There is something you must understand. There are people who talk about the internet in terms of haves and have-nots, but they’re wrong. The internet does not belong to the rich, like television and radio. The internet is perhaps the most democratic institution our society has. The internet is a place where anybody can put up their thoughts and have the entire world see them, even if they’ve got no money in their pockets. The internet is a place where all ideas can compete equally for supremacy. The internet is the one true level playing field in media. This level playing field must be protected at every turn.
Do you know the classic children’s story The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry? It’s a complex and moving piece of literature. It’s about an aviator who crash lands in the desert and meets the Little Prince, a peculiar little boy, there. It is not a lightweight work; it deals with adult concerns in sensitive ways. It features a man who drinks to forget that he is ashamed of his own drinking, a business man who takes no time for anything but his work, and a king who can command the sun to set but only at the time that it would be setting anyway. There is a Fox who teaches the Little Prince the significance of taming; “To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world.” And it features a Snake who… I’ll tell you in a moment. It is a wonderful work. I know it primarily through a 1974 vinyl LP version featuring Richard Burton as the unnamed aviator, with musical backing by Moog pioneer Mort Garson. I have discovered today that there is also a short film adaptation by Will Vinton, which appears to be similarly faithful to the original story. I intend to see it soon. Oh, and there is also a 1974 movie musical that features Gene Wilder as the Fox. That’s… certainly one way to tell the story. The child actor seems rather stiff, but the film looks charming. I’ll be seeing that in time, too.
But I also found out about the monstrosity pictured above: a French CGI series called The Little Prince and the Planet of Time, produced by Method Animation studios. I watched the trailer. It seemed at first to be an interesting reinvention of the story world; did it take place after the events of the original story, perhaps? But then I saw the Snake. They turned the Snake into the villain. This is WRONG. The Snake is NOT the villain. Here, here is an excerpt from the chapter that introduces the Snake:
“Where are the men?” the little prince at last took up the conversation again. “It is a little lonely in the desert . . .”
“It is also lonely among men,” the snake said.
The little prince gazed at him for a long time.
“You are a funny animal,” he said at last. “You are no thicker than a finger . . .”
“But I am more powerful than the finger of a king,” said the snake.
The little prince smiled.
“You are not very powerful. You haven’t even any feet. You cannot even travel . . .”
“I can carry you farther than any ship could take you,” said the snake.
He twined himself around the little prince’s ankle, like a golden bracelet.
“Whomever I touch, I send back to the earth from whence he came,” the snake spoke again. “But you are innocent and true, and you come from a star . . .”
The little prince made no reply.
“You move me to pity–you are so weak on this Earth made of granite,” the snake said. “I can help you, some day, if you grow too homesick for your own planet. I can–”
“Oh! I understand you very well,” said the little prince. “But why do you always speak in riddles?”
“I solve them all,” said the snake.
And they were both silent.
And so there it is: plain to see for anyone who is literate. The Snake is not a villain. The Snake is Death. He is neither good nor bad; he simply is. He is Death with all of its mystery and finality. And so when the idiots at Method Animation got their hands on the story, what did they do? From the semi-official English-language site:
He is the villain of the series!
Fuck you, Method Animation.
Like the Little Prince, the Snake travels from planet to planet, but his task is to trouble the spirits of the inhabitants of the planets he visits and overturn the smooth order of things. He is a devious, manipulative creature who whispers dark thoughts into the ears of those who doubt. He is the very incarnation of evil and source of all the problems in the galaxy. But why is he so wicked?
Because you guys at Method Animation are a bunch of simple-minded fucks, that’s why! You had a complex story in front of you, and you were too stupid to understand it. So you said, “Dur! The Snake must be evil, because death is bad! And snakes are supposed to be evil anyhow! We don’t like complex stories, and we can’t allow children to appreciate them either! Dur!” To turn the snake into a dimensionless villain is completely antithetical to what the story was about. It’s an insult to fans like me and to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Furthermore, it continues an upsetting trend of dumbing things down for kids, rather than challenging and elevating them with more sophisticated material. Do you idiots at Method realize that there are grown adults who see the world in terms of heroes and villains because people like you deprive them of story lines where the characters are more complex?
Forget this series. If I want an adaptation, I’ll stick with Will Vinton or Mort Garson, thank you very much.
I wish this were not necessary, but after seeing so many directors and even some film scholars bungle DVD commentaries, I have to say a few words. When you do a DVD commentary, you can NOT merely describe the action onscreen. The audience has eyes. They can see for themselves what is happening. Nor can you tell the audience that something is going to happen later as a consequence of what is happening now. The audience has seen the film. They know what happens. They don’t need you to tell them the story again. When you’re doing a commentary, focus on themes, on inspirations, on the climate from which the film sprang, on the climate that it fostered, on various interpretations that people read into the film. Sure, you can give behind-the-scenes stories, or discussions of the techniques that were used to create a scene, where appropriate. But themes are best, and should be the bread and butter of the commentary. Mere plot summaries and descriptions of the onscreen action are unacceptable.
