Boxoffice Roulette

"THE GOLDEN COMPASS dropped 65% from first to third with $9M for a disappointing two-week cume of $40.9M (despite impressive vfx from Rhythm & Hues, Cinesite, Framestore CFC, Digital Domain, Rainmaker, Peerless Camera, Tippett Studio, Digital Backlot and Matte World Digital)."

I got this quote off of Animation World Network and it was a perfect example of backwards thinking in the film industry. 'Despite impressive vfx' suggests that audiences go to the movies just to see special effects. Coming from AWN it is a slanted quote as those visual effects wizards think they are the show. Yes, the overwhelming news on the film was that it looked great but in the end it's the story that sells the film. And on top of that, it's how well the story is told.

It's fairly old news but stars don't make blockbusters and neither does spectacle. 'The Golden Compass' had boxoffice star Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig. So what? It got forty percent on the tomato meter and that is the best indicator of box office - whether or not the film works (not that this is an exact science either).

In the end it's all a bit of a crap shoot. I remember when Brad Bird's 'The Iron Giant' came out and it was a critical success and did nothing at the box office. Although hampered by poor marketing the film has since found life on home video and I can only assume it's made it's money back. I suppose it comes down to how much money you want to invest in a film. Judd Apatow's 'Knocked Up' cost 33 million (according to IMDB) and pulled in 150 million. 'Superbad' cost 20 million and pulled in over 120 million at the box office. Low cost, high entertainment. What is special in Apatow's case is that the personality of the filmmakers are coming through. They don't feel like committee driven projects with mountains of notes given. I just read a great quote from William Wellman who I just discovered through TCM and an odd little John Wayne picture called 'Islands in the Sky'.

"Get a director and a writer and leave them alone. That's how the best pictures get made."

It's not about stars or visual effects. It's about story. A one hundred and eighty million dollar budget will not guarantee you a success (estimated Golden Compass budget). It's all about getting the story right first. This is the least expensive part of the movie making process - a lone writer with a sharp pencil, a notebook and a laptop computer. Even this won't guarantee you a popular film but you'll feel a whole lot better in the end.


Policy Baby

For three days last week I was in a mixing suite finishing up the final mix for a new documentary, 'Policy Baby'. My good friend Michael Glassbourg had asked me to work on a writing project with him last summer but altered his plans and asked me to work with him on finishing up this four year project. I agreed and it was a great experience.

Having worked in animation for four years it was refreshing to get back to a story about real people. The documentary is about a native woman who was taken from her reserve at birth and her journey back to self realization. It's a funny, sad and poignant documentary and I am very grateful to Michael for asking me to work on it. I am also very grateful that he gave me such freedom to help him realize his vision.

Michael has been putting it in documentary film festivals and I'll give an update when and where you'll be able to see it.

Hitchcock Site

Jim Caswell sent me this link to '1000 Frames' where entire Hitchock films are represented in a thousand images. It's quite interesting to see Hitchcock's visual tapestry revealed without the context of the dialogue.

Notice the board of images in the background.

It reminds me of Walter Murch's editing style where he creates boards made up of images from the shoot. This way he can refer to the images to help him visually edit the film and to create a visual flow to the story. It also allows him to pick shots out of context when he needs to create a moment that wasn't shot or concieved before the edit suite.


No Country for Old Men

There has been a lot of discussion about the Cohen brother's new film, 'No Country for Old Men'. It has been a critical success with praise for the terrific performances and the remarkable photography. It is a film that exudes confidence in every way. The film's criticism has been mostly targeted at the character development and the subversive ending which I will not disclose here.

What struck me about 'No Country for Old Men' was the minimalist soundtrack. It is one of the quietest films I've seen in years. I screened some of Kieslowski's 'Blue', 'White' and 'Red' for my students a few weeks ago and asked them to pay attention to his minimal use of sound. Sound became punctuation and it's silence was just as important as it's amplitude. 'No Country for Old Men' uses this method with the same great effect. After the film was over I was convinced that there was no musical score at all. My theory has always been that if you don't notice the music then it was doing it's job. Great film music doesn't draw attention to itself, it enters your psyche through the back door and draws on your emotions. Curious, I looked it up today and came across the blog of the music composer, Carter Burwell. I'll link to it so you can read what he said about his work on the film. On the right side of his site he has a little jukebox so you can hear some of his work on the film.

Brilliant. In a thriller where you want to create tension, most filmmakers lean heavily on the film's score to provide the emotional cues. Here, the Cohen brothers create the tension through story, editing and performance. It is intense to say the least.

I truly admire filmmakers that take chances and push themselves, and the form, to new levels. The Cohen brothers are a great example of the modern maverick, marching to the beat of their own drum. Their films are unique and quirky and they have a wonderfully subversive sense of humour. They've also shown such confidence in making this film that it almost challenges the critic to defy it. The minimalist soundtrack is a perfect example of filmmakers who feel at home with their material. It is, after all, a companion to some of the Cohen brothers best films - 'Fargo' and 'Blood Simple'. They seem to have a comfort with this kind of story but have taken it a step forward. I'd be very surprised if they don't take home some hardware this winter...


The Same Yet Very Different

This past Halloween I was reminded of the strange story of 'The Excorcist' prequel. I remembered when it came out there was some controversy but the film was released and then disappeared into oblivion. The controversy surrounded the films first director Paul Schrader. Schrader, the famous writer of 'Taxi Driver' and 'Raging Bull' was directing a script by 'Caleb Carr' and 'William Wisher'. Carr is a renowned novelist and Wisher had co-written 'Terminator 2' and 'The 13th Warrior' (among other less successful ventures). Schrader cast Stellen Skarsgard as Father Merrin and hired the incomparable cinematographer Vittorio Storaro.

I'm not sure what transpired from script to screen but when Schrader handed in his edit they hated the film. Then, in an unprecedented move, they fired Schrader, hired Renny Harlin and they reshot the film. Reshot the film. They didn't reshoot parts of the film, they reshot it. They started with a new script based on Wishers and Carrs and started fresh. They recast some of the parts but kept Skarsgard and used Storaro to shoot the new material. Imdb reports that Harlin reshot over ninety percent of the film.

As you might expect they are two very different films. One look at the directors filmographies you can guess why. Harlin made his success on second-rate action films like 'Deep Blue Sea', 'Cliffhanger' and 'Cutthroat Island' (don't get me started about that one). Schrader made his success with the aforementioned films in addition to writing and directing some hardcore dramas like 'Affliction'. The studio wanted a marketable film with jolts and gore while Schrader was actually interested in the character and dilemma of Father Merrin.

I caught Harlins version on the television one night and decided to hunt down Schraders version which had been in a limited release following the box office disappointment of 'The Exorcist: The Beginning'. Schraders version was titled 'The Exorcist: Dominion'. What is fascinating for the viewer of these films is that although similar, are two totally different films. Schraders version had put the emphasis on Merrin who had lost his faith during the war. He was forced by the Nazis to choose ten men for execution in retribution for a murdered soldier. He was to give them ten names or they would execute them all. Merrin chooses and is rattled with guilt and remorse and loses his faith. After the war Merrin, an archeologist, is sent to a site in Africa where they have unearthed a church, buried in the sand. Upon excavation they slowly realize the church was built over a place of evil, presumably to keep it at bay. The town is occupied by British troops and contains a thematic element of another kind of evil - colonialism. The character who becomes possessed is a young man named Cheche, an innocent deformed simpleton whom the locals deride. Merrin and his quasi-love interest/friend, a nurse, tries to help heal the young man. After a surgery, Cheche starts to heal at a rapid rate as his body starts to become possessed. As all hell breaks loose, two soldiers are murdered at the church (while stealing some precious items) and the local tribesmen are blamed. Cheche becomes possessed, the colonial oppressors are driven to madness and Merrin must confront his beliefs and exorcise the demons (his own and the actual).

