During a Dark Knight rewatch, I discover that I live in a county, near a city and a major road, all named after same guy as Bruce Wayne.
— Judson Picco (@judsonpicco) July 29, 2017
On the same day, a while back, I went to see Whiplash and then came home and ended up re-watching UHF for the umpteenth time. I’m hoping that this, the very first ever video essay made by me and the first ever video essay addition to Pancake Dominion, will speak for itself:
Last night, the following two media items were in a pile on my computer desk:
Item #1. Mother, d. Albert Brooks (1996) on VHS tape.
Mother is a pretty decent movie. Its value in this format on Amazon is virtually nil. The movie itself is not that easy to download, or wasn’t when I checked. I decided to keep it. I’d watched it just a few months earlier. Albert Brooks is John Henderson in the movie; Beatrice, his mother, is played by Debbie Reynolds. As you can gather from the end of this clip, Beatrice, the mother in Mother itself, lives in Sausalito, California, and the film was shot there on location, among other places.
Item #2: Time Flies…The Best of Huey Lewis & the News (1996) on CD.
Here again, the Amazon value of this item is virtually nil. I considered just ripping it to mp3. I like several Huey Lewis songs. True, the image on the CD itself, of Huey mid-jump during a live set, is kind of great. As I flipped through the CD booklet, I gathered that Huey Lewis & the News were a San Francisco-based band. I’d never thought of them that way, but there it was, in black and white. Next, I figured I’d find out whether one of my dad’s favorite Huey Lewis recordings had made this particular Best Of disc. And sure enough, there it was, track #10: “It’s Alright,” an a cappella take on a Curtis Mayfield song. Finally, I read the small-print recording info under the track title listing:
This 1993 recording of “It’s Alright” had been set to tape in Sausalito, California, at a studio called Muther’s Recording.
I decided to keep the CD, too.
I didn’t come up with this, but it’s just the kind of Pancake Dominion observation I haven’t myself made in a long while:
Whether you think The Hunger Games (Ross, 2012) is:
A) a rousing critique on the way authoritarian regimes use gladiatorial mass media spectacles to foster public obedience, or….
B) a really depressing and effective example of just such a spectacle in action….
….here is your Shortest Possible Review™:
I have one main Pancake Dominion-type thought about The Artist and the character Peppy Miller, and then just a bunch of other thoughts. Perhaps it’s best to present it all as a set of discrete facts and images. You should watch The Artist before reading any of this, because of *SPOILERS*:
Maybe I am the only one who noticed. Either way, here are some facts and observations about The Artist that pretty much just add to the richness of thought I’ve had around the Peppy Miller/Penelope Ann Miller thing and the movie in general. These things just occur to me and are interesting in this context.
We’ve all heard by now about how J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 is a big special effects movie that’s grossly indebted to and reverent of the SFX movies of Steven Spielberg. But why exactly? Answer: The film’s subtext is a subtly coded defense of the storytelling power of modern digital special effects characters. Here’s my evidence.
2. The Super 8 alien is captured, revealed to non-believers, and made real to the characters in the movie (and to the audience) by traditional filmmaking techniques, i.e. the government’s secret black & white footage and the DIY zombie film being made by Charles and the other kids at the train station.
3. The alien’s technology consists of interchangeable discrete little almost-digital units that can be assembled and reassembled with ease to suit the alien’s needs. Metaphorically, these are very like the digital blocks that filmmakers wrangle into movie characters to suit their storytelling needs.
4. The alien’s release at the site of a train wreck represents in metaphor the collision between very old film technique and very new. Way back in the 1890s, films by Thomas Edison and the Lumiere Brothers famously shocked and awed audiences with the very close passings of huge trains at train stations. The kids in Super 8 set an important scene at the fictional Lillian, Ohio’s fictional train station and in doing so capture footage of the digitally rendered and digitally technologically advanced space alien. [I probably won’t go into detail here about how ingrained the “train = filmstrip” metaphor is in film history and in critical thought.]
5. The lens flares the lens flares the lens flares. Sadly, the internet has made more or less a joke out of the lens flares in Super 8. But that’s just kind of stupid and lazy. When a filmmaker makes totally 100% sure that even the most moronic audiences notice some non-plot thing in his film, there’s almost always a solid reason for it. Yes, Super 8‘s lens flares are a constant tribute to a very noticeable stylistic element of Steven Spielberg’s films.
But in Super 8, the lens flares are also a constant reminder of a naturally occurring, photographic, in-camera filmmaking technique—an effect, if you will. Some of J.J. Abrams’ lens flares are real and some were made digitally, apparently, so they serve metaphorically as a link between FX filmmaking’s past and its present/future. At the end of Super 8, the alien’s digitally made ship disappears in a clever, knowing lens flare that’s really one huge, giant nod at Spielbergian FX films of the past, especially E.T. It’s almost like the digitally sophisticated SFX alien is waving farewell to beloved analog FX of old, with a kindly wink of lens flare. To take it a bit further, E.T.’s ship’s departure at the end of E.T. results in an arcing rainbow, one of nature’s own special effects, a trick of real light that sends E.T. home and itself refers back to another home-concerned and rainbow-obsessed FX movie: The Wizard of Oz.
6. And this one’s a bit of a stretch: In the story, all the Super 8 alien has to do to gain a human being’s sympathy and understanding of its plight is to touch that human being. Basically, once it touches you, you no longer fear it, it becomes relatable to you. Metaphorically, a digital FX creature must only make a successful emotional appeal in order to perform the necessary storytelling function, just the way old FX creatures used to. Hence the size and eventual dampness of the Super 8 alien’s window-to-soul eyeballs, which you can only sort of see in the image above. At a key point in the film, the alien’s insectoid eyes soften; they become sentient and emotional, almost anime-level sympathy generators. Or E.T.-level sympathy generators, if you prefer.
There are more subtle bits to this I can’t remember right now, but a lot of the movie’s detail builds toward this allegory. I think that might be why a lot of viewers found the whole thing fairly hokey—Super 8 revives a lot of beloved but hoary tropes in service of a statement about digital FX that it didn’t want to just come all the way out and say. It preferred to be very, very entertaining instead, and slip its “big meaning” right by you. For me, it will be very interesting to see Super 8 again, seeing it the way I do now. And I’ll probably add more to this post once I’ve re-seen it.
You know what the comments are for, so fire away.