Sunday, 10 February 2013

Films This Week – A New Venture

As anyone who has read the journal from the making of Life Just Is will know, in the last few years I have become something of an obsessive diarist. In amongst the scribbles pertaining to my filmmaking, I have also taken to writing down my thoughts on every film I see. These reviews (for want of a better word) are written for my own benefit, and up until now I've never seen any reason for them not to stay that way. However, as we move firmly into the New Year, I've decided it's time for a change – and, from now on, I'm going to aim to publish these scribblings right here, on this very blog, on a weekly basis (normally, I suspect, on a Sunday or Monday).
Why the change? It's hard to say for sure. Perhaps it's partly because I keep telling a friend of mine that she should publish the extensive notes she has a habit of making every time she watches a film. Perhaps it's the influence (inspiration) of Harriet Warman, who has been consistently publishing her thoughts on her weekly viewing over on her blog. I may not watch as many films as Harriet, or write about them as eloquently, but seeing as I'm taking the time to note down my thoughts, I felt like I might as well begin sharing them. How long this sharing will last remains to be seen, but it's an idea…for now at least.
The life of this weekly feature will partly depend upon what effect it has on my writing – the reviews I write in my journal have a different tone to the reviews I write for publication, precisely because (until now) they've been written for my own benefit. They are often pithy, unadorned, unpolished. They are quick scribbles – and it is these quick scribbles that I will now be reproducing here, verbatim, with no further work done on them.
So, it's an experiment, of sorts. But hopefully one you'll enjoy (feel free to let me know in the comments section). Anyway, without any further ado, here we go – week one!
Ben and I went to see Life of Pi. I thought it had some interesting ideas about religion, but I wasn't sure that it really went anywhere with them – it was kind of just a little… dull. The narrative structure (framing device) sucked all the drama out of the film, because we knew Pi was going to survive his ordeal unharmed. I also found the switch in narrator – from old Pi to young Pi – a little problematic. Still, it had some good visuals, and the VFX were excellent. I also thought it made good use of 3D – although I'm still not a convert. There's something distracting about it (sometimes there's a kind of flicker in the image), which pulls me out of the film. So much for it making for a more immersive experience. I'm still intrigued by the possibilities it offers to the human face though – there were some effective moments in Pi in which Lee frames faces against plain backgrounds (the sky, a hospital curtain), and thus, ironically, reduces the depth of the 3D frame. Somehow, it's almost these moments that work best…
In the evening I watched Tabu, which has some excellent compositions and contains a beautiful play of light…Murnau's idea of 'architectural cinematography' – based on dance and German paintings – excites me. Unfortunately I can't quite say the same about the story of Tabu, which didn't really grip me, even with its tragic (and moving) ending. It does have some interesting narrative and structural parallels with Murnau's other work though – contrary to Tony Rayn's assertion that Murnau was not an auteur, there seems to be much that recurs throughout his oeuvre. There's a letter from Murnau reproduced in the booklet which implies a deep seated loneliness and rootlessness, a feeling of not fitting in. Taken in this light, his films can, in some respects, be seen as stories about the search for a home, for acceptance, and for love (the search often being represented by a literal journey).
Elina came around to show me The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. I enjoyed the colours and the stylisation (the artificiality) of the world it constructed, as well as the melodrama of the story. But the music was awful.
Watched Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, which was far too overdone for my taste – stylised to the point of silliness (and, what's worse, ugliness – there's no fun to be had here). Even the jokes fall so flat they barely register as the film stumbles over them. Truly terrible.


unreceivedopinioin said...

"Melodramatic": this is an over-used and under-thought adjective, isn't it?

Alex Barrett said...

You may well have a point - though I haven't used it here. I've used the noun 'melodrama', referring to what I (rightly or wrongly) perceive to be the film's generic conventions.

unreceivedopinioin said...

Hmmm, "the melodrama of the story" is adjectival in effect, but no matter ... I wonder what you mean by the generic conventions of the 'melodrama'? The plot of 'Umbrellas of Cherbourg' is a long way from the melodramas of silent era (where the genre was established).

Yes, it's sentimental, but that's not enough, is it?

Alex Barrett said...

To me, the film was reminiscent of melodramas from the 50s. Melodrama can be defined (I quote from Wikipedia – hardly the best source but quick and easy) as 'a dramatic work that exaggerates plot and characters in order to appeal to the emotions'. I would argue that 'Umbrellas' fits this. Also taken from Wikipedia:

"Melodrama films…generally depend on stereotyped character development, interaction, and highly emotional themes. Melodramatic films tend to use plots that often deal with crises of human emotion, failed romance or friendship, strained familial situations, tragedy, illness, neuroses, or emotional and physical hardship…

suffering protagonists (usually heroines)…are presented with tremendous social pressures, threats, repression, fears, improbable events or difficulties with friends, community, work, lovers, or family"

In my opinion 'Umbrellas' again fits this description. Obviously you're free to disagree.

It might be worth pointing out that I wasn't using the term in a pejorative way – I was actually using it to describe something I liked about the film! A quick look on Google also proves that I'm far from the only person to make the connection between the film and melodrama.

unreceivedopinioin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
unreceivedopinioin said...

I agree, Alex, wikipedia is hardly the best source.

The second paragraph that you quote, for example. Couldn't much of that apply to most dramas? (especially if you look beyond style)

My concern, if you recall, was that the term was "over-used and under-thought". Your Google survey might serve my point as well!

