Best Movies of 2012

I have actually talked about a few pretty solid movies that came out this past year. While some highly anticipated movies may have failed to live up to their immense hype, fear not! for there was cinematic redemption in 2012. I think I shall bequeath to you, dear ones, my own personal Favorite Films of 2012. (I am so sorry I did not see any 2012 documentaries).

1.fly-with-the-crane 2

Rui Jun Li’s Fly With the Crane feels more like a National Geographic documentary, but it is in fact a fictional narrative. This movie throws you into rural China and makes you a fly on the wall to the events as they unfold. Retired coffin-maker Lao Ma (Xing Chun Ma) is an old man and his adult children treat him more and more like a bothersome piece of furniture. In addition the government is outlawing burials. How will Lao Ma’s soul fly with the crane if he is cremated and turned into smoke? It might be the most unglamorous movie and unromantic about death. This is a devastating, subtle, and unflinching film. I left the theater feeling uncomfortable at how disturbingly sad and real it all felt. Who was the hero? Did he win? What was won? Perhaps I rate this one highest because it left the biggest impact on me. Months later I’m still thinking about it.

2.once-upon-a-time-in-anatolia-2

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (technically made in 2011, but it’s receiving much recognition this year) was a beautiful and enigmatic Turkish police investigation movie. How many other films about boring law enforcement procedures could be this steeped in lush cinematography, subtle existentialism, and dense mustaches? It’s the sort of movie that only moves as much as it has to because it knows a keen observer will be immersed in the story. I was never certain where the plot was heading or what it what it would ultimately say in the end, but that detailed unpredictability made it interesting and every moment was pregnant with possibility. The film feels like real life, but better photographed. Color me captivated.

3.Holy-Motors-2

Possibly the most alienating movie on my list is Leos Carax’s Holy Motors. Actor Denis Lavant gets into a limousine and goes from place to place donning various inexplicable disguises and acting out even more freakish and varied scenarios. It is a grotesque, bizarre, surreal, episodic, and aimlessly unpredictable movie. It is definitely not for everyone. While I’m certain there are countless interpretations I can only share my own. The man is a performer (whether or not he is a literal actor or a symbolic everyman is up to you). He only knows how to change roles and perform, even if nobody is watching. So who is he really? Who are we? Who are we pretending to be and why and when will we stop? What would we do if we stopped? What would be left?

4.monsieur-lazhar-2

There is a surplus of awkwardly manipulative educator movies. That said, Monsieur Lazhar, Philippe Falardeau’s French-Canadian drama about an Algerian refugee (Mohamed Fellag)—with a concealed past—who becomes a teacher following an unexpected suicide, sidesteps many a cliche. The characters feel real and down to earth and their pain is not overblown for cinematic effect. Emotions are treated with realism and respect. It was refreshing. It’s a humorous and telling examination of the teacher-student relationship. I daresay it is the best teacher movie since Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939).

5.moonrise-kingdom-2

Love it or hate it. For all the gripes I might have with sylized filmmaker, Wes Anderson, I can honestly say I have enjoyed most of his movies. Moonrise Kingdom might be up there with Rushmore (1998) for me. If it is a smirk at immature romances or a critical prod at supposed mature ones or a humorous juxtaposition it doesn’t matter. It’s beautiful to look at with its creative imagery and very funny in its surreal deadpanned execution. That it achieves its greater intent is just the icing on the cake.

6.chicken with plums 2

From the same mind that penned Persepolis (2007) comes another tale of humor and angst in Iran. Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Chicken With Plums is crafted into an expertly visually entertaining film. Satrapi even aids with directing alongside Vincent Paronnaud. Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) stars as a musician, father, and husband who simply decides to die. The results feel like Jean-Pierre Jeunet adapting Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. It manages to find a comfortable tone betwixt whimsy and anguish. It’s an innovative film that finds clever ways to express some of its more surreal elements. It’s a little film in many ways but it’s everything it needs to be.

7.Beasts of the Southern Wild - 6

Beasts of the Southern Wild is not a perfect film, but it’s one of those instances where I admire it’s audacity and ambition so much that I forgive it many of its shortcomings. Pint-sized protagonist, Quvenzhané Wallis, gives a wonderfully captivating performance as Hushpuppy in this imaginative examination of Hurricane Katrina as a mythic fable. The music and cinematography really help this film to soar as well. This movie showed me things that I have just never seen in a movie before. Watch Benh Zeitlin’s film for a taste of what else film can be. Was it this year’s Tree of Life? I don’t know about that but it does utilize the medium in some innovative ways.

