From the archives: Film

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Air Pan-and-Scanada

Sunday, 27 September 2009 — 7:03am | Film

I refuse to watch films on planes. It doesn’t matter if it’s a three-hour flight or a ten-hour flight—I will not watch films on planes. On principle I am willing to make an exception for films made before the early 1950s and television programmes, but the quality of the selection has never been great enough for the exception to arise.

Never mind the censorship and bowdlerization that goes on among distributors to make every film suitable for the consumption of the airborne public. (I remember how the airline edition of Almost Famous—one of the finest works of American cinema in the past decade, by the way—eliminated the entire airplane sequence that is the critical moment of the film.) My real objection is to the pervasive butchering of films to fit a 4:3 aspect ratio. If a film is made in widescreen, I see it in widescreen. The pan-and-scan cropping that eliminates up to 45% of every frame is both generally criminal and personally distracting.

People who don’t know or care about cinema will never complain, which is why airlines can foist these travesties on us unpunished. I am fully aware that I am in an extreme minority of filmgoers—the informed minority—that appreciates the composition of images as essential to the cinematic experience. I know it is as uncommon as listening to melody and harmony in music. I am also willing to concede that when it was standard for airplanes to have small 4:3 television screens to serve several rows of passengers at once, widescreen presentation would have rendered the images too small.

There is no longer any excuse.

For a number of years now, Air Canada has installed personal entertainment systems for every seat. The clunky white hourglass cursors on the touchscreen interface tell you they run Windows, which should by itself condemn their choice of software development contractors. But that is beside the point, which is that Air Canada’s personal entertainment systems have widescreen monitors. Yet they continue to order widescreen films in the full-frame format. They are far from the only airline overhauling its entertainment devices to adapt to a digital world, and I am certain they are far from the only airline committing this offense.

Is this a failure on the airlines’ side, or the distributors’ side? I am guessing it’s the latter—that distributors produce a uniform airline edition that carriers around the world can order. But why do they continue to insist on slicing their films to pieces?

Is ordering films in the original aspect ratio more costly? No. But there is a substantial overhead cost to the production and distribution of these abominations in the first place. With the advent of digital formats that support anamorphic widescreen (i.e. the “black bars” adjust depending on your screen, and are not part of the image data as they are in letterboxing), the increasing awareness of original aspect ratios, and the widespread adoption of high-definition TVs, and there is no longer any reason for pan-and-scan to exist. The damage it has done to the public awareness of cinematic arts is considerable as it is, and digital formats ought to have redressed most of its harms. The DVD format went a long way toward doing this before ignorant customers pushed rental chains like Blockbuster to demand the production of pan-and-scan DVDs.

As an airline passenger, I am content to use my entertainment device for the only thing it does well—flight information and maps—but that doesn’t mean we should not push for change.

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Kung fu pandering

Sunday, 12 July 2009 — 6:09pm | Animation, Film

Every now and then I chip away at a series of critical essays about why Pixar Animation Studios is head and shoulders above everybody else in modern commercial American cinema. I will probably never finish it. It has expanded to the point where I’m not sure whether to stretch it just a little further to cover the studio’s entire feature-length output (and a few of the shorts for good measure), or condense it by scrapping the more platitudinous arguments; because a lot of what Pixar does right is, in my mind, obvious.

It is far more succinct to inspect an example of animation done wrong. And so I present John Kricfalusi’s illustrated horror story about a pitch meeting with DreamWorks executives tragically dispossessed of a clue. Here is the DreamWorks process:

  1. Pick an “arena”—like woods, or the sea.
  2. Put funny animals in it.
  3. Match every species with a celebrity voice.

Is anybody surprised?

(For the record, I found Over the Hedge, Kung Fu Panda, and the first Shrek to be capable entertainments: there was a competence to them and an ambition to do more than game the market for laughs. With the tacit exception of the short-lived distribution deal with Aardman that gave us Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, I’m not sure if I can say that for anything else with the DreamWorks Animation stamp.)