Regarding 'Umbrellas', you might not have used the term perjoratively, but to say that you enjoyed its melodrama is faint praise because the intention of melodrama would be to incite emotions.

unreceivedopinioin said...

I guess what interests me here, Alex, is what you meant when you said you enjoyed the melodrama of the story, and in particular, how you enjoyed it. Do you know what I mean?

Alex Barrett said...

To be honest, I don't really know what you mean - and I'm not entirely sure what you're getting at here... From what I can tell, you seem to object simply because I've used the word 'melodrama', which you feel I've used incorrectly, without much thought. (This, don't forget, in a post in which I clearly outline that not much thought had gone into it!). But I had a reason for using melodrama rather than drama, which I've tried to explain above. I'll try and answer your questions about what I enjoyed and attempt to clarify it further...

I enjoyed it because I was caught up in the emotional thrust, engaged with the characters, and wanted to know what was going to happen next. So, in this respect, I could have said I enjoyed the drama, but to me Umbrellas falls into melodrama due to the way it's presented and portrayed. I didn't find it realistic - the situations and emotions weren't believable to me. They were heightened for emotional impact, or to return to the Wikipedia quote from above: it 'exaggerates plot and characters in order to appeal to the emotions' - and therefore (in my opinion) falls into melodrama rather than drama. Sure, it's true that not all drama is realistic, that some of it openly appeals to emotions - there's a fine line between drama and melodrama, but for me a good drama is ultimately more grounded in reality, whereas a good melodrama need not be realistic to be enjoyable.

It might be worth noting that I've again said melodrama, and not melodramatic - if we're splitting hairs, I think it could be argued that there is a distinction between 'melodrama' (generic) and 'melodramatic' (pejorative) - though that might be a personal distinction that only I make.

unreceivedopinioin said...

Thanks for this reply, Alex. I appreciate it.

It's that fine line between drama and melodrama that concerns me, I think, especially given the term's perjorative overtones (which are present whether we intend them or not, unfortunately).

One purpose of 'realism' is as a strategy to make the narrative more convincing or credible and therefore more effective, but it's not the only strategy available, is it? And a story can be convincing without also being realistic, can't it?

I'm still a bit puzzled how one can be "caught up in the emotional thrust" of a story whose situations and emotions you don't find believable. Seems like a contradiction. Or maybe, as you say, it's just that the music repelled you. Nothing we can do about that. For me, the music is some of the most gorgeous in cinema, supple, light, and very poignant.

Alex Barrett said...

Last year I wrote a post about the distinction between what I term 'truth' and 'reality' ( – so in those terms, yes, something can definitely be convincing without being 'realistic'… though, in a sense, this is a different issue from the original question posed about drama versus melodrama. Not all dramas are 'truthful', and in theory there's no reason why a melodrama couldn't be 'truthful' (or, in this sense, 'convincing'), while still being exaggerated and unrealistic. Furthermore, films like 'Ordet' or 'The Seventh Seal' are classifiable as dramas, while containing non-realistic elements. But what distinguishes them from melodrama is their thorough grounding in psychological, emotional and existential realism (for want of a better word). To return to Umbrellas: its music, its colours, its camera movement and its sentimentality all conspire to something much more over the top (and that's to say nothing of its narrative or its characters). It feels exaggerated, designed to pull on our heart strings. Compare it to another musical romance: 'New York, New York'. I hate the music there too, but I love the film. And, despite its expressionistic use of sets (think of the fake train, for instance), it's still much more firmly rooted in emotional reality (to me NYNY is a drama, though I'd have no issues if someone else classed it as melodrama).

And it's very easy to get caught up in a film which is specifically designed to appeal to your emotions… To take another example, surely we've all seen bad action films which excite us, despite the fact that we don't buy into them for one second? That's the power of filmmaking.

I fear we're in danger of going in circles here, so if you'd like to continue this over a drink one night I feel it would be much more time efficient!

Parkino said...

Yes, we're going round in circles here. Nothing wrong with that. We're circling an issue, several issues. That is a discussion.

One thing became clear in your last repy though: there were very real perjorative undertones in your use of the term 'melodrama'. It was certainly faint praise. But that's also okay. I don't have a problem with that - I was principally interested in the issues raised.

Regarding 'Umbrellas', you should take another look at the closing sequence at the garage. Very sober. Dare I say, truthful. And beautifully realised.

(I'm sure Scorsese would agree.)

Alex Barrett said...

It should be clear from my post that I'm slightly ambivalent about Umbrellas, but I still maintain that I wasn't using 'melodrama' pejoratively. If I had written that I enjoyed the 'drama' of the story, would you be accusing me of using 'drama' pejoratively? To me, melodrama is a genre as much as anything else. If you read my use of the term in a pejorative light – despite the fact that I originally used it in a sentence which described what I liked about the film – I'm inclined to think that says more about your biases towards the word than anything I've actually said! Perhaps it's true that there are many people who use it pejoratively, but I'm not one of them (well, certainly not here anyway). Many melodramas are highly regarded (think of the films of Douglas Sirk, for instance), but still referred to as melodramas – the term does not, in my opinion, contain pejorative connotations by default.

unreceivedopinioin said...

Okay, so now I've really annoyed you, which wasn't my intention. Or maybe it was ... are we really always (or ever) aware of our true intentions?

Alex Barrett said...

Sorry, didn't mean to come across as annoyed – just having a busy week and not sure where we're getting with this!

unreceivedopinioin said...

You're a good lad, Alex.

unreceivedopinioin said...