Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, Part 2

This is a continuation of last week’s discussion of the book The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film. This sort of nuts-and-bolts stuff is endlessly fascinating, so let’s get back to some quotes from the book:

M: In film there’s a costume department interested in showing what it can do – which is only natural – so, on the smallest pretext, characters will change clothes. The problem is, that locks filmmakers into a more rigid scene structure. But if a character keeps the same clothes, you can put a scene in a different place and it doesn’t stand out.

… there’s a delicate balance between the time line of a film’s story – which might take place over a series of days or weeks or months – and the fact that the film is only two hours long. You can stretch the amount of time somebody is in the same costume because the audience is subconsciously thinking, Well, I’ve only been here for two hours, so it’s not strange that he hasn’t changed his clothes.

Page 162

This makes me wonder about films where characters are constantly changing outfits. Is there a point where, if you change costumes often enough, the disadvantages boomerang back to being flexible because every scene has a different costume anyway? Probably not entirely, but maybe there’s something to that…

M: I guess I am drawn to stories where you have to get under the skin of rather unlikely and sometimes unlikeable characters.

How you do that, as an editor, ultimately comes down to selecting the shots, and moments within shots, where the character looks appealing yet problematic at the same time – conflicted, in other words. If you have a choice of seven different shots, which one shows that conflict best? There are many tiny but telling details the editor includes or eliminates in order to make the audience aware of the deeper aspects of character.

For instance, if you are wearing a hat, as soon as you tip the hat slightly back on your head, it gets noticed – you’re sending a message via the angle of the hat: I’m a happy-go-lucky guy. Or if you ram the hat down on your head, you’re saying, I don’t want to talk to anybody. Or if you tip it forward, you say, I’m aggressive…. But if you’re trying to be earnest, the tipped-back hat doesn’t quite send the right message.

In film there are endless versions of this, where a look, an aspect, an attitude, a gesture is fortuitously correct or incorrect, and either amplifies or contradicts the message the filmmakers want to convey.

I’m using “hat” as a metaphor: one moment is always going to be the most revealing, in the best sense, of the inner character, at that point in the film.

Page 174

Sometimes when you read criticism of a movie, people read a lot into the smallest detail and there are certainly times when that sort of extrapolation is inaccurate, but then you read stuff like the above and it isn’t always as far-fetched as it might seem.

Gene Hackman and an Air Freshener in The Conversation

They reference a scene in The Conversation where Gene Hackman’s character blows on a little air freshener – it’s a tiny moment, but revealing.

M: There’s a wonderful quotation from Goethe – he must have been frustrated at some point about the difficulty of communication. He said, “Utterly futile trying to change, by writing, someone’s fixed inclination. You will only succeed in confirming him of his opinion, or if he has none, drenching him in yours.”

O: There’s a poet in Vancouver who said, “I’ll see it when I believe it!”

M: Exactly. I’m sure Goethe didn’t think that way most of the time, otherwise he wouldn’t have kept writing. He was talking in black-and-white terms: Agree with me or not! The richest zone of communication is in the grey area, around things like your staircase, where the reader is somewhat receptive to what the author writes but also brings along his own images, and ideas, which in a creative way do violence to the author’s vision and ideas. A synergy results from what the writer presents and what the reader brings. That communication, initially present in neither the sender or the receiver, is greater than the message of the writer alone or the thoughts of the reader alone.

Page 209

There’s a lot here that’s relevant to the current state of discourse in the world. That rich zone in the grey area is obliterated by most of what passes for discourse these days. Everyone’s so afraid of being misinterpreted that the sort of synergy that Murch is referring to here becomes difficult. A lot of people complaining about making things “too political” are talking about this sort of thing. It’s not that politics exist that’s the problem, it’s the lack of potential synergy…

M: There’s a great game… Negative Twenty Questions. … It was invented by John Wheeler, a quantum physicist who was a young graduate student of Neils Bohr’s in the 1930s. … he thought up a parlour game that reflects the way the world is constructed at a quantum level. It involves, say, four people. Michael, Anthony, Walter, and Aggie. From the point of view of one of those people, Michael, the game that’s being played is the normal Twenty Questions – Ordinary Twenty Questions, I guess you’d call it. So Michael leaves the room, under the illusion that the other three players are going to look around and collectively decide on the chosen object to be guessed by him – say, the alarm clock. Michael expects that when they’ve made their decision they will ask him to come back in and try to guess the object in fewer than twenty questions.

Under normal circumstances, the game is a mixture of perspicacity and luck: No, it’s not bigger than a breadbox. No, you can’t eat it… Those kinds of things.

But in Wheeler’s version of the game, when Michael leaves the room, the three remaining players don’t communicate with one another at all. Instead, each of them silently decides on an object. They call Michael back in.

So there’s a disparity between what Michael believes and what the underlying truth is: Nobody knows what anyone else is thinking. The game proceeds regardless, which is where the fun comes in.

Michael asks Walter: Is the object bigger than a breadbox? Walter – who has picked the alarm clock – says, No. Now, Anthony has chosen the sofa, which is bigger than a breadbox. And since Michael is going to ask him the next question, Anthony must quickly look around the room and come up with something else – a coffee cup! – which is smaller than a breadbox. So when Michael asks Anthony, If I emptied out my pockets, could I put their contents in this object? Anthony says, Yes.

Now Aggie’s choice may have been the small pumpkin carved for Halloween, which could also contain Michael’s keys and coins, so when Michael says, Is it edible? Aggie says, Yes. That’s a problem for Walter and Anthony, who have chosen inedible objects: they now have to change their selection to something edible, hollow, and smaller than a breadbox.

So a complex vortex of decision making is set up, a logical but unpredictable chain of ifs and thens. To end successfully, the game must produce, in fewer than twenty questions, and object that satisfies all of the logical requirements: smaller than a breadbox, hollow, et cetera. Two things can happen: Success – this vortex can give birth to an answer that will seem to be inevitable in retrospect: Of course! It’s the ______! And the game ends with Michael still believing he has just played Ordinary Twenty Questions. In fact, no one chose the ______ to start with, and Anthony, Walter, and Aggie have been sweating it out, doing these hidden mental gymnastics, always one step ahead of failure.

