127 Hours

February 4, 2011

Elements of visual and sound design including cinematography, editing, music and sound mix, whilst not necessarily always best used as compliments to the diegetic world (countless examples from Soviet Montage to underground experimenta and political found footage/ensemble films certainly support a counter-argument), it is most often the case that with Hollywood cinema these formal properties of a film act, albeit manipulatively, as a guide for audience reception (for more on this see Greg Smith’s chapter “The Mood Cue Approach to Filmic Emotion” in Film Structure and the Emotion System). And whilst I am not at all against cinema that pushes the boundaries of generic expectancy and indeed the formal economics of predictability that years of viewing have firmly impressed upon us (quite the contrary), I do find it difficult to appreciate the abrasive use of a film’s formal qualities when there is no apparent or at least positively affecting result in doing so. Danny Boyle has long been a director whose formal choices seem to me curious, if not superfluous, in this regard. His latest feature film, the much-anticipated 127 Hours (2010) is possibly the greatest example yet of how saturating formal technique is used to juxtapose the diegetic content of a film with disappointingly reductive results.

For a film about a man who gets stuck in a cave, his arm crushed under a firmly lodged boulder, it might seem a little odd that the opening credit sequence should show several images on a split screen where hoards of humans appear to heard themselves about like animals. Of course, this is a Hollywood film, so it isn’t long before these images are adequately explained as an insight into our protagonist’s view of the world. Aron Ralston (James Franco) is a man who prefers the company of the outdoors to others. Independent to the point of apparent neglect (he fails to tell anyone where it is that he’s going so that in the actual event something does happen to him, no one is able to even think about looking for him), Aron is as self-sufficient and individualist as they come. Suggesting with the split screen that our being surrounded by others does not necessarily forego fragmentation, Boyle sets up the film’s primary “message” and “concern” in a fairly standard and easily digestible manner.

After a few more establishing scenes where the stylistic choices add a sense of franticness to the film’s tonality, somewhat exploring human impact/interaction on/with natural spaces, our protagonist takes the inevitable plummet that will serve as the real life premise for the remainder of the film: with his arm crushed by a now firmly lodged boulder that came loose upon his free fall descent, Aron is condemned to the proverbial ‘127 hours’ where survival and solace seem unlikely. Unfortunately, where Boyle could easily have constructed the rest of the film as a tense, even terrifyingly sublime exploration of one man’s true isolation, the use of flashback, hallucination and overwrought visual and aural additives often detract from the true severity of the focal situation. An initial panic communicated to the audience after his fateful fall, where one genuinely thinks the rest of the film could well be James Franco screaming in agony for near on a hundred minutes (something that would undoubtedly have been more terrifying and visceral to watch), Boyle employs popular music and fast paced camera movement with far too short ASLs (average shot length) to even come close to adequately communicating a sense of prolonged pain.

Though occasional lines of dialogue reconfirm the idea that stillness is an illusion and that movement is constant; “Everything is moving all the time” and “Everything just comes together”; the film itself is not so fortunate so as to benefit from the illusion of stillness which, sadly, detracts from its overall tension. And whilst the most critical sequence in the film does show how style and sound can increase visceral affect, it does so in isolation as it is the one sequence that actually builds to crescendo. Certainly the majority of the time that Ralston is onscreen would have been communicably improved by a slow build in tension and a sense of suture style claustrophobia, akin to the likes of last year’s Buried (2010) which successfully managed such a feat by never expanding upon or leaving the confines of the diegetic world.

Ending with Ralston relenting that he does in fact “need help”, the film re-confirms the idea that we all need others and that connections between humans is an imperative to every individual’s survival. Moreover, Boyle takes it a bit too far when he then goes on to end the film by pointing specifically to Ralston’s now wife and kids as if familial life were some sort of epiphanic salvation. In terms of making a truly horrific life-threatening and, no doubt life-altering, event into a piece of entertaining filmic fare, Boyle has succeeded but in terms of communicating any sense of true gravity of the situation or even the fascinating and compelling temporal dimension to his experience which even operates as the film’s title, Boyle remains dismissive and reduces the scope and terror to a mere cavalcade of visual and aural superfluouity. It’s not so much the case that Boyle preferences style over substance, rather that his use of style operates as an overwhelming distraction from audience access to substance, an active choice that I find far less palatable.

