Friday, December 2, 2011

3D movies. 3D cinema?

By K.

Yet another round of discussion about 3D films in the machinima circle of Facebook reminded me to finally write up what I thought of writing many months ago when I saw Roger Ebert’s blogpost presenting Walter Murch’s point of view on 3D films. (Link)

Murch, one of the most famed and respected film editors and sound designers of modern cinema (Apocalypse Now, Amadeus, The English Patient, etc.), lists a number of problems inherent to the current 3D technology (“dark, small, stroby” in his summary). He goes further in arguing that 3D cinema cannot succeed because it forces human visual system to operate in an unnatural way*, and thereby strains our vision and requires slower pacing of film editing as well.

But in any case, Murch’s most interesting remark by far is on the notion of immersion and perspective:

“3D films remind the audience that they are in a certain "perspective" relationship to the image. It is almost a Brechtian trick. Whereas if the film story has really gripped an audience they are "in" the picture in a kind of dreamlike "spaceless" space. So a good story will give you more dimensionality than you can ever cope with” (emphasis added by myself).

For a the last couple of years, I have been interested in how we -- as the reader or viewer -- participate in the world of fiction, and have been reading psychological literature on this topic whenever I get a chance**. I have reached a tentative yet convincing conclusion that the maintenance of double-perspectives and/or aesthetic distance is an essential element of our appreciation of (extended) narrative arts. In reading a novel or viewing a film, we take neither the complete first person perspective of our protagonist nor the complete third person observer’s perspective. We are simultaneously “her” and “I” (and even “me”). Like Murch, I believe that the very process and experience of composing an ambiguous perspective -- that combines and layers various point of views -- is a crucial part of satisfying experience of cinema and literature.

I am skeptical about the potential of 3D as an artistic medium of narratives because 3D forces the viewer into a particular visual perspective in a very directly imitative way and allows the viewer less room for constructing his/her own experience. Written language and two-dimensional images may be particularly good mediums to induce multiple perspectives and aesthetic distance*** because they do not perfectly replicate, but approximate, a personal experience embedded in a particular viewpoint****.

3D may open up a brand new area of art. It may continue to deliver competitive entertainment by spectacle. But will 3D develop into a fully actualized narrative art form? My short answer (in the form of a question) is this: with all due respect to, and admiration for, the craft and creativity involved in the culinary art, isn't culinary art considered art only in a limited sense?

Footnotes:

*Murch says that, in watching 3D movies, our eyes have to focus on the screen (say, 60 feet away) while converging on the object at various distances (say, at the face only 5 feet away), which is quite different from what we do in our natural state. We are built to focus and converge to the same distance. While I’m not sure whether processing 3D video involves actual physical ocular convergence, Murch’s general point still stands as our brain, in perceiving 3D images, does have to process two different images that would have been captured by the two converging eyes.

** I come from psychology (and have credentials that can look good on paper), and was a strong believer that the "scientific" approach of psychology was the most productive way to study any topic related to the human mind. Recently though, after doing my share of readings on psychology of literature and film, I grew rather skeptical about the possibility for this discipline offering a productive approach to this particular subject.

*** "Aesthetic distance" is an compound concept. In this particular context, I mean by this the distance between the character and self, and between the material and self.

**** Added on 12/4: What about stage play then? It suddenly occurred to me that I completely missed stage play in thinking about this matter. However, it is still true that stage plays are not 3D the way 3D films are. You are not placed in the middle of the action and the characters don't jump at you. (A stage play can possibly incorporate such elements, but I suspect doing so may not really add much to the play.) I'm tempted to see the stage play as a form of narrative art that combines language and quasi-2D (or call it 2.5D) presentation bound by the physical stage.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Music and Meaning in The Gift

By S


I always found "Howard's End" to be a wonderful example of how music is employed effectively in a movie, and interwoven into the story. Leonard and Helen are attending a lecture entitled "Music and Meaning", while the lecturer is dissecting the second movement of Beethoven's Fifth. After leaving the lecture hall Helen takes poor Leonard's umbrella by accident as the rain pours down, prompting Leonard to follow her to her home and he is invited up for a tea. This chance meeting drives the rest of the story, but what always strikes me as so effective is the recurrence of these themes, both the music and the lecture. Beethoven's music reappears in Leonard's nightmare sequence, where the rain pours and the crowd and an iron gate separates him from Helen. The "Music and Meaning" lecture recurs many times, first as part of the intrigue as Leonard's wife gets suspicious of his whereabouts, and again much later in an exchange between a despondent Leonard and Helen:

LEONARD: "I didn't think people like you existed except in books. And books aren't real."

