Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Silver Screen

The term "silver screen" is used now to give a glamorous air to movies.  You've heard it in gossip magazine write-ups:  "Starlet X, a fixture of the silver screen . . ."  The term actually has a practical origin stemming from film's beginnings.  For decades, films were in black and white and greatly benefited from being shown against a highly reflective surface to sharpen contrast in the grays.  Theaters coated screens with silver compounds to increase this reflective quality, hence the term "silver screen."

I mention this because (a) it's interesting and (b) black and white movies deserve some love.  A few days ago, I went to see a big screen presentation of Casablanca, a film I've adored since I first saw it as a teenager.  I'd never seen it on the big screen and let me tell you - it really is a different experience.  Casablanca is 70 years old this year and the screening was part of TCM's "birthday party" for the film. Look - there's nothing to not like about this film.  It's got romance, it's got the buddy angle, heck - it's got Nazis, and you just can't go wrong having Nazis as the bad guys in a movie!  (Keeping in mind that the film was released during World War 2, you've also got the "film as propaganda" angle to discuss.)  The writing is sharp, the stars are gorgeous (really - Ingrid Bergman on the big screen is nearly celestial in her beauty and Bogart is a man's man in a sharply-cut dinner jacket) and the costuming makes me wonder just how many trunks these war refugees are traveling with.  It's a wonderful yarn and seeing it with 170 other fans (one of whom dressed in a white dinner jacket, probably with letters of transit in the inner pocket) was an experience I'm glad I had.  TCM has a great series of articles, video clips, and links - check that out here.  And remember, when you're next thinking about what movie to watch - just because it's been around for a while without a remake doesn't mean it's not worth your time.  (Ack!  A remake of Casablanca?  How?  Why?  A parody - that I could support.)

Oh, and those "letters of transit" on which so much of the plot hangs?  An excellent example of a MacGuffin.

The film class is wrapping things up.  I have their comparisons of Cowboy Bebop and Serenity to finish evaluating (space opera or space Western?  Hmmmm.) and District 9 was the final class film this past week.  The students' creativity in their individual projects left me feeling pleased with the class overall - they mastered the technical aspect of submitting an original project online (or at least wrestled the tech to the ground and pinned it) and demonstrated an understanding of their assigned concepts.  Not bad.  Not bad at all!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Walter White Wednesday 10

. . . in which Season 5 is speculated upon.

Breaking Bad has a definite "end by" date and it's known that the fifth season will be the last.  Fans and critics alike have taken a swing at what might happen after the devastating events of Season 4, but Gilligan & Co. play their cards close to the vest.  Season 5 is scheduled to begin airing on AMC this summer, most likely sometime in July, although a premiere date has not been officially announced as of this writing.  (The AMC website simply says "New Season Summer 2012.")  Bryan Cranston (who plays Walter White) has said in a recent interview that the fifth season will be split into two "mini seasons" with the first 8 episodes airing this summer, then a four-month break before the final 8 air in 2013.  That means several things:

1.  Season 5 will be 16 episodes long, instead of the 13 episode length of Seasons 2, 3, and 4.  (Season 1 was a "mini season" of only 7 episodes.)  This will give them an additional 3 episodes to wrap up the stories that will be and have been spun (personally, I think Mike's going to come back hard in Season 5, but that's just me.  Be wary of a man carrying balloons, Walt!) and also to strike out in some new, unexpected directions following the events that concluded Season 4.
2.  I expect the decision to split the season in this fashion was made at least in part to ensure that Breaking Bad is in Emmy contention for both 2012 and 2013.  As it deserves just about every award that can be thrown at it, I have to concede that it's a good policy.  However . . .
3.  I have to wonder - just a little - about the wisdom of spreading the final arc out over what could span an entire calendar year.  Viewers are fickle creatures and attention spans are often short.  Then again, AMC is committed to this final season, so there's no danger that all 16 episodes won't be aired.  Maybe it's just my own selfish impatience.  I have questions and I want them answered!  Now, please.  One of my central questions about the upcoming Season 5 involves those lovely little flowers at the top of the post.  Lily of the Valley may have sweet symbolic meanings associated with it, but it can be a poisonous and dangerous plant.  Walt knows that.  Who else will learn?