8.sleepwalk with me 2

I am a fan of comedian Mike Birbiglia so natuarlly I really enjoyed his directorial debut Sleepwalk With Me. It’s a solid indy comedy that manages to feel fresh and personal rather than merely quirky and offbeat. Birbiglia essentially plays a younger version of himself (alter-ego Matt Pandamiglio), a struggling comedian with a stress-related sleeping disorder and some serious concerns regarding his potential future with his girlfriend. It’s a simple and very relateable story. My only complaint is that the comedy album and one man show it is based on is a lot funnier. But translating a series of jokes into a humorous drama film is no easy trick either. Kudos, Mike.

9.skyfall 2

James Bond was back and more satisfying this year with Skyfall. This time we get a glimpse at 007’s destructibility and his inner demons. Director Sam Mendes brings us psychologically closer to the famous spy than ever before. It’s wonderfully shot, has great brainless action, and there are many nods to past elements that made the character such a staple. It actually feels closer to the more classic, grittier British espionage thrillers of the 60’s that weren’t James Bond.

10.In Another Country 2

In Another Country hit me at just the right time. Three French women (all played by Isabelle Huppert) have small relationship-based adventures at the same bed and breakfast. I saw this film just a few months after moving to South Korea. Sang-soo Hong’s character-driven nonlinear vignettes are strange, humorous, and fascinating. Like I said, I am somewhat biased as I really appreciate the clash of western culture against Korean culture. Many of the incidents in the movie were quite familiar to me.   Its a humble and intimate movie, but it’s definitely worth a look.

What the heck? One more.

11.pirogue 2

The Pirogue was another simple but human story. As a movie about desperation at sea in a tiny, vulnerable vessel I am sure it will be upstaged by Ang Lee’s Life of Pi adaptation. Moussa Touré’s Senegalese movie follows several men as they attempt a dangerous and illegal sojourn to Europe in the hopes of finding work and a better life. Their tragic fates are shared by many unfortunate real life immigrants. For a film that takes place entirely on a boat it never gets boring. There is always energy and tension. More than just a film for Europe and Africa, this is a film for Arizona too.

And one more extra. Because you are worth it.

12.comedy 2

This last one will definitely divide people. It is not a fun movie. The ironically titled The Comedy is to hipsters what Easy Rider (1969) was to hippies. Perhaps there is more romance and mythos to hippiedom, but that’s just the point. It’s the end of an era and if this newer era of hipsterdom appears vapid and less than enthralling then its conclusion can only be merciful this time around. Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!’s, Tim Heidecker stars (Eric Wareheim also makes an appearance) as a pathetic and revolting aging hipster whose thinning insulation of irony is steadily revealing that there is just not much too him. Strip away the aversion to sincerity these characters have and they are totally empty. It is an occasionally funny and frequently uncomfortable movie that questions just how far can the hipster’s ironic ideology go before it burns out.

Note: I have since seen Django Unchained and Seven Psychopaths. Had I seen them earlier my list probably would have looked a little different.

Advertisements

Me, Myself, and CGI

moon trip

A Trip to the Moon (1902)—man in makeup, painted glass.

Special effects have been a part of film since the very beginning. The very idea of organizing a series of slightly different images and playing them in quick succession to establish the illusion of movement in the eye of the viewer is in itself something of a special effect. Eadweard Muybridge*, you sly dog, you.

Film is merely still pictures dancing through time and it still fools us. French magician and film pioneer, Georges Melies, took the medium a step further. Let’s play further tricks on the audience’s mind, he thought. His early films featured expanding body parts, human disintegration, dancing specters, explosions, and much imagination. Melies’ most famous work, A Trip to the Moon (1902), inspired by the writings of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, features one of the most iconic screen images: that of a rocketship wedged in the eye of the man in the moon. This image, although considered crudely realized to some by today’s standards, is still a magical special effect and gets the fantastical point across loud and clear.

metropolis

Metropolis (1927)—huge miniatures and impressive sets to match.

J. Stuart Blackton is credited as being one of the first people to use stop-motion animation special effects, using the technique as early as 1898.

Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)---composites or rear-screen projections with blown-up lizards.

Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)—composites or rear-screen projections with blown-up lizards.

