Friday, September 26, 2014

In Defense of Boring Movies - Raiders of the Lost Ark, B&W Silent Cut

Part of a series of essays In Defense of Boring Movies.

There's no color and no sound
I've been ten feet underground
—"Black and White Town," by Doves

Welcome back to In Defense of Boring Movies, an occasional series in which I talk about a movie that sets out to confound viewers' expectations and entice them to ponder big questions. Today's entry is on Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Steven Soderbergh cut.

Steven Soderbergh is a filmmaker with a diverse body of work; it includes mainstream successes like Erin Brockovich and Ocean's Eleven, as well as more eccentric fare, like his biopics on Che Guevara and Liberace, or other oddities like his Solaris remake and the male stripper movie Magic Mike. What makes him particularly interesting as a filmmaker, though, is his recent retirement from movie-making at age 50, citing the troubling state of the film industry and the fact that making movies just wasn't fun anymore.

It's been a prolific retirement: he's directed a Broadway production (The Library), created a short TV series (The Knick) and even started a liquor brand. He's active, is what I'm saying, and his activity has continued this week with the release of a black-and-white, silent cut of Raiders of the Lost Ark (the first Indiana Jones movie). Why? I'll let him tell it:
I value the ability to stage something well because when it’s done well its pleasures are huge, and most people don’t do it well, which indicates it must not be easy to master (it’s frightening how many opportunities there are to do something wrong in a sequence or a group of scenes. Minefields EVERYWHERE. Fincher said it: there’s potentially a hundred different ways to shoot something but at the end of the day there’s really only two, and one of them is wrong). Of course understanding story, character, and performance are crucial to directing well, but I operate under the theory a movie should work with the sound off, and under that theory, staging becomes paramount (the adjective, not the studio. although their logo DOES appear on the front of this…). 
So I want you to watch this movie and think only about staging, how the shots are built and laid out, what the rules of movement are, what the cutting patterns are. See if you can reproduce the thought process that resulted in these choices by asking yourself: why was each shot—whether short or long—held for that exact length of time and placed in that order? Sounds like fun, right? It actually is. To me. Oh, and I’ve removed all sound and color from the film, apart from a score designed to aid you in your quest to just study the visual staging aspect.
So, like all the movies in this series, this Raiders cut is about getting the viewer to set aside plot and escapism and fun, and ponder another subject deeply instead. Unlike most of the series, it's a deliberate manipulation of someone else's movie. (The lone exception so far is the "director's cut" of The Dark Crystal that was released by an avid fan last year.)

Soderbergh wants viewers to focus on staging--the deliberate placement of actors and scenery that, when done well, tells viewers where everything important in the imaginary on-screen world is, and how it's related in space to everything else. Staging also helps define visually what might be expressed in as narration or thought in another medium: the relationships between characters, and their personal psychology.

So, in the scene below, notice that the camera stays to the left of the characters as they proceed through the first section of the temple, only straying to the head-on or back-on position occasionally, and never moving to their right. The director is adhering to the 180-degree rule, which is a filmmaking guideline that, when followed, keeps the audience aware of where two characters in a scene are located in relation to each other. By staying on one side of the actors, the camera keeps Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) on the left and Satipo (Alfred Molina) on the right throughout the sequence. (If the camera went back and forth between the actors' right and left, the actors would appear to switch back and forth one the screen in relation to one another, confusing the audience.) This pattern is only broken when a shot of the branch above the pit, followed by a long shot from inside the pit of Indy swinging over it, alerts the audience to new spacial orientations.

Additionally, note how the actors' spacial relation to each other gives us a sense of their personal relationship to one another, and their own personalities. Ford strides ahead, confident but duly cautious; Molina cringes and minces along behind, often covered visually by Ford's body. As a bonus, pay attention to the way the lighting allows us to see each of Molina's horrified expressions, but tends to keep Ford's countenance in shadow.

The reality is, though, that I'm not a filmmaker. I'm not even a film student; I've never taken  a film class, so my love of film is 100% amateur-level, derived from reading Roger Ebert, the AV Club, and (more recently) The Dissolve. So I don't feel hugely qualified to talk at length about staging, though I found the task of focusing on it to be fascinating.