Next week, I plan to return to character examinations, starting with Marie - it's the end of the semester at my "day job" and that means it's crunch time until exams are given and graded.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Walter White Wednesday 9

. . . in which I digress from talking about the show to talking about the project.

As readers of this blog know, "Walter White Wednesday" is being done to support the upcoming book Wanna Cook? The Unofficial Guide to Breaking Bad.  A question I get asked a lot is some variation of "So how do you get a book published?"  Here's at least part of the answer.  Actual mileage may vary.

1. Everyone will tell you that it's all about luck.  It's not.  What it IS about is hard, grinding work done consistently.  Since it involves hard, grinding work done over a long period of time, for the love of all the angels, pick a topic you absolutely LOVE - you're going to be living with it for a long time.
2. For my first book, I became fixated on finding the answer to the question, "If  Joss Whedon's a hard-core atheist, how come he cares so much about redemption?"  Seriously - that one question got the whole ball rolling - and the answers I found surprised me.  I then started reading what other people had written, making notes on what I agreed with and where I thought people ignored the overall evidence to support only their own ideas.  Read the show sites, but also read the critical sites - trust me, there's a critical site (which features more academic writing and fewer straight recaps) for everything.  Whedon, science fiction, film, soap operas, commercials - everything is someone's darling to study.  Go find it.  Read, comment, and when something truly clicks for you (for me, it was the fact that I couldn't find the stuff I wanted to read, so I thought, Well, I'll write it myself.), it's time to start writing.  Writers write.  They don't sit on the couch and whine about how great they'd be if they only had a publishing contract.  You start writing without one.
3. Now you start presenting and getting your work out there into the world.  Regardless of what you're writing - fiction, poetry, non-fiction, criticism, you name it - you need a reader.  This is someone who will read your material critically.  Warning - they will, very occasionally, bruise your feelings.  But, if they're any good at all, their comments will make you a better writer.  Maintaining a blog or writing some sort of online column is also a great idea, but you have to be consistent about it (I think once a week is the absolute minimum yet you have to also be careful about how much you give away.)  
4. With a few posts and pages under your belt, it's time to see how your work stacks up.  Get on the list for a conference that caters to your area.  There are conferences for writers of romance novels, academic criticism, sportswriting, and so on.  I found popular culture conferences and I haven't looked back.  Go, meet people who write what you want to write, and go hear people who write in other areas, too.  When you're ready, present your own work - it'll usually be a 20 minute reading, so you don't have to have an entire manuscript done.  Ask questions.  Collect business cards.  Have coffee with people.  Go have dinner.  Grab a sandwich between sessions.  Most people are friendly and quite willing to talk about their work.  Also, in my experience, most of these people are funny and it's never a bad idea to spend time with such folk.
5.  Conferences also have publishing reps.  Look over the book tables and see what they brought with them.  Chat with the reps, who probably have a "so you want to send us a proposal?" handout with them.  You can get this information online, but it's good to wander and see who's publishing what.  Also, having ten minutes to just chat with someone in publishing about you and what you're interested in writing about - that's gold.  Thank them for their time and after you get home, drop anyone who was generous with their time or whose work you especially liked a quick note.  No - this probably won't fling open the doors of the publishing house; it's simply good manners.
6.  Now you write a proposal following the guidelines.  You make it strong, you make it pretty, and you accept that you probably won't get asked to the prom right off.  My first book, Faith & Choice in the Works of Joss Whedon (you've got that on your bookshelf, right?) came about with some major tweaking on the proposal.  It's a academic book - I'll never get rich off of it, but I wrote (or so I believe) a solid, well-researched, yet still readable book about a subject I cared a great deal about.  Further, the book has opened doors for me - as people read my work and heard me present, they kept me in mind for other projects.

