Christmas Vacation and Buster Keaton: The Frame is the Universe

The world is the frame

Anyone who had been following my visual deconstruction and film theory posts over the years should have noticed that I have not written anything in the past two years. My friend and mentor in the art of visual rhetoric, Scott Eric Kaufman, passed away after a long illness, and I decided to take a year (or two) off, in deference to him. - Jeff

This is a moderately quick deconstruction of a particular comedic element in a “new classic” Christmas movie.

Written By
Jeff

Nostalgia Films: A New Breed of Film

Defining the nostalgia film as a sub-genre.

Amidst a raging torrent of smarmy self-aware postmodern / post-postmodern film, a new sub-genre has been emerging in recent years: that of the “nostalgia” film. I posit that “nostalgia film” is a distinct sub-genre and can be separated from both postmodern / post-postmodern film and reboot / franchise film.

Written By
Jeff

Downton Abbey: Camera Stabilization as a Storytelling Tool

Looking at camera stabilization in Masterpiece Theater's "Downton Abbey"

The acclaimed BBC/PBS Masterpiece Theater series Downton Abbey has been lauded for its period-accurate settings and for a heretofore unseen look at the non-affluent parts of historical life around the English aristocracy. I’d like to look at Downton Abbey’s use of camera stabilization as an effective storytelling tool.

Written By
Jeff

Why "Gotham" Succeeds Where Other Prequels Fail

Looking at why Gotham does prequel better.

I have been known to outwardly hate prequel films. This is, in no small part, due to them tending to be terrible. It should come as little shock that I was extremely reticent about watching Gotham, DC’s attempt at a prequel story for the Batman franchise. As I have defended in past, the Batman origin story is the greatest origin story in film, and attempting to undertake it in a way which would not result in extreme disappointment for aficionados of the canon seemed dodgy, at best.

I was very, very wrong – and I’d like to examine why.

Written By
Jeff

Layers of Canon and The Batman

Examining the concept of multiple layers of canon using The Batman

One of the concepts which has been intriguing me over the last few weeks has been the concept of multiple layers of canon existing over many works in an overarching canon.

The Batman mythos comprises more than 70 years of collective canon built on a foundation of comics, films, television series, and other works of fiction; as it spans multiple mediums and auteurs, it seems an ideal system to examine for the phenomenon of nested canon.

Written By
Jeff

The Monomyth, Saving the Cat, and Consistency

Why do we seem obsessed, as a culture, with films heavily designed around pandering to the Campbellian Monomyth?

Joseph Campbell’s book “The Hero With A Thousand Faces” wasn’t intended to be a blueprint to create stories or films, but it has become that for many auteurs. Why the Monomyth?

Written By
Jeff

The Usual Suspects: Mirroring the Outer Story

The inner shot mirrors the outer story in Bryan Singer's The Usual Suspects

One of my favorite thematic plot devices in the medium of film has been “inner story mirrors outer story” (especially across epistemic layers). Bryan Singer’s 1995 neo-noir classic The Usual Suspects is told through a series of flashbacks – and manages to use this thematic device to great advantage.

WARNING: There be spoilers here. If you’re one of the small group of people who haven’t actually watched The Usual Suspects yet, go watch it, then read on. Seriously. Don’t spoil this for yourself.

Written By
Jeff

The Rise of Crossover and Mashup

Examining the rise of the culture of crossover/mashup in comics, television, and film.

“The ability to generate novel, high variance outcomes is based on the availability of ideas. Idea availability can be constrained by local search, in which a limited set of options is considered according to confidently held beliefs. Broader search results in more idea variety and can identify ways to combine knowledge that challenge the belief that constrain innovative behavior. The paradox is that innovative experts also search locally to determine what rules to break, while nonexperts search locally and conform to those rules.” - Taylor, Greve (DOI: 10.230720159795)

The concept of story and character crossover/mashup to mix epistemological systems between comic, literary, and film universes is hardly a new phenomenon, but there has been a precipitous rise in its prevalence in popular culture over the past decade; I’m looking to explore the reasons behind the increase in popularity.

Written By
Jeff

Revisiting Past Work: The Argument for Artistic Immutability

An argument for film to be immutable after its completion.

“A book is a version of the world. If you do not like it, ignore it or offer your own version in return.” - Salman Rushdie

Whether it be for the sake of temporally relevant cultural mores, attempting to refine or “reimagine” an existing work, or for other miscellaneous reasons, the act of changing existing artistic work has extended itself into the artistic medium of film.

This posits that it is destructive to the nature of the medium and the art inherent therein to endorse these kinds of changes.

Written By
Jeff

Pi: Using the Medium of Film to Externalize a Concept

Examining thematic elements exposed through the physical medium of Darren Aronofsky's "Pi"

Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage famously posited that the way something is presented to us is as important if not more important than the information itself. Darren Aronofsky’s first feature film, Pi, offers an excellent example of an auteur using the physical medium of film to help tell a story, rather than be hindered by it.

