Remembering a Year

memory

Yesterday I had a slight mishap with my phone that led to me looking at emails I had sent over a decade ago. It took me a few minutes to understand what was happening and by the time I did I was hooked.

I can’t say I would recommend this for most people but for me yesterday was tremendously positive. It confirmed something I have suspected for quite some time: my memory is not as good as I believe it is.

In short I have a distinct sense of a five year period of my life when I lived in Washington, D.C. My memory of events has me doing little with next to nothing to show for it. The emails from yesterday paint a different picture, in some ways positive and others less so. But to be clear – there are some glaring holes in my memory of projects I was involved with, for months, that I have no memory of. This is disturbing.

This made me stop and reflect on the past year – questioning what exactly have I done. Several months ago I started making a list, after seeing Steven Soderbergh’s again, in an effort of better remembering what I actually watch. I am continually amazed when I add to this list that films I watched only a few months before have been all but forgotten (until I read the names, to be clear this isn’t an article about me suffering from some form of memory loss).

Below are a list of sorts of  projects I worked on this past year – in the hope that someone, somewhere finds this interesting or helpful.

Nearly one year ago I participated in the FilmSupply Challenge. It was a interesting competition in that participants were given access to both FilmSupply’s catalogue of stock footage and The MusicBed‘s selection of music to create either a trailer for a movie, a commercial or a title sequence.

I chose to make a film trailer and although it was difficult to find unrelated clips (with no dialog) to string together to tell a story I am proud of my results. The rules of the competition make it impossible for me to share my trailer but one of the judges, FilmRiot‘s Ryan Connolly, made a trailer that I can share.

I will say, seeing the winners of the competition, if I had better understood the freedom of creating audio content for these videos I would have done something different. All things considered I am happy with what I did – but more importantly it was an great exercise in editing and storytelling and I am happy to have been able to participate.

While attempting to put together the trailer for the FilmSupply Challenge I also adapted my unpublished novel into a screenplay. The Stowe Story Labs in Vermont have a fall narrative lab (and were promoting but decided not to hold a November adaptation lab) that I scrambled to apply to. Numerous film/video related ventures offer fellowships  to help with the cost of tuition to attend the labs. I was not awarded a fellowship, so despite being accepted I found I was unable to attend which was disheartening.

What might seem like a negative experience was, unexpectedly, quite positive. In addition to having proper motivation to stay up late and write I was made aware of other writing programs in and out of the state of Vermont (and film/video related entities as well).

Becoming clued in to the Story Labs was due in part to attending the White River Independent Film Festival. There I met several local filmmakers who helped steer me toward wonderful resources (and people) in the state. I also became aware of the Vermont Media Alliance at the event.

I had the pleasure of volunteering with the VMA from June until December last year. In addition to playing a role in organizing, reshaping and formatting their website and social media presence I was able to connect with numerous people in the local film industry. It was particularly amusing to be corresponding with the head of the Stowe Story Labs, David Rocchio, both as an applicant to the Labs and as a potential partner via the VMA – simultaneously.

Being able to see the infrastructure and resources in place in Vermont from an “insider’s” point of view gave me a better sense of what is possible (and what is not) in Vermont. I am particularly proud of two interviews I was able to do while working with the VMA.

The first is with Matt Lennon, a filmmaker who lives and works in Middlebury, Vermont. The second is with composer Zackery Nicolosi. The two of them worked together to create the trailer for the Middlebury New Filmmaker’s Festival. I was impressed with the way Mr. Lennon was able to use sections of the many different works to convey emotions and give a sense of what to expect from the festival. The music that Mr. Nicolosi wrote to accompany the visuals is moving and unexpected. Take a look below –

I would be remiss if I did not mention the incredible efforts and work done by Phoebe Lewis on behalf of the festival. In addition to helping me wrangle these two for interviews she organized all of the communications between the VMA and MNFF and bantered with me via social media far more than I deserved.

From attending events, working with the VMA and generally benefitting from the hospitality of those gracious enough to spend time chatting with me, I have been able to get to know a few Vermont filmmakers whose work I admire. Below are a handful of videos from some of these filmmakers.