It's not luck.  It's work and setting deadlines and making them and turning in work that doesn't have to be salvaged by an editor.  Learn the basics of grammar and don't be so sensitive to criticism that you don't let anyone read your work before you seek a wider audience.

I'm really enjoying co-writing the first part of Wanna Cook?  With the fifth and final season not airing as one unified season, I don't know what that's going to do to publication date - I imagine it's pushed back a bit, especially if the second half of Season 5 doesn't air until early (or, heaven forbid, mid-) 2013, but we'll have to see.  That's the other thing about writing - you have to roll with the punches, because - oh, boy! - there will be some.

Now go write!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Undoing Expectations

Part of the fun - as well as the work - of teaching a film class which centers on the genre of science fiction is undoing expectations.  (By the way, I suspect this is also true of teaching more traditional literature.  I know I get a kick out of showing students that, far from being boring, Shakespeare was one randy, clever, violent son of a glovemaker.  But I digress.)  I throw them into the deep end at the beginning with Fritz Lang's Metropolis and I try to maintain that level of "oh, you think you know but you don't" throughout the class.  I steer clear of rubber-suited monsters and rayguns and try to help the students see the Big Questions that are being asked.  Questions like "What's it mean to be human?" and "How do the choices I make define who I am?" and "Who is my family - and what's that mean anyway?"  By slipping free of the confines of pure realism, science fiction (at least, GOOD science fiction) can ask and answer these questions more readily than can many a feature film.

And this past week, the class got to see that by viewing the Japanese anime film Cowboy Bebop.  It's no secret that I think Watanabe's Bebop is a very well done example of the genre and, since we're focusing on sound this week and Bebop gives us an "in" to examine dubbing v. subtitling as well as the use of music to set mood (often by off setting the screen action), Bebop was a definite for the syllabus.  Bebop gives us a large ensemble cast with each cast member being fully-rounded (including the corgi), an amazing soundtrack, and characters we actually care about who are wrestling with questions of meaning, morality, and existence.  The fact I get to pair up Bebop with another small-screen to big-screen film, Joss Whedon's Serenity, just makes me shiver with happiness.  Serenity is up this week as we discuss writing.

Remember what I said about good science fiction asking the Big Questions?  So can horror, although not usually.  This weekend, Joss Whedon fans throughout the country got their long-awaited chance to pump their fists in the air when they saw "A Mutant Enemy Production" appear on the big screen with the release of The Cabin in the Woods.  I'll say nothing more aside from this - I despise slasher movies, finding them uncreative and most unkind toward women, but I'll go see this one again.  It's clever, most of the gore is hidden in deep shadow, the casting is spot-on and it'll make you think.

You know, my entire journey toward the academic study of television and movies could be said to have begun with a course during my senior year of undergraduate school.  I wanted to take a course with this particular professor and the subject matter was the American horror film.  I tend toward the squeamish and wasn't at all sure about this, but I wanted the course.  The prof is still there and I'm sure he'll be adding Cabin to the syllabus.  It takes tropes and archetypes and moves them around like figures on a feltboard.  The poster really tells you all you need to know, so please - go see it unspoiled and just enjoy what two writers who clearly love the genre can do with subverting the idiocy that is often the modern slasher.  The film was completed three years back and stalled in the morass of MGM's financial mess, but Cabin has now seen the light of day and this is one a labor of Lovecraft that's well worth the ticket price.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Walter White Wednesday 8

The art museum edition!

Gray Line with Black, Blue and Yellow, c. 1923
Last week, I discussed Jane.  This week, I want to briefly look at the artist she mentions so prominently - Georgia O'Keeffe.  You might remember that she convinces Jesse to go visit a museum in Santa Fe.  (We see their visit in flashback in Season 3.)  He's a little reluctant, but his interest is piqued when Jane mentions that he'd like the paintings because "some of them look like vaginas."  This is the O'Keeffe Museum.