To conjure the extinct relics of eons past, stop-motion pioneer Willis O’Brien used tiny figures to create the gargantuan prehistoric terrors of The Lost World (1925) and the infamous beasts and creatures from King Kong (1933) and Mighty Joe Young (1949).  Ray Harryhausen would become one of the most famous and prolific of all stop-motion effects maestros of the 20th century, with credits including 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), Mysterious Island (1961),  Jason and the Argonauts (1963), The First Men in the Moon (1964), One Million Years B.C. (1966), and the Sinbad adventure movies. Other effects teams would use puppets, or men in suits, or (the oddest of all) real lizards with bonnets and spikes glued to their bodies to create dinosaurs and monsters from other worlds. Irwin Allen must have been on something.

War of the Worlds

War of the Worlds (1953)—miniatures and animated lasers.

Before the advent of computerized special effects technology, earth was invaded by flying saucers; Godzilla stomped Tokyo; the thief of Bagdad rode a flying carpet, was aided by a monstrous djini, and fought a giant spider; Darth Vader dominated the galaxy only to be defeated by Luke Skywalker and the rebel alliance; blade runners pursued replicants; archaeologist, Indiana Jones, battled

Baron Prasil (1961)

Baron Prasil (1961)—hyper-stylized mixture of live-action, puppets, composite shots, in-camera tricks, stop-motion, and matte paintings.

Nazis and supernatural relics; Robbie the Robot made beer; Kubrick showed us the year 2001; Moses parted the Red Sea (twice!); E.T. got stranded on earth; Marty McFly went back to the future; Linda Blair did neck twists; Ben-Hur entered a magnificent chariot race (also twice!); the Ghostbusters got steady slime sleuthing work; Frankenstein’s monster was brought to life; Fritz Lang built a Metropolis; a murderous alien held a small group hostage in the north pole (twice!); Roger Rabbit shook Eddie Valiant’s hand; we journeyed 20,000 leagues under the sea (at least twice); the Blues Brothers crashed hundreds of cop cars; and Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan did their own stunts. Everything had to be carefully thought out and done and you knew a lot of thought went into it. There was no magic bullet to answer all the problems of how to achieve the impossible on screen. Before CGI if you saw it on screen you knew it was real somewhere. Perhaps smaller, perhaps less shiny in real life, but something occupied real space. Probably still in some freaky prophouse.

Alien (1979)

Alien (1979)—guy in suit.

One of my grievances with the overuse of computer-generated special effects is just that: overuse.  It seems to create this shortcut to the magic and for me the magic has rarely been more convincing this new way. Shortcuts are not in themselves bad, but they can be used too much. So many films to come out in the past few decades seemed to be leaning a little too much on this readily available tool. Stephen Sommers’ movies like The Mummy Returns (2001) and Van Helsing (2004) and Michael

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)—miniatures and composite shots and maybe backlighting.

Bay’s Transformers movies (2007, 2009, 2011) are exhausting to watch. Too much wispy, plastic, pristine CGI crammed into the seams. Maybe Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001, 2002, 2003) worked a little bit better because we weren’t always focused on them and there were enough scale models and interesting characters to pull us in. But then think on the suspenseless cartooniness of The Hobbit (2013, 2014 so far) movies. The CG is better, but now it’s used even more than in The Lord of the Rings movies. I don’t know about you, but too much special effects sucks me out of the action.

Legend (1985)---makeup and prosthetics.

Legend (1985)—makeup and prosthetics.

In addition to just being poorly written, acted, directed, etc. the Star Wars prequels (1999, 2002, 2005) are overloaded with CGI special effects. My brain can’t take it all at once. I remember watching Episode I in the theaters and just being baffled at why Lucas didn’t just make a cartoon. It seems there’s just less imagination when all of the questions can be answered by computers. It’s convenient one-stop shopping and that means any bozo can get at the goodies. Which is not to say that the artists behind the new trends are less gifted. The best in the business, like always, are spectacular treasures to be celebrated.

Older techniques were used sparingly and had to be incorporated more innovatively because they were expensive, difficult, and sometimes might not always be convincing. Had they been cheaper and overused and overstuffed then perhaps we would see them in the same light as we do bombastic CGI overuse.

Fitzcarraldo (1982)

Fitzcarraldo (1982)—no special effect. Actually dragged a ferry over a mountain in the jungle.

Perhaps my biggest grievance from the latest special effects trend is that CGI has eclipsed so many other means to create the illusions I love. I miss matte paintings, backlighting, stop-motion, and puppets. I’m not the biggest fan of Joe Dante’s Gremlins (1984), but imagine if all the creatures were CG. I couldn’t imagine it being nearly as creepy or gritty. Imagine Jim Henson’s Labyrinth (1986) the same way. If Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1985) were made today you can bet they wouldn’t build a real boat and drag over a mountain (probably less people would have died too). And you can forget Akira Kurosawa’s torching of an entire castle set for Ran (1985) or Andrei Tarkovsky burning down a house twice for The Sacrifice (1986).