Michael Fisher –

Ben Silberfarb –

Jon Andrews –

Matt Lennon –

Bill Philips –

Sadly there are others, like Ethan Murphy, whose work I cannot find online to share with you. Then there are those that I was not able to become acquainted with, like Nora Jacobson and Jay Craven but given their contributions to the Vermont film community and the impact of their work I and including two trailers below –

In March of 2017 The MusicBed held their Film Initiative which I participated in. I have been working on a science fiction screenplay for more than a decade and when I saw how this competition worked it seemed like an opportune time to try and put together a visual submission that would take me outside of my comfort zone.

In an act of kindness the good people at The MusicBed put up the package the 2016 winner of the competition submitted. I was able to download and study that submission in order to have a real sense of what was expected. I can no longer find the page they had which contained the interview and submission but on Shane Hurlbut‘s site there is a blog post which contains most of the information (and the short film that was made after winning – I have posted it below).

I’ve never attempted to distill any piece of writing into minimal text and a few broad images and the process was helpful, to say the least. Problems with my script became apparent immediately, as did solutions. In using images I found online I was able to better conceive of the story I wanted to tell – as well as the themes and issues I had been struggling to articulate and explore. I would encourage any writer who does not tend to think visually to experiment with this process as it does force you to think differently and, for me at least, the results are pleasing.

Sadly I did not win the competition but, again, the process was so helpful to my writing that I do feel like I won in some ways. Perhaps that is corny but anything that improves the work is a good thing.

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I’ve tried not to make this a self-centered post, I may have failed. My hope was to point out a few of the experiences I had this past year (I did apply to the FilmicPro competition but I submitted a previously completed work so no real lesson was learned there) in an effort to show how even in failing I feel like I succeeded.

I think it is easy when there are no immediate, tangible results to gloss over a period of time and think, “Nothing happened,” but rarely is that true. I wrote and shared numerous short screenplays this past year in a hope of getting something, anything made. The only short film I completed was one I made by myself – without a script. I did have the experience, for the first time, of writing with someone specific in mind to direct and then having the ticklish conversations that follow when they don’t want to work with you.

It’s a process and I can honestly say as much as I didn’t like many parts of this process over the past year, I think, it’s gotten me to a better place. There is concrete evidence that things did happen and being reminded of that is helpful.

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The Trap of Perfection and Being Ready

The number of projects I have not begun, have begun but not completed or have nearly finished but essentially abandoned is large. When my defenses are working properly there are many wonderful reasons for all of this unfinished work. None of them are terribly original or interesting. In nearly every case the actual reason is the same: what is/was in my head did not/will not be as good when I make it. Perfection is a trap.

Today I was looking through the folders on my computer, for what I no longer remember, and I stumbled down a rabbit hole of past projects and memories that lead me, much like Alice, on a strange and mysterious journey. The journey concluded when I went to my YouTube page and saw that the last video I uploaded was two years ago.

Now, to be fair, YouTube for me is an afterthought. If I make something and want to share it I use Vimeo. The lack of commercials and the overall straightforward nature of the site is why it has become the place where I publish video content. Yet I do try and publish on YouTube because I can use all the views I can get. I am unknown and would like to change that.

Now before you start following links or Googling me the sad truth is I have made very little content to share with the world. Largely it is because I am a stay-at-home dad who mostly shoots videos of his children. I share these videos with family members who say they watch them.

So why am I writing all of this? Where is the bit about perfection?

I came across a video I made in 2007 today. It is called Marty. I am embedding it below. It is less than two minutes long and it would make me happy if you watched it now.

I’ve shared it on this site before but since I had forgotten about it, I am sure you did, too. Now, this is a very short film with almost no story that I made when I knew much less about how to make short films. Yet, it is one of a handful of short films I have made. And I think it is okay. Not amazing but not terrible either.

This past year I have gone to a number of film screenings in Vermont and I’ve connected with numerous filmmakers and watched their work online. What I have taken away from these experiences is fairly simple – it is better to make something and have it be “okay” than to make nothing. Pretty standard stuff, I know. Yet, how many of us are not making things, not sharing things because we feel it isn’t good enough? How many times have you sat down to write but stared at the wall, picked up your guitar only to put it down again, or closed your NLE because you felt your project wasn’t good enough.