Pelvis with Moon, 1943
O'Keeffe was an amazing woman and not just for her body of work as an artist.    (You can find out more here.) Born in Wisconsin, she had worked and taught in South Carolina and New York before a vacation to Taos, New Mexico introduced her to the landscape that has so entranced Vince Gilligan in Breaking Bad.  O'Keeffe was still struggling to find her true artistic voice, feeling stifled by European style art.  The wide-open desert and saturated colors of the Southwest gave her what she needed to break free of traditional confines of visual art and O'Keeffe began her most productive period as an artist.  Her paintings included such unusual matter as bleached cow skulls and yes, doors (Jesse never quite got that, but Jane did).
Black Door with Red, 1954

The majority of her sensuous close-up, large scale paintings of orchids and other flowers were done prior to her relocation to New Mexico, a fact that I'm sure didn't bother Jesse in the least.  O'Keeffe found beauty in non-traditional places - she referred to the area around Santa Fe, which many of us would think of as just empty space by the far more lyrical name "the faraway" (as a matter of fact, her ashes were scattered over "the faraway" following her death in 1986 at age 98) and her gift was in showing that to other people.

Little wonder Jane felt a connection to this powerful artist.  O'Keeffe was a woman operating at a very high level of success in a man's world and she saw the possibilities in objects and places that other people overlooked.
Yellow Calla, 1926

All photos courtesy of

And finally, the painting that I think of now as from O'Keeffe's Breaking Bad series.

Black Cross, New Mexico, 1929
Courtesy of
There's something ominous about this one.  Maybe it's the bright line just under the heavy crossbar.  Maybe it's how much of the canvas is taken up by the solid plumb lines of the cross, which blocks out so much of the lower light and chops up the rolling lines of the hills.  Or it could be the feeling I get of looking outward to the land from inside a house - the lines seem like they might come from the muntins and mullions of a window.  And yet, I don't feel at all protected by being "inside."  I half-expect to see the cousins crawling their way toward some unholy shrine.

So yeah, O'Keeffe - good stuff!

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Color, Sound, & Humor

After several weeks of deeply serious science fiction, we took a break this past week with Luc Besson's The Fifth Element, a cotton-candy light romp.  The idea here was to take a look at the use of color in film.  Ever since the magical year of 1939 (which gave us both Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz), color has been a significant element in film - to the point that we don't usually think all that much about it.  A film like Fifth Element can remind us of the power of color.  Plus, having Jean-Paul Gaultier design the costumes is a guarantee that there will be something to talk about.

Sound is also an important element in Fifth Element - there's the Divine Language and that wonderful sequence of the Diva's aria from Lucia di Lammermoor intercut with Leeloo's balletic battle.  Sound is where the class is headed this week, although color will continue to be an important element as well.  That's right - it's Cowboy Bebop week.

I'm using Bebop to provide examples of the "dubbing v. subtitle" debate, to showcase the use of music as more than mere background filler and to introduce (however briefly) the genre of Japanese anime.  Spike Spiegel and Co. also bring the discussion back around to free will, genetic manipulation, and determining what's actually the real world.

Bebop is an interesting film to show - it starts with a slower pace than some films we've seen (typical of Asian films in general - certainly Kurosawa was never in a hurry to get where he was going), and it's an adult-themed cartoon, albeit one with a lush mise en scene and a soundtrack I've been known to play for the heck of it.  It has an ensemble cast rather than one or two "star" characters, so there was the added challenge of making each character memorable.  It's a challenge I believe Shinichiro Watanabe rose to meet.  Moreover, it provides a terrific starting place for the debate of "space opera" or "space Western."

We'll see what the class has to say about it!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Walter White Wednesday 7

The "Sweet Jane" edition. 

Warning:  Here be spoilers if you haven’t seen through Season 3! 

Jesse Pinkman has been evicted from his aunt’s house by his parents, who actually own the place.  Seems that Jesse has a little sideline that involved a lot of chemistry equipment being used to produce noxious fumes and high grade methamphetamine in the basement, so out he had to go.