Safety Last (192

Safety Last (1923)—no special effect. Trick angle and safety mattress out of frame.

Why did Lucas feel the need to make a Star Wars: Special Edition (which, you may notice, highlights some extremely poorly aged CGI special effects juxtaposed with the old puppets and prosthetics that still look pretty great today)? And why did Spielberg screw around with E.T. by injecting the already wonderfully expressive face with cartoonish CG “enhancements?” I’m with Quentin Tarantino on this one: CGI car crashes are boring and ugly. Where’s the grit? I like grit in my movies. I love the asymmetry and dirt and dimension. Jan Svankmajer’s Alice (1988) blows Time Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010) out of the water (though that probably wasn’t too hard). CGI may be cheaper and easier, but it’s less fun to look at for me personally. Maybe it is simply a love affair for glorious expensive excess on my part, but if it is excess they wish to throw at me I’d like it to at least be real and have true substance. That’s what I’m paying for.

Maybe it’s me but I just could not find the appeal of Avatar (2009).

Empire Strikes Back (1980)---miniatures and stop-motion.

Empire Strikes Back (1980)—miniatures and stop-motion.

It all really boils down to personal preference, I guess. CGI very often looks cartoony to me. I feel more detached by the illusion because I just know that deep down nothing happened. When a digital spaceship blows up there’s nothing for me to cling to. When a three-dimensional model of a spaceship blows up it’s thrilling to me because something that had actual matter has been destroyed (and my brain knows the difference). I like the character and texture of the older special effects. It’s purely an aesthetic choice, but film is about aesthetics.

Jason and the Argonauts (19)---stop-motion miniatures composite.

Jason and the Argonauts (1963)—stop-motion miniatures composite.

In the end all special effects do the same thing. They try to fool us into believing the impossible but today’s cynical audience isn’t fooled by any process. We will always know when it’s fake. A CGI Godzilla or King Kong doesn’t fool me more than a rubber suit or stop-motion miniature…yet I admire the pioneering craft more in the old-fashioned processes. Some have told me that “old” special effects are dated and cheesy. This can be the case sometimes, but bad puppets and prosthetics can be charming. Bad CGI doesn’t hold that same charm for me. The creatures manufactured through special effects (CG or otherwise) are never going to trick us into believing they’re real off the screen. But something from the Jim Henson’s workshop has a rather unique mystique in that it might still be around but dormant in some old warehouse and the creatures from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005) are simply confined to some digital space on several computers. Return of the Jedi’s (1983) Rancor and the giant scorpion from Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989) seem more real and interesting to me than most of the digital monsters thrown at audiences today.

Hausu (1977)---composites, animations, etc.

Hausu (1977)—composites, animations, etc.

It’s not that I’m against technological progress (entirely), but I do think it might be appropriate to question it and reminisce on the magical times shared between traditional effects. When Barry Levinson’s Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) came out, people were dazzled by the stained-glass window knight that sprung to life because of CGI. Jurassic Park (1993) works splendidly as it is, combining digital effects with life-size animatronics, but that was back when CGI was new and exciting and used sparingly to fill in the gaps that would be too difficult to produce another way. James Cameron’s Terminator 2 (1991) and Chuck Russell’s The Mask (1994) worked great too but today CGI can come off as a bit of a cheap crutch and its novelty is gone. . . for me at least. Imagine if Burton’s Wonderland was made with every digital character done via stop-motion (this was what a lot of us thought it was going to be a few years back). It’s a personal preference, but the aesthetic of CGI sometimes runs the risk of being flat and boring. I don’t like my movies to look like video games. I like it more real and present. Remember, for every filmmaker who utilizes the latest technologies afforded to him with cunning and craft there are countless hacks who butcher the blessings and produce lackluster products with meaningless, artless piffle.

Jurassic Park (1993)---large-scale puppets and animatronics, and CGI.

Jurassic Park (1993)—large-scale puppets and animatronics, and CGI.

Consider this: the original Clash of the Titans (1981) feels personal like classic Ray Harryhausen whereas the 2010 remake looks and feels like every recent bad overblown Hollywood special effects extravaganza.