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And the token nominee is…

Thursday, 25 June 2009 — 2:36pm | Animation, Film, Oscars

Nothing is ever so counterproductive as a desperate gamble for popular relevance. Case in point: the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is expanding the Oscars’ Best Picture shortlist to ten nominees, effectively reverting to the pre-1944 format. The press release is here. This is a boneheaded idea, although I can see why somebody would think it looks good on paper.

In recent years, the best thing AMPAS did for itself was move the Oscars forward by a month. By curtailing the ability of the major studios to do a heavily funded marketing push in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter to conquer the industry’s mindspace with their chosen representative, and moving the ballot deadline ahead of the precursor awards that once rendered the Oscars too predictable, the show virtually matured overnight.

Since then, the trend has been towards greater recognition of artier, if not outright independent fare. A decade ago, it would have been unlikely, if not unthinkable, for excellent and unique films like No Country For Old Men and Slumdog Millionaire to claim the top prize. This is not to say that the Oscars used to be bad and suddenly became good: it is merely to acknowledge that the awards were increasingly living up to their social responsibility as a counterweight for the market, as a way of boosting the fortunes of films the public may have wrongfully overlooked. The public may have complained that they had never heard of the films being awarded, let alone seen them—often because the lesser-known nominees had yet to see general release outside of the major American cities by the time the shortlist was announced—but that is as it should be. If an awards show comes off as elitist, it is doing its job.

Personally, the only question I care about is whether this means Up will be Pixar’s first Best Picture nominee, and the second animated feature to make the shortlist in history (Beauty and the Beast being the first). But without an even playing field comparable to that of previous years, it is impossible to tell whether this is actually a sign of forward progress. And against the objections of those who believe the Animated Feature category has created a permanent ghetto for the artform, I do believe some progress has been made. Yes, only very recently did we see the outrageous exclusions of Finding Nemo and Ratatouille, two of the finest pieces of American cinema in the twenty-first century. But the nomination of WALL•E in the Original Screenplay category last year was already a significant step forward, a recognition of what story really means in a visual medium.

The sudden expansion of the shortlist to twice its previous size is a nightmare for historians and other cineastes whose interest is in tracking the evolution of Hollywood’s congratulatory attitude towards itself. And unlike similar lists that whittle the present vintage down to ten—the American Film Institute’s comes to mind—the selection of a victorious picture as the best of the ten guarantees even more pervasive vote-splitting than what we have seen in the past.

(My opinion has always been that significant industry awards should be determined by discussion and debate rather than democracy, but the Oscars are the film industry’s way of patting itself on the back and I wouldn’t expect it to conduct itself any differently. It is a real shame that the Oscars, and not the critics’ awards or the AFI, serve as the primary guidebook for future generations to select films for preservation or rediscovery. One day, this may change.)

In my estimation, this is an unwanted and unnecessary concession to populist sentiment that The Dark Knight—a sterling if overrated crime drama, and the superhero genre’s most earnest bid for serious acceptance—was wrongfully snubbed. It is an intentional return to the pattern of including token box-office hits (remember The Fugitive?), under the appealing guise of easing the inclusion of films that have already been given uncomfortable pigeonholes to keep them out of everybody else’s business—animated and foreign-language features in particular.

If we do see increased recognition of animated, foreign, and independent films—not just this year, but going forward in the long term—I will temper my objections and stand corrected. It is far more likely that the big-studio horses will crowd the race.

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What’s Ramayana, Doc?

Wednesday, 24 June 2009 — 2:34pm | Animation, Film

Last week I finally got around to seeing Sita Sings the Blues, a majestic animated feature by Nina Paley that I would describe as the fulfilment of the postmodern promise. I had been curious about the film ever since Amid Amidi raved about it last year. In December, Roger Ebert wrote:

[Sita] has not found a distributor. Times are hard, and indie distributors are not rolling in available funds. To them, no doubt, this doesn’t have the ring of box office gold: An animated version of the epic Indian tale of Ramayana set to the 1920’s jazz vocals of Annette Hanshaw. Once they read that, and they’re like me: Uh, huh. And if you were to read that description in the mailer from your local art house, would you drop everything and race through driving rain see it? Uh, uh.

Are you kidding, Roger? That’s exactly what I’d drop everything and race through driving rain to see.

No matter. With the gracious assistance of the Creative Commons license, Ms Paley has since made the film available online.