HELEN: "They're more real than anything! When people fail you, there's still 'music and meaning'".

The deliberate and effective recurrence of themes, in the visuals, the dialogue, and the music, was also one of the key ingredients in "The Gift", and one of the reasons why this is now my favorite of our machinima movies since "Dignity of Men"*. Much like in classical music composition, the structure of the movie can be built from a few fundamental themes and the contrast between the different themes - some opposing and some related - can be used to build into a satisfactory climax and conclusion.

When we started off, a few of those themes were clear to me. But not until much later, resulting from lots of helpful discussions with K and after the visuals of the movies were almost completed, did all the musical themes outlined below present themselves as strong elements in the movie. Here is a guide to the musical themes in The Gift:


For obvious reasons, good old Ludwig van Beethoven was a leading candidate to highlight this element in the movie. Among the classical composers Beethoven has always provided the ultimate image of the struggling artist - his deafness and his increasing isolation in real life, and his documented struggle to find the right music. In "The Gift" we picked a familiar theme from the last movement of the Moonlight Sonata to accompany the beginning W.H. Auden quote and the black-and-white dream sequence, while the protagonist Phil plays the fiery introduction of that movement (not that well since he is drunk and I lack the technique) while his phone is ringing.


This theme accompanies the main character's daily routine, as he carries on with his role as a part of the "big machine": wake up, jog along the freeway, put on a suit, go to work.


This is first introduced in the opening scene, when Phil stops for a moment after jogging and has a vision. Marie's ghost reintroduces the theme with the words "isn't there music?". So, as you can guess, this theme is about Music itself in the protagonist's life. Much like what Helen Schlegel was talking about in Howard's End, there is something mysterious about Music that elevates it to an almost religious level. It is part of the mystery of being alive.


The "Death Wish" theme is a dangerous variation on "The Imaginary Song". We first hear it on one of the recurring highway jogging sequences, when we see the close up of the fast approaching car. This is where the protagonist's death wish is made visually and aurally much more explicit, but not yet in words. This theme is later further developed as the despondent protagonist wanders about the dark streets.


For this we used the slow movement of Sergei Prokofiev's Second Sonata, a twentieth-century piece that contains a lot of pathos. The theme itself appears twice and is at the very conclusion of the movie as well. It encompasses the sadness of life that is full of unfulfilled potential and the resignation to the human condition in which we all have to continue on.


* Kate, however, says that carefully arranged repetitions and variations have been the key ingredient of many of her previous screenplays, and that such repetition is a prominent and important element of Incubus, for example.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Psychology of Sorrow

In my previous post, I brooded over the curious penchant of people seeking fear and terror in theater. Equally bizarre is their willingness to watch movies that make them cry. Isn't crying, almost by definition, the most negative experience a person can have? So how is it possible that tearjerkers sell tickets?

What is even more curious is that the strangest things make people tear up. For example, one of the movies that made me cry is Hilary and Jackie.


This bio-pic about the cellist Jacqueline du Pré and her sister Hilary opens with two little girls frolicking about a rocky coast, reciting nursery rhymes, oblivious to the treacherous rocks and cliffs that surround them. Suddenly the sisters freeze in their spots as they see a beautiful woman walk toward them. The woman steps to Jackie and whispers something in her ear before walking away. Hilary asks Jackie, "What did she say?" Jackie, who seems quite shaken, answers, "That everything will be alright." The two girls seem terrified. "Why would somebody say something like that," protests Hilary.

From there, the story unfolds as Jackie slowly grows into the world-famous cellist and Hilary a happy mother and wife. It follows the two sisters' hopes and dreams, fears and triumphs, and adventures and falls. By the end of the movie (*Here comes a spoiler*), Jackie is afflicted with multiple sclerosis, and loses her ability to play music and even the affection to her husband, Daniel Barenboim.