I don’t hate CGI. I think there are plenty of times when it is effective and cool, but as it becomes cheaper and more accessible I see more and more of it and the spectacle it once was is no more. It’s ho-hum and standard now. A lot of new films have become visually boring because of their over-reliance on CGI. And special effects should never be boring.

The Two Towers (2002)---CGI

The Two Towers (2002)—CGI

We will never have the time back when movie magic was largely a mystery. Studios used to be cagey and not like to reveal how the illusions were done. Now every movie comes with at least a few documentaries on how it was all done. Jaws (1975) may be a clunky robot shark, but we get that it’s a big, scary shark and that’s all the film needs it to do. A CG shark could be just as distracting (consider 1999′s Deep Blue Sea). Would Spartacus’ army be more believable as a CGI onslaught or as flesh and blood actors as they are in the 1960 film?

Is it bad to know how the trick is done? No. Not if your a magician. But the audience likes to be fooled. They like to keep guessing and looking for the seams. At least I do.

Lost in Space (1998)---CGI

Lost in Space (1998)—CGI

What do other people think? I’m curious. Am I just too old-fashioned and finicky for my own good? What movies get you? What are some of your favorite movie special effects?

[update] Here’s an interesting effects reel for Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). Mixes a few different techniques quite effectively, I think.  http://blogs.indiewire.com/theplaylist/watch-impressive-vfx-reel-for-wes-andersons-the-grand-budapest-hotel-20140428

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” July 5, 2010.

The Hulabaloo About Star Wars

A million other nerds have voiced their opinions, so why not I? Why not indeed.

I am nothing special (but you don’t really believe that). I grew up watching Star Wars and it has influenced my life very much, just like a lot of you folks. Our old VHS’s and taped off o’ television copies bear their wear-marks well. As a young boy obsessed with dinosaurs, monsters, robots, aliens, outer space, and, of course, ‘splosions, the Star Wars trilogy was a childhood wet-dream come true. It had it all and I loved it. I remember when the ‘special’ edition hit theaters. I saw them all, so happy to see my favorite characters all pristine and new like I had never seen before. I remember puzzling about some strikingly odd additions to the so-called ‘special’ edition. It featured some wonky and flat CGI. George Lucas may have given birth to modern special effects and all that, but us kids who had already seen Jurassic Park (not to mention the original theatrical releases of Star Wars) required a bit more by the time of the mid-90s. The ‘bonus’ effects by and large did not mesh well, but it was still Star Wars and I ate it up with a spoon, I did.

Then the infamous prequels started to hit theaters. We were initially baffled by the name, I admit. Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. Huh. That’s a tough double-m, but we were sure George Lucas knew what he was doing. Besides many of us had been waiting since before we were born for this momentous event. Anybody else remember hearing hushed murmurs that it sucked before it officially came out? My old school librarian was somehow always in the know of every new thing and she tipped us off. She must have read a lot or something.

But we all saw it anyway, didn’t we?

Remember that chill that shot straight down your spine to your feet and then bounced all the way back up to your brain along with all the blood in your body causing you to momentarily lose consciousness when that first brass blast of the unmistakable John Williams fanfare erupted in the dark theater? It was awesome. Remember when you started to read the little spiel before the movie and thinking to yourself, “am I gonna be smart enough for this? What’s all this stuff about embargoes and Trade Federations and oil tariffs and 27B-6’s?” Remember being distracted by how shallow and plastic everything looked and how easy it all was for a jedi to fight an onslaught of death robots? Remember that big battle between those incompetent battle pez-dispensers and those clumsy salamander-rabbits on Naboo? Remember that empty feeling in the pit of your stomach you got when a terrible little boy cheered lines like “yippee!” and “now this is pod-racing”?

I was a kid but I recall wondering why George Lucas didn’t just make a cartoon out of it if it was all going to be so devoid of actual people. George Lucas once said, “special effects are just a tool used to tell a story.” This is true, but a stapler is also still a tool even after I use it to staple a bunch of babies right their little unsuspecting eyes. Just saying. This tool is being wielded by a madman.

Was this Star Wars? How could it be? Well, there are spaceships and they did have light-sabers and Yoda and R2-D2 and all that. Remember how you kept kidding yourself by saying, “It wasn’t all bad…the pod-race scene was pretty cool.” Then remember when you remembered the chariot race from Ben-Hur (1959)? Much has been already expressed in regards to all that was wrong with Jedi the Menace and the other two movies that would inevitably follow (my favorite commentaries coming from the crudely articulate rebuttals of Mr. Plinkett at Red Letter Media).

