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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

film: a simulation of life

Films with the production process as central purpose ask questions (about themselves and the cinematic institution in general) which read thus: (1) At what point does the production process start and finish? (2) For whose purpose are films produced? (3) When does a film begin to be aware of its production? These three questions are integral to the fact that all films are necessary productions. Question one is asked in order to determine the beginning and end (if it ever does) of the production cycle. Next, question two is asked in order to determine the beneficiary of the film production. Finally, question three is asked to relate production with self-reflexivity, two concepts which touch the ground of film criticism.
Watching films like 8 ½ and Hollywood Ending serves the purpose of presenting the artistic process as a struggle from which one must be able to untangle himself. Director Guido’s exertion of effort to liberate himself from being dried up temporarily or permanently is one such manifestation of that struggle, but the film director himself joyfully indulges in the fact that he is unlike his character in that his creative makeup is not dysfunctional, proven by the production of 8 ½.. On the other side, the blind director Woody Allen played in Hollywood Ending is also trapped in the same struggle of the artistic process: he must be able to let himself loose from the debilitating lack of literal vision by translating his figurative vision into a film.
More importantly, watching self-reflexive films is a break from and an opposition of the mainstream cinema being patronized today. It is valuable to have a break from mainstream cinema because the type of films being produced lately are mostly commercially-driven, with little or no concern at all to the insights and values that our currently troubled world so badly needs. It is also valuable to counter mainstream cinema because some movies produced recently have become an insult to our sensibilities, if not to our identities, i.e. the racist issues in 300, or the plain commercial adaptation of the Zsa Zsa Zaturnnah (both films, by the way, are originally in graphic novel form). The viewing world needs intelligent films that provoke its thinking, and watching self-reflexive films serves the purpose by making the audience recognize the films’ self-consciousness and commentaries on the society for which they are produced, especially on the film making society that created them. While some self-reflexive films indeed get into the mainstream, movies with major or sole consideration for becoming blockbusters almost always win over the former. The audience’s taste does not get any better, sending the message that it does not deserve anything other than being spoonfed with unoriginal ideas or gratifying the shallow fascination for the surface level. The audience can be intelligent because it is intelligent, and watching reflexive cinema is one manifestation of that intellect.
Whenever parts of films suddenly erupt into a riotous dance or into a heartbreaking song, the “let’s put on a show” plot emerges. Yes, the artistic or creative process involved in the musical production number makes the latter a film within a larger film. As such, it is agreeable that the musical is self-reflexive. This self-awareness is most prevalent with the number’s obsession to entertain in such a way that it promotes its entertainment value. More than that, the musical is usually about the production of entertainment. This creative process of entertainment production is, according to film critic Jane Feuer, conducted through “creation and erasure.” This label has it that one practice is overwritten by the operation of another. “creation and erasure” happens in the musical at various levels surrounding form and expresion. At the “micro” level, a created effect may be cancelled by that of another process, referred herein as “erasure.” This “micro” level of creation for erasure is best illustrated by the example of the manner rehearsals are passed off as final products. With regards, though, to the naturalization of the practices of mass entertainment (or a capitalistic product as opposed to mere entertainment which is a pre-industrial product), it is at the “macro” level that creation and erasure apparently work. The snippets of actual rock performances in 24-Hour Party People, for instance, mask the non-choreography of the rehearsals made for these real snatches. Song-and-dance numbers in Singin’ in the Rain, for instance, show awareness of themselves as being created since they were at first choreographed and then taken for finished products, the difficulty of working for the songs and dances having been masked.
Apart from “creation and erasure,” Jane Feuer argues that the MGM “Golden Era” musicals perform for the musical film and, eventually, surviving the myths of entertainment. There is the myth of integration, which suggests that attaining personal fulfillment and performance are interconnected. There is also the myth of spontaneity, which suggests that musical performance is natural, without motivating work. Entertainment, therefore, dissolves the dichotomy separating art and life. The first myth is exemplified in the musical Singin’ in the Rain wherein Don Lockwood sees the opening number of his film in a dream-like sequence. When finally the actual performance unreeled, his satisfaction refelcted the phenomenal success of his film. The other myth is exemplified when after sealing the attraction between him and Kathy Selden with the regular romantic resolution that is the hollywood kiss, Don Lockwood starts to sing in the rain. He expertly moves his feet through the rain using his umbrella, becomes soak but loving it, gets apprehended by a police but never minds it. This complusion to sing-and-dance is the myth of spontaneity that is a staple of musical genre.
