with.  It is a fact of viewership, and vitally important to theory arguments surrounding the falseness of the apparatus (and of course for Benjamin’s larger arguments about the falseness of the reproduction of art let alone a physical landscape).

If any one of us were standing in a room with one of our friends, our attention may be drawn to the little trinkets that he or she possesses, in an effort to better understand that person.  Say, for example, there is a special pen on his or her desk – it might draw our attention.  But our scope of those things is rather short as the moment is instantaneous, and presumably we are more focused on the person themselves.  In films, however, the close-up that Benjamin refers to serves to replicate an impossibly attentive version of this same situation.  Filming a scene in which we stand in a room with our friends can employ a greater range of perception than a real-life version of that instance ever could.  If there is a special pen on the desk, we might get a close up, HD image of that pen, providing us with a hyper-real interpretation of that person’s belongings (and implicitly their personality, style, etc).  “Clearly,” as Benjamin says, “it is another nature which speaks to the camera as compared to the eye.”  Benjamin refers to this as the “optical unconscious” – that is, things we consciously have no knowledge of as human beings in day to day life, but rather rely on the apparatus of a camera to reveal.  In this same light, Benjamin reinforces his point by noting that previous theory on the existence of two worlds by Heraclitus – the collective real world and the solitary dream world – is now “invalidated by film” due to this cinematic exposé on the unconscious elements of everyday life.

Bringing it all back to Benjamin’s first statement about the equilibrium between human beings and the apparatus, he validates the existence of this unconscious world by noting the “possibility of psychic immunization… by means of certain films in which the forced development of fantasies or masochistic delusions can present their natural and dangerous maturation in the masses.”  To paraphrase,film can take our multifaceted individual minds and tranquilize them using what they at first thought could only exist in a dream world, and now exists in a conjunctive “imagination land” on screen,provided by the ability of a film to depict the “unconscious.”

Initial Reactions to “Run Lola Run”

I have to say, it was a pleasure watching Run Lola Run in class today.  Tom Tykwer takes us through an incredibly offbeat, intense and interesting ride that follows a young woman and her boyfriend’s struggle to return 100,000 marks to his boss to avoid getting killed.

Despite being made 17 years ago, the film is still refreshingly un-linear in its story telling, and involves a big of magical realism.  How many movies do you ever get to see where the main character is shot dead in the first 30 minutes? Surprising the viewer like this speaks greatly to a generational shift away from beginning-middle-end story telling and towards a style that defies rhetorical laws.  But laws are meant to be broken in the art world, and Tykwer couldn’t have accomplished this any better.  He plays with time through his exhaustingly intense montages of Lola running through streets in the city over and over and over again throughout the film, and leaves us with a constant sense of doubt about the re-vitalized future.

What I thought was the most interesting thing that Tykwer did, though, was his inclusion of conversations between Manni and Lola in bed after each one of them takes a turn dying as a result of miscues in their mission to reclaim 100,000 marks.  As each seem to be on the verge of dying, a slow zooming close up on the faces of the near-deceased results in a transition to the two of them lying next to eachother in bed, questioning each other’s dedication to each other.  Lola is interested in knowing if Manni really loves her, and Manni later wants to know if Lola would really care if he died.  The characters themselves are refreshingly realistic in their approach of their answers, and the dialogue is captivating as it does not glorify concepts of love and death, but rather demonstrates the deep fear associated with both topics.  The scene is lit with a deep, disturbing red color, and serves to heat up the angst that both feel as they converse.  Tykwer accomplishes an odd cinematic Purgatory here, which results in a final gasp for life that sends a bag of money falling to the earth, a phone falling onto its jack and a red-haired Lola once more sprinting from her home to try to save the day.