I’m not a self help guy and I certainly spend more time feeling like a failure than a success. But, if I have learned one thing in the past year it’s this – people are winning awards making things I would be embarrassed to share. Don’t take this as me being snobbish or looking down my nose at others. Take this for what it is – these people are getting recognition and awards for doing – while I am forgetting videos I’ve made and staring at the wall.

“Write it. Shoot it. Publish it. Crochet it, sauté it, whatever. MAKE.”
Joss Whedon

Computers, Technology and Hoopla

I would like to be a tech savvy person. I would like to sit down at a computer, any computer, and immediately be able to do all the tasks I wish to do and never need to touch the mouse. I would like to pick up a digital camera and effortlessly navigate the menus in order to arrange all of the settings and presets so that my pictures rival anything out there.

I would like this and it will never, ever happen. My experience with technology is, I think, much like everyone else’s: a big game of catch up. Whatever the piece of technology is I am attempting to figure out the “right” way to be using it. Which is to say I figure things out, mostly, but there is usually something I am not doing quite right. Even if I do not know that I am doing something incorrectly.

Which brings me to one of my many current technology related problems – iPhoto. A while back I bought a DSLR (technically a DSLM but that really is being pretty picky) and I started taking pictures. A lot of pictures. Everything I have read about being a “real” photographer (who is shooting digitally, because there still seems to be a pretty big debate over film vs digital and “realness”) told me that I should be shooting in the RAW format. Yes, you have to write RAW in all caps for some reason. I have heard it and I have forgotten the reason and so should you. Just write the word in caps.

Anyway I have done this and I have then used iPhoto to try and store and manipulate these photos. Which has caused near exponential growth in the size of my iPhoto storage. Which has caused all kinds of computer problems. Which has lead to me playing catch up as to what is going on and how I can fix it.

As far as I can tell I can’t really fix the problem. Or I can but it would involve deleting most of the photos, which isn’t really a solution in my book. So I have begun looking at alternative programs to replace iPhoto. And I have found them. They just cost money and I am adverse to spending money I do not have to on computer programs. Call me cheap. That’s fine. I can take it.

Anyway, I do a fair bit of video work on my computer and now time lapse photography, which is where I ran into trouble with my hard drive space. So the reason I have written this long and not terribly exciting account of my photo woes is that even when a cheap person like myself finds solutions, which I have (Darktable is a free, RAW image editor) it seems you simply replace one set of problems for another.

So I spend three days trying to find an iPhoto solution that does not involve me deleting all of my photos and it leads to a new program. I use the new program and can find no way to make it pull photos off of my external hard drive. Now the point of this rant, if there is one, is when does it end? At each step of trying to do something (because believe it or not I am sparing you the video component of the time lapse saga that goes hand-in-hand with this) there are more obstacles, more problems you did not know existed to then find solutions and encounter a new set of problems.

Which is really another way of saying – I am tired of working for my technology. We all take pictures now and lots of them. Our old system was imperfect but the storage of the photos was rather simple. If we printed the pictures we then stuck them in an album. We kept the negatives in something or other and pretended that twenty years later we were going to find those negatives and do something with them. Maybe we made a large print of a picture we liked and put it in a frame. That was it. You found a place to put your albums and then every once in a while you took them out flipped through the pages and then put them away.

Now I have three external hard drives on my desk and slow desktop because I tend to dip below the recommended level of storage on my internal hard drive and this is a no-no. My photos are now technically stored in the “cloud” so that they take up less space and I can access them on all of my devices that I have linked to the “cloud”. This is also supposed to be a safer way to keep them should anything happen.

Now I will end here but I want to share my silver lining to this problem and my working through this problem. I started writing this post a year ago. I stopped did other things and came back at various points. In that time I glommed onto this idea of how things used to be. I watched a film called Side by Side which talked about the perils of digital and chemical process filmmaking. And something clicked for me.

At the moment the only future-proof format that motion picture films (Hollywood, baby) have is film. Analog. You put it into canisters and store them in those climate controlled dust free something or others. There is a system, we don’t really know what it is but people do and you do it. And then, you can play it on any device that plays that format of film. Even if that particular piece of machinery is already 100 years old.

