Thursday, April 29, 2010

In The Time It Takes...

How long is too long? (Thats what she said)

A friend of mine claims that "The Dark Knight" was a little too long; I, on the other hand, didn't want it to end. So what proceeded was a conversation on just how long is too long for the run time of a film.

I'm a film purist and I totally believe in the medium's ability to tell a compelling story. And telling a compelling story should not have a time limit. I believe filmmakers should take as much time as needed to tell the story they want to tell. Of course, this doesn't mean that a filmmaker should cram in as much story as possible simple because he can. Storytelling, or more specifically good storytelling, is an art and as such a storyteller should be as concise as possible to garner and sustain an audience's attention. Human beings, sadly, are not known for their tolerance of time consuming media, particularly now in the age of quick "bite size" entertainment. So a story, no matter what medium its told in, should be digestible for the average person ... but this doesn't have to be a rule.

Somewhere along the road of film's history an hour and a half to two hours became the norm for the length of an average movie. There have been exceptions to this norm over the years, but films of that nature are typically regulated to the "experimental" or "art" films genre. Take for instance, Andy Warhol's films "Sleep" and "Empire", which lasted five hours twenty minutes and eight hours five minutes respectively. These two films were basically experiments on the "long take" ("Sleep" consisted of five hours of a man sleeping and "Empire" was eight hours of the Empire State building at night) but their length tested the limits of what an audience would accept as a "viewable" film. Many would argue that the films being unwatchable was exactly the reaction Warhol was going for, however they retain their importance as prime examples that cinema, at it's very core, should not be bound by length. Of course it does say something when out of the nine people in the audience to watch Warhol's "Sleep", two left after the first hour. Apparently audiences want a concise story. Who would have thought.

A concise story, I believe, can be a film like "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King", which ran three hours and twenty minutes, which, in my opinion, did not run the risk of losing its audience because of length. I do however believe around three hours should be a "quasi" limit if a film is to be consumed in one sitting; I mean let’s be honest, who can sit still for longer than that to watch a film. I admit, I am irritated sometimes when a person dislikes a film purely on length alone; a friend argued that “The Matrix Revolutions” was unsuccessful because of its length. If a film's story isn't compelling enough to sustain the film's length, then yes length can be a deciding factor in critiquing a film badly; however judging a film because it tried your patience is something else. Films are not supposed to fit in nice neat boxes to please audiences; they are created to stand on their own and to be taken as is. No one ever criticizes the artwork of the Sistine Chapel as being "too much to take in at once" because of its immense detail. Its excepted simply as is.

Here's to hoping that one day we can break free of the lifestyle we've become accustomed to; the lifestyle of quick, easy gratification. There is something to be said for endurance and patience.What’s that old saying?

“The best things come to those who . . . watch.”

Send me a comment and let me know your thoughts on film as it pertains to the argument of length!


Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Dallas International Film Festival

And then Lou Diamond Philips walked in.

Okay, rewind ten seconds.
I'm sitting in a room that looks like a convention center meeting room, but in reality it’s a theater at the Studio Movie Grill in North Dallas; it just looks odd because the lights are all the way up. Theaters in movie houses feel strange when all the lights are on; maybe it’s because we spend so much time there in the dark.
Anyway five seconds later, I'm commenting to my girlfriend that the movie we are about to see is a low budget film and could serve as inspirational food for thought on our future projects. She agrees and she tells me "I love cinema."
I turn around in my seat to look behind me and Lou Diamond Philips walks in.

Its in this moment that I realize that my girlfriend is right; we love cinema and in turn we love film festivals. Why? Because film festivals, much more than a casual outing to the movies, nourishes our need to be around other people that also love cinema. Everyone in that theater was there to see a small independent film that could in no way compete monetarily with the Micheal Douglas piece that was playing across the hall and was also a part of the festival. That theater, I heard, was completely full. The theater we shared with Lou Diamond was about 75% full. But it was completely full with interesting people interested in the story telling power of cinema.

The festival was the Dallas International Film Festival. For the past three years it was known as the AFI Film Festival and although it was spearheaded by the Dallas Film Society, the AFI foundation no doubted called the shots back then. I attended a few screenings the first year the AFI Film Festival was in Dallas and I have to say; I thoroughly enjoyed the atmosphere of the DIFF much more. Maybe it's just that I like the new name (it paints Dallas as a stronger beacon for quality cinematic events) but it actually felt like the air around the screenings was less stuffier. Which is saying something in Dallas. So kudos to the Dallas Film Society.

I caught a few screenings at the DIFF this year. One of them I can recommend the other...well, lets just say I've seen better films on youtube. That particular film was a low budget, psychology gore fest called “Walking Distance” directed by Mel House. The story centers around a small community where everything is within walking distance and deep, dark secrets are buried in the earth, not to mention within the psyche of some of the town's inhabitants. The films begins somewhat promising, if not cheesy, but quickly spirals downward from there. Questionable casting, a confusing script and spastic editing make “Walking Distance” barely enjoyable. I'm a big horror fan myself and when the director stood up at the beginning of the film and said that “Walking Distance” was similar to “Nightmare on Elm Street”, I was excited. Sadly, it was nothing like Nightmare. I can only recommend this film to hard core gore-fest fanatics who won't care that the film could have been salvaged with a little creativity.