Which is the other possible result: Failure – the game can break down catastrophically. By question 15, let’s say, the questions asked have generated logical requirements so complex that nothing in the room can satisfy them. And when Michael asks Anthony the sixteenth question, Anthony breaks down and has to confess that he doesn’t know, and Michael is finally let in on the secret: The game was negative Twenty Questions all along. Wheeler suggests that the nature of perception and reality, at the quantum level, and perhaps above, is somehow similar to this game.

Pages 210- 212

Murch then applies this to filmmaking and the collaborative process of constantly adjusting due to various aspects of the production. This sort of collaboration can be precarious, but Murch argues that it’s preferable to a monolithic vision.

M: One of the reasons I lobby for the increased collaboration of everyone who can have a voice on a film is that through collaboration you add facets to the work. The work is going to be seen by millions of people, over many decades and under very many different circumstances, and even though the film is a fixed thing, you want it to be multifaceted so that different people will see different things in it, and come away rewarded.

The best, easiest way to get that multifacetedness is to allow the collaboration of lots of people, as well as Chance, which is sometimes Fate in costume. Each of those moments of collaboration, each contribution by someone other than the director, adds a slightly different perspective to the work, some chisel mark slightly at an angle to the central vision. And each of these moments, these facets, has the potential to make the work “sparkle” in a creative sense, and make it more accessible to a greater variety of people over a longer period of time.

If, instead, the film is a single, monolithic vision, the viewer has no option other than to submit to it on its own terms, bow down to it, or turn away from it.

Page 242

Easier said than done, for sure, and you’re inviting that catastrophic failure element from Negative Twenty Questions, but when it works? Seems worth it.

M: In film, at the moment of the cut you are juxtaposing one image with another, and that’s the equivalent of rhyme. It’s how rhyme and alliteration work in poetry, or how we juxtapose two words or two images, and what that juxtaposition implies. Either by emphasizing the theme or by countering it, modulating it, like an invisible Greek chorus. What’s being stated may be one thing, but by juxtaposing two different images at the moment of the cut, and makin them as striking as possible, we can say, Yes, but there’s something else going on here.

The trick is to make that flow an organic part of the process. Editing is a construction, a mosaic in three dimensions, two of space and one of time. It’s a miniature version of the way films are made, which is an artificial, piece-by-piece process.

Page 268

Murch has being doing this long enough that he says he knows when to cut because he almost involuntarily flinches when watching a shot, and he knows that flinch moment is when to cut. He apparently does this down to the frame (i.e. 1/24th of a second), which is astounding and seemingly tedious.

M: … what he meant was, How are you doing? … So I answered, Oh yeah, I’m very happy. Things are great! But later that evening I kept mulling over that question, thinking, What I said was the right social response, but what’s the real response to that question – from one director to another? The closest I came was, No, I’m not happy, but I would be absolutely miserable if I were prevented from doing what I’m doing now. Don’t stop me – I’m miserable, but don’t stop me. I’m miserable in the amazing, cosmic way that a director is miserable.

There’s a phrase from something Martha Graham once said about that process. She calls it “blessed unrest.”

Pages 282 – 283

That’s a great phrase and gets at a core contradiction of the human condition. It reminds me of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. The “flow” state is difficult to get into and often involves very hard work that doesn’t seem like it would be enjoyable, but once you get there, you lose track of everything else and never want to leave. “Blessed unrest” seems like a good descriptor of that sort of thing.

M: … films, when they work, are functioning at a complex level of harmonic interaction – of sounds and images and acting and costume and art direction and photography and on and on. At the beginning we have a script which, complex as it may be, is like a simple melodic line, but we don’t yet have an orchestrated score. The director – who is the closest we have to the conductor of the piece, visually speaking – doesn’t have a way of orchestrating all these things except through talking and instruction by example and sometimes, it seems, through some kind of divine intervention. If every decision that had to be made on the film had to be articulated, spelled out in detail, the film would never get done…

O: But surely on one level, the lack of rules and codes,and the lack of a too pre-meditated theory is what keeps film alive. Obviously film is an art form and it’s a made form, but what’s wonderful about film is how it also catches an uncontrolled reality. There’s the chance of the accidental, which then can be selected, chosen, and shaped by the director and the editor. But to begin with something too controlled… it’s why I cannot stand cartoons, which are a hundred percent premeditated, totally manipulative, and therefore completely artificial.

Pages 306 – 307

Alrighty then, I think I’ve mined this book enough for now. though there’s lots of other fascinating topics discussed throughout (for example, I didn’t even get into Murch’s attempts to develop a sorta Movie notation like music has, based on the I Ching). Suffice it to say that it’s a highly recommended book for anyone interested in how film actually works.

Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, Part 1

A few weeks ago, the Academy Awards were wracked with controversy. I speak, of course, of the decision not to air several important categories during the broadcast, among them Best Film Editing and Best Sound. Nothing else of note occurred during the ceremony. Anyway, by pure coincidence, I happened to be reading a book about just how important Film Editing can be.

During the making of The English Patient, the author who wrote the book the movie was based on, Michael Ondaatje, was able to observe the whole process. He met the editor of the film, Walter Murch, and the two became friends. Ondaatje became fascinated with film editing, sound, and sound editing, and decided to write a book about those subjects with Murch. The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film basically consists of several in-depth interviews with Ondaatje and Murch. For the uninitiated, Murch is something of a legend in the Editing community. He doesn’t have the cache that the directors he worked with have, but you’ve almost certainly seen (or heard) his work. Between editing and sound, he’s worked on all three Godfather movies, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now, American Graffiti, The English Patient, and the famous re-edit of Touch of Evil, amongst others.

It’s a fascinating book and recommended for those who want to understand the lesser discussed aspects of filmmaking. I took note of interesting passages and discussions throughout the book, which we’ll cover now. The first concerns the interrogation (and torture) scene from The English Patient. It was apparently a particularly grueling shoot for the actors, so there was a lot of footage to work with.

And what did Walter Murch do with this scene?