127 Hours is released in Australian cinemas on Thursday February 10 through Twentieth Century Fox.

Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.


Tron: Legacy

December 17, 2010

“I kept dreaming of a world I thought I’d never see.” Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) tells his son in the establishing story scene of Tron: Legacy (2010). Having studied IMAX 3D extensively for the better part of a year back in 2008 this is exactly how I’ve been feeling ever since. With my hopes – and fears – for the medium on edge for the past two years, I feel as though someone has finally understood what the technology is capable of and, with Tron: Legacy, I believe they have created a stunning, yet still reserved, display of what wonderful visual and immersive spectaculars simplistic, narrative film can offer to enhance and (quite literally) expand upon its content.

What interests me most about IMAX 3D is its relationship to the historical real and the way in which it uses immersion to enhance the comprehension of filmic content rather than just offer an entertaining experience in the first instance. With the recent spate of 3D films including a lot of crappy 2D to 3D conversion and an inordinate number of kids flicks I’ve been concerned for some time now that the medium would be lost to gimmick and glamour forever, subsequently failing to explore its more fascinating and significant relationship with tracing the historical real. Thankfully, Tron: Legacy has, in a compelling and incredibly innovative way, restored its trajectory to thinking through the links between history and experience and how any visual representation of the former requires comprehensive formal consideration to elucidate the theoretical and narrative ideas it holds.

The original Tron (1982), in addition to being a childhood favourite for many a now adult who grew up in the ’80s, is an incredible vision, and subsequent historical document of what I like to call the “future past”. The “future past” in film is a depiction of futurism that documents a contextual comprehension of what the future might either look like or the capabilities they are expected of it, and thus, necessarily, it becomes immediately after depiction, itself a document of the past. Tron: Legacy is one film that I am absolutely certain will, like its original, come to be a document of its own contextual “future past”. However, with Tron: Legacy (and indeed even Tron to some extent) the depiction of the “future past” is not so much in theorising how we might live in the future or what technological advancements might mean to society so much as it is a continuation of the contemplation surrounding interactivity and where it is that escapism intersects with real life.

The idea that both films are predicated upon concerns sharing of or access to information. Given the technological revolution called the Internet that has arrived in homes during the time spanning the two films’ release dates, notions of sharing and access have never been more relevant concerns. The issue addressed however is mostly to do with the relational converse: control. All systems of power are built upon a relational set up and so for there even to be a question of “sharing” or “access” there must first be a structure that prevents this.

Mirroring so very many times throughout the film are the structures of the real world  – where corporations and authoritative figures are in control – and the structures of “the Grid” (itself a mirror image of the “games” played in the real world) where multiple mirror imagings occur; its own creator up against an image of himself. But perhaps most significant is his inability to return to the real world and even to any longer engage in the confines of his own creation. Set aside and decidedly “off the grid” both Kevin Flynn and his son Sam (Garrett Hedlund) occupy liminal spaces between reality and fantasy. Prior to entering the Grid, we have seen Sam as an outcast who has made a “home” for himself based upon extraction from the human world and their prescribed rules. The company in which he is the major shareholder, Encom, is nothing more than a bankrolling joke to him. In a wonderfully indicative bike chase sequence early on we see Sam ride in the real world as he will once he enters the Grid: recklessly and with enough balls and abandon to physically ride off an overpass, breaking the established barriers.

Just as Sam breaks through established barriers within the narrative; hacking into Encom’s system and posting their technology for all the world to see and passing through the boundaries between the real world and the digital one; Tron: Legacy itself repeatedly breaks cinematic boundaries, creating yet another mirror between form and content. From using the most visceral and immersive thirty or forty seconds of 3D I have ever seen in cinema as its opening shot (this honestly feels more like a simulator ride than a static viewing experience), to seven times in the film expanding the dimensions of the IMAX screen to allow for an enhanced and enlarged view of the spectacle, to seamlessly switching between 2D and 3D as and when the effects call for it yet never appearing gimmicky or clunky in doing so, Tron: Legacy is an exemplary exercise in experimenta.