The other film, the one I can recommend to just about anyone, was called “Transparency” by director Raul Inglis, starring Lou Diamond Philips as an ATF security guard who uncovers a deadly prostitution ring that victimizes young Russian woman. When Lou attempts to help one of the victims, he then becomes the target of the powers that be, forcing him to fight for his life and the safety of the woman he befriends. Lou Diamond said it best in the Q&A that followed the screening: “Transparency” is basically an updated “Deathwish”. Remember that Charles Bronson flick? Lou Diamond even grew a moustache as an homage to the cult Bronson franchise. It looked good on him.

Tansperancy” will not be winning any Oscars; it’s entertaining but simple. Hell, I doubt it will be given a limited release in theaters. More than likely it will go straight to DVD, which may be a good thing; renting it for a few bucks and watching it at home won't make you feel cheated by paying an expensive movie ticket. But I’ll tell you, it will make you believe in Lou Diamond Philips again. Stay with me on this: for years now I've been saying to myself "Where the hell is Lou Diamond Phillips?" Where's the guy that I grew up with as Ritchie in “La Bamba” or Angel in “Stand and Deliver” or Jose in “Young Gunz”? I hadn’t seen him since the “The Big Hit” back in '98 and even then I just saw him in the trailers, I never actually saw the damn thing. I don’t know why, but I felt like I knew Lou Diamond and respected him but hadn't seen him in a while . Apparently he's big on the Stargate television show but I've never seen that program. So imagine my joy when I saw a great acting performance in “Transparency” by none other than Lou himself. AND he kicks some serious ass in the flick, Jason Bourne style. I half expected him to knock some thug out and as he stood over the body, mutter "Ritchie's Back, Bitch."

So thank you, Lou Diamond, for reinvigorating this Cinema fan. Thank you Dallas Film Society for giving Dallas a cool film festival name. And thank you Tracey Dowling for giving me the opportunity to experience the festival in the first place. Last but not least thank you, yes you reading these words right now, because this one’s for you.

“I love cinema.”


Monday, April 12, 2010

Finding Meaning In Cinema or How To Do Your Cinematic Homework

I asked my goddaughter once if she ever used a physical encyclopedia to do research and she looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language. When I mentioned "wikipedia", her face lit up and she knew exactly what I was talking about. Now of course, a discussion about this could venture out on a number of topics that stem from that conversation, but when it’s all said and done, the simple point that really does come across is that no matter what means are used, the act of research is still alive today.

Lately, I've found myself, more and more, researching films long after their credits have rolled. I discover new intricacies that went into various aspects of production. I uncover hidden meanings proposed by other fellow viewers. I can even find a list of all the inaccuracies that appear in any particular film, if I wanted to. When you think about it, this is actually an extraordinary practice that wasn't readily available to cinema fans liek myself, even as long as a decade ago. Before the world wide web, when you wanted to learn anything about…anything, you had to turn to those books my goddaughter knows nothing about ... the encyclopedia. And they weren't updated often.

In the age of the latest iGadget, it's a privilege that we have access to so much wealth of information, and not only is it easy to find out additional information on a particular film, it's practically a shame to not take advantage of technology to further one's understanding of a film or cinema in general. Not to mention, it’s rewarding to simply extend the enjoyment of a work of art ... if the opposite was true, we would never stick a painting inside of a frame for display purposes. True, some films may not seem to warrant prolonged study (a good example off the top of my head would be any of the Final Destination films, with all their “deep” meanings) but even for the casual viewer, there can be enjoyment derived from researching, at the very least, ideas presented in these types of films.

I've made a habit, for better or worse, of going to or similar websites after I watch a film to learn facts or trivia that I didn't get from the actual viewing of the film. A good example from my recent "cinema" outings is the film Watchmen. I was ignorant to all things Watchmen before I saw the film, and it intrigued me so much that not only did I do web research to learn more about the concept of bringing a graphic novel to screen, but I also took it upon myself to read the graphic novel Watchmen to better understand the ideas presented within the story. I had no real intention of doing this before I watched the film but the ideas and the overall experience of watching the film drove me to find out more about the story because it was so different. And I have to say, I appreciate the Watchmen lore and the journey of bringing Watchmen to the silver screen much more than I preciously had because of my “research”.

Recently I suggested David Lynch's Mulholland Dr to a friend of mine who would typically not be a fan of such surreal cinema. The movie freaked him out, as I had predicted, but it was a "positive freak out" in that it inspired him to go the web and read up on all the theories and the back story of the film. His appreciation for this absurdist film grew because he took the time to do his own "homework" and answer his own question about the movie he had just watched.

Anyone who seeks to appreciate cinema can learn from this example; the most difficult things to appreciate in life, can sometimes be the most rewarding thing because of the journey taken to truly discover them. And this doesn't mean that encyclopedias or internet connectivity is needed to study what is beyond the images on the celluloid. Sometimes, all it takes is talking, discussing or merely contemplating the ideas expressed through cinema. Some of the greatest conversations about film no doubt took place over a cup of coffee in a brew house in early 20th Century France; not on chatrooms or in film journals.

So find your proverbial "coffee house" and make a truly enjoyable film experience last longer than you thought possible by continuing the film in your head, on paper, on the internet or with another person in discussion. I know I am looking forward to the day when I can have an adult conversation with my Goddaughter about her favorite film.

I just hope it's one I've seen.