Well, he had been reading the Italian writer Curzio Malaparte on the “Nazi character,” and he plucked from his reading the fact that the Nazis hated any demonstration of weakness. This idea was certainly not in my original paragraph, not in Minghella’s script, nor in any of the hundred minutes of footage that had been shot and that somehow had to be cut down to a nerve-racking three or four minutes. Every scene, every film, for Murch, needs to have a larger science of patterns at work within it, and this would be the idea or concept that governed how he cut the scene.

At one point Caravaggio/Dafoe says, before he even sees the razor, “Don’t cut me.” He says it once. Walter has the interrogator pause in his questioning when he hears this, extending the time of his response. He has threatened the spy with the idea of cutting off his thumbs, but only in a casual, not serious, way. When Caravaggio says, “Don’t cut me,” the German pauses for a second, a flicker of disgust on his face. The interrogation continues. Walter found another take of Dafoe’s line, this one with more quaver in the voice, and decided to put it in again, a few seconds later. So Dafoe repeats his fear. And now time stops.

We see the look on the German. And now we know he has to do what he was previously just thinking about. To emphasize this, Murch, at that very moment, pulls all the sound out of the scene, so there is complete silence. And we, even if we don’t realize it as we sit in the theatre, are shocked and the reason is that quietness. Something terrible has been revealed by the spy, about his own nature, and now something terrible is going to happen.

Page xx

But sure, editing isn’t important enough to reward on the broadcast. Apparently Murch liked to quote French filmmaker Robert Bresson to the effect that a film is born three times – in the writing of the script, in the shooting, and in the editing. In the case of The English Patient, there was also a fourth, which was Ondaatje’s original novel. The above anecdote, about Murch injecting a repeated line that wasn’t in the script and wasn’t shot, is a good example of Bresson’s notion.

Willem Dafoe in The English Patient

In discussing a re-edit he did for Robert Duvall’s The Apostle, Murch makes a fascinating observation about the perceived length of a film:

M: … Linearity does sometimes present its own problems, however, particularly regarding a film’s perceived length. That was true with The Coversation, and The Talented Mr. Ripley as well. Those three films are told from the point of view of the central character: the Apostle, Harry Caul, Tom Ripley. FIlms with a single point of view are on borrowed time if they are more than two hours long. Since there’s only one point of view, there’s no relief if the audience is not one hundred percent with the film, and it can subsequently seem too long even if it isn’t objectively so.

O: When you say point of view, in terms of film, you’re talking about focusing on just one character –

M: In The Talented Mr. Ripley, everything the audience sees is either Tom Ripley or something Tom Ripley sees. There are no scenes where we go off with other characters – as is always happening in The English Patient, for instance, where you have a complex dance, different people with different attitudes to the same events. But Ripley is about Tom Ripley. Likewise The Apostle – there’s only the Apostle’s story.

O: And that’s deadly, you think?

M: No, no, it’s not deadly, it’s just that the clock runs faster with that kind of film, and unless there’s something wildly unusual or different about it, it’s better not to have those films be more than two hours long. The Conversation is only one hour, fifty-two minutes. Even then, some people think it’s too long. With more points of view, you can sustain that juggling act for longer, just because it’s richer and more complex. A symphony can be longer than a sonata.

Pages 33-34

Not so much editing, but more on framing:

I’ve never thought about it quite like that, but as I get older, I do seem to keep thinking that a given movie (or book) is too long. This sort of perception could certainly play a role, and I’ll have to keep it in mind.

It’s a rule, of course, that normally you never allow anyone to look into the camera unless you want to “break the frame” and have the characters directly address the audience, usually for laughs.

Yet in Apocalypse Now, you’re right, actors look into the camera quite often and it seems to integrate effortlessly into the flow of the film. … In that briefing scene where Willard gets his mission, the characters are looking straight at the camera when they talk to Willard. If they are doing that, the mathematically correct thing would be to have Willard looking at the camera too. Instead he’s looking to the left side of the lens, which is correct according to conventional film grammar. Yet you never feel the general is looking at the audience: you believe he’s looking at Willard. But when Willard finally does look at the camera, at the end of the scene, you feel he’s looking at us – at the audience – and thinking: Can you believe this?

Pages 70-71

Again, there’s not editing here because Coppola apparently never shot the scene in a conventional way, but it’s interesting nonetheless. It speaks to the collaborative nature of filmmaking though, and Murch has some interesting thoughts there too:

M: … How do you get 150 temperamental artistic types to work together on the same project, and make something that not only comes in on schedule, on budget, but that has an artistic coherence. It’s simply beyond the ability of a single person, a director or a producer, to cause that to happen by any series of direct commands. It’s so complicated that it just can’t be done. The question is: How does it happen?

If you’ve ever remodelled a house, you’ll know how difficult it is even to get four or five carpenters to agree on anything: billions of people have been building houses, for thousands of years – “houseness” should almost be encoded in our DNA. And yet when you remodel, it’s very common to go double over budget and schedule. By comparison, we’ve only been making films for a hundred years, and a film crew is made up of sometimes hundreds of people, yet somehow, miraculously, at the end of “only” a year, there is, one hopes, a wonderful, mysterious, powerful, coherent, two-hour-long vision that has no precedent – and the more original the vision, the more the process is amazing. And yet studios are furious with us if we go ten percent over budget and schedule!

Pages 84-85

As someone who is currently working on some large scale software development efforts, I can say there’s something similarly complicated going on there. It turns out that predicting effort, predicting the future, is kinda difficult, especially as a project grows in size and scope.

Murch also does a lot of sound editing, and there are similar dynamics at work:

M: … Not having music also gives the emotional effect of not cutting away.

When music makes an entrance in a film there’s the emotional equivalent of a cutaway. Music functions as an emulsifier that allows you to dissolve a certain emotion and take it in a certain direction. When there’s no music, the filmmakers are standing back saying, simply, Look at this. Without appearing to comment.

Page 103

One of the observations Murch and Ondaatje make about The Godfather is that the music almost always punctuates at the end of the scene.

The Godfather

For instance, the scene at the restaurant is mostly played quietly, without music, until the deed is done and Michael is walking away.