I am a musician though, and what's most striking to me (and what I feel somewhat qualified to speak on) is the use of music in this cut. Soderbergh says the musical score is meant to "aid you in your quest to just study the visual staging aspect," but to me it seems primarily designed to play with and break the viewer's expectations around the interaction of moving picture and musical accompaniment.

You may have noticed the jarring disconnect between the feel of the action on screen and the mood of the music in the first clip; this is a theme that's carried on throughout Soderbergh's cut, with some exceptions. Perhaps the most fitting, if still tongue-in-cheek, selections is the use of In the Hall of the Mountain King, with its gradual but inexorable ramping up of volume and tempo, for a chase sequence:

Soderbergh is using primarily (or possibly exclusively; I can't say for sure, more on this below) music from two David Fincher movies, The Social Network and Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, to score this cut, perhaps simply as a reminder to the viewer of Fincher's motto about staging, which he quotes in his explanation of what this is all about. Whatever his reasoning, the music, by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of Nine Inch Nails, often has a haunting effect, imbuing scenes that play as funny or frenetic in the original with a sense of eerie calm in this version. At other times, the music matches the mood of the scene, while still bringing an eccentric vibe to the proceedings, as in this tense fight sequence, which pulses with industrial energy in the score:

What this sequence, and indeed much of the rest of this cut, brings to the fore, is just how little of acting is line reading. Without a single word to help them, the actors convey menace, fear, rage, pain, and relief, to our complete comprehension. That said, I can't tell you for certain if the movie makes complete sense without words: I know it too well to get confused anyway, and I decided against trying to badger my wife (the only person I know hasn't seen Raiders) into watching with me.

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Wrapping up: I did as thorough a check as I could on the music used in the film. Below are all the songs I was able to identify (I used a music identification app called Shazam). The rest is enough like it that it's probably other stuff from the same artists, whether more obscure than the stuff identified, or (just maybe) original compositions for this project.

Here's a list of songs used: 
  1. 0:00-5:06 - "In Motion" - Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (The Social Network soundtrack)
  2. 5:07-9:35 - "Soft Trees Break the Fall" - TSN soundtrack
  3. 9:36-10:50 - "Penetration" - TSN soundtrack
  4. 10:51-13:03 - "In the Hall of the Mountain King" - Pier Gynt, arr. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (TSN soundtrack)
  5. 13:04-15:44 - "Revealed in the Thaw" - Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (Girl With the Dragon Tatoo soundtrack)
  6. 15:45-19:55 - "A Pause for Reflection" - GWTDT soundtrack
  7. 19:56-22:09 - "While Waiting" - GWTDT soundtrack
  8. 22:10-25:38 - "Almost Home" - TSN soundtrack
  9. 25:39:-29:03 - "Painted Sun in Abstract" - TSN soundtrack
  10. 29:04-33:24 - "Intriguing Possibilities" - TSN soundtrack
  11. 33:25-36:34 - "Complications with Optimistic Outcome" - TSN soundtrack
  12. 36:35-42:26 - ?
  13. 42:27-46:16 - "Almost Home" (again)
  14. 46:17-58:58 - "The Heretics" - GWTDT soundtrack
  15. 58:59-1:03:02 - "On We March" - TSN soundtrack
  16. 1:03:03-1:05:25 - ?
  17. 1:05:26-1:08:35 - ?
  18. 1:08:39-1:12:44 - "People Lie All the Time" - GWTDT soundtrack
  19. 1:12:45-1:16:15 - "Painted Sun in Abstract" (again)
  20. 1:16:16-1:20:05 - ?
  21. 1:20:06-1:22:25 - ?
  22. 1:22:26-1:29:38 - ?
  23. 1:29:39-1:32:15 - ?
  24. 1:32:16-1:34:08 - "While Waiting" (again)
  25. 1:34:09-1:38:40 - ?
  26. 1:38:41-1:42:07 - "A Familiar Taste" - TSN soundtrack
  27. 1:42:08-1:45:45 - ?
  28. 1:45:47-1:49:42 - ?
  29. 1:49:43-1:50:40 - "Penetration" (again)
  30. 1:50:41-1:55:38 - "In Motion" (again)
Finally, I feel I would be remiss if I didn't provide my favorite scene, the truck chase sequence. Enjoy it, in all its silent, frenetic glory:

You can watch the whole thing over at Soderbergh's site, here

Friday, September 5, 2014

Why I Am Considering the Teaching Profession

Photo credit: Todd Petrie

Speak with words that you gathered from the ground,
Hold a light up to the sky,
Give the dove just one more chance to sing,
And replace the morning light.
"Built for This," Ben Sollee

The following is a short essay I wrote this week for my elementary education class; since it answers a basic question I get asked a lot—why do you want to teach?—I thought it'd be appropriate to share here. Enjoy!