Written By
Jeff

Why Batman Begins is the Greatest Origin Film of All Time

A logical argument as to why "Batman Begins" is the greatest origin film of all time

This argument originated in a rather unconventional way: it was dropped in my lap. The AV Club’s Scott Eric Kaufmann (or “SEK” for short) dropped this on me in a particularly interesting Facebook thread; in his words:

Because I just can’t with today anymore, I’m just going to say that Batman Begins is the greatest origin film ever, and let the brilliant Jeff Buchbinder defend my position. Did he ask me to do this? No. Did he want me to do this? Probably not. But can he do it? Without a doubt.

Challenge: accepted.

Written By
Jeff

Orange is the New Black "Trust No Bitch": Relationship Dynamics

Outer camerawork mirrors inner relationship in Orange is the New Black's "Trust No Bitch"

The Jenji Kohan series “Orange is the New Black” has been lauded for its portrayal of a Connecticut womens’ prison, including a cast of diversified characters. Less attention has been given to its excellent and intricate camerawork. I’m going to examine a scene from the last episode of the third season, entitled “Trust No Bitch”.

Warning: There be spoilers here (albiet relatively small ones).

Written By
Jeff

Mad Men "Severance": Misleading Expectations

Using expectations and camerawork to mislead in Mad Men's "Severance"

Mad Men’s highly anticipated final season’s second half began with an interesting sequence which uses the expectations we have about the kind of man Donald Draper is to set up one of the best paraprosdokian scenes in the series.

(Apart from potentially spoiling this single sequence, this writeup does not give away any plot points from the last season.)

Written By
Jeff

Daredevil and Falling Down: Character Descent

Comparing similar character development in Marvel's Daredevil and Falling Down

I wouldn’t normally associate the 1993 Schumacher film Falling Down with the Netflix/Marvel Daredevil series, especially since Schumacher didn’t astound me, given the source material he had to work with. However, there is a common thread between the two properties besides their antagonists’ initials – the descent of their characters and how they perceive themselves.

Written By
Jeff

Differences Between Film and Theater

What makes theater and film different for actors and viewers?

Before film became possible through Edison and the Lumière Brothers’ fantastical inventions, theater had reigned as the primary dramatic performance artform for thousands of years. Though sharing much of the same lineage, there are fundamental differences in the way that film and theater are conceived, planned, acted, and consumed.

Written By
Jeff

The Virgin Suicides: The Loss of Innocence and the Illusion of Normality

Examining The Virgin Suicides for visual clues

Sophia Coppola’s freshman feature film, The Virgin Suicides, initially struck me as a very disquieting film. Using the guise of average suburban life and teenage maturation rituals, Coppola delivers an interesting viewpoint on innocence and normalcy.

Written By
Jeff

Batman: Examining the Introduction of The Batman as Three-Act Gothic Horror

Tim Burton’s stylized 1989 Batman film was responsible for bringing the masked vigilante back onto the movie screen in a more serious light than Adam West’s comedic portrayal of the caped crusader. He brought many interesting elements to the introduction of The Batman, which I would like to examine in detail.

Written By
Jeff

The Life and Death of Peter Sellers: Interweaving Epistemological Layers and Being Other People

Exploring character through layered epistemology in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers

Peter Sellers was an enigmatic enigma – at least, if we are to believe the 2004 biopic The Life and Death of Peter Sellers. This film combines a fascinating biographical picture of Peter Sellers the man with the relatively unused technique of sliding effortlessly between not only epistemological layers, but also expository styles and even points of view. Peter Sellers effectively retcons his life.

Written By
Jeff

Bamboozled: Narration and Racial Power Struggles Through Camerawork

Examining the way Bamboozled narrates and details racial issues and power struggles through effective camerawork

Spike Lee’s 2000 film Bamboozled was seen by many (including the late Roger Ebert) as being too shocking to effectively convey the social message it had wrapped in its unusual satirical bent, steeped heavily in elements of Lumet’s Network. I’d like to examine some of the more subtle camera angles, movement, and composition to dig deeper into the way Bamboozled tells its story.

Written By
Jeff

Deconstructing Harry: Discontinuous Editing as a Narrative Tool

Examining discontinuous editing as a narrative tool in Woody Allen's Deconstructing Harry

“All people know the same truth. Our lives consist of how we chose to distort it.” - Harry Block

Although film scholars tend to focus mainly on Woody Allen’s early body of work, especially films like Annie Hall, many of his later works can teach us an impressive amount about the subtle craft of creating a film. Deconstructing Harry, made twenty years after Annie Hall, can teach us about the power of discontinuous editing to further a narrative.