This monster movie has a lot of problems. First of all, there are two plots vying for dominance: one with a photographer and his fiance, the other with a police officer and a priest. The movie cuts back and forth between these plots as they slowly, slowly develop. I don’t think the writer had a sense of which story he wanted to tell; he should have picked one. As it is, there is way too much dull build-up over the course of these two separate plots. Characters tease in new information. New plot threads pop up only to quickly be dropped. The photographer’s fiancée is pregnant; irrelevant. The photographer meets a man with inside information who leads him into the sewer, and then the man get’s killed; it’s a plot dead-end, so lose it. The cop’s wife turns up dead; her disappearance should have been established and developed earlier, so that when I saw the woman’s dead dog hanging in the sewer, I hadn’t already forgotten that there was a dog in the movie. They keep developing these two plots endlessly, setting more and more things up when they should just cut to the chase. Consequently, the titular monsters are barely in this thing. An hour in, and they’re still trying to slowly tease the monsters in; by this point, C.H.U.D.-mania should be in full-swing. Really, things don’t get into gear until an hour and ten minutes in, when some monsters attack a diner and we get a decent look at them. It’s even later before the two main plots finally start to converge. At last, there’s a big finale, with very few monsters in it, and it’s too little, too late.
Reading Roger Ebert’s last blog entry two days ago, I was reminded of Robert Altman. He accepted his Lifetime Achievement Oscar in March of 2006, joked about how his complete heart transplant would give him decades more life, and was generally the most lively man in the room. And he was dead 8 months later. I had wondered in the past, with Roger Ebert’s health, how many more years he would continue to bless us. I was looking forward to the launch of the new Ebert Digital and everything it would bring. I didn’t honestly think he was about to die. I never dreamed he would be dead in only two days.
This is a tremendous loss. And that is the fact of it. Ebert was a national treasure, and a guiding light. I will miss his writing terribly. From roughly 2003-2011, I read all his reviews faithfully. I remember the time in 2006, when his health took a bad turn and the reviews just stopped cold. I had been looking forward to his review of Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly; it never happened. And I felt almost as if movies would cease to come out entirely if Roger Ebert were not there to review them. Well, slowly he turned the reins of regular reviewing over to other people, and I gradually discovered other review outlets. But I still checked back at his website and blog to see what he had to say. He was a presence in my life, as he was for many fans. A few times, something I wrote even made it into the Answer Man column. And here and there, he’d respond to one of my comments on his blog. There was one post I can’t find now, where I brought up an old Sesame Street clip in which Ebert said there could be such a thing as a “thumbs sideways” movie, and Gene Siskel argued against it. Replied Roger, “Gene was obviously wrong.”
One other moment occurs to me now. Again, I cannot find the entry. But a brief time after Ebert’s brush with death, he was speaking about something philosophical. I figured he had come to the particular topic as a result of contemplating his own mortality; at times when I contemplated my own mortality, I came to basically identical topics. My advice had been, “Remember that you are alive now.” And he said something like, “I’ll try to remember that.” He seemed to be very accepting of his own mortality, so maybe he was just being polite. I will never know.
Movies will continue to come out, even without an Ebert to mark their passing. Maybe one day, another critic will even rise to his level of celebrity. But today is not that day, and today we mourn an incalculable loss. We’ll never forget you, Roger Ebert.
Lately, I’ve been working my way toward my goal of making real video reviews, like those god-men of the internet. And it had always been my intention to start with Black Swan. I had a lot to say about various subjects, including how the movie borrowed pieces of Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue without understanding what they meant. But I watched the movie again, and it’s better than that. So good, in fact, that I can’t do any of the things I was planning to do. Yes, I came in expecting the movie to be more like Perfect Blue, when really it’s more The Double Life of Veronique or The Red Shoes.
Some of my old complaints are still valid. Aaronofsky’s technique of putting Nina (Natalie Portman) in white and other people in black still feels a tad heavy-handed some of the time — especially when playing her against her mother (Barbara Hershey) or Lily (Mila Kunis) — but it’s just a tad, and it works all in all. He doesn’t do it quite to the extent that I remembered. And his choice to put Thomas, the dance instructor, in a mix of black and white (like a dark sweater with a white shirt, or a tuxedo) is a clever iteration of his color motif. Likewise, Aaronofsky’s use of digital effects goes over the top sometimes, as in the scene where Nina’s legs bend backward like a bird’s. But overall, the effects are more effectively expressionistic than I remembered them being. I had said before that the love scene between Nina and Lily was too prudish, with lots of tight camera work to allow for the use of body doubles and to save Natalie Portman from having to do any nudity; god forbid a sex scene should have nudity (somewhere, somehow, a child might see it, and the world will end!) But looking back, it’s actually not that bad. There is enough coverage to effectively get the scene across without everything looking phony, and some of the shots that isolate Natalie Portman are actually clues to the reveal that happens the next day.