M: And also all this is predicated on Francis’s decision to not have music during the scene. In the hands of another filmmaker, there would be tension music percolating under the surface. But Francis wanted to save everything for those big chords after Michel’s dropped the gun. Even after he shoots, there’s silence, and in your mind you hear Clemenza saying, “Remember, drop the gun. Everyone will be looking at the gun, so they won’t look at your face.” So Michael shoots them and then there’s this moment of silence and then he drops the gun.

O: He doesn’t even drop it, he tosses it! It’s a much more extraordinary gesture than a subtle drop.

M: Yeah, as if to say: Look at this gun! The gun hits the ground, and then the music finally comes in. It’s a classic example of the correct use of music, which is a collector and channeler of previously created emotion, rather than a device that creates the emotion. …

Most movies use music the way athletes use steroids. There’s no question that you can induce a certain emotion with music – just like steroids build up muscle. It gives you an edge, it gives you a speed, but it’s unhealthy for the organism in the long run.

Page 122

Music is often overused or used as a crutch for removing ambiguity from a scene and heightening the emotion, but ambiguity can be a good thing…

O: It’s an odd thing: I’ve heard you talk before about the importance of ambiguity in film, and the need to save that ambiguous quality which exists in a book or painting, and which you think a film does not often have. And at the same time in a mix you are trying to “perfect” that ambiguity.

M: I know. It’s a paradox. And one of the most fruitful paradoxes, I think, is that even when the film is finished, there should be unsolved problems. Because there’s another stage, beyond the finished film: when the audience views it. You want the audience to be co-conspirators in the creation of this work, just as much as the editor or the mixers or the cameraman or the actors are. If by some chemistry you actually did remove all ambiguity in the final mix – even though it had been ambiguous up to that point – I think you would do the film a disservice. But the paradox is that you have to approach every problem as if it’s desperately important to solve it. You can’t say, I don’t want to solve this because it’s got to be ambiguous. If you do that, then there’s a sort of haemorrhaging of the organism.

Page 105

In case you can’t tell, Murch is something of a renaissance man, and that comes out in these conversations, like this one about seiche tones:

M: I did think of an experiment which would be fascinating to do. To record the bell tone – the carillon, in fact – of San Francisco Bay. Every body of water – it doesn’t matter whether it’s a puddle or Lake Superior – has what they call a seiche tone. Even if you can’t see it, the water is vibrating, undulating at a resonant frequency that is keyed to the size of the body of water. San Francisco Bay I think has a seiche tone of one hour and forty three minutes. A wave will cross the bay and then come back in that time period. These are very large waves, undetectable by our normal senses.

On top of that are the waves – the chop – that we can see, and then little micro-waves that are just part of the texture of the water. If you set up a pole at some point in the bay, and has a laser beam that reflected off the surface of the water and continuously measured the distance between the tip of the beam and the surface of the water, you would be plotting a series of curves. You could print that out as a series of wave forms, like the record of an earthquake seismograph. One of the wave forms would be this big seiche tone, which would vary over a long period of time, hours. Others would be quicker and more obvious.

Now you can take that wave form and speed it up and render it audible as a series of tones. I don’t know what it would sound like, but the bay would have a (hums) tone. Then superimposed on that would be all these other tones of the smaller and smaller waves. It would be some kind of music.

Page 110

Jeeze, why didn’t I think of that?

M: … Renoir in particular was extremely interested in realistic sound. He went so far in one direction that he almost came around the other side. There’s a wonderful quote by him where he says that dubbing – replacing the original sound with something else – is an invention of the devil and that if such a thing had been possible in the thirteenth century, the practitioners would have been burned at the stake for preaching the duality of the soul!

Renoir felt that a person’s voice was an expression of that person’s soul, and that to fool around with it in any way was to do the devil’s work. The devil is frequently represented as having a voice at odds with what you see. In The Exorcist, the voice that the girl speaks with is not her own voice. This idea of devilry and duality and dubbing, there’s something to be explored there.

Page 113

I don’t think Renoir would have liked the Italian filmmaking of the 70s.

M: … At a certain point during the editing of The Godfather, Francis cut it down to two hours and twenty minutes. But it was clear it didn’t work at that length. Then, when we restored the length, somehow, having gone down so deep, it didn’t come back exactly to where it was before – we had learned things by going that far.

Page 130

Interesting how taking things to extremes can recontextualize the whole process and result in something better.

O: You developed a wonderful theory about editing a few years ago, in your book In the Blink of an Eye: that often the best place to cut from one shot to another coincides with the actor’s blinking, especially if the actor is good – since a blink naturally signals a closure to a thought.

M: From my early editing experiences I became convinced that there was a connection between the patterns of a person’s eye blinks and the patters of their thoughts. That blinks are the equivalent of mental punctuation marks – commas, periods, semicolons, et cetera – separating and thus providing greater articulation to our thoughts. I owe the equation Cut = Blink to the director John Huston – he put forth the idea in an interview with Louise Sweeney in the early 1970s.

The upshot of all this is that I believe the pattern of cuts in a film, to be at its best, needs to reflect or acknowledge the pattern of thoughts of the characters in the film – which ultimately means the thought patterns of the audience. In arranging the sequence of shots, the editor is in effect “blinking” for the audience, and the resulting cuts will seem most natural and graceful when they fall where the blink would fall in an exchange between two people in conversation.

Pages 141-142

This seems like the sort of thing most of us would notice subconsciously, but because an editor has such a difficult job, it has to be more conscious.

I’ll end this post here for now, but there’s plenty left in the book to cover, which I’ll save for next week….

Weird Movie of the Week: Witch Hunt

Last time on Weird Movie of the Week, we noshed on Champagne and Bullets. This time, we engage in a private-eye-led Witch Hunt:

Detective Philip Lovecraft lives in Los Angeles in the 1950s when an ambitious Senator is holding hearings, on Magic. Magic is the new influence in Tinsel Town. Lovecraft is unique in that he is the only one who refuses to use magic in his work. Shortly after he is hired, he finds his client, Kim Hudson, accused of the murder of her husband, a film executive. Philip uses the talents of a local witch, Kropotkin, to explain what is happening only to see her accused of the murder and sentenced to be burnt at the stake. Reminiscent of Roger Rabbit, without the toons.