But returning to the narrative of the film and its relation to an historical real, there is one character in the film, Quorra (Olivia Wilde) who represents a new phase in the human/digital (r)evolution. Her role and what she represents suggests an internal evolution within gaming and the digital world. The implications of this are astronomical, particularly as she transcends the barrier between the real world and the Grid, leaving the film with “integration” as its final frontier. What Tron: Legacy is tracing here is the fascinating move from an historical document (Tron) to its conceived progression (Tron: Legacy) which then charters the transcendence of the real to computer generating and digital enhancement, through an onscreen evolutionary event and back to the real (diegetic) world. Both spatially and temporally this is an entirely new way of viewing historical representation and yet so wonderfully is in and of itself an historical document as it suggests to us; its own vision of the future for “user interactivity”, human/digital integration and a move beyond understanding history as a series of “events” and into understanding history as a constant, evolving process that occurs across a multitude of platforms and instantaneously through communicable affect. Whilst I appreciate it can be said of any film that it is in and of itself an historical document of one form or another, Tron: Legacy is unique in that its central call for viewing and experiencing cinema is as an onscreen process of evolution in interactivity, not just technologically speaking, but also with regards to the very linear understanding we hold towards historical discourse.

“Sometimes life has a way of moving you past life and hope.” is what Kevin Flynn tells Sam towards the film’s end and I would venture that sometimes cinema has a way of moving its audiences past traditional and expected viewing experiences and the hope for what they might achieve. Tron: Legacy is not only an incredible and deeply affecting experience in immersive IMAX 3D (and it would remiss of me not to at least mention how truly awesome the Daft Punk soundtrack is at achieving a large proportion of that affect), but it is also a pioneering film for our continued understanding not only of modes of viewing experience, but also the way in which they construct contextual comprehension. Aware of itself to the last, Tron: Legacy is a signpost for what cinema can be and it is one of the most beautiful visions I have ever seen.

Tron: Legacy is released in Australian cinemas on Thursday December 16 but despite wherever else it might be playing there is only one way to see this film and that is in immersive IMAX with 3D. For Melbournian readers of LV, you can see Tron: Legacy at the Melbourne Museum IMAX in Carlton and I implore you to do so.

Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.

Enter the Void

August 11, 2010

I have agreed elsewhere with James Quandt’s assertion that much of the New French Extremism which has come along in recent decades has replaced the politically challenging and artistically complex films that came before with “an aggressiveness that is really a grandiose form of passivity.” After seeing Gasper Noé’s latest, Enter the Void (2009) I stand by what I said.

Noé is truly a modern-day enfant terrible if ever there was one: his films more an annoying exercise in challenging traditional modes of viewing than engaging or entertaining viewing in and of themselves. Though personally not averse to such a premise (heck, I love experimental cinema probably even a little more than the next person) there is an arrogance that goes along with Noé’s version of experimenta that ventures beyond slight abrasion and arrives at raw irritation. But personal feelings aside, Enter the Void is indeed an interesting film (albeit at least an hour overlong) for what it says about the way in which we are accustomed to receiving cinematic visuals.

Starting with the most incredible title sequence I’ve ever seen, Enter the Void is high-octane at the outset but, as its protagonists descend into a drug-fuelled liminality between life and death, so too is the viewer induced into a trance like state, receiving a lengthy and repetitive succession of seedy images that straddle a strange space between stimulating and sedating. Without any access to the usual outlets of spectatorial identification and devoid of the type of affect that encourages an active engagement in a narrative, Enter the Void never asks its audience to disavow and constantly reminds them that they are at the mercy of a (somewhat sadistic) filmmaker (for two long hours and thirty-four even longer minutes, I might add.) This does however produce a poignant line of questioning, particularly as it pertains to the idea of feature-length film within the realm of counter-cinema (most experimental film is short in duration, one of the many usual ways in which it counters the mainstream cinema it is necessarily situated against.)

But even after being coerced by Noé into contemplating the merits of identification and considering the artifice of cinema as highlighted through cinematic excess (see Kristen Thompson’s “The Concept of Cinematic Excess” and then Jeffrey Sconce’s “Trashing the Academy: Taste, Excess and an Emerging Politics of Cinematic Style”), I couldn’t help but feel as though he were sat right behind me, laughing at my gullibility whilst counting his bulging pay packet. I’d like to say that Enter the Void deserves the appreciation and attention it will undoubtedly get, but in reality all I really hope for is to see an editor take a pair of scissors to it like a dog in heat.