There is one complaint that really doesn’t go away, though. When Nina dances, we tend to see her from the bust up. There are times when this works, like in the nightmare sequence, where her partner can appear out of nowhere and just as quickly vanish into nowhere. But there are times when it’s just an obvious cheat to conceal the fact that Natalie Portman can’t actually dance ballet as well as the story requires. There are only a few times when we get a good look at her dancing full-body at a close enough distance to reliably say it’s her. And I suspect that they either had to do a lot of takes to get it right, or else they did some compositing with a dance double. Oh, one other quick thing; Thomas does say that he knows Nina can play the White Swan but isn’t sure if she can play the Black Swan a few too many times.
A number of my complaints just can’t stand, however. One of the scenes I always picked on was the one where Thomas takes Nina back to his apartment and tries to get her into bed. I always said he was too school boy-ish, and that the scene played as unintentionally funny. The scene is still pretty damn funny, and maybe, just maybe, it went a little bit awry. Maybe it wasn’t meant to be quite so funny. But all in all, it works better than I remembered. I had been prepared to say Thomas was miscast and that they should have picked someone with a more commanding presence, a deeper voice, and a beard — a red-blooded Freudian father figure, like the late Patrick McGoohan in Scanners. I was going to say that a man like that was someone whom Nina could subconsciously feel would give her the love that her absent father never did, and that the scene could have sexual tension with an actor like that. I missed something, though; this man is not a guest director, but the ballet company’s regular director. He’s been working with Nina for four years, he says. Really, he’s already become a father figure to her despite not being worthy of it, and he’s become that because he’s the best Nina could do. He was the only available father figure to latch onto. And just as her mother is a terrible, narcissistic specimen of humanity, her surrogate father is a lecherous pervert who waits for her to become old enough to screw. Such is the tragedy her life. It works.
I had also said that Portman’s conflict with her mother had no climax. I said that the mother just changed toward the end because of careless writing: went from being controlling to merely concerned. I had forgotten a few things about what leads up to the change. First, Nina starts to defy her mother’s rule. Then she starts acting crazy. Then she slams the door on her mother’s hand and possibly breaks her fingers. Her mother may not be such a great person, but she’s still human after all. She gets worried. So then when Nina’s mother tries to tell her that she will be staying in bed on the night of the performance and not going on stage, Nina grabs her mother’s hand, squeezes her already crushed fingers, grabs her things and runs out. That was it. They had their big climactic confrontation, and Nina won. Oh, and by the way, Barbara Hershey is scary; that is all.
I also said that the ending was confused. Nina first confronts her doppelganger in her dressing room. Her doppelganger intermittently transforms into Lily. Nina kills the doppelganger by shoving a shard of broken mirror into its stomach and then believes she has killed Lily. Nina then drags the body into her bathroom and closes the door. Then she dances the Black Swan perfectly. Then Lily congratulates Nina, she realizes that she didn’t kill Lily after all, Nina checks the bathroom and there’s no one there, and then she sees that she has actually stabbed herself. I said that it was a confused mangling of two scenes from Perfect Blue. But again, there was something I missed. It was the earlier discussion about Beth (Winona Ryder) walking out in front of the car and ending up in the hospital. Thomas told Nina about a dark impulse inside Beth that made her brilliant but also made her self-destructive. And then there is the scene, possibly real, possibly imagined, where Beth stabs through her own cheeks with a nail file. So there is a precedent for what Nina does. And so deceiving Nina into believing she has killed Lily and must now hide the body is a kind of seduction by a dark impulse that does not care whether it kills its host. “Give in to your hate. It makes you strong.” It works. Also, with Lily’s various scenes leading up to this — the club, the love scene, the mirror shot (which we’ll get to in a moment,) the various times when Lily transforms into the doppelganger or vice-versa — there seems to be an implication that Nina is assimilating Lily and the doppelganger (and is there a difference?) into herself. And as for breaking the mirror, she destroyed the division between the doppelganger and herself, she put the darker side of her nature into herself, etc.
Now, remember, I never actually thought this was a bad movie. I thought it was just a flawed movie that fell short of greatness. (It may actually attain greatness, in my new appraisal.) And there were always things I thought the movie did well. I thought the movie did a good job of establishing the mother’s motivating dilemma: she was seduced by her director and had to give up dance in order to have his baby, and now she fears her daughter will do the same. The basis for the character is Rumi from Perfect Blue, but there are several well-chosen new dimensions that make the character unique.