So how does this relate to my pictures? I spent about three days, sifted through 20,000 digital photos and chose about 900 I cannot lose. I then order 4×6 prints of each picture bought some albums and put them on my shelf. They had been there for about six months now and already I have sat down with my five year old daughter several times and flipped through them, like I used to do with my parents. And I know, if there were some catastrophe and I had time to rescue something from my home I would not try and grab my iMac, I would grab these albums of pictures and run outside.

See it Again (reborn)

A few years ago I had the idea to try and create content specific for different social media sites. I had been paying attention to the online articles and advice columns that all said the same thing: if you want to be a successful X you have to use social media and use it well.

So here we are, a few years later, and I am not really using social media much, or well. The fault lies with me of course but also in the second, more important (and left unsaid) part of this advice – be yourself. I could quote Hamlet or 50 other well-known and somewhat pretentious sources to make my point but my guess is you already get it.

I have attempted to find people whose work I know and respect, filmmakers, writers, comedians, musicians, actresses and actors to follow on social media. By and large I have either quickly unfollowed these people because I dislike the way they use social media or I could not find them using these sites.

The reasons I stopped following people I am sure you are familiar with: either all they did was promote their work in a steady, uninteresting stream of posts or tweets or they shared personal information and images that I would have rather not seen.

What should they have been sharing? I am not sure. I follow Olivia Wilde on several sites and I generally likes what she posts, even though nearly everything fits into the two categories I listed above. Why do I still follow her?

I believe I still follow her because she is honest and truthful and (seemingly) not using social media to promote her “brand”. Perhaps she is and she is excellent at making self-marketing feel like personal interactions.

In either case, it works and that is what I wanted to get at here – authenticity. So much of what I have attempted to share has not been authentic, has not been me in most regards, because I don’t like the notion of sharing your personal life with strangers.

Have I posted pictures of my children on Instagram? I have and feel weird about it and writing it here makes me think I should take them down. Do I post one line movie reviews on Twitter? Yes and I feel dirty afterwords and often delete them.

Because what should I be sharing? This. Long, long posts where I share my thoughts and thought processes about things that interest and concern me. Or I write about things I love, or hate, in great detail. Because that is who I am, it is what I do and if it does not interest you then it would be best if we part ways.

I gave this post a title which most likely does not make sense. I created a category of posts called “See it Again” in which I write about a film that I feel people should give another chance despite poor reviews, low profits or just negative feelings overall. I added the reborn in parentheses because I want to start over with this category. Allow me to explain why.

I don’t care about box office returns and unless you stand to profit from a film, neither should you. This is some weird, oversharing, marketing technique to make people care or be interested in films simply because they are successful. It makes no sense. Just today I saw this article – How Avatar made $2.7 billion and garnered almost no fan base. Which I think sums up this point somewhat well.

Critics and their reviews of films I think are equally unimportant. They become exponentially less important when you lump them all together, give their scores a rating and then average these scores together. To not take into account who the critic is, what they like and dislike and what they actually said is to diminish an already marginally interesting and important activity into something of equal value with an infomercial. If a pretentious, literate, snobbish fop who only likes a fraction of high-brow art films reviews something like Mission Impossible and comes away with something positive to say, this is slightly interesting. To then take their B- grade and throw it in with the rest renders their review meaningless.

Finally I have no idea how you measure negative feelings, especially of the general population. As we are learning the Internet does not reflect the general attitude or mood of anything (other than the Internet). A strong online fan base for a filmmaker, who then creates a film based on their ravings and support does not mean that any of them will actually watch the finished product. The examples are endless and you know many yourself. So how do we measure this general attitude? We can’t. We can pay attention to the media, or advertising or the Internet or what people at work say. The truth is we don’t really know, which is why I am throwing this by the wayside.

So instead I will leave all of this off, the ratings and the earnings and the lack of awards (I forgot that one but then I think they are best forgotten) and just be using my own, strange internal criteria to determine the films I think you should give a chance (second or otherwise). And you, of course, are free to pay me no mind.

This strikes me as a much more rewarding system and one which I hope to make better, fuller use of.

Conscious Choices and Technology

I am a little ashamed to be writing this. There are many reasons why writing about cameras makes little sense for me. Mostly because, as I state often, I am not a cinematographer nor do I wish to be one. That being said, I have spent (and continue to spend) a considerable amount of time and thought on understanding and utilizing digital cameras for filmmaking projects.