It’s a made-for-HBO movie from 1994 (i.e. before they kicked off the whole prestige cable drama thing) that is directed by Paul Schrader, stars Dennis Hopper as Detective Lovecraft, and Penelope Ann Miller as the femme fatale. With music by Angelo Badalamenti. It’s a sorta sequel to Cast a Deadly Spell (directed by Martin Campbell and starring Fred Ward as the detective), which was actually a pretty fantastic mashup of 40s gumshoe noir and Lovecraftian horror.

Witch Hunt

By all accounts this sequel is not as good, but the frustrating thing about it is that it doesn’t appear to be available to watch anywhere (there’s a VHS on Amazon for $54). I know that movie productions are complicated legal constructs and that rights can get messy, but it was made specifically for HBO, how is it not on HBO Max? Well, you can watch Cast a Deadly Spell on HBO Max, so there is that (and I’d recommend it if you’re in the mood for this sort of thing).

A 4K Wish List

The recent release of the 4K Godfather Trilogy boxed set has prompted me to think of other movies from my 4K Wish List. I know it’s deeply uncool to be interested in physical media, the various competing formats for HDR, and so on, though I guess streaming services also benefit from 4K restorations and HDR (even if bitrates can’t really compete with physical, but there I go again with the uncool focus on technical details).

The Godfather Trilogy 4K Boxed Set

Anyway, physical media is clearly in a weird place right now. On the one hand, it’s clearly on the decline. The sheer convenience of streaming can’t be overcome by the marginally better quality of the image, and it makes sense. On the other hand, boutique physical media shops like Criterion, Arrow, Shout/Scream Factory, Vinegar Syndrome, Severin, Kino Lorber, and others are other here releasing special editions ranging from current releases to screen classics to the most obscure exploitation trash from the 70s and 80s that you’ve never heard of…

Even weirder, though, is that while you’ve got pristine, 4K UHD special editions with commentary tracks and other special features of something like Tammy and the T-Rex, lots of popular, classic movies don’t have anything nearly as impressive (please don’t interpret this as a slight against Tammy and the T-Rex, which is great and absolutely deserves the treatment…)

Up until a few weeks ago, The Godfather was #1 on my list, but they finally put out a release aligned with the 50th Anniversary and it looks fantastic. So what else am I pining for? Some of these are just generally unavailable, but some are infamous for having many double-dip releases and so on, so it’s weird that they haven’t made the leap to 4K.

  • The Terminator – This might be the movie I’ve seen the most times in my life, talking at least triple digits here. And yet, even the Blu-Rays that are available are the barest of bare-bones releases. James Cameron movies in general seem to be lagging behind in terms of releases. Aliens is also lacking 4K, though there are rumors that it’s coming sometime in 2022. I wouldn’t mind a 4K of The Abyss or, really, any of Cameron’s other movies. There is a 4K of Terminator 2, but they had done the restoration for a theatrical 3D release a while back, and so the colors are apparently all off from what it should be (and I hate 3D in general, so…) Still, if I could only choose one Cameron, it would be the original Terminator.
  • Pulp Fiction – And again, most of Tarantino’s catalog in general is missing from the 4K world, and I’d probably go for… all of it? I know Tarantino doesn’t want to do commentary tracks on his own movies (and I get it!), but they’re so infused with cinematic references that they could really benefit from one of them film historian commentaries that are common on a lot of these boutique physical media releases…
  • Heat – This was supposed to come out last year, but got delayed. It’s “in limbo, but is still expected to arrive on the format sometime” in 2022. Fingers crossed.
  • Star Wars – Duh. Of course, there are 4K releases of the trilogy, but not on physical media and they’re the whole Special Edition that no one likes.
  • Raise the Red Lantern – And once again, we have a director (Zhang Yimou) whose whole early filmography is largely absent from US releases. Indeed, even the old, poor quality DVDs are out of print and ridiculously expensive. I blame China, but hopefully someday we’ll get some Zhang releases…
  • Sleuth – As far as I know, the rights are all tied up by some gigantic pharmaceutical company who thinks the money to be gained by a release of a good movie like this is small potatoes (which, when compared to the multi-billion dollar drugs they make, is probably true). Not sure why they don’t just sell off their library of films that they have no interest in… (I believe this same company owns the rights to The Heartbreak Kid, which is why there’s no good release of that either).
  • The Driver – And yes, most of Walter Hill’s early filmography (there are some Region 2 Blu-Rays out there, but they’re not great). Dude’s got an interesting filmography, would be great for one of these boutique companies to resurrect. Who doesn’t want a 4K of Streets of Fire?

I’ll stop it here, but there’s tons of movies that could really benefit from that 4K bump in quality, and honestly, there’s lots of stuff (particularly foreign movies) that could just do with any release whatsoever.

Hugo Awards 2022: Initial Thoughts

The 2022 Hugo Awards finalists were announced last week, so it’s time for the requisite congratulations and/or bitter recriminations. I fell off the Hugo bandwagon last year, but got back in this year and submitted some nominations, so let’s take a look at the finalists and see how I did:

Best Novel

I’ve only read one of the finalists for Best Novel, but it was one of the books I nominated. Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir was probably my favorite SF of the past couple of years and it was naturally one of my nominations, so it’s clearly the book to beat on my ballot.

A Desolation Called Peace

A Desolation Called Peace, by Arkady Martine, is the sequel to A Memory Called Empire, which won Best Novel in 2020 and which I enjoyed quite a bit. I’ve already started this one, and it seems to be stepping up a bit from the first, which is a good sign.

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, by Becky Chambers, was on my radar and Chambers has been frequently nominated (this book is part of a series that won Best Series a couple years ago), but I never got around to it. I’m somewhat mixed on her Wayfarer’s books. I really loved one of them, thought another was solid, and didn’t particularly care for the last one. This sounds interesting enough, so we’ll see how it compares…

Light From Uncommon Stars, by Ryka Aoki, is completely new to me. The title makes it sound like SF, but the blurb is pretty definitively fantasy: featuring cursed violins, Faustian bargains, and queer alien courtship over fresh-made donuts. Those are some interesting ingredients, but it also sounds like the sort of thing that might not cohere for me.