Dominion is an interesting film but not a great film. Harlins version changes the possession of Cheche to a young local boy and turns up the volume on the horror and symbolism. He erradicates the colonial subplot, shrinks the Nazi flashbacks and recasts the Nurse into a much hotter gal. I found it to be pretty much unwatchable full of manipulative scares and hokey iconography. The church is turned into a goofy production set with upside down crosses and other silly imagery (and some terrible cgi effects).

I can't help but think that those who seek to cash in on 'The Exorcist' haven't actully watched it. Despite all the memorable creepy bits and the actual exorcism, the film is actually quite dramatic and quiet. Schrader, like Friedkin, is interested in the concept of faith and the devil. Father Karras, the protagonist in the original, was having a crisis of faith. There is plenty of drama in the original revolving around Karras' dying mother and the sickness of young Regan. It wasn't wall to wall head spinning and pea soup spewing. Some of the creepiest moments are Regan peeing herself in front of the dinner guests and the spinal tap sequence. It was much more of a psychological thriller than an all out horror film. Certainly the climax was memorable for it's effects and gore but that wasn't what the film was about. Schrader understood this and sought to do something similar with his prequel. It's fascinating that the producers and distibutors couldn't make that connection and have convinced themselves that 'The Exorcist' was somehow on the same footing as 'Nightmare on Elm Street'.

As a post script, another film that shared this sort of treatment was Terry Gilliams 'Brazil'. The Criterion Collection released a box set of 'Brazil' that included an entirely seperate version call the 'Love Conquers All' version. Unlike the Exorcist sequels, this version of 'Brazil' was not reshot but was edited into a much more linear and commercial version by the studio. Gilliam had final cut so he was able to release his version but the revised film still exists and can be seen in the Crierion DVD's. For anyone interested in the power of the editor, you should really take a look at these two films as they use the exact same footage but with much different results. Gilliams version clocks in at 142 minutes while the 'Love' version was trimmed to a standard 94 minutes. Recommended for any fan of Gilliam or any student of film.

Poor Roger Ebert - totally taken out of context. Yes, he did like the film but he wasn't praising it as some kind of 'Milestone' of creation as they suggest. Damn marketers - half truths or half lies?


Our Guest Blogger - Mr. James Caswell (storyboard artist and film buff)

The reason to choose Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch as a maverick film is obvious. To beat the wild horse metaphor, it moved away from the herd to revolutionize the Western into the seventies. It is telling that The Wild Bunch was out the same year as Wayne’s True Grit. One formulaic, predictable, and because of Wayne, iconic; the other a radical rethink of heroes and honourable behaviour in the West. (I think even Unforgiven owes a debt to The Wild Bunch.) Westerns were always morality plays. Good vs. evil. Black hats vs. white. But the Wild Bunch introduces the ambiguity of moral authority into the genre.

The movie begins with a group of children-a mixture of races and classes but the majority are town folks or representative of modern times- laughing at two trapped scorpions being overwhelmed by ants. This metaphor travels through the movie. The Bunch are being overwhelmed; caught up in forces of change they can’t escape. They looking for a way out. A last big score will set them up in Mexico but always eludes them.

In the opening gunfight, the Bunch is trapped in the town with no clean exit. They dive to and fro to escape like the scorpions. The slow motion violence got most of the attention at the time but it is the editing that really demonstrates the futility of their struggle. The whole sequence is a jumble of where they are, who’s shooting who, and the way Modernity-the bounty hunters, the citizens and especially the physical town- have hemmed them in.

The bounty hunters -Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones- are representations of how the West has changed. They are scavengers picking over the bodies of the people in the street and fighting over credit for kills. Their leader, Deke Slaiton (Robert Ryan) used to be a member of the Bunch, but was caught and turned. He shows his disgust with his new comrades in arms. “I gotta work with this!’ Again the theme of the passing of an honourable way to do things.

Like the theme of Peckinpah’s first film, the excellent Ride the High Country, the old moral codes of the West are being replaced by modern ways. There is no place for men to do what they were good at (fighting Indians, rustlers, etc.) The jobs of being moral authority by virtue of their character-their righteousness- rather than their station in society has gone. This is well demonstrated by Pike Bishop (William Holden.) Holden brings his legacy as a leading man to the role. He’s on the down side of his career as a matinee idol and visibly shows the weariness that his character feel. He’s tired of doing another robbery (movie) and is looking for a respite (real role) to go out on. He plays the moral outrage of what the world has become. (He does this again in Network later in the seventies.) Bishop and the Bunch are not heroes as in previous Westerns. They are bad guys doing bad things. They are honourable to each other and are betrayed by those who no longer can adhere to their moral code.

After the disaster of Major Dundee, the studios wouldn’t hire him and he spent four years without making a movie. With the Wild Bunch, Peckinpah stands up for what he sees in happening to the Western and filmmaking. He paints a picture of righteousness denied, frustration at the failure from the way things are going, and a decline in how things should be done . While he did do a number of good but flawed films after, The Wild Bunch is Peckinpah’s last big score.



Orson Welles

"The maverick may go his own way, but he doesn't think that it is the only way, or even claim that it is the best way... except maybe for himself. And don't imagine that this raggle-taggle gypsy-o is claiming to be free. It's just that some of the necessities to which I am a slave are different than yours."

I can't help but think that Orson Welles would have loved digital cinema and the movement to High Definition. Most people know Orson Welles for his masterpiece 'Citizen Kane'. It was one of the few studio pictures Welles would make and one of the few times he had the kind of financial resources required to achieve his magnificent vision.

'Citizen Kane' was the Albatross they hung around Orson Welles' neck. It was a work of such grand scale and vision that there was no way to live up to it. So much so that in 1971, the famous critic Pauline Kael tried to pin the artistic success of the film on the script's co-author Herman J. Mankiewicz. She wrote that Welles didn't contribute to the shooting script and tried to take credit away from Mankiewicz. Her essay, 'Raising Kane', was later refuted by Peter Bogdanovich but remains a good example of how much 'Citizen Kane' shadowed Welles his entire career.

Yet, for me, it is that tag of 'genius' that pushed Welles out of the studio system. The twenty four year old 'boy wonder' and 'genius' had gone out to California and was given a contract that was unheard of for any of the established journey-men filmmakers of the day. Complete control. Of course this caused a sharp hatred and jealousy of Welles in the film community and was compounded by the immense ego and combativeness of the young genius himself. When you get that big that fast, most people want to see you fail and fail miserably. With 'Kane', Welles proved himself to be a prodigious talent and it wasn't until his second picture, 'The Magnificent Ambersons' that he started his steep decline and eventual exile from Hollywood (or if I might paraphrase the motion picture itself - Georgey got his comeuppance).

Legend has it that the original cut of 'Ambersons' was indeed 'magnificent' but the studio made the blunder of doing an audience test screening and placing it after a bright and cheerful musical. Out of 125 comment cards 72 didn't appreciate the film. At over two hours running time, the audience felt it was too long (remember that they just sat through a musical) and some of the quotes were 'the worst picture I ever saw', 'people like to laff, not be bored to death', 'could not understand it, Too many plots', 'it stinks', 'rubbish' etc. On the other side of the fence the comments were 'this picture is magnificent', 'a masterpiece with perfect photography, setting and acting', 'I liked it but feel that it was above the audience', 'exceedingly good picture', 'I think it was the best picture I have ever seen' etc. It seems to echo a major problem/strength of any Orson Welles picture - it was too smart for the regular ball-cap Joe. He was an art-house filmmaker but was given such great resources and control and they eventually realized that he wasn't a commercially viable filmmaker. He was a personal filmmaker - an artist with artistic ambitions (whether or not he himself realized it).