And rewatching the movie, something else strikes me. The ballerinas at Nina’s company say that Beth is too old, even “approaching menopause.” But she’s played by Winona Ryder, who still looks quite youthful (in this film, anyway.) If Perfect Blue was an indictment of the pop idol and media industries in Japan, this film is an indictment of the ballet industry over here, with its casting couches and its discarding of older dancers (which is not to say all companies, or even most, are like this.) And if Winona Ryder, aged only 39, is too old, what does that say about Nina’s mother?
There are other things that strike me in rewatching the film.There is a consistent cinematographic device of following behind Nina, framing her from the shoulders up. This technique first appears in the opening nightmare and is repeated several times throughout. Perhaps Nina’s fate has been following her through the whole film: stalking her, waiting for its moment to claim her.
Another thing. I knew already that there was a mirror motif. And what do mirrors do, everybody? They indicate a double nature, or deception: correct. And I remembered that the motif was effective, but I didn’t realize quite how prominent it was. I remembered the shot where two mirrors make Nina seem to divide into herself and Lily. That was one of my favorite shots. And I remembered the shot shortly before of a small mirror with several tiny mirrors forming a border around it. Look at all those mirrors! Something big is gonna go down! There were other things I hadn’t noticed. In the mother’s introductory scene, when we see a flash of her malevolent, controlling nature, we see her in a mirror. In the scene where we establish Thomas, we see his reflection doubled by a pair of mirrors. And in the dance studio, there’s a mirror ball on the floor, just sitting there in the corner, just to tell us that anything we see might be a deception.
So there’s a lot to Black Swan that I just didn’t see the first time around. And it’s really good stuff. I always knew it was a good film. I just doubted that it was a great one. And now? There are still some complaints, which I discussed above. If it’s not a great film, it comes very close.
I went to see The Hobbit today: at 48 fps, just like I’d been wanting to. This is a big technological step forward for movies, and that’s what I want to talk about today. I don’t want to talk at length about about the film itself. Real quick: I thought it was good, if not great. It had some excellent visuals in parts, but other parts looked like they were composed for the small screen rather than the large one. There were some things that were silly, or over-the-top. There were some things that were very effective. Gollum was well-done. There were some good character-driven scenes, and there were parts where the main thrust of the plot got lost and things got bogged down. Frankly, some aspects of the presentation were distracting and gave a bad color to my experience, so I’ll leave my appraisal of the film at that. Now I want to talk about the technology.
Digital 3-D: We all know the story, don’t we? Digital projection is not as bright as film, and the 3-D glasses cut down on the light levels even further. A director who knows what he’s doing can compensate somewhat, perhaps in the color timing of the digital image. The movie was preceded by a teaser for the new Star Trek film that looked pretty good, after all. The Hobbit, however, did suffer from the reduced light levels; perhaps no one took the time to adjust the levels for digital projection so the image wouldn’t be so dark. So that’s a minus. The use of 3-D itself was pretty good, at least. However…
Digital IMAX: I AM DONE with Digital IMAX! I’m not paying for that shit again! Image MAXimum my ass! Digital IMAX uses DLP projectors (at least it does where I went,) which create a bright spot in the middle of the screen (relative to the sitter’s position) and leave things darker at the sides. It didn’t help that we got stuck sitting in the front row. But when we saw Raiders of the Lost Ark in Digital IMAX, the problem was the same. Fucking DLP. Remember how rear projection TV sets always looked shitty, with that god damn hotspot in the middle and things getting darker at the sides? It’s back in Digital IMAX. It’s like looking through a tunnel, with a light at the end and darkness all around. Add THAT to the already darkening effect of 3-D glasses, and it’s too fucking much. I’m not going for this Digital IMAX shit again!
48 fps: This is the long-awaited innovation for me. HFR (for High Frame Rate) is what they’re calling it, if you want to find it yourself. For my part, yeah, unfortunately, I didn’t think it looked that good. Part of it may be the shutter angle of 270°, which was chosen as a compromise so that the film would look acceptable at its native 48 fps and reduced to the usual 24 fps, which it will have to be for many venues. This means that light is coming into the camera 3/4 of the time for every frame, rather than 1/2 the time — a shutter angle of 180° — as is customary with most films. This means a lot more motion blur in every frame relative to the amount of time it’s on screen than we would usually see in a movie. It looked unnatural to me: too smooth. I do think that if he’d gone for a 180° shutter angle — just had the balls to go for it — it would have looked more natural. I’ve seen demo footage from various sources that looked more natural than this. Well, in the future, maybe…