A Master of Djinn, by P. Djèlí Clark, sounds like a fun little fantasy mystery set in Egypt. Apparently part of a series that Clark established via novellas the past few years, he’s been a mainstay of the Hugos for a while now, though this is his first novel.

She Who Became the Sun, by Shelley Parker-Chan, sounds an awful lot like a more serious take on Mulan. It seems to be a solid story, but honestly, I’m not seeing much in the way of SF or fantasy elements, though I guess there could be some alternate history tropes going on here… I guess we’ll find out soon enough!

Overall, it’s an interesting ballot. In terms of genre, we’ve got 3 SF and 3 Fantasy. Interestingly, the three Fantasy novels are all debuts, while the SF are from established authors. Three finalists appear to be part of a series, though only one of those seems to require you to have read a previous book. A male author (2 male authors) shows up on the best novel ballot for the first time since 2018. As of right now, I’m still assuming that Project Hail Mary will top my ballot, but you never know.

Short Fiction

A lot of common names show up on the Novella ballot, and actually all the shorter fiction categories have authors that are popular with Hugo voters. I’ll probably take a swing at Short Stories again this year, even though I’m inevitably disappointed by the category (though they are easy to read, since they’re so short)…

Best Dramatic Presentation

The big surprise here is that Hugo voters actually put some more thought into this ballot than usual. Oh sure, you’ve still got Marvel and Disney entries, and Dune was pretty much a lock, but the big surprise is that The Green Knight garnered a spot. Space Sweepers is also nominally interesting here as well, as Hugo voters don’t typically go for foreign flicks. I suspect Dune will still win it, but it’s a more varied ballot than usual. In terms of the Short Form award, it’s nice to see 5 nominees from shows that haven’t been nominated before. This is a far cry from when this category was generally referred to as “Which Dr Who episode should we give an award to?” (which, granted, has been a while, but still.)

Other Categories and Assorted Thoughts

Congrats to all the nominees, it seems like a fine set of finalists.

  • Best Series continues to be something of a popularity contest, but then, that’s generally what the Hugos are… At least none of these series are also nominated in the Best Novel category this year. I’m guessing it’s Seanan McGuire’s year, but you never know.
  • Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book has one novel I actually read in preparation of the Hugos this year, but didn’t particularly love. Chaos on CatNet, by Naomi Kritzer, probably makes more sense as a YA book. Some interesting ideas about AI and the way apps/games/algorithms can impact privacy and security, but it felt a bit messy to me…

So there you have it, the 2022 Hugo Awards in a nutshell. I’ll definitely be reading the novels, and maybe some of the short stories too, so keep an eye out for reviews…

Link Dump

The usual interesting links from the depths of ye olde internets:

  • Box Office Game – Have you ever listened to the Blank Check with Griffin and David podcast and been frustrated when they play the box office game because you know the answer and they’re struggling? Prepare to be humbled. One game posted a day, very wordle-like…
  • Framed – Ah yes, the Wordle derivatives continue to appear, this is a fun one based on movie screenshots.
  • THR’s Most Powerful People in Hollywood – James Cameron – Dude interviews like a boss:

IF YOU COULD CONTROL ONE PIECE OF IP, WHAT WOULD IT BE?

“I generate my own stuff, so I’m not really interested in IP.”

BEST OR WORST THING ABOUT HOLLYWOOD’S MERGER MANIA

“As long as people pay the bills and when I show up to work on a Monday morning, they haven’t closed down my production, I could give a shit.”

LAST BIG SPLURGE

“Building a sub.”

YOU FIND BOB IGER’S IPHONE. WHICH CONTACT DO YOU CALL?

“I can call anybody I want. I don’t need Bob Iger’s cell phone.”

  • Acting is Easy – Timothy Olyphant on method acting, very funny
  • Jomboy Will Smith Slap Breakdown – I’m posting this not so much for the content (it’s a solid enough breakdown of events) but because I find it interesting just how quickly he got this video up. The Slap happened and this video was up less than an hour later. The only other thing I have to say about this is that I’m a little annoyed that “The Slap” will now be associated with Will Smith and Chris Rock rather than the cutting NBC drama about a guy who slapped a kid at a suburban cookout, an event that rocked a community and caused apocalyptic fallout. Also, come on, “The Pursuit of Slappiness” was right there for the taking.
  • Brickbat: Candygram – Guy installs a giant novelty shark crashing into his roof as some sort of political statement. Neighbors and community government asks him to take it down, but he doesn’t… so they switch tactics and have it declared a “protected landmark” and now it would be illegal for him to take it down.
  • Bizarro World – Fun little story about a reporter who accidentally discovers that his wife is the word’s greatest Tetris player.

That’s all for now…

The Oscars 2022

It’s been a rough couple of years for the Oscars. Declining ratings, the impossibility of finding a host that will please anyone (let alone someone who won’t spark outrage and controversy), and oh yeah, a worldwide pandemic that made getting large groups of people together in an enclosed space a bad idea. As much as we all complain about the Oscars, one of the few things it had going for it was the pageantry. That’s never been my favorite part of it, but people like to see their favorite stars get dressed up and do glamorous things on the red carpet and so on.

For a second there, I thought that Steven Soderberg would manage last year’s ceremony well. It started with a great, long tracking shot following Regina King as she made her way to the stage to present the first award. It was a cinematic way to start the proceedings, but alas, the host-less nature and continued weird choices throughout the ceremony quickly bogged the whole thing down. Not to mention that the pandemic year produced odd shortlists. It’s usually fun snarking about the awards on Twitter, but it felt a little like shooting fish in a barrel last year, and I think everyone knew it.

Will things return to “normal” this year? The producers continue to make some bizarre choices, including leaving some pretty hefty categories out of the broadcast (notably film editing, makeup and hairstyling, original score, and sound), not to mention shuffling the lifetime achievement awards out of the main ceremony. Look, I get that the producers have a difficult job and they have to balance the artistic against the popular, but, like, Samuel L. Jackson got a lifetime achievement award. He’s gotta be one of the most popular actors in the history of cinema and one of the great success stories of the industry. As presenter Denzel Washington (um, also a pretty popular dude) noted:

“152 movie titles,” Denzel Washington said, beginning to rattle off Samuel L. Jackson’s accomplishments in a tribute to the actor. “I got IMDB Pro. $27 billion in box office.”