Even Welles attempts at making commercial films turned out to be somewhat impossible. 'The Lady from Shanghai' is a terrific noir thriller but wasn't successful at the box office. Try as he might, Welles made the film with an odd story structure and some exremely memorable bravura filmmaking (the house of mirrors, the rendevous at the aquarium etc). In the 1950's he made his last studio-financed picture 'Touch of Evil'. Called 'the greatest b-movie ever made', Touch of Evil failed to get support from the studio and audiences. Ironically, Welles only financially successful movie was 'The Stranger' and it is his least enjoyable film. Not that 'The Stranger' is a bad film, it just follows a fairly paint-by-numbers approach that makes it easily digestible but also fairly forgettable.

Going into exile, Welles became one of the first great film Mavericks, financing his own productions through acting jobs and raising finances from independant sources. The great 'Othello' was shot over four years and released in 1952 to great critical acclaim. It won Best Picture at Cannes but failed to find success. This lead to several films made in europe: 'The Trial', 'Mr. Arkadin', 'Chimes at Midnight' and his experimental documentary 'F for Fake'. Of course none of these films made much money and the financing was so convoluted, many of these films were unavailable until recently. They have sorted out most of the rights issues and there are wonderful Criterion DVD's of 'F for Fake' and 'Mr. Arkadin'. 'Chimes at Midnight' is still very difficult to find and is considered one of his greatest films. This seems somewhat appropriate given the troubled and complicated history of Orson Welles.

It is a terrible shame that Welles had such a hard time getting his films made. He laments in the BBC documentary 'Orson Welles' that he probably would have been better to have stayed in Radio and Theatre. Film is ninety-eight percent hustle, he said, and two percent actually getting to do it. Yet Welles stands out in film history as one of the greatest of filmmakers. It is our lament that we only got to see him realize a small degree of his potential.


Spike Lee

There have been few mavericks that have been more productive and more controversial than Spike Lee. With over twenty feature films in twenty years, few filmmakers can match him in productivity or versatility. He's made documentaries, dramas, musicals and comedies. His most impressive films include 'When the Levees Broke', 'Clockers', 'Jungle Fever', 'Mo' Better Blues', 'Malcom X' and the classic 'Do the Right Thing'.

When a filmmaker is this active, people tend to dismiss their less successful films and paint them as 'washed up' or 'past their prime'. Woody Allen gets this all the time as there is some kind of expectation that he'll make 'Annie Hall' again and again. Francis Coppola once described 'The Godfather' as the albatross they hung around his neck because every single thing he does is compared to it. It's as if the critics think that an 'American Classic' is an easy thing to achieve! Lee's finest film may arguably have been the 1989 classic 'Do the Right Thing' but instead of trying to repeat the success, he's fearlessly gone forward and has made a body of work that is personal, diverse and engaging. It's that 'fearlessness' is what makes these filmmakers special. They don't just repeat themselves, but go forward and experiment and try new things. Does it fail sometimes? Of course. Most experiments have failure, that's the point. What are you going to learn from repeating yourself?

There aren't many feature film directors that cross over the divide of documentary and drama. Spike Lee's 2006 documentary 'When the Levees Broke' showed that Lee is just as dynamic and thought-provoking as he has ever been. Over the course of four hours, Lee's film takes the viewer through the Hurricane Katrina tragedy and it's aftermath. It's a powerful historical document that will have a life far beyond our own. (I wrote a short blog piece on it last year - you can read it here)

Spike Lee was also the reason that I decided to go to film school and take up this mad endeavor of filmmaking. After making 'She's Gotta Have It' he wrote that he wanted to demystify the process of making movies. He wanted to show people that you could make movies independently, outside of the big Hollywood machine. Although I loved film, photography, literature and drama, I didn't even consider that it could be a vocation. That's the spirit of the maverick - the determination to get your vision out there and not get caught up in all the nonsense that this business gets wrapped up in. Film is one of the toughest industries to break into. It's extremely costly to make a film and even the cheapest films could buy you a house. Somehow, filmmakers like Lee have been able to raise the financing and consistently push the boundaries of their own creativity. We're just along for the ride.



Rob and I had a discussion about Robert Altman which gave birth to another discussion about film mavericks - filmmakers who push the boundaries and wrestle their vision into the commercial marketplace and make movies that are unique and personal.

I wanted to start with Peter Travers list of maverick films and invite readers to guest blog on their favourite maverick filmmakers. Email me your entry and I'll publish it here.

100 Years / 100 Maverick Movies
by Peter Travers

The Godfather Trilogy (1972, 1974, 1990, Francis Ford Coppola)
Vertigo (1958, Alfred Hitchcock)
The Searchers (1956, John Ford)
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick)
Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles)
Raging Bull (1980, Martin Scorsese)
Chinatown (1974, Roman Polanski)
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948, John Huston)
Blue Velvet (1986, David Lynch)
Pulp Fiction (1994, Quentin Tarantino)
King Kong (1933, Merian C. Cooper & Ernst B. Schoedsack)
The Manchurian Candidate (1962, John Frankenheimer)
Fargo (1996, Joel Coen)
All About Eve (1950, Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
Do the Right Thing (1989, Spike Lee)
The Night of the Hunter (1955, Charles Laughton)
Sherlock Jr. (1924, Buster Keaton)
Some Like It Hot (1959, Billy Wilder)
Nashville (1975, Robert Altman)
The Wizard of Oz (1939, Victor Fleming)
Sweet Smell of Success (1957, Alexander Mackendrick)
Brazil (1985, Terry Gilliam)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, Don Siegel)
Badlands (1973, Terrence Malick)
Don't Look Now (1973, Nicolas Roeg)
Gone with the Wind (1939, produced by David O. Selznick)
Casablanca (1942, Michael Curtiz)
It's a Wonderful Life (1946, Frank Capra)
Singin' in the Rain (1952, Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly)
On the Waterfront (1954, Elia Kazan)
Jaws (1975, Steven Spielberg)
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975, Milos Forman)
Lawrence of Arabia (1962, David Lean)
The Silence of the Lambs (1991, Jonathan Demme)
The Empire Strikes Back (1980, Irvin Kershner)
Ed Wood (1994, Tim Burton)
Faces (1968, John Cassavetes)
Annie Hall (1977, Woody Allen)
Bonnie and Clyde (1967, Arthur Penn)
Straw Dogs (1971, Sam Peckinpah)
The Third Man (1949, Carol Reed)
All the President's Men (1976, Alan J. Pakula)
Bride of Frankenstein (1935, James Whale)
Rebel without a Cause (1955, Nicholas Ray)
Written on the Wind (1956, Douglas Sirk)
Swing Time (1936, George Stevens)
The Red Shoes (1948, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)
Network (1976, Sidney Lumet)
Sullivan's Travels (1941, Preston Sturges)
The Graduate (1967, Mike Nichols)
M (1931, Fritz Lang)
Zero for Conduct (1933, Jean Vigo)
The Rules of the Game (1939, Jean Renoir)
Children of Paradise (1945, Marcel Carne)
The Bicycle Thief (1949, Vittorio De Sica)
The Earrings of Madame de... (1953, Max Ophuls)
Tokyo Story (1953, Yasujiro Ozu)
The Seven Samurai (1954, Akira Kurosawa)
Pather Panchali (1955, Satyajit Ray)
Breathless (1959, Jean-Luc Godard)
The 400 Blows (1959, Francois Truffaut)
La Dolce Vita (1960, Federico Fellini)
Viridiana (1961, Luis Bunuel)
Persona (1966, Ingmar Bergman)
The Conformist (1970, Bernardo Bertolucci)
Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972, Werner Herzog)
Seven Beauties (1976, Lina Wertmuller)
Wings of Desire (1988, Wim Wenders)
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988, Pedro Almodovar)
The Killer (1989, John Woo)
City Lights (1931, Charles Chaplin)
Cabaret (1972, Bob Fosse)
Quiz Show (1994, Robert Redford)
A Night at the Opera (1935, Sam Wood)
The Producers (1968, Mel Brooks)
Lost in America (1985, Albert Brooks)
The Terminator (1984, James Cameron)
White Heat (1949, Raoul Walsh)
His Girl Friday (1940, Howard Hawks)
Out of the Past (1947, Jacques Tourneur)
The Piano (1993, Jane Campion)
Blowup (1966, Michelangelo Antonioni)
Blow Out (1981, Brian De Palma)
The Philadelphia Story (1940, George Cukor)
Bad Day at Black Rock (1955, John Sturges)
Ninotchka (1939, Ernst Lubitsch)
Diner (1982, Barry Levinson)
To Sleep With Anger (1990, Charles Burnett)
Unforgiven (1992, Clint Eastwood)
Midnight Cowboy (1969, John Schlesinger)
Lone Star (1996, John Sayles)
The Naked Kiss (1964, Samuel Fuller)
The Crying Game (1992, Neil Jordan)
Broadcast News (1987, James L. Brooks)
Dead Ringers (1988, David Cronenberg)
My Little Chickadee (1940, Edward Cline)
Night of the Living Dead (1968, George A. Romero)
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975, Terry Jones & Terry Gilliam)
Intolerance (1916, D.W. Griffith)
Freaks (1932, Tod Browning)