Debilitated and bed-ridden, Jacqueline recalls her childhood and the playful frolics in the rocky coast. A beautiful grown woman approaches the little Hilary and Jackie and whispers something in Jackie's ear. "What did she say," asks Hilary. "That everything will be alright," answers Jackie. And that opens a floodgate in my eyes.

In this blogpost, I'll mull over this strange phenomena, that is crying at the movies, reviewing very interesting and insightful responses I received from a quick and dirty survey I had posted in this online forum, as well as some relevant literature in psychology.

I received eight sets of responses for the survey, seven from men and one from a woman. Six responses were posted on the forum and two were sent to me through personal messages.

Q1: Do you sometimes actively seek sad movies?

4 people plainly said no, and 1 person said yes but just to prove them wrong

1 said rarely
1 said, "Sort of" (the one woman respondent)
1 said, "sure do."

In summary, while the majority of respondents answered that they don’t actively seek sad movies, some people actually said they do. Personally, I don't suppose I look for sad movies. As one of the respondents put it, I look for a good movie. As it happens, many good movies do have sad moments.

Q2: Do you feel good or bad after crying at the movies?

A few people said they feel bad after crying at the movies, especially if the crying happens in public. (Words such as “cheap”, “manipulative,” "depressed," and “embarrassed” were mentioned in the responses.) While nobody said they always enjoy crying, the majority indicated that crying can be a positive experience depending on the circumstance. Two people specifically said crying can make one feel better when done in private. (One of them mentioned the word “cleansed.”).

Here I might note that research findings offer conflicting evidence regarding the outcome of crying. Some studies suggest crying improves moods and has long term health benefits (Borgquist, 1906; Bindra, 1972; Cornelius, 1981; Frey et al., 1983; Lombardo et al., 1983; Crepeau, 1980; Hastrup, 1986; Vingerhoets & Betcht, 1997, all as reported in Cornelius, 2001), while others indicate just the opposite (Gross et al., 1994; Labott & Martin, 1990; Vingerhoets et al. 1993, all as reported in Cornelius, 2001).

Q3: What makes (or has made) you cry at the movies?

A few respondents mentioned grave situations, such as death, in a movie make them cry. One person emphasized investment to a character. That is, in my interpretation, we cry in sympathy for the character. Three people mentioned that they cried when a movie reminded them of their own personal memories.

Most interestingly though, cute snuggly things were frequently mentioned as something that triggers the tear reaction. At least four people (all male) mentioned animal or animation as something that induces tears somewhere in their responses. Many Pixar and animal movies were referred to. Even a fabric softener commercials with a teddy bear in it was brought up!! No literature research prepared me for this, although I should have known better, because, don't these manipulative bastards at Pixar always do the trick on me? But how on earth can you explain this bizarre phenomenon of cuddly things making adult men tear up?

Indulge me if you will and let me compose a wild theory of my own:

Prolactin is a hormone best known for its influence on lactation after birth. This hormone is generally found in higher levels in women than in men, and in high concentrations in tears and the tear gland. According to this online article, "in the mother, prolactin is released in response to suckling, promoting milk production as well as maternal behaviors. Prolactin relaxes the mother, and in the early months, creates a bit of fatigue during a nursing session so she has no strong desire to hop up and do other things. Prolactin promotes caregiving behaviors and, over time, directs brain reorganization to favor these behaviors . Father's prolactin levels begin to elevate during mother's pregnancy, but most of the rise in the male occurs after many days of cohabitation with the infant. ... it is generally considered a stress hormone. In parents, it serves as a parenting hormone."

It has been reported that lowering the prolactin level by administration of a drug reduces pathological crying, and that injecting prolactin in ducks increase secretions of a gland equivalent to the human lacrimal gland that produces tear (Vingerhoets et al. 2000).

Can it be that the baby-looking mascot in fabric softener commercial and Pixar characters trigger some sort of parental instinct in our very masculine respondents and causes their prolactin level shoot up, and thereby making them susceptible to crying? Given that some psychologists suggest crying means "giving up" in a stressful situation (Frijda, 1986; Miceli & Castelfranchi, 2003), the link between crying and proactin, which is also a stress hormone that promotes relaxation, seems particularly noteworthy.