We the people can ignore these sci-fi hokum shows. They were cheap baby pablum and we adults can ignore them. We can pretend like they never even happened. There remains still a snag, however. With our pure VHS copies of the original theatrical releases becoming grainy and dingy, when then can we turn to DVD or blu-ray?

The DVDs all feature the ‘special edition’ stuff.

The upcoming blu-ray incorporates the ‘special edition’ garbage as well as some other new alterations and additions. You may have heard tell of the Darth Vader “Noooooo!” but there’s a few other things too.

I am still waiting on those original theatrical releases (WITHOUT THE OPTIONAL ‘SEPCIAL EDITION’ HOOEY) to be on DVD. The thing is I can usually good at recognizing a marketing ploy when I see one. Peter Jackson releases the theatrical and extended versions to Lord of the Rings and King Kong separately and it makes sense. You get to sell more product and it goes to whoever prefers which ever version. I wonder where the extended cut of Meet the Feebles is. George Lucas is a bazillionaire and he’s a littler harder to read. He may be a shrewd businessman, but I seriously question whether or not he does indeed ever intend to make available the original theatrical releases alone to an upgraded form. I think Mr. Lucas is actually embarrassed for his original creations.

I know I speak for many many purists and fans when I say; do not be ashamed of the original Star Wars, Mr. Lucas. We love it. So maybe it’s not shiny and streamlined and maybe you don’t feel comfortable with that one angle in that one scene or maybe there’s an edit in there that bothers you. Films are not made to be perfect. They are time capsules that can transport us to other worlds and other times. Tinker if you must, but let us celebrate the memories we cherished most of all.

It’s a hard fact. An artist is almost never happy with his work. But this doesn’t mean it’s no good. A sign of a real artist is to know when to stop. When the painter restrains himself from making one more brush stroke he becomes the artist. I suppose all this is moot because George Lucas is a businessman and not really an artist. Why did he put those cartoon monkeys in at the end of THX-1138 special edition?! I’m not an idealist over-romanticizing my experiences with the original trilogy, I just know what worked and what I like.

Ah, well. Still no true DVD. The coming blu-ray looks to be a sham. Now who wants to bet the re-re-release of Star Wars (this time in wretched, wretched, oh-so-wretched 3D) won’t be the special edition? Maybe someday after George Lucas is dead us fans can finally get the real movie.

Being an Extra

Extra! Extra!

What does the world of television look like from the background? Who are all these extra people wordlessly inhabiting these fictitious streets? How much room to breath is there in the “atmosphere?”

I am an extra person. By definition it implies I am expendable. Anybody can be me. It takes no skill and I certainly don’t put much effort forth. Don’t need to.

In TV Land there are several castes. Production and crew personnel, gaffers, makeup, costumes, the talent, the caterers, etcetera, but beneath all of these tiers is the extra…and beneath that seemingly final rung lurks the non-union extra (beneath that there is only the non-union spec who gets turned away). The entertainment world and its hierarchy of calculated arbitrariness is a twisted, haunted safari and being an extra can sometimes feel like swimming with man-eating sharks.

I am writing this because I cannot sleep. I have a call time that requires me to be up at 5 am tomorrow morning and so in preparation for my necessarily near-nocturnal departure I attempted to go to bed early. Mistake. When the body clock is so in tuned with going to bed at a certain hour, it takes more than simple logic to shut it down prematurely, hence my nightly restlessness. If I could even now forcibly bring about a state of dreamless unconsciousness I might be able to squeeze in 3 hours of stressless bliss. Doubtful.

Being an extra can give one much stress. One has to be on set early and ready and one must be able to locate the set and not get lost. One must be prepared to wait for hours on end in seedy, uncomfortable rooms or sometimes one gets put outside in plastic chairs beneath feverishly rigged awnings. One must deal with being yelled at by production and bossed about by malcontented wranglers and one must be prepared to “act.” And one must be prepared to suck fumes from LA’s gloriously carcinogenic atmosphere for hours in congested traffic to and from set.

familiar iconI have observed legendary cinematographers at work from only inches away. I have been manhandled by Hollywood celebrity waxworks. I have been scorned by Oscar winning costumers. I am an extra. I am faceless, disposable, and insignificant. You haven’t lived until you’ve “crowd tiled” in the Coliseum, friend.

The plus side? The food is good. Strike that. It’s downright great sometimes.