I woke up to the chattering of the birds...

It's amazing how images from films burn themselves into your conciousness. All I could think of was Hitchcock when I woke up this morning to hundreds of chattering birds perched on my neighbours homes. I like, Mr. Hitchcock's characters, went out to have a look. I, unlike Mr. Hitchcock's characters, lived to tell about it.


The Bionic Woman (spoilers)

I have to confess that I'm not a big fan of one-hour television dramas (outside of HBO titles). I have very little patience for most of the shows and this has led me to miss some diamonds in the rough. I've been told "West Wing" was terrific - I never saw it. I've been advised to check out "Law and Order" and I have on occasion, finding it to be a fine show but it hasn't kept my interest. I have tuned in for 24 and Lost but both of those shows have timelines much more like a mini-series - not to mention that Lost's locations are eye candy and 24's pacing is beyond ADHD. I admit, however, when both of those shows are over, I can't remember a damn thing about them. For me they truly are mindless entertainment. At least I am entertained.

Last night I decided to try out a new series to see if I'm just missing the boat. I sat down and watched the new "Bionic Woman". Now, I should have been excited by this as I've always felt that the orginal 'Bionic Man' pilot could be made into a stellar feature film (seemingly condtradicting my previous posts -- it's called Musings and Contradictions bub). The Steve Austin story strikes me as a plausible super hero story that is ripe for a lot of thematic exploration. I've even written a feature script that deals with similar issues - the seperation of mind and body. It's a fascinating topic for me and raises all sorts of ideological questions.

Given the opportunity to make something dynamic, exciting and interesting, the 'Bionic Woman' pilot was poor. I suspected this would be the case when I saw the trailer that seemed more like a take on the 'Matrix' than the 'Bionic Woman'. Somehow bionics allows one to defy physics? For me, the strength of the bionic story is in its plausibility. This isn't to say that this technology will ever come to fruition but it sure feels like it could. It's in this plausibility that you can really make your audience believe their seeing something real instead of watching a comic book. This, in turn, brings the audience closer to the material.

The pilot did have some good ideas in it but the execution of the ideas was flawed and there was too much emphasis on the cyber punk stylistics and creepy atmospherics. The story execution needed a lot of work. They introduce the sister in the episode but fail to create a story for her thus taking up time for no apparent reason (I'm sure they will do something with it in subsequent episodes but it was lazy not to do something with it in the pilot). Also, they introduce you to the 'evil' bionic woman right off the top of the show. Had they saved the actual introduction to the end of the show it would have improved it greatly. Instead of the audience being aware of the 'evil' bionic woman, they would have been asking themselves - "who this strange and creepy blond woman?". Then, during the fight climax, when she reveals herself as the first bionic woman, she would be doing it for Jamie and us. Then we would want to know more. It's a simple story restructure and suddenly we, like Jamie, have a mystery we need to figure out.

The character motivation is extremely odd as well. When Jamie discovers that they have 'put her back together', she freaks out and is hostile to everyone who just saved her life. Her relationship with the doctor (who she's apparently in love with) shows no sign of affection or care. He might as well have been a stranger at this point. These reactions seem more of an 'idea' imposed by the filmmakers than a well thought out character.

The matrix-style fight at the end was cliche. Her superior fighting skills are explained by computer chips implanted in her brain!?! I would have been happier seeing her learn to walk again then watch her get an ass whupp'n from the evil bionic woman so she would want to learn how to protect herself and use her bionics.

"It's just television Mark, relax", you say.

I know. I just figure if you're going to all the trouble of doing it and spending all that money, you might as well make it great.


Psycho Trailer

Often people don't realize how funny Hitchcock was.

Old Fashioned Marketing

I don't like the word genius and rarely use it. The composer Bernard Herrmann could qualify for the title if "Wile E. Coyote" would ever give it up.

Oh yeah. Hitchock was pretty ok too.

The Remake pt 2

There have been examples of filmmakers remaking their own films - Hitchcock remade "The Man Who Knew Too Much" and George Sluizer remade "The Vanishing". I quite enjoy "The Man Who Knew Too Much" but wouldn't put at the top of my list of Hitchcock favourites. The remake of "The Vanishing" was dismal in comparison despite a fairly good performance from Jeff Bridges. He probably would have done better to remake it in todays climate as he wouldn't have to make a "happy ending". What can you say? He probably got paid pretty damn well (and we all do a little bit of prostitution in this industry).

Odd that both films are about the search for a loved one who has vanished.


The Remake

What a curiosity the remake is. It's a unique phenomenon in modern art and somewhat exclusive to the movies. I suppose you could argue that the theatre is built on remaking or recreating the play. Agreed. However, the play (or opera or dance) is immediate and then it is gone. A play happens in the present and in a specific space (the theatre) while film is something that is recorded and something that can be reproduced. In the reproduced arts - the painting, the photograph, architecture, and sculpture - the reproduction of the piece by someone other than the artist is considered moronic (with the exception of popular music - even then...).

Yet we have the film remake, and at times, the remake that follows the previous picture word for word or shot by shot. Gus Van Sant remade Hitchcock's Psycho shot for shot with few alterations, the exception of colour photography and a few additions including the unnecessary Norman Bates masturbation scene. I imagine the best way to view a remake is never to have seen the original. Psycho felt like a high school version of the original. It felt like a forced imitation with actors who seemed to be doing impersonation rather than acting. Don't get me wrong - Vince Vaughn has his own strengths but he totally lacked the uncomfortable asexuality that Anthony Perkins portrayed so effortlessly. Anne Heche, of course, was a flavour of the month and couldn't even compare to Janet Leigh. In the end the film's only success is reminding us how great the original was.