Written By
Jeff

Unbreakable: Isolated in Plain View

Examining how Unbreakable shows a character being alone in a crowd

“Do you know what the scariest thing is? To not know your place in this world, to not know why you’re here.” - Elijah Price

How do you isolate a character in a crowd of people? How do you film an entire train scene with only three actors? M. Night Shyamalan managed to pull this off in his second collaboration with Bruce Willis, the superhero / drama film Unbreakable.

*If you haven’t watched the film yet, this is your warning that THERE BE SPOILERS HERE.*

Written By
Jeff

Smoke: The Art of the Long Take

Examining 1995's Smoke and its use of the long take

“I’ll tell you what – Buy me lunch, my friend, and I’ll tell you the best Christmas story you ever heard. How’s that? And I guarantee, every word if it is true.” - Auggie

Smoke is Wayne Wang and Paul Aster’s first collaboration on a serendipitous independent film, to be followed up by the less-successful Blue in the Face. I’d like to examine an extremely long take in the third act of the film, and the way it helps tell the film’s story.

Written By
Jeff

They Live vs Buckaroo Bonzai: Exposing the hidden truth

Comparing the exposition of hidden truths in They Live and The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai Across the Eighth Dimension

If you were asked what John Carpenter’s They Live had in common with the campy 1980s sci-fi pastiche The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai Across the Eight Dimension, the first answer to come to mind might have something to do with aliens; I’m going to examine the way that a hidden truth, or additional story/film layer is exposed to some characters within the epistemic system of a film.

Written By
Jeff

Mother Night: You Must Be Careful What You Pretend To Be

Examining the intersections of perception and reality in Mother Night

I suppose the moral here is: You must be careful what you pretend to be… because in the end you are what you pretend to be. - Howard W Campbell, Jr

There are many interesting facets of the film adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel about the fictional Howard W. Campbell, Jr, a self-described American spy who functioned as a Nazi propagandist during World War II; I’m going to focus on one particular series of scenes during the third act of the film.

Written By
Jeff

The Departed: Introducing Costello and Life in the Shadows

Examining the introduction of Frank Costello in The Departed

Scorsese’s The Departed netted the venerable director his second “Best Director” Academy Award and only his first “Best Picture” Academy Award in his entire 20+ year career, despite being a remake of another film.

Many film critics and scholars have examined the film’s themes and visuals, but I would like to concentrate on a single character’s introduction and early visualization on the screen: Nicholson’s Frank Costello.

Written By
Jeff

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen: Gilliam and the Art of the Reveal

Examining Gilliam's reveal shots in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

Terry Gilliam is, in my opinion, one of the great distinctive film directors of the latter part of the 20th century. Books have been written – literally – about his techniques and his rather unique style of filmmaking. I’m going to focus on one of my favorite films of his, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, to study Gilliam’s artful reveal shots.

Written By
Jeff

Layers, the Inner Film, and Reality

Looking at film within film; stories within stories.

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. - Macbeth, Shakespeare

We’ve become accustomed to viewing film, whether consciously or subconsciously, as a separate world with its own intrinsic epistemology. It represents a false world constructed within our own world – much like a play or other piece of narrative fiction.

Certain films exhibit a layering of realities – a “film within a film”, or “mise en abyme” – which can be used as a powerful narrative tool or as a metaphor for some larger concept. By interweaving stories within stories, a more complex tale can emerge which can be more intricate than the stories would be if told separately.

Written By
Jeff

Narrative Exposition in Film

An exploration of the way backstory is brought to light in film.

Narrative exposition, or simply exposition, is the insertion of important background information within a story; for example, information about the setting, characters’ back-stories, prior plot events, historical context, etc. (from Wikipedia)

Within the confines of the skeleton of a film work (the script), there are many ways to impart information which would not otherwise be assumed by the viewer or implied by the filmmaker. I posit that the way in which expository information is imparted to a viewer via the medium of film is as important if not more important than the information which is being imparted.

As with any other aspect of film as an art form and medium, there isn’t a single “correct” way of doing anything. There isn’t one particular correct framing which needs to be used for a shot, not only a single focal length lens or camera brand which would have to be used to get the only valid shot possible – and in much the same vein, there are many different more-or-less-equally-correct methods of imparting that information. I’d like to explore the mechanisms and caveats of each of them.

Written By
Jeff

Film Epistemology

Film as a self-contained universe.

I’d like to take a brief look at film epistemology. In order for that to work, I’m going to be positing that for our purposes, each film is its own self-contained universe with its own rules and knowledge both known and unknown.

(As a disclaimer, I’m no Scott Eric Kaufmann; I’m not going to be using visual illustrations, and precious few (if any) citations. There are also bound to be spoilers of every variety, so if a film is mentioned, avert your gaze if you don’t want to learn important truths about its ending.)

Written By
Jeff

The Fine Line Between Confidence and Hubris

The contradiction inherent in artistic self-assessment

I’ve been trying to make sense of two necessarily contrary positions in regard to skill, art, and aesthetics. This is something of which I’ve been trying to make sense for quite some time.

Written By
Jeff