I realized something when I said a surprising thing on the last commercial shoot I was on. I was asked to walk into frame and sit down (in the background of course), but I had to squat so I could not be seen by the camera at first. I squatted uncomfortably (I also had to remove my shoes so I would not make footsteps) and then one of the crew graciously offered me an apple box to sit on. I was deeply moved and thanked him and one lady—who had been rather grouchy to me the whole day—gazed over her Versace shades to express surprise that I might presume I would be forced to squat, barefoot on some tangled wires. I looked at her and half-jokingly muttered, “I’m used to being mistreated.”

That was a shocker to myself as much as anyone who heard it and gave a crap. Maybe more. “I’m used to being mistreated.” Was I? Had I just been conditioned to know that I am bottom rung fish filth on set? I thought back. I had gotten used to scorching in the sun for hours at a time, sitting in concrete holding rooms for hours, eating last, and being yelled at for bizarre things no natural person would presuppose. Being an extra and being in show business is not natural. It is all artifice and frequently unpleasant. Sure, there had been some good shoots where I wasn’t treated like a parrot turd with a number on it, but on the whole being an extra had not been worth it.

I gazed into the eyes and face of the lead actor for this last particular ad. I was sitting right next to him and was asked to stare stone-faced at him while he ad-libbed some lines. He was a talented fellow. A nice man and a funny man, but I could not help but shake one persistent feeling: this is what I am striving for? As an extra you come to meet thousands of folks with similar hopes and aspirations. They come from all over the globe to this hub. Here at entertainment’s central nerve a lowly extra can dream of one day being randomly selected to give a line in a TV show or a movie. For many this is the equivalent of drinking ambrosia from the skull of a manatee. Many times, that is the highlight of their on-camera career too. They work to be one day seen or heard, even if only briefly and vast numbers never even get that fleeting moment, that moment where they feel somewhat important and more than an extra.

How sad.

I watched the man perform next to me. He had achieved what most extras will only ever wish for. He was the lead actor in a commercial that will be seen by a few people as they flip through the stations for a few months and then it will most likely be burned. How fleeting even that is. I was also struck by how unappealing it all looked up close. He was saying some condensed gibberish to entice people to purchase another dumb product and he had to do it over and over and over again for 8 hours. All this with a camera 6 inches from his face.

It didn’t strike me as fun like the freebie acting I have enjoyed for independent and student shorts and stage. But I know what most people would say: “You’ve got to be willing to lower yourself and your standards in the beginning.” But why? And to what end? After a long week I went to the movies and I saw a film that featured the big name actors; the household name actors. What acting were they doing in this “more reputable” venue? They were selling a movie. They were not telling a story by crafting great characters, they were simply involved in another, much longer ad. And I bought it…at first.

St. Augustine said, “the Church is a whore, but she is also my mother.” I say, “Hollywood is a whore…also it’s an abusive step-dad with a drinking problem.” There does not seem to be much reason to bend over and take it from mainstream entertainment. I see no fulfillment in it. I see only greed and headache.

Perhaps I am being unfairly cynical. The food is really good.

Maybe extras deserve to be pushed around and looked down upon. Most of them are terrible people. But it goes without saying that most people are terrible people. I’m not sure, however, if there is a more whiny, discontented person with panache for cheap fibbery and braggadocio than the TV extra. Everyone’s got a story about how they only do it sometimes when things get slow because they really all have a script being considered by Fox or some obscure Australian production company or they used to have the number one hit single in Fiji. Heck, even I have similar stories, but who are we really trying to fool? Other bottom-rung non-union extras? Even our peers we must make lower than us?and we even come in inflatable form

I’ve come to understand that almost everyone in the entertainment industry has the spiritual gift of unconditional falsehood weaving, but it surprises even me who we all want to impress. We all want to be important and so we lie. We all believe that somehow the dead-end tedium of extra-ing will one day lead to better things. We all desperately hope that the next call will be the last one we have to do and that maybe there will be chairs in the holding room and maybe the wranglers will be nice to us.

Everyone in Hollywood is sick. Everyone down the ladder from the pigs at the top to the refuse at the bottom. Everyone except the caterers, God bless ’em.

I say this world is a haunted safari. You go there expecting to see elegant and exotic mega-fauna; the wild beasts of myth. But what you discover is a land of ghosts. The animals are transparent and they’re giving off bad vibrations. The lions and tigers are fake, but they still think they can fool you up close. The wild elephants are skeletons here and we are all blood-sucking mosquitoes searching for an artery on a dry scapula. To what end? To be a bony behemoth like them? Maybe so…because we know we might look like something from a safe distance to strange anonymous folk. Then we can fool them too and imagine we truly are something.