Experimental Shorts

August 3, 2010

It is important when discussing experimenta and avant-garde modes of cinema to remember that one of its most significant and defining qualities is that it necessarily situates itself outside of, though still in conversation with, its “mainstream” counterpart. This year’s MIFF selection of Experimental Shorts was in many ways a typical, “balanced” program of its kind. What I mean by that is not necessarily negative, rather that the programming team clearly took into account that a relative portion of its audience might well be approaching experimenta from a “first time” perspective and, as such, the program includes a carefully considered breadth of experimental filmmaking.

Flyscreen (2010) / Richard Tuohy / Australia /8 min.

Working with 16mm film using the rayogram technique and optical sound, Richard Tuohy (part of the Artist Film Workshop) creates a successfully claustrophobic and atmospheric work. The flyscreens themselves simile the individual frames that make up the moving image and the optical sound of the screens emulate both the buzzing of an actual fly and the low drone of a film projector. It’s refreshing and exciting to see that there are still filmmakers out there who care about and are interested in experimenting with actual film.

Friedl vom Groller  (2009) / Austria / 8 min.

Passage Briare: A silent, black and white document of a middle-aged heterosexual couple reveals the simplistic beauty behind the human experience of (an)other.

Hen Night: A group of six women staring at the camera represent the reflected artifice and construction that appear in cinema and everyday life alike.

Wedding: A naked couple sit by one another facing the camera in what is shown to be a moment of “honesty”, transcending “seemlessness”. Simple yet beautiful.

Kitchen Horror (2009) / David Short / Australia / 4 min.

Using science and mathematics to inform its representation of the horrors hidden within a typically domestic space, Kitchen Horror is most interesting for its use of sound in illuminating the extraction of spacial ideological anomalies.

Palm D’Or (2009) / Siegfried A Fruhauf / Austria / 9 min.

The blurring of a fractured, fragmented crowd of people and places set to a sort of “white noise” soundtrack disorient and remove the viewer from a process of identification with the subject in this well executed black and white short.

Parallax (2009) / Inger Lise Hansen / Austria & Norway / 5 min.

A simply yet cleverly inverted image shows how the earth struggles to achieve its “natural movement”; suffering under the unnatural weight of human industry.

The Quick Brown Fox Jumps Over the Lazy Dog (2009) / Johann Lurf / Austria / 3 min.

Through framing film frame and showing sound, Lurf confronts his viewer with the very nature of the object they are viewing.

Long Live the New Flesh (2009) / Nicolas Provost / Belgium / 14 min.

Using CGI (computer generated imaging) to alter and enhance visceral sequences from famous horror films, Provost creates a new texture – or “flesh” – for the image. From conventional suspense horrors such as The Shining (1980) and Drag Me to Hell (2009) to Cronenberg body-horrors like Videodrome (1983) and The Fly (1986), Provost takes an experimental art form and makes it both contemporary and accessible to wider audiences. Although some of the images are quite beautiful the medium itself is disappointng; pixelation and computerised sound ultimately render it more like to a computer game than “film”.

Flag Mountain (2010) / John Smith / UK / 8 min.

Presenting a strong image of a liminal border space, Flag Mountain looks at a literal and ideological imprinting of nationhood upon the physical landscape.

Strips (2010) / Felix Dufour / Canada / 6 min.

Segmenting the image into “strips” we watch a woman “strip”. The cutting up of the woman and the image hark back to Laura Mulvey’s seminal article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. Nothing new, but effective nonetheless.

Still in Cosmos (2009) / Makino Takashi / Japan / 19 min.

Matched to a soundtrack by Jim O’Rourke, Still in Cosmos shows scratched and deteriorating images that reflect the universe. Distorting the original photography it slowly reveals glimpses of nature and straddles the boundary between a Kantian understanding of beauty and the sublime.

Finally, whilst the program could be described as Austrian-heavy (hardly surprising when Austria is where pretty much most of the most interesting and cutting edge experimenta comes from), what was (pleasantly) surprising for me was to see Australian experimenta not only feature but contend in such an established program.