As for my own crying episode mentioned earlier, I don't know why I cried so much at the end of Hilary and Jackie. I don't think it was completely out of sympathy for Hilary or Jackie although there should have been some of that. Nothing in this movie really brought me any concrete personal memories back either, although I did have a long childhood in which I was always wondering rather painfully what the future might bring and whether my life would turn out to be alright. What made me cry was the line "everything will be alright" whispered to little Jackie's ear by the older Jackie who went though all the turmoil of her life and witnessed Hilary making peace with her situation. The truth was, everything was 'not alright' for them. But then, in a sense, indeed it was, if only because accepting so is the only way we can cope with the monster called life.

Q4: What's your own theory about crying?

Quite interesting (and extremely well-informed, I have to suspect) ideas have been expressed in response to this question.

One person mentioned "helplessness and loss" is a reason for crying. This is exactly what some psychologist say about crying. According to them, crying in its core is a sign of giving up something, be it a struggle for a goal, resistance to suffering, attempt to express one's feeling, or endeavor to explain something (Frijda, 1986; Miceli & Castelfranchi, 2003). The question is, what are we giving up when we cry in the theater?

Two respondents also mentioned that people may have a need to express their emotions. I guess this falls along the line with Aristotle's catharsis. One very interesting theory brought up by a respondent was that a person who is experiencing depression may want to watch a sad movie and cry at something concrete rather than staying in the vague feeling of sadness.

Another response I got was: "I think there is a similar principle at work like what drives us to watch stuff that scares us, it’s about the pleasure of experiencing all the thrills while sharing non of the dangers. And sad movies allow us to work through negative feelings, in a safe and controlled environment." In a study Goldstein (2009) asked her participants to rate their emotional responses while watching a sad movie and while recalling their past sad experiences. She found that people reported significantly higher levels of anxiety in the latter condition, while reporting similar levels of sadness in both. Goldstein speculated that "pure sadness that is not mixed with anxiety is not so unpleasurable" but may help us better understand and prepare for the real life (Goldstein, 2009, p. 237).

The safe distance that a drama places between its viewer and the object of their emotion is sometimes called, "aesthetic distance." Scheff (2007) suggested that painful emotions can be pleasurable at an optimal distance, and this is why catharsis, or crying at the movies, might be a satisfying experience. He contended that the essence of catharsis involves "the re-experiencing of past emotional crises in a context of complete security" (Scheff, 2007, p.101).

I'm not sure if what I seek is "the pleasure of unadulterated sadness" as Goldstein puts it (very aptly I might add), although I can certainly see this might be one of the reasons why some people watch sad movies.

Personally, what I appreciate greatly in some movies is the way they illustrate certain truths about life. A work of fiction or music can materialize complex and abstract ideas into something very concrete -- a personal story or a physical sound, not just to be acknowledged, but to be felt acutely.

When the adult Jackie whispers into the young Jackie's ear that everything will be alright at the end of the movie, an acknowledgement is made that, in spite of all our anxieties, struggles, and sufferings, in a sense, everything is just alright in the end. Crying at that moment was like thinking this thought, not with my mind, but with my whole body.

Reference

Cornelius, J. J. (2001). Crying and catharsis. In J.A. Kottler & M. J. Montgomery (Eds.). Adult Crying: A Biopsychosocial Approach. Philadephia, PA: Bruner-Routlege.

Frijda, N. (1986). Emotions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Goldstein, T. R. (2009). The pleasure of unadulterated sadness: experiencing sorrow in fiction, nonfiction, and "in person." Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 3 (4), 232-237.

Miceli, M. & Castelfranchi, C. (2003). Crying: discussing its basic reasons and uses. New Ideas in Psychology, 21, 247-273.

Scheff, T. J. (2007). Catharsis and other heresies: a theory of emotion. Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, 1 (3), 98-113.

Vingerhoets, A. J. J. M., Cornelius, R. R., Van Heck, G. L., & Becht, M. C. (2000). Adult crying: a model and review of the literature. Review of General Psychology, 4 (4), 354-377.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Philosophy of Horror

Fear and horror is one of the most negative emotions we can experience, something we want to avoid. Yet, horror is one of the most popular genre of fiction, for audiences and writers alike. Why?