~   ~   ~

“Okay, so, what are we playing tonight—Settlers of Catan? Cool. Have you played Settlers before? No? Great, well let’s get James over here to teach it to you—he’s good at that.” Settlers of Catan is a popular board game among young people,1 and whenever my friends get together to play a new board game like Settlers, someone will say something like the quote above: James should teach it to you; he taught me to play, and I understood right away. I am the resident teacher of new board games in my friendship circle, because I am, and always have been, just that: a teacher.

I have always, always loved learning, and passing along what I learn has just come naturally as part of that love. As an elementary school student, I learned math with relative ease. My peers often struggled with math, though; once other kids realized that I knew my math pretty well, they would come to me for help. I learned to like helping them: it strengthened my grasp of the material and made me feel kind and intelligent all at once. Teaching, in other words, improved my sense of self-worth, enriched my own education, and gave me a chance to serve others. I held it close from then on, nurturing my skills as a teacher of one kind or another through camp counseling,2 Sunday school teaching,3 and running tutoring and mentoring programs.4

My teaching method: wear hats; point at things.

Thus, teaching has always been something I have considered doing professionally. As an undergraduate, I studied linguistics in the hopes of someday becoming a college linguistics professor. Unfortunately, I graduated in 2009, in the middle of the Great Recession, when legions of other young adults were delaying entry into the decidedly unfriendly job market by applying to grad school. Prospects for secure, long-term employment as a professor looked grim, and have continued to do so ever since, as university budgets shrink and higher education in the U.S. leans more and more heavily on adjuncts to prop itself up. Fortunately, though, I learned through a variety of post-college experiences that I was adept at teaching children, and that I enjoyed it a great deal. I also knew that male elementary teachers were few and far between, and I relished the thought of bringing something unique to children’s lives with something as simple as my gender. So it is that I have turned my sights on elementary education.

I do this knowing that there are risks: education in this country is a fraught business everywhere, not just at the college level. While poverty and other external social factors are at the root of many problems with education in America, the education reform movement has placed most of the burden of solving these problems on teachers, most notably through tying school funding and even teacher pay to standardized testing. Charter schools and turnarounds place additional pressures on teachers, often minimizing their job security and compensation in the vain hope that this will somehow empower them to improve their students’ educational outcomes. I have seen these issues and others in person, in addition to reading about them extensively in the news.

To put it bluntly, the culture of education in this country is a mess. I fully expect to be frustrated and hampered in my attempts to work with my kids. But in a way I look forward to the challenge. After all, if not me, who will serve? If no one steps forward to improve kids’ lives, how will they improve? If people do not set out to change the world, why should it change? I hope to be the change that I want to see, in the lives of my students and, just maybe, in the system that serves them. That is why I am considering the teaching profession.

1. Well, some young people. My friends, anyway. Yes, we are nerds. Well, some young people. My friends, anyway. Yes, we are nerds.
2. I was a summer camp counselor for both younger kids and teenagers, starting at age 17 and continuing through college. I had the privilege of working at a camp that I attended throughout my childhood, so I felt very at home there, which was great for my ability to jump right in and lead each year.
3. Before moving to Muncie, I was a Sunday school teacher for 1st-4th graders for three years. I have also signed up to be a Sunday school teacher at my new church in town, the Lutheran Church of the Cross, though the Sunday school year has not begun yet.
4. I was a team leader for City Year teams in Chicago public schools on the south side of Chicago for two years. City Year is an AmeriCorps program that provides young adults with service opportunities in underserved schools. My teams did reading tutoring, after school programs, and mentorship for elementary and middle school students, and I oversaw their work, as well as participating in much of it myself.