I recently put on the Double Indemnity Legacy Series DVD which includes a 1973 Television remake of the original Billy Wilder film. I've seen the original film enough times that I have a strong memory of it's rhythms and performances. The 1973 version (adapted almost word for word by the famous Steven Bochco) is a lot like Psycho where it feels like an amateur production of a classic work. Richard Crenna (of the Rambo fame) replaces Fred MacMurray as Walter Ness, and Samantha Eggar takes the place of Barbara Stanwyck. Lee Cobb, like Vince Vaughn, seems to be doing an impersonation of the great performance of Edward G Robinson. None of the performers seem to understand the emotions of the original characters and each one seems to be saying their lines without the strong intentions of the original material. It's a curiosity for sure but nothing more. Crenna may do his lines well enough, but his reactions to the other players lack any knowledge of how Ness feels about anything. Beyond the performances of the script, the lighting, music and art direction are exactly what you would expect from 1970's television. Despite the dark material, the scenes are over lit and flat. The music is often added to take up space. Again, very little understanding of the psychology of the characters.

It's fascinating to watch these films as it highlights the talent of the original filmmakers. It also highlights the absolute importance of casting and how great actors bring something special that is beyond the words of the script. Are there exceptions to the rule? Of course. John Huston's "Maltese Falcon" was the third attempt at retelling the Hammett novel. Yet, it got the casting right and it had a director that could bring the material to life. Was it a remake of the film or a new adaptation of the book? Steven Soderbergh's 'Solaris' is not a remake of the Russian film but a re imagining of the original material. Maybe that makes the difference.

I ask you - are there any great remakes in film? Scorsese might have done a terrific job with 'Cape Fear' and 'The Departed' but were these necessary? Were they any better than the originals?

Don't get me started on 'City of Angels'.


Our Guest Blogger - Mr. Robert Mills

VENUS: The Age Of Film
by Rob Mills

The film Venus, starring Peter O'Toole as, Maurice, an elderly actor obsessively in love with Jessie, a much younger woman played by Jodie Whittaker, is an extraordinarily moving, albeit flawed, film production. I will touch on the flaw only briefly; and, yes, there is more than one but no tapestry is perfect and since it is a singular flaw which lies at the heart of my criticism (and because I liked the whole thing so damned much) I won't pick at those threads nor dwell too long on the flaw. What struck me most about the film was the way in which it spoke volumes not only about how we all age as human beings but how others age before us as cultural icons.

O'Toole is certainly iconic in anything he sets his hand to these days. Such are the vicissitudes of having a lengthy and successful career in the arts. The artist becomes a member of the family, the best friend, the loyal dog, the eternal flame which speaks to and for us. O'Toole is all that and more. And by God he's looking positively ancient. That's mostly because he's old and went through a time in his life where taking care of his physical being fell far down on his list of priorities. I raise my glass in solemn salute. That's another aspect of being a living icon: people applaud simply because you can still draw a breath. It's probably also due to the fact he was playing the part of an old man. It's called "acting", my boy.

The role of Jessie sits on top of the aforementioned flaw. The problem isn't with the casting, Jodie Whittaker was note perfect as the object of Maurice's affections. The problem lay, I think, in the writing. Ouch.

Hanif Kureishi wrote the script and he's no slouch, having penned such gems as My Beautiful Laundrette and The Mother, another remarkable film with disparity in ages as its central theme and which was directed by Roger Michell the director of Venus. Michell also helmed Notting Hill but we won't hold that last one against him.

Kureishi's script worked well enough in drafting the characters and their turmoil as their story unfolds, and some of the lines arising from Maurice's banter with his acting chums (Leslie Phillips and Richard Griffiths) made me snort out loud from that most deadly of combinations: truth & humour. But, as good as the writing was, there was something missing. It was lacking a key and necessary ingredient. I don't like criticizing screenplays based solely on what is presented on the screen. I haven't read a copy of the script and I've been in the business long enough in a variety of roles to know what hellish combinations of passion, tomfoolery, improvisation, blind greed and pure unabashed stupidity get applied to a screenplay during the process of making a finished film. Maybe what I'm about to point out was in the original script and got left out for any number of legitimate reasons such as time or cost.

Here's my quibble:

Jesse allowed Maurice to become close and intimate with her without conveying to us any sense that he was in any way intriguing to her. My wife, Karen, pointed it out to me first by saying: "I guess it's a guy's wet dream to have a woman allow you to sniff her neck but I would have slugged him." Jessie herself says: "Only with your fingers. Anything else will make me vomitous." The missing element in their platonic yet sensual romance was her appreciation of him as something other than just a dirty old man. Oh sure, she's in it for the money and gifts at first and eventually arrives at that place called love but it's the initial acceptance of his advances that lay out before us as being false and unjustified. There was a moment - and almost moment - where she saw him in an old film on television. Unfortunately the filmmakers chose not to show any actual images of O'Toole on the screen as a younger, more attractive man. Maybe it was because the rights to such footage was too expensive and after having shelled out for their remarkable cast the production decided it could only afford to buy unexposed film. Maybe the filmmakers decided that to show O'Toole in any one of his iconic roles (there's that word again) would have been distracting for an audience who are supposed to accept him the role of a working player instead of "a Star"; which would not only be a mistake but also shamefully doubting of O'Toole's own abilities to make us believe.

The film which best comes to mind is the Steven Soderbergh film The Limey with Terence Stamp as Wilson, a violent career criminal searching for the murderer of his daughter. Soderbergh used old footage of a much younger Stamp from Poor Cow (director Ken Loach's first feature) in a role similar to the one he now played in his later years in The Limey. These images of the youthful Stamp were used as flashbacks to show the path his character had taken which ultimately led him to where he found himself in the present day. Stamp himself said the experience of watching this dual performance unfold was unnerving.

There was a brief glimpse of the younger O'Toole in a newspaper photo at the end of Venus, but they needed that earlier glimpse of him, alive and moving, as a vibrant, attractive young man.

O'Toole is a star. He's also an actor and a damned fine one. Some of this territory was mined by him previously in Richard Benjamin's film My Favourite Year, with that grand line: "I'm not an actor, I'm a movie star!" and it's only fair to point out that Venus is not about an old guy who's an actor but about an old guy who is arriving at the end of his time and is reaching out for love and sensual affection before he draws his last breath.

But that moment - that missing moment - where Jessie could have seen Maurice as he was and then look upon him with new eyes could have swiftly and simply opened the door to our understanding of why she allowed him to become closer to her; such a moment would have swept away any falseness in her actions.

Everybody wants to play God when they watch the movies, second guessing the cast and crew and declaring: "Well, if I was directing ... ". I don't know why such a moment wasn't included and feel strongly it should have been. It would have been worth the cost of the film rights, it wouldn't have added any additional or unwarranted screen time, and it would not have conflicted with the ability of an audience to accept O'Toole in that role. As my wife said, maybe it's a guy/girl thing but she couldn't get as deep into the film as I did because of that hollow space in Jessie's choice to allow Maurice to sniff her neck. She needed to see him as he was and then discover who he is. That was the flaw.

Perhaps I was more accepting because I also found myself gazing at O'Toole's wonderfully transparent face, looking like a delicate rice paper sculpture with endless subtle folds and emotions flowing across it like watercolours in the rain. His scenes with Vanessa Redgrave as his ex-wife Valerie were stunning and not just because they are two of the best actors alive today but also for the simple reason that they are now old. O'Toole has played old before, a prime example being his Henry II in James Goldman's remarkable The Lion In Winter opposite Katherine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquataine; she was 61, he was 36.