Jackson reflected on a 50-year career that began with roles with names like “gang member number two,” “bum” and “Black guy.” He thanked his agent, manager, lawyer and publicist for “making sure I lived in the comfort zone of knowing what the next two jobs would be.”

Jackson and Washington embraced (multiple times), and Washington was clearly overjoyed that Jackson had finally gotten some recognition from the Oscars (he’d previously only been nominated once, for Pulp Fiction). It was a very moving moment that would have been fantastic on the main broadcast. Again, I don’t want to underappreciate how difficult it is to produce something like the Oscars, but this particular Lifetime Achievement Award seems like a no brainer.

Alright, enough complaining, it’s time for the annual reminder that the Oscars broadcast is the biggest source of income for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which is actually a very useful organization. As Steven Soderberg noted a few years ago, what the Academy does for film archiving and preservation alone should be praised, and it’s all paid for by the broadcast. So while most complaints about the ceremony are valid and we all have our own strategy for shortening the ceremony (mine has always been remove the shorts categories and the musical performances), actually putting on the show is difficult and it does have a lot of benefits for the industry and cinema as a whole. Anyway, let’s look at the categories and make some predictions:

2022 Oscars Predictions

  • Best PictureCODA. The buzz was that The Power of the Dog would take this and I suppose there’s still an off chance of that, but support fell off a cliff after some awards season missteps, and I suspect voters will still be able to recognize it elsewhere. The notion that Best Picture and Best Director are coupled has pretty much disappeared since they instituted the longer list of Best Picture nominees, so I think CODA will take it this year. There’s maybe an off chance that Belfast will win, and an even more off chance that West Side Story will win. I’ve seen 9 of the nominees, and 3 of those did make my Top 10, which is actually a decent showing. Of course, there’s an approximately 0% chance that any of those 3 will win. I think CODA is a fine movie, but it is so cliched and predictable that I find it hard to call it the best of the year. It’s your standard inspirational artist coming of age story about following your dreams etc… and it’s a pretty well done version of that, but you’ve seen this movie before. Maybe not with a deaf family, but there’s been a surprising amount of much better, much more subtle looks at the deaf community in the past couple of years. Look no further than last year’s Sound of Metal (also nominated for best picture, but nowhere near a contender) or even this year’s Drive My Car (which has a deaf side character). Anyway, I think CODA is going to win. My choice amongst the nominees would have been Nightmare Alley or Dune, but again, no chances there.
  • Best Director – Jane Campion for The Power of the Dog. She’s long been a favorite for director and her film for picture, but some recent controversy involving some ill advised comparisons has maybe dulled the shine a bit. I think she’s still a favorite as director though. I suppose it’s possible that Kenneth Branagh will pull an upset, or maybe even Steven Spielberg (though I suspect we take him for granted these days – I would probably vote for him this year though, even if I don’t love West Side Story).
  • Best Actress – Jessica Chastain in The Eyes of Tammy Faye. Penelope Cruz had some early buzz but seems to be falling behind the popular Chastain.
  • Best Actor – Will Smith in King Richard. Pretty much a sure thing.
  • Best Supporting Actress – Ariana DeBose in West Side Story. This is probably the only place voters think they can show some love to WSS, and to be fair, she is great in that movie. Maybe Kirsten Dunst could sneak in, but I’m doubting it.
  • Best Supporting Actor – Troy Kostur in CODA. He’s got buzz and the only competition comes from two nominees from The Power of the Dog, which historically means the vote gets split and someone else wins.
  • Best Original ScreenplayBelfast. I suspect voters will want to award this movie, but that it won’t be in Best Picture or Director, so it’ll be here. There’s a strong possibility that it won’t win though, as Licorice Pizza has a similar situation going on and Andersen could easily take this.
  • Best Adapted ScreenplayCODA. Though again, The Power of the Dog could sneak in. It’s really going to be a battle between those two movies this year.
  • Best CinematographyWest Side Story. I honestly don’t know about this category, it could easily go to most of the nominees. Maybe I should have picked Dune? It’s absurd that The French Dispatch and/or The Green Knight didn’t get nominated.
West Side Story
  • Best Visual EffectsSpider-Man: No Way Home, as appeasement for not nominating in Best Picture. Or they’ll just give it to Dune (which is probably the better choice, actually)
  • Best Production DesignDune.
  • Best Costume DesignDune. Maybe Cruella? That’s a movie that exists, right?
  • Best Makeup and HairstylingThe Eyes of Tammy Faye. I have no idea on some of these.
  • Best Animated FilmEncanto. Pixar dominance is over, welcome back Disney (yes, I know, I know, but still).
  • Best DocumentarySummer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised). I have no idea here, haven’t even seen any of the nominees…
  • Best International FilmDrive My Car. I mean, it’s the only one of these that is also on the Best Picture ballot…
  • Best SongNo Time to Die. I don’t know, I like Bond, I suspect it’ll do well here.

And that’ll about cover it. If, for some odd reason, you want to plumb the depths of the Kaedrin archives for old Oscars commentary (if you go far back enough, you can even read what used to be called “liveblogging” of the event, you know, back before Twitter was a big deal and blogs were still a thing), all my previous entries are here: [2019] [2018] [2017] | [2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005 | 2004] (I didn’t post in 2020 because I was lazy and ran out of time before posting my top 10, and I didn’t post last year because I had much more important films on my mind on the day of the ceremony). If you feel like watching along, I’ll be on Twitter @mciocco (and when the musical performances start, I’ll be posting alcohol @kaedrinbeer). I won’t post that often, but feel free to say hi…

Termination Shock

When the premise for Neal Stephenson’s latest novel, Termination Shock, was announced, I admitted to a little trepidation. It’s essentially a near-future climate change thriller, so there are plenty of landmines an author needs to avoid in order to produce something that won’t clash with readers’ probably complicated thoughts on the subject. Fortunately, Stephenson is up to the task. His stylistic mainstays of digressions and fascination with unexpected consequences all fit with the story being told here.