In The Philosophy of Horror: Or, Paradoxes of the Heart, the well known philosopher and film theorist Noel Carroll argues that our perverse desire to be terrified by horror films has its root in our sense of awe toward the unknown. Being scared by horror films inspire this kind of awe according to him.

This explanation, while making sense, never fully satisfied me. My own theory has been something that can be called a masturbation theory of fiction. It goes like this:

(1) We as a species developed through evolution a host of emotions that are functional for our survival and therefore for procreation (despite their potential for backfiring, especially in the modern world). Anger provides us with a surge of energy for a (necessary) fight. Sadness keeps us from wasting precious energy in futile efforts. Fear and disgust drive us to adopt protective behaviors (running away, ducking down, turning way, throwing up, keeping distance, etc.).

(2) Any systems, once in place, need to be activated on a regular basis. So do emotions. In early days of the human species, there were plenty of immediate and "legitimate" triggers for these basic emotions. In the modern world, we don't have to worry about lions attacking us or wolves stealing our food. In the modern world, our emotions work largely on the plane of the social and psychological rather than that of the physical. I also suspect that they are not exercised in enough frequencies and intensities. Therefore, we invented a gym for exercising our underused emotional muscles, which is the genre fiction.

But then, we are a more complicated species than just that. More often than not, horror films do much more than just stimulating our fear circuits, but tie our reptilian experience with what might be called the cerebral. The result is a fatal concoction of the conceptual and the primordial -- the idea felt urgently in your gut.

In Dario Argento's Opera (*spoiler*), the young opera singer's plea not to be another version of her mother, but a person of her own, is expressed acutely through the horror story. Roman Polanski's The Tenant addresses the issue of identity. Even our ordinary vampire stories and zombie movies is about our fear of giving oneself up to a passion or preserving one's "soul."

(But then, some horror movies are hardly more than pornography of another kind.)

Finally the point: All this rambling is brought to you by my experience with a recently machinima piece called Destiny's Keeper by Keith Eiler (a.k.a. malletpropstudios, a.k.a. Gnasche). It is a well made movie with a Lynchian feel to it. The story can be a little bit cryptic at first view, especially if you're distracted (?) by the disturbing (by which I mean 'great') sounds and visuals. But once you get the story, the horror is elevated to a whole other level. Watch it here or below.

Reference

Careoll, N. (1990). The Philosophy of Horror: Or, Paradoxes of the Heart. New York: Routledge.




Thursday, February 10, 2011

The novelist and the composer

by Kate



The production of our next machinima project, The Gift, has taken off nicely and been steadily gaining altitude. This project is especially dear to me, although one may argue you feel just the same way for each and every project during the production.

Initially, the protagonist of The Gift was an aspiring novelist. Eventually, in a major revision, Phil (named after Philip Carey from Of Human Bondage) was re-born as a classical music composer.

I think changing Phil's medium of expression led to a great improvement. For one, I think it made the story more cinematically appealing by allowing music to take a more central role. It also helped me keep the script more compact. But one thing that strikes me after the fact is how music makes a perfect element of this story.

At this point, I would like to present excerpts from two poems by W. H. Auden, published right next to each other in a collection: The Novelist, and The Composer.

In the first poem, Auden says a novelist should:


among the Just

Be just, among the Filthy filthy too,

And in his own weak person, if he can,

Must suffer dully all the wrongs of Man.

I cannot claim I know exactly what Auden meant, but these lines resonate in me quite profoundly. The truth is I suspect I write because life is imperfect. In writing, I deal with all the injustice and filthiness of human existence, just as I do in life. In writing, however, I deal with them not as the object or as the agent but as a student and observer, and this enables me to cope with "all the wrongs of Man," or the wrongness of existence.

On the other hand, music can be, in my mind, a purer form of art. Music, at its best moment, completely transcends the human world and puts you in a radically different mode of being. Yes, music can tell a story, and music can mimic life, but music can also induce an experience of the purest joy, the highest pleasure, an aesthetic ecstasy, like a lightning that strikes directly at a mysterious spot in the brain without ever touching an earthly object.

Anyway, here is how Auden put it more accurately than I ever could:


Only your notes are pure contraption,

Only your song is an absolute gift.

...

You, alone, alone, O imaginary song,

Are unable to say an existence is wrong,

And pour out your forgiveness like a wine.