People grow old. Happens to the best of us. Happens to all of us. We grow old. We look in photo albums and play back home movies and say: "Oh my God, look at that hair!" or "Why didn't somebody tell me I looked like an idiot in those pants?" and most often: "We look so young."

When faces become famous in film they become embedded in our mind's eye and we continue to see those actors, those Stars, as they were. We all know what Humphrey Bogart and Judy Garland looked like. If the Stars were lucky enough to have a lengthy and successful career we would have the opportunity to watch them as they grew up and grew old. Mickey Rooney is still kicking around in a career that began back in 1927 and I not only hold him in my head as the horse trainer in The Black Stallion but also as Andy Hardy and as young Puck in 1935's A Midsummer Night's Dream. James Dean, of course, will be forever young.

I had a somewhat profound experience a number of years ago (1978 - holy crap) while watching the AFI Tribute to Henry Fonda. They presented the obligatory montage of clips from his films and while I had seen many of these before there was something about that display of his characters, of him and his face as it travelled from youth through the years to old age. I was stunned. I can't explain exactly why but at that moment I gained a deeper understanding of cinema as an expression of time. It captures time, one frame at a time, to create the illusion of movement and stores that time so we may travel back and watch it unfold again and again. This phenomenon of aging icons has only been with us for 100 years and will surely render some as yet unimaginably profound shift in how we see ourselves.

Watching Venus brought that back to me, especially those scenes with O'Toole and Redgrave, the icons of the sexy sixties, looking at each other and doing something most actors are incapable of: acting their age.

You could see a thousand conversations between those sets of shining impossibly blue eyes. Yeah, I know, part of what made their scenes work was their ability to act; and the writing was good; and the direction was decent; yeah, yeah, I know all that. And they were old. They were old and just as amazed and horrified about it all as we are watching them, or ourselves, travel through time and inexorably physically decline. If they were two unknown actors, equally gifted in their craft, the scene would not have had the same impact. It possessed that additional element of iconic faces. We have a shared history with them. We know them. They represent us. Always have and always will. That's what makes them icons.

In a way there's a lot of this summed up in three lines of dialogue in Venus which weave through the human quest for pleasure across the span of time

Maurice: "For most men, the woman's body is the most beautiful thing they will ever see."

Jessie: "What's the most beautiful thing a girl sees? Do you know?"

Maurice: Her first child.

Cradle to grave, right there.

Ultimately, the film Venus (like most stories) is about want and need. We want and need the love of others and despite our best efforts to deny or reject it, whenever we might be so lucky to have love cross our path, we usually manage to fall in it. We also seem to want and need those images of ourselves, our better selves, our icons. We need those images dancing before us, keeping us in thrall and keeping us inspired. Venus is also about time. Film itself is an art form which relies on the use of time and the icons it presents us do more than just date and fall from fashion; they age right along with us. Our cultural icons today are not the fixed images of a stern Christ illuminated upon a panel of wood from the Middle Ages, cold and distant, but are instead shimmering images of moving light which draw us closer, tell a story, bring forth deep emotions and, just like all of us, with every conspiring breath - grows old.



Recommended Reading

Here is the link to It's a terrific site with articles and interviews dealing with one of the most underappreciated and misunderstood part of the filmmaking process.

When you watch a film you divide the experience two ways, visual and aural (at least until smell-o-vision arrives). Most of the effort put into films lean on the visual with very little thought or time given to create a dynamic and meaningful soundtrack. Composers are often hired after the film has been shot and often forced to recreate a temp music soundtrack used by the editor and director (it's very dangerous to use temp music - you end up tying yourself to it).

The sound department along with the composer and musicians provide the emotional underpinnings that are so important in making a film. Music can make the difference between a laughable melodramatic scene and a powerful, emotional scene. Tone is such an important part of filmmaking and a lot of that tone is generated on an aural level.

Take this for example.

Granted, they are playing with the story and it's an extreme example but, other than the hokey voice over, it's the original footage from the disturbing and eerie Kubrick film. It's a simple change in tone and we are all having a laugh. It's that easy to screw up a film.

Here is the original. The 'music' in Kubrick's trailer is much more like soundscape then what we consider to be a tune or melody. The spectacular Bernard Herrmann was a pioneer of this use of music. It has everything to do with tone and emotion, a revolving uncomfortable piece that lacks progression or resolution.

Postscript: Kubrick liked to use classical music as his temp music while editing and then would end up using it in the final film thus saving some poor composer from having to imitate the un-imitatable (I may just made up a word).


AMC - Amercian Movie Classics

You know I hate, detest, and can't bear a lie, not because I am straighter than the rest of us, but simply because it appalls me.
There is a taint of death, a flavor of mortality in lies,--which is
exactly what I hate and detest in the world--what I want to forget.

Joseph Conrad, "Heart of Darkness"

A few days ago I sat down to watch a documentary I had pvr'd off of AMC. The documentary was called 'Hollywood Vietnam' and was about the Vietnam War and the change in Hollywood to the kind of war films they were making. There was a significant shift from the glorious heroic war picture to the brooding and introspective pictures.

The documentary was pretty good, full of clips and interviews and a fairly comprehensive overview of the politics and attitudes of the day. Yet, in a strange irony, AMC had decided to play the documentary with all the vulgar language censored. They silenced all the swear words. What was ironic was that all the violence was left intact. There were scenes shown that had people taking a bullet in the head at point blank range. It was bloody but it wasn't fucking bloody...

Of course, this leaves me somewhat bewildered. Is someone getting their heads blown off less offensive than the F word? It reminded me, oddly enough, of Apocalypse Now. Kurtz, a moment before his assassination, is reading his propaganda into a radio microphone:

We train young men to drop fire on
people, but their commanders won't
allow them to write "fuck" on their
airplanes because it's obscene.

It's all lies.

I worked on a season of 'Celebrity Deathmatch' and one of the
rules of the show was no sex. I suspect this comes from the
religious right but it seems ass backwards to me. They felt it
was fine to disembowel someone but sexuality was disgusting.
For me, the end result of violence is death. The end result
of sex is creation. What kind of age are we in living here?


Oliver Stone's 'Nixon' Revisited

I published a number of 'top film lists' without comment and with the thought that people would find them interesting and evocative. If I have a comment to make on these lists, it is that a film needs a moratorium of at least ten years before it should be considered for any ranking of the 'best of all time '(even if it is a bit silly to compare great films to one another for the purpose of finding the best). When asked what my favourite movie is I can't answer. I'll rhyme off a hundred of my favourite movies but I can't rank them - it's a pointless and subjective exercise. I do believe that there are superior films out there, absolutely, but I don't see the need to give them a number. Is Godfather #1 and Kane #2?! They're both spectacular in their own ways. Still, if I am to play along I would require a moratorium - what is hot and 'fresh' today might be dated and old tomorrow.

Oliver Stone's provocative political films 'JFK' and 'Nixon' are now past my moratorium and it's interesting to see how they are holding up. The other night I put on 'Nixon'.

Oliver Stone's 'Nixon' came out in 1994 and like most of Stone's films there was a storm of controversy. Stone attempts to dramatize and mythologize events in US history and is often accused of historical innacuracies and skewed politics. On a previous post I linked to a story of filmmakers responsible for aiding in the ignorance of science. Here Stone could be accused of creating ignorance of history. 'JFK' was the most glaring example of dramatic liberty, drawing on conspiracy theory in the assassination of John F Kennedy. His critics were furious that Stone creates an argument using false facts and imaginary characters and incidents. In 'Nixon', unlike 'JFK', there is a text card at the head of the film that makes it clear that the film is a work of fiction based on the true story. Events are dramatized, dialogue created and several characters are condensed into a single persona.