I could go on about the endless charm of the musical numbers, the playfulness of the shadow-puppet storytelling sequences, the perfect partnership of Sita’s woes and the Jazz Age torch song, or how my apprehensions toward the stiffness of rigid objects often characteristic of Flash animation were washed away with frame after frame of gorgeous design. And there’s no lack of human-interest stories about the making and distribution of the film, either. But my recommendation is to go in cold, bathe in the sheer personality of this very personal project, and come back later to read about its accomplishment as a triumph for the copyleft movement.

Sita Sings the Blues is the epitome of what postmodern art was always supposed to deliver—and coming from yours truly, this is a high compliment indeed. It’s not merely a stylistic pastiche for the sake of being one: the pastiche is a joyful source of creativity that marries several artistic traditions and revels in showing us how the marriages unfold. It celebrates the instability of oral traditions and the diversity of interpretations of myth, while adding to both.

In that light, I’m baffled (but not surprised) that Sita has drawn the ire of academics of the postcolonial school. From an interview with Nina Paley:

On the far left, there are some very, very privileged people in academia who have reduced all the wondrous complexities of racial relations into, “White people are racist, and non-white people are all victims of white racism.” Without actually looking at the work, they’ve decided that any white person doing a project like this is by definition racist, and it’s an example of more neocolonialism.

This is an understanding of Orientalism, as Edward Said called it, of such undergraduate maturity that I wonder how its proponents made it that far in academia at all. If anything, Sita is the very model of where art can go when the narcissistic presumption that cultures can only talk about themselves has run its course: towards the syncretic and the globally aware. Bill Benzon is quite correct when he says:

And if your inner geek is thinking “ancient text + contemporary story = Ulysses,” well then your inner geek’s ahead of mine, because I didn’t think that until 10 or 20 minutes into my first viewing. But I wouldn’t count that as any more than a casual observation, one with a non-casual corollary.

By the ordinary method of reckoning such things, the culture of ancient Greece and Rome is in the direct ancestral line of 20th Century European culture which would necessarily include Joyce’s Dublin. The same mode of reckoning sees little relationship between ancient India and contemporary America, thus both Hindu nationalists and post-colonial Theorists have been criticizing Paley’s cultural miscegenation. Alas for them, cultural miscegenation has been the way of the world since whenever and it’s only accelerating in our era.

For my part, I wasn’t thinking of Ulysses at all, but of this:

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The top ten Looney Tunes cartoons

Friday, 19 December 2008 — 11:21am | Animation, Film

Answering the call of animation historian and Warner Bros. expert Jerry Beck, there is a lively discussion at Cartoon Brew of the best Looney Tunes shorts of all time. Ordinarily I abhor doing rankings and writing up lists, but people read them, and there’s no better way to introduce audiences to the classics of the vast, vast Warner repertoire than to put them on an enumerated pedestal.

Obviously, there is never a consistent set of criteria for determining the “greatest” of anything. I decided to look for shorts that would be somewhat broadly representative of the Looney Tunes brand’s leading directors and staple characters in their finest moments, taking into consideration both historical value and the nuance of the animation itself. As with books, music, and live-action cinema, I like to reward works that show off what the medium can do, but not at the expense of a clear and engaging story. Ties were broken by personal taste.

My list will reveal that I have a strong preference for director Chuck Jones, particularly his legendary unit with background artist Maurice Noble and storyman Michael Maltese. Not to downplay the talents of Friz Freleng, Robert McKimson, and others, but I think most Looney Tunes aficionados end up gravitating towards one of Chuck Jones or Bob Clampett, since they represent two contrasting ideals of what the animated cartoon should be. Jones is to Clampett as Sonny Rollins is to John Coltrane on the tenor saxophone: one is known for the elegant clarity of his inventions, the other for his unrestrained virtuoso insanities. (On further reflection, the better analogy may be to Oscar Peterson and Thelonious Monk.) It’s not out of the ordinary to admire both styles, but adore one more than the other.

I came up with a clear and likely interchangeable top four, which I had to shuffle a few times, and limited my list to ten. Without further ado, let’s begin with #10 and work our way down.

Continued »

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