Happily, he meets Jane Margolis, a Bettie Page look-alike with a half a duplex to rent.  Jane doesn’t ask too many questions – which is good, since Jesse would have a hard time coming up with a plausible answer to most of them (including, “Hey, why are you paying in wads of cash?”).   Jane manages the place for her dad and she works as a tattoo artist, but her own skin remains uninked – it’s too much of a commitment.
Jesse and Jane – I just love how those two names mesh, don’t you? – get along famously and soon, Jane is a lot more than just the “girl next door.”  Breaking Bad does such a nice job of developing secondary characters into fully-rounded people throughout its run and Jane is a shining example of this attention to detail.  For all his bravado, Jesse is often a sweet soul who craves approval and he finds comfort in Jane.    Just look at that shy hand holding at the end of “Negro y Azul.”  The newly-installed TV may still be “searching,” but Jesse’s found home. 

However, Jesse cooks meth and sometimes uses his product while Jane has a chip from Narcotics Anonymous marking 18 months’ of sobriety.  Let me make it clear – Jesse is not the cause of Jane’s downfall.  That’s Jane’s business.  We even see her make her decision in Season 2’s “Mandala” – watch  her hand on the doorknob.  As a viewer, I feel for Jane.   She’s funny and artistic and smart-mouthed and it’s hard to stay sober when your boyfriend’s smoking, even when he doesn’t do it right in front of you.  And – hello! – Jane needed that chip, as her drug of choice involves equipment such as a tourniquet and a syringe.  She shares this high with Jesse and the spiral downward becomes sharper for them both.

It takes money to get away from temptation and Jane tries mightily to be fierce for her man with her attempt to blackmail Walt into giving Jesse “his” money.  However, Jane’s playing a game she never can win when she goes up against the ruthless bewilderment of a cornered Season 2 Walt.  (Oh, and Walt’s non-involvement in the events of “Phoenix” so does not let him off the hook.  And he knows it.  Listen to him in Season 3’s “Fly.”)  When Walt is given a clear choice between taking a right action and doing nothing, but thereby eliminating a problem - well, Walt's moral compass points away from True North.

It seems that Jesse and Jane enjoyed their trip to the museum that we see in a Season 3 flashback.  It's heartbreaking to realize that the light may have been different in every O’Keeffe painting, but those are still on the walls and Jane’s personal light has been snuffed out forever.  There’s blame a-plenty for why that is so and, while Jesse may be dealing with his guilt and grief by listening obsessively to Jane’s voicemail message and gazing at her lipstick-stained cigarette in his car’s ashtray, someone else is also beginning to hear the piper’s insistent tune reminding him that payment is coming due.  And the interest has been compounding.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Of Sleep, Memory, and a Really Dark City

I'm not sure if there's a bigger contrast in the film class than this one.  This past week, the focus was on neo noir with the watching of Proyas' Dark City.  The first time I saw this film, I was both blown away and thoroughly confused.  That'll happen when one of the themes of the film you're watching is forced amnesia.  I watched it again to sort through the twists and turns and with every viewing since, I find I like this film more and more.  It's intricately plotted, but it never takes the easy way out and it remains true to the rules of the world it sets up.  (I despise stories that find they've plotted themselves into a corner and then cop out with a "it was all a dream and none of it was ever real!" sort of thing.)  It's also good to see a film that makes you think instead of doing it all for you.

I asked the class to especially be on the lookout for references to clocks and time and then to compare how Dark City handles those elements with the ways in which we see the same elements back in Metropolis.  I can't wait to read the results!

The class is coming off of a couple of heavy "is it you?" films that center on humanity, memory, and manipulation.  So this week, we take a well-earned breather with Luc Besson's feast of color, humor, and the Multipass and watch The Fifth Element.  In many ways, this is a silly, lighthearted romp - and I think there's a valuable lesson to be learned from silly, lighthearted romps.  It's a great movie to use to discuss color and symbolism, in part because it's such a big part of the film that you don't have to look overly hard.  (It's also a cautionary tale about the fleeting nature of stardom - what was Luke Perry's last movie?)  Humor is one of the things that keeps us sane in the dark times, so it's good to leave the shadows behind and come into the bright light of Gaultier's costumes and the Diva's song.

Hope the class enjoys it!