Personally, I have no issue with this.

Stone is not a journalist. He is not a documentary filmmaker. He is not a biographer. Oliver Stone is a filmmaker who is working through his own ideas and obsessions and creating works that are trying to speak to something greater than the subject. This is what makes 'Nixon' a magnificent film. It is a rich character study of both Nixon and the American system of government. Roger Ebert said that this film would still have been great had Nixon not existed. I agree. It is a film that strives for the tragedy of Shakespeare and the visual prowess of Citizen Kane. It is also a film that resonates with what is going on at the White House today.

In my efforts not to 'review' films I will not go into the details of the plot here. What I would like to make note of is Stone's ability to create a fully realized and complex sketch of Nixon. Stone fully acknowledges the good that Nixon did for America. Nixon ended the American involvement in the Vietnam War, created the Environmental Protection Agency and cooled off the Cold War. He had success in dividing the communist nations so America could deal with them individually instead of facing a unified front (the lack of unity is what keeps the middle east from becoming a real threat to the United States). Nixon held the cards to greatness yet he left the White House with his tail between his legs, humiliated and defeated. Stone sees the contradictions and created a film that makes Nixon into a tragic figure. The difference between tragedy and drama is that in tragedy, the protagonist is their own worst enemy. The protagonist's own character flaws end up being the architect of their own demise. With Nixon, Stone contends that the things that brought him to the White House, a man who came from humble beginnings and an 'outsider', were the things that brought him down. Nixon always felt that he was conspired against by the press and the ivy league politicians. This paranoia led to the events of Watergate and his eventual resignation from the Presidency.

Beyond Nixon himself we can see how the government itself moves forward, independent of its leadership. Nixon, no matter what he wants, has to deal with the constant machine. The machine has been running before he got there and it will continue to run after he leaves. Every president has had to compromise (right or wrong) to the wheel that is already in motion. There are institutions present that work beyond four year terms - the CIA, the FBI, the DEA, the IRS. These institutions don't easily bend to the whims of a president (a lesson that Barack Obama seems to be naive about). To gain the Presidency one must make deals and gain support from the true powers that be. Nixon, as Stone portrays him, is indebted to this system. He must compromise as all politicians and every level of government is busy protecting their own interests.

The details of the film, right or wrong, don't waiver from a truth that we can understand. I'm drawn to this film because it has an honesty to it. It doesn't demonize Nixon nor does it ex halt him. It shows that even a man who can achieve the highest goals can still be a human being - fragile, complex, contradictory. I suspect that George W will be the subject of such scrutiny. I don't believe in the archetypes. I don't think he's evil or that in his heart, he is a bad person. It's easy to create monsters. It makes it easier for us to separate ourselves from them. We stand on a soap box and scream without having to spend anytime in these men's shoes. I agree that the true hero is the one who walks the high ground and who doesn't compromise their ideals. Yet, most of us are mere humans. Flesh and blood, full of weakness and contradictions. Flawed in our own greatness. Oliver Stone seems to understand that.


If you can't blame Canada, blame Hollywood!

Rob sent me this article.

Hollywood Blamed For Scientific Ignorance

Some scientists are slack-jawed at the thought that people believe sinking in lava is even possible, not to mention leaping onto the wings of a hovering fighter jet.

Hollywood gets the blame for all manner of ills in today's society, from promiscuity to violence to reckless driving. Seldom is there evidence for such claims beyond that which has been cherry-picked and packaged to fit a political agenda.

To the list of grievances against Hollywood, add scientific illiteracy.

In an article published in the German journal "Praxis der Naturwissenschaften Physik," two University of Central Florida professors argue that the disregard for the laws of physics evident in Hollywood films is contributing to students' poor understanding of science.

The paper, "Hollywood Blockbusters: Unlimited Fun But Limited Science Literacy," by UCF professor Costas J. Efthimiou and former UCF physics chair R. A. Llewellyn, makes no effort to establish a causal link between viewing impossible physics and believing the world works the same way. Rather, it assumes exposure leads to ignorance.

"Sometimes the scene is so profoundly wrong that it is hard to be missed," the paper concludes. "However, often the absurdity is hard to detect by people not very fluent in science literacy and untrained in critical thinking. In this way, Hollywood is reinforcing (or even creating) incorrect scientific attitudes that can have negative results for the society. This is a good reason to recommend that all citizens be taught critical thinking and be required to develop basic science and quantitative literacy."

Despite the absence of evidence of a connection between bad film physics and real-world ignorance, the paper provides an entertaining analysis of scientific flaws in recent films.

For example, a scene in the 2003 movie "The Core" depicts a person in a protective suit sinking in lava. As Efthimiou and Llewellyn explain, people would not sink completely in molten stone: "The human body is made mainly of water, thus its density will be almost equal to that of water, pwater [parts per water] = 1000kg/m3. The lava is mostly molten rock; surface rocks have an approximate density of 3300kg/m3. So plava [parts per lava] = 3300kg/m3. Therefore, for the human body, once a third of it submerges in lava, the two forces become equal and the body stops sinking. Even more, sinking (in lava) will happen at a slower rate compared to the rate on the surface of the Earth since gravity is weaker at that depth."

Efthimiou has been using Hollywood films in physics courses since 2002, when he and Llewellyn created a course called "Physics in Film" that he continues to teach.

In a 2006 paper by the same name, Efthimiou and his three co-authors state, "Hollywood is often willing to sacrifice scientific accuracy for the sake of drama. The problem with this is that many people, without the tools for critical analysis, accept what they see on-screen as realistic and accurate."

Consider the 1996 film Independence Day, which features alien spaceships crashing into the Earth. "The spaceships crash over every major city in the world with what would be the energy release of tens of thousands of atomic bombs, yet people celebrate this as a victory," Efthimiou and his co-authors lament.

While such arguments may suggest a rationale for public service warnings to dissuade viewers of films like Live Free or Die Hard from leaping John McClane-style off collapsing highways onto the wings of hovering fighter jets, they also underscore the real concern in the technical community that the U.S. can't compete in science.

As the Association for Computing Machinery observed in a 2006 report on globalization, "the United States educational system is still trying to understand how to change its curriculum to address application domain knowledge, a global workplace, and maintaining its innovative edge. In addition, the United States faces long-term challenges from falling interest and skills in math and science programs in its primary education system."

The Science and Engineering Indicators 2006 report appears to support Efthimiou's position, at least in part. It shows that average science scores among U.S. 12th graders declined from the year before and that only a third of students tested demonstrated proficiency in science.

At the same time, the 2006 report indicates that the number of science and engineering degrees awarded in the United States at all levels is rising. And the number of doctoral degrees rose in 2003 for both U.S. citizens and temporary visa holders.

Complicating the picture is whether those scientists and engineers end up leaving the U.S. Since 1995, the number of temporary residents obtaining doctoral degrees has been growing at a faster rate than the number of U.S citizens and permanent residents obtaining doctoral degrees. If an increasing number of those temporary residents end up leaving the U.S., that brain emigration could affect U.S. competitiveness.

Kevin Scott, a member of the education board at the Association for Computing Machinery, the VP of engineering and operations at AdMob, and a former senior engineer at Google, doesn't worry about the Hollywood as a vector of scientific ignorance.

"From my perspective, I think movies are helpful and encouraging to make kids think about science and technology in good ways," Scott said, noting that a film like Shrek might instill curiosity about computer graphics. "This was the way I got interested in computing and chose it as a career. I really wanted to understand from an entertainment perspective how these things are done."