On the other hand, Richard Dyer uses musicals to raise the argument that entertainment functions as escapism by offering better images denied to us by our daily lives. He proceeds to suggest that utopian sensibilities like abundance, energy, intensity, transparency and community, all of which are built-in traits in musical entertainment suffice for the particular shortcomings in the society. In ealborating the ideas of Dyer, the film Singin’ in the Rain will be used as a point of application. The first highlighted sensibility, energy, is defined by Dyer as the “capacity to act vigorously; human power, activity, potential. The seeming tirelessness of Don in dancing right aftere a cloudburst defies the fact that during the actor Gene Kelly’s performance, he was socrching with a 103o fever. From the fromt door, he strolls down the two blocks of street passing shop windows of a pharmacy, studio, bookstore and school. He leaps onto a sidewalk and swirls around a lamppost with an outstretched hand holding a folded-up umbrella. He dances further in the cobbled streets like his energy is not extinguished by the big day before. The second highlighted sensibility, abundance, is defined by Dyer as “conquest of scarcity, having enough to spare without sense of poverty of others; enjoyment of sensuous material reality.” When the producer of the film realized the inevitability of the onslaught of talkies, he had onscreen sweethearts Don and Lina prepare to adjust for the changes. The disastrous costume film will transform into a musical, a manifestation of the abundance of ideas to be taken in order to make the film a success. The third highlighted sensibility, intensity, is defined by Dyer as “experiencing of emotion, directly, fully, unambiguously, ‘authentically,’ without holding back…[it is] the capacity of entertainment to present either complex or unpleasant feelings in a way that makes them seem uncomplicated, direct and vivid, not ‘qualified’ or ‘ambiguous’ as day-to-day life makes them.” When Kathy and Don make their historic kiss at the doorstep, Don bursts into a dance in the rain complete with the umbrella and the slide on the street lamp. That is to show how intense the feeling is of Don toward Kathy that he is moved into dancing and singing in the rain. The fourth highlighted sensibility, transparency, is defined by Dyer as “a quality of relationships between represented characters e.g. true love […] sincerity.” In the film, Lina Lamont’s voice is a screechy one with a distracting New Yorker accent, so they hired Don Lockwood’s love interest, the dancer Kathy Selden to dub Lina’s lines. Lina has an unrequited love for Don, and is jealous over Kathy. The onscreen romance between Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont was soon discovered as a hoax when in the premiere night of their film, Lina was requested to sing live but Kathy, revealed behind the curtain, was seen by the fans to be singing in Lina’s behalf. The true love between don and Kathy was made transparent. The last but not the least highlighted sensibility, community, is defined by Dyer as “togetherness, sense of belonging, network of phatic relationships (i.e. those in which communication is for its own sake rather than its message.” When finally it is known that Kathy sings for Lina, Don begins to sing to her “You Are My Lucky Star.” Tears streaming in her eyes, Lina proceeds to the stage while Don reaches out to her until they finish singing together and embrace. Ultimately, the off-screen lovers now belong to one another and Kathy’s stardom now belongs to her.
Of the self-reflexive films screened in class, I admire Shadow of the Vampire by E. Elias Merhige because it shows how an artist is willing to commit sacrifices for art’s sake. Similar to other artforms, filmmaking is rigorous so that the finished product, one done out of labor of love, is always treated as a masterpiece whether or not that product lives up to the claim. In the film, director F. W. Murnau proceeds into employing a real-life vampire in his horror film-in-progress, Nosferatu. The director is so serious in capturing verisimilitude in film that he is ready to take the risk of feeding his entire crew to the vampire, as befits the latter. His sacrifice gets his due, for the director attains his artistic purpose of immortalization through his art, although the sacrifice went overboard when not only his crew was victimized but also his own humanity. This film’s take on the artistic process as a glorious road paved with hardships is evident and admirable.
Shadow of the Vampire’s calling of attention to itself shatters the division between real life and illusion. I am made aware that I am just watching a film, for its work and technology (i.e. the cameras) are not concealed. The bloodbath becomes true (and its subjects are the crew members working on the film), and it’s because a real vampire is hired to act on the film. Are we watching a film or a supernatural version of cannibalism? We also have two non-conventional film characters: the camera that records the events, and the audience, i.e. me who participates in the creative process in my capacity as the thinker, the feeler and the viewer of the thinking, feeling and viewing characters of the reflexive film. I am made to understand how the director really has to be faithful to his craft by keeping the voracious vampire, although in “ordinary” circumstances, I will abhor someone who offers people as victims. The film dismisses the plausible, as when a genuine vampire and not just a pretending vampire lands the acting role in the film within the film. It also alludes to the fictional work Nosferatu and its creator, F. W. Murnau, showing the advanced point of consciousness of itself as an intertext. All these trends of self-awareness are present in Shadow of the Vampire. For the confusion this reflexive film has raised about illusion and reality, it is truly outstanding.


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