Dear Hollywood

Dear Hollywood,

I wish I could say that I knew you were trying. I wish I could say that.

The fact of the matter is this: you don’t get me anymore. You’ve changed. I always knew you were about the money, but lately it’s been getting out of hand. You still know how to cast pretty faces, but you’ve lost that zest, that spark you had decades ago when we first met. There’s no more imagination in you. You’re not the daring risk-taker you were. You always liked to play it safe, but now you’ve become so dry and milquetoast that it’s depressing to look at you.

I sat in the theater today and I waited to be entertained. I waited for two hours and you simply could not deliver. I stared glassy eyed as you tried to appease me with promises of better things to come, but all of your cheesy, gimmick-filled trailer ploys were empty and, to be quite honest, they are beginning to all look like the same movie. When the feature finally appeared I was again letdown. It was the same pile of disappointing sadness you had tried to lay on me last time.

You used to create. Now you only regurgitate.

What happened to your glory days back in the 1930s? It seemed there was almost no stopping you. Remember all those bold films you produced in the 1960s and 70s? You used to be a breeding ground and training camp for budding imagination. You used to have real magic, but now you’re too old and scared to take any chances. I hate what you have become. You sadden me with your pathetic attempts to excite me in the movies these days. You used to make winning comedies, spectacular epics, compelling dramas, and soaring character studies, but these days you can barely muster anything beyond old, tired rehashings, remakes, re-imaginings, re-packagings, and sequels that come far, far too late.

You would be better off dead and as a fond memory. I would rather miss you and recall the joy we shared than be disappointed in what garbage you’ve been cranking out lately. There’s no more inspiration left in you it seems. You are dead to me.

I hope and pray to God that you will return to us, Hollywood. You need help. You’re eyes are bloodshot and your movements are creaky. You keep on dressing up and putting on a show at premieres to fool everyone into thinking everything’s still okay. But those who knew you best aren’t fooled. And we are distressed by your current state. We want you back.

In view of your recent shortcomings and reticence to continue on this regrettable path, I (and similarly-minded folk) have found someone else. World cinema is putting you to shame. Some smart independent features have also moved into town. There’s a whole galaxy of short films that few have seriously explored. There’s also several documentaries that are quite appealing and they are far more audacious than you ever were. Then there’s all of the wonderful entries from your own illustrious past to revisit. These and more shall keep me entertained while your fading light wanes in the encroaching night.

I don’t need you anymore. I have others who have not let me down yet. They are more interesting than you. I’m sorry. I confess that I was even beginning to create my own art toward the end. It was only because you were not giving me the stimulation I needed.

I really hate to end it like this, but you are the one who has ended it. If you come up with something original in the future I will always be available to view it, but I will be personally surprised if that day does indeed come.

Love Always,

BurrelloSubmarine

P.S. You still have a few of my shirts. I’ll be over later this week to collect them.

Cinematic Magic

There’s a special kind of magic that happens in a darkened theater house. There’s a hush as the lights dim, then some mechanical clicks and the projector whirs to life. Magic is that moment.
It doesn’t really matter what movie it is. By purchasing that ticket you are not only buying the opportunity to see moving pictures dance about on a giant screen. You are buying the chance to embark on a great social experience. With every punchline cracked, explosion that detonates, or tear that is shed you are sharing these moments of awe and wonder not only vicariously through characters on the screen, but you are sharing them with a dark room full of strangers. Everyone sees the same pictures and everyone has a reaction to it. Sometimes they will be the same emotional responses as your own, other times they be as night and day. There is a quiet kind of awesome in that collective suspension of disbelief. The actors are not really there living the plot. The musical cues are not natural occurrences. Sometimes the story is pure fantasy and nothing even remotely resembling this reality is depicted, but the audience buys it together because we all want to believe it.
The characters and situations may be make believe, but how the audience feels about them are as real as anything. There’s magic in that. There’s a moment during a movie when you might hear a collective gasp or terror or a sudden chuckle of mirth. Take that moment to look at the movie-goers sitting next to you. Take that moment to remove your gaze from the flickering images in mid-dance and scan the faces behind you. With the right lens you might just see that magical glint in their eyes. After the movie you may never see these faces filled with emotion ever again.
The storytellers have a wonderful task that lay before them. They are on a mission to manufacture magic for scores of faces they will never see. When these individuals can make us all feel something in that darkened theater house together, there is magic. There is the interactive spark of a room full of strangers collectively feeling what is not really there and believing the impossible. Don’t kid yourself, this is magic.