Scott said there are two different issues with regard to technical education. One is whether the U.S. education system is competitive with education systems in other countries; the other involves the talent needs of technology companies.

While technology companies may not have as much access to affordable technical talent as they might like, Scott said that the U.S. university system is doing a pretty good job. "The Ph.D. candidates I see at AdMob and Google are really, really quite good," he said. "Our first choices for candidates are still the top computer science schools in the U.S."


Ed Wood might respond: "haven't you ever heard of the suspension of disbelief?". Of course the scientists are arguing against the 'creation of ignorance'.

The same issue has come up in forensic science with arm chair idiots believing every thing they see on "CSI", a show I find unwatchable (give me 'Columbo' any day). The high tech gadgetry and lack of lab coats have given the audience a false sense of what is actually possible. Does this matter? The other hand says that these are works of fiction and the makers of fiction don't have the responsibility to cater to reality. It's not their fault the audience is so damn gullible.

The problem with the scientist is that he doesn't see the lack of dramatic value in having the guy float along in the lava.

The problem with the filmmaker is that they've fallen in love with computer graphics and are using them to try to up the ante on every action film. I'll take 'Fitzcarraldo' any day.

I'm reminded of the story in Jaws where the effects guys had gone to the morgue and studied what corpses really look like. They were creating an arm and hand that had floated up on the beach after the first shark attack and they were precise to how it would actually look. However, Spielberg saw the hand and said it looked fake. They responded that this is how it really looks to which Spielberg made them change it saying that he wasn't interested in whether the three physicians in the audience loved the verisimilitude, he was more interested in what the audience thought a corpse would look like. They changed it.

And now for a Simpsons quote:

Homer: "Hey, mister. How come you're painting those horses to look like cows?"

Movie Guy: "Cows don't look like cows on film. You gotta use horses."

Homer: "What do you use if you want horses?"

Movie Guy: "We just duct tape a bunch of cats together."


John Milius

It turns out not all video game companies have their heads in the sand. John Milius was hired by EA to work on their WWII game Medal of Honor 'European Assault'.

Here's the interview from G4.

Ten Minutes with John Milius

written by Coury Turczyn

The Director of Conan the Barbarian Enters the Video Game Arena with Medal of Honor: European Assault

John Milius earned a Hollywood reputation as a true he-man film director and writer, co-writing the screenplay for Apocalypse Now, and directing the ‘80s classics Conan the Barbarian and Red Dawn. ("Wolverines!") He was also the fellow who coined Dirty Harry’s signature catchphrase: "Go ahead, make my day." And now he’s entered the video game industry by consulting and writing for the latest chapter in the Medal of Honor franchise, European Assault. A hardcore World War II history buff, Milius was the perfect choice to bring historical authenticity and a cinematic viewpoint to the popular FPS series. In this interview, Milius talks about how writing for video games is different than screenwriting, and why future video games will be more like novels than movies.

How did you get involved with Medal of Honor: European Assault?

I was working for EA on another project. I had written a very detailed script for it, and they decided to put it on hold. And that’s about the time that this game started, really. They said, “Gee, we’d like to have him work on Medal of Honor.” So they took me over there and I jumped right in.

Had you played any war games previous to this?

I can’t do those things on my own—I don’t have the computer skills. The only war games I ever played were board games when I was a kid, like Avalon Hill and those kinds of things. Of course, I’m a guy from the ICT: the Institute of Creative Technology, which is like the Rand Corporation, a think tank. We did very, very complex war games there for the Pentagon, and we still do that. So I did know a little about this.

What was your goal on the project?

My goal was just to make it interesting and try to bring real history into it—give people a sense of the things that happened. If you’re going to go through World War II, don’t go through it in a really fanciful and unnecessary way; go through it in a way that gives you a sense of the shape of World War II and what really, historically happened and what things influenced others.

What’s the scenario behind European Assault?

The player will be introduced to the main character, (U.S. Army Lieutenant William) Holt, who’s an OSS man. Very early in the war, he’s sent off to the British to participate in one of the most daring commando raids of World War II. And in that commando raid, he finds things that lead them to other theaters of operation. Originally, it starts with following up the development of the eighty-eight artillery piece, which leads to more dark and sinister things. And by doing that, you’re able to have him go to different theaters and key events in World War II.

How did you tackle the balance between gameplay and historical accuracy?

I was always for historical accuracy, and they had to tone me down. If I was to do a game, it probably would be boring. There are certain things you can’t do. Like, I wanted to follow an armored assault, but they decided that they didn’t want to have people be in tanks. They wanted to follow ground combat with squads because it worked better for the game. I would like to see all different aspects to the event, which eventually you’ll be able to do—you’ll see it from the point of view of somebody in the air, somebody in an infantry unit or a tank, or a civilian. There’s no doubt that games will eventually come to this.

Do you think that games will ever be able to truly simulate the experience of war?

Yeah, I think games will be much more like long novels in the future; they will be much more story oriented than they are now. They’re headed that way. They’ll be very story oriented, and they’ll take a long time. So you’ll have an experience that’s a real experience. Last summer, I read War and Peace, and it took me a long time to read it, so I was immersed in Russia from 1805 to 1813 or whatever—the events of the Napoleonic Wars and the lives of the different aristocratic families in Russia. And because I was immersed in it for a long time—and because Tolstoy is a very good writer, too— I probably got a much greater feel for that period, certainly much better than if I would have seen a movie. And a game can do the same thing. I can imagine somebody doing a game that takes a month to complete in which you would have all kinds of emotions, and follow all kinds of stories.

Working on this particular game, did you try to inject drama as you would on a movie script?

I tried to do that often. But I’m just a consultant. They told me what I could do and what I couldn’t. It was sort of interesting to do it that way—just to come in, sit there, and throw my stuff out there. They used what they wanted, other stuff they didn’t. I had no ego about it. I wasn’t sitting there saying, “This is the way you should’ve done it,” because it’s a game, a different thing. And it was a relief, in a way. It was sort of a nice way to work.

How close do you think European Assault came to what you envisioned?

Well, I didn’t really envision a total picture. I just envisioned what I could help with. It’s not like a screenplay or a story, where I envisioned a beginning, middle, and an end. A whole story is a much different thing, especially when you write a screenplay and direct it.

How was it different working as a video game writer as opposed to being a film writer?

Well, in video games, there really isn’t “a writer”—there are a lot of different writers, and a lot of different aspects that go into it. So the story voice you’re trying to make is subject to what can be done and what’s exciting gameplay. Gaming hasn’t really reached the level yet where the story is very important or that you’re following the events of the story very carefully. It’s like a broad over-story. It’s very, very different in a movie where every line is important, and there’s the whole concept media dramaturgy. But this is kind of fun. It’s still in a very crude stage; this is going to change a lot in the next year—and in the next five years, it’s going to be unrecognizable. If it continues the way it is, in five years games will be extremely sophisticated and much, much different from what they are now.

Are you planning on doing any more video game projects?

Yeah, I love doing this. It’s really a lot of fun because it’s a certain kind of creativity without pressure. And everybody loves to live in a world of fantasy, so to speak—to go back in history. That’s why we have re-enactors.

Is there any information you can divulge on King Conan?

Well, King Conan is pretty well on hold. Warner Brothers decided they’re going to do their own version of whatever they want to do with Conan. They’ve sort of put it in deep, deep freeze. I don’t know. You’ll have to talk to Warner Brothers and ask them what their wisdom is. They’ll probably do an animated, kid-friendly Conan.