Termination Shock book cover

Any worries that the novel would devolve into indulgent, self-important lectures were allayed relatively early on in the novel. Once Stephenson started talking about feral hogs and their intersection with meth gators, well, I knew he wouldn’t let the seriousness of the themes overwhelm the need to tell an entertaining story. That sort of approach is much more likely to have an impact than a lot of climate-based science fiction, which has a didactic tendency to preach to the choir.

Of course, Stephenson’s idea of an entertaining story might not mesh with a lot of readers, and indeed, it features plenty of info-dumping and digressions on topics that you may or may not find interesting. Most of these explorations are driven by unexpected consequences of climate change or the idiosyncratic and varied adaptations humans have made to deal with it. I’ve already mentioned the feral hogs and meth gators, but there’s also fire ants, which are attracted to the ozone produced by air conditioner relays, which aren’t easily replaced due to globalized supply chain issues, so people start abandoning their homes in favor of RVs, campers, etc… Naturally, that gave rise to sprawling truck stop/gas station complexes that are almost like miniature cities.

The owner of those complexes is a cantankerous billionaire who has noticed that climate-based issues are driving down real estate values, and so he decides to engage in a bit of geoengineering. He hoards sulfur, then builds a giant subterranean cannon that will shoot the sulfur up into the atmosphere. The sulfur will reflect a sizeable portion of sunlight back out into space, thus lowering temperatures on earth (and apparently providing spectacularly beautiful sunsets). This is not a new idea, nor is it something that we have not observed in nature before. Some volcano eruptions, such as Mount Pinatubo in 1991, have resulted in exactly this sort of thing. Of course, the effects of such a strategy are inconsistent. We’re talking about global climate here, so models can only tell you so much. Yes, global average temperature will go down, but what sorts of local effects are you likely to see? What impact will this have on sea-levels in the Netherlands? What about the monsoon season in India?

The book is filled with these sorts of speculations and adaptations to climate change. Most are not good long-term solution, but it gets at the decentralized way people respond to these sorts of issues, and they do provide mitigating effects while longer-term strategies like carbon capture are being set up. As I’ve often observed, human beings don’t so much solve problems as they exchange one set of problems for another in the hopes that the new set is more favorable than the old. Such tradeoffs are covered in depth throughout the novel.

The big sulfur gun geoengineering scheme is often cited as the big idea of this book, but the real theme here is that the problem of climate change will be broken down into a series of smaller, more focused challenges and solutions. The big sulfur gun isn’t actually that big. At best, it’s a delaying action. But it is something! And we’ll need to do a lot of somethings, big and small, if we’re going to tackle climate change. The problem is too big, too complex, involving too many people, too many governments, and too many agendas to solve it any other way. This book illustrates the distributed way that this sort of thing will happen. Sure, maybe all the governments of the world will come together in peace and harmony and completely rework globalized energy networks, our financial system, and so on, but I’m not holding my breath waiting for that one.

At first glance, the story threads in the book are a bit scattered, but it’s not an uncommon approach from Stephenson. You’ve got a thread about Dutch royalty, a partial Native American on a Moby Dick-like quest to kill a specific feral hog, the aforementioned Texas billionaire, and a Canadian man of Indian descent who gets involved in a strange border conflict with China. The usual Stephensonian distractions and digressions are out in full force, touching on all manner of seemingly disconnected subjects from falconry to drone-assisted hunting to obscure martial arts to deepfakes to large scale engineering. It feels like Stephenson is just obsessing over things he finds neat, but something about the way he lays these things out and integrates them into the larger story works for me. It does all come together in the end, and I think Stephenson fans will find plenty to chew on. I’m a big fan of Stephenson though, so your mileage may vary. Some of the things I’m praising in this novel are things that I often don’t like in other books. In any case, I liked this enough to nominate it for a Hugo award, and I hope it does find a large audience.

Weird Movie of the Week: Champagne and Bullets

Last time on Weird Movie of the Week, we covered the touching tale of a black devil doll from hell. This time, we’ve got a tasty meal of Champagne and Bullets. As per usual, the plot descriptions vary:

Two cops are fired after being setup by their corrupt boss, who gets appointed as judge, but secretly heads a satanic cult. After his wife is killed by the cult, one of the cops is determined to bring the cult down.

Alright, I can see some weirdness emerging there, let’s look at a different plot descripton:

The Corruption of The System is given a swift lopsided kick by Vigilante Justice as a Disgraced Former Cop emerges from exile, automatic weapons blazing and mediocre martial arts akimbo, to bring down a murderous satanic cult headed by his former partner. His only allies? A boatload of swagger and one leggy blonde.

Ah yes, now we’re getting weirder. Let’s explore some Letterboxd reviews:

truly no words, defies a rating, i’ve never winced more, the loser vanity project to end all loser vanity projects. alternates between john de hart giving himself very long and cringe softcore scenes with the female lead while his own terrible songs play in the background to scenes of wings hauser having a psychotic break.

That’s the stuff. The whole “loser vanity project” bit does remind me a bit of The Astrologer, which might be promising since that’s an almost accidental masterpiece. That being said, all accounts are that Champagne and Bullets (aka Get Even, aka Road to Revenge) is just plain bad. Unfortunately, it’s one of those movies that’s difficult to track down. Vinegar Syndrome did a quick run a while back, but it’s out of stock and selling on secondary for upwards of $100. I enjoy watching bad movies and all, but not that much.

Let’s look at some images:

Action Star
Nothing says action star like a mustache…
More action star
It’s a very menacing mustache…
Marriage attire
Typical marriage attire
Wings Hauser going full ham
Wings Hauser going full ham
Villainy also has a mustache
Villainy also has a mustache (at least, I’m assuming that’s also a villain)

So yes, I definitely want to catch up with this at some point. I’m sure I’ll be able to find a copy somewhere, through… methods. But I’d rather, you know, support artists and companies like Vinegar Syndrome.

Link Dump

The usual collection of interesting links from the depths of ye olde internets:

That’s all for now…