Further, Tykwer accomplishes an amazing affect in the way that he includes a lightening quick photo-montage of the seemingly uninteresting people that Lola runs into as she runs to Manni.  These people are characterized multiple times in multiple different ways through only a couple snapshots of their future or previous lives, leaving us with an odd connection to all of them, maybe even a certain sadness.  Tykwer show us his power as a film maker – he controls what we think of, what we see, what we care about.  We are in the midst of thinking solely of the lives of Lola and Manni as they face imminent death up until these points, and we are forced instead to give weight to the lives of trivial characters and their stories.  In under an hour and a half we see two main characters die twice, and in about 5 seconds we see the condensed story of a passing character’s death.  The power to create an emotional connection in only a couple of seconds is one that only film makers possess to this extent, as the assumption is that the viewer as bought into the entire experience from the very beginning.


Truffaut’s “La Nui Americaine”

Francois Truffaut’s “La Nuit Americaine” presents a rather light-hearted representation of what it takes to make a film. Many of the difficulties associated with making a film to come light as the director finds himself on an impossibly tight schedule and several of the actors suffer from debilitating off-set issues. Though we have not finished the film, it is already clear that the production of “Pamela” (the film within the film) will not end without another series of stressful events.

Truffaut makes an effort to call attention to cinema’s inaccurate depictions of both the reality of the world itself and the truth of what went into making the ideal picture that millions view on screen.  Scenes of “Pamela” are shot over and over and over again with mounting frustration after every attempt and a mental breakdown from one of the leading actresses (Severine) to cap it all off.  Seemingly unimportant logistics are micromanaged to a fault, and poorly written contract-clauses force Ferrand to make unsettling decisions about his cast.  To paraphrase, Ferrand notes that he originally intended to make a great movie, and now he just hopes to be able to finish it, after being faced with a 7 week ultimatum.  I found all of this to be extremely enlightening, as I never quite conceptualized exactly how difficult and frustrating it is to make all of this happen.  As Orson Welles so elegantly put it, “a writer needs a pen, an artist needs a brush, but a filmmaker needs an army.”  Ferrand struggles to keep his army together, finding himself faced with little tiny problems all the way down to a kitten that won’t drink the milk he puts out for it.  It doesn’t ever seem like anything will be easy, and the whole thing is enough to make the whole operation seem like a complete drag.  Upon viewing the preview of one of her films, one actress declares, “I did that? All I remember is the waiting.”  I think that quote pretty effectively sums up the point that Truffaut wants to make about film-making – despite the glorification of the plot and the characters themselves, the input is far, far uglier than the output.

A further comment on cinema’s departure from reality is made as the stars of the film are all asked about the plot.  The film is a tragedy by genre, and Alphonse, Alexandre and Julie all point to this fact with different interpretations of what that means.  Regardless of what the actors and actresses say to this point, what comes through to the viewer is the fact that the storyline of the film within the film is quite linear – that is to say their lives are pre-destined to resolve in some thematic or predictable way based on the general requirements of a tragedy.  In this sense the film has automatically distanced itself from reality, and Truffaut chooses to accentuate this by presenting a conversation between Ferrand and Alphonse in which the distraught actor is consoled about the departure of his girlfriend, whom he idealistically and selfishly presumed to be his fiancé.  Unable to cope with this “real” life tragedy, Alphonse whines about the unexpected rupture of his relationship.  Ferrand responds by telling him that “movies go on like trains in the night.”  What he means by this is that in films, unlike in the real-world lives of the people who represent characters, the plot will simply move forward without any unintended hiccups.  There is no room for a diversion from the path.  It seems as though Alphonse pictured his romance with Lilliane to be as perfect and ideal as the instant and illicit love relationship between the characters that Julie and Alexandre play in “Pamela,” and could not come to terms with the fact that this just wasn’t meant to be.  To make things worse, Julie ends up sleeping with Alphonse after an effort to explain to him that Lilliane would find herself alone and abandoned after a brief stint with her British lover, contributing further to the harsh and complicated emotions that Alphonse already felt.  What a messy situation.  I guess Truffaut is trying to hammer home the point that makers of films sometimes cannot escape the idealization of the world themselves.  Alphonse’s life looks to be more of a roll of the dice than a straight path towards the eternal love he pictures in his mind.