Of late I have been perturbed. The reason is simple – none of the options make me happy. The purpose of this post is not to gripe about something that makes me unhappy. What I aim to do is try and have a discussion, with myself and anyone who is willing to read, about a problem all of us deal with.

To begin: I like film. Celluloid. Honest-to-goodness you can touch it and smell it film. It could be because I was born in 1978. It could be because I have taken many photographs in my life and prior to 2002 they were all taken on film. The reasons are many and as is often the case with things we like or love I do not spend a lot of time dwelling on why I feel the way I do (to read about someone exploring the why go here).

So in 2002 (or thereabouts) I was given my first digital camera for photography and I thought it was pretty great. Why be limited to 24 or 36 exposures? My limit was 1,000. What is this nonsense about waiting to have the film developed in order to see if you got the shot? Instantly seeing the picture is amazing! It was pretty exciting, especially for someone with no training or professional interest in the craft of photography. I just wanted to take pictures of people, places and things, make sure they looked decent and then have those pictures forever.

Only there was a new, unexpected, component – a digital workflow. With film I picked up my packet of pictures  and put them into a photo album. A simple process of camera, store, album. Now I needed a computer in order to download the pictures and some kind of software to organize and manage them. If I wanted to try and edit the photos (which was a pretty amazing and novel idea) I needed software, a computer powerful enough to run the software and I needed to learn how to use the program. If I wanted to have physical prints of the pictures I had to buy a portable storage device large enough to physically bring the files to the store to then transfer them and purchase prints. There are always difficulties that come with change and none of these seemed intolerable, just new.

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Okay, what I am telling you is really not exciting and it is, in effect, what everyone old enough to drive to the photo store recalls from this time. So why bother? I want to say something about technology and I feel that starting with something many of us know about and experienced is a good way to begin.

The benefits were immediately obvious and the trade-offs were not terrible. Sure the first cameras had low megapixels and if you had a camera like mine you couldn’t adjust the shutter speed which meant taking pictures of children resulted in blurry images. I now knew that my images were terrible in the moment and tried to take better ones. There seemed only to be positives to this change.

So now, fifteen years later, film for taking pictures or making movies, is something of a novelty. Most of us need to either drive a fair distance or use the mail service in order to have film for photos developed. The price is not exorbitant but if you own a decent digital camera it is an unnecessary (and time consuming) expense. For those making movies, or wanting to see a movie screened on celluloid, things are challenging.

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Very few theaters show movies projected on film anymore (although Kodak has recently released an app to help you find these theaters). There are good reasons for this and most people are happy about this change. Yet, there are plenty of filmmakers continuing to make their movies with film as their acquisition format. Which means they are taking great pains to use a format, for specific artistic reasons,  only to then have their film converted and projected in digital format.

There is quite a bit of discussion about movies and their acquisition formats and people much more knowledgeable than I am have made excellent points for and against each. What I want to look at is this notion of making an effort to utilize a tool for artistic reasons (in this case film) and then, in a sense, be defeated by having your choices undermined by how the finished product is displayed.

Imagine a painter using oils to make their work and then having a picture taken of the finished painting. The picture is then uploaded to a digital frame and hung in galleries and is the only way to view the painting. Would anyone be pleased with this result?

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This is not a digital print.

If you read the liner notes of The White Stripes’ album, Elephant, there is the following statement “No computers were used during the writing, recording, mixing, or mastering of this record,”[9] and none of the recording equipment was more recent than 1963.”

You might think this is a pretty novel idea or you might think this approach is “hipster” or you might have no thoughts whatsoever on the matter. Take a moment and consider that nearly everyone who has listened to this album (released April 1st, 2003) has listened to it in a digital format. Even if you were listening to the songs played on the radio in 2003 the station was (most likely) playing a CD (or another digital format). Which is not to say that the efforts of The White Stripes and Jack White were defeated. The album was incredibly successful. Since that time he has made a concerted effort to revitalize vinyl – which makes it safe to assume he would have preferred everyone to experience this album as analog-only.

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If you have not thought much about the differences between analog and digital formats for music I would suggest taking a look at https://youtu.be/mDZcz-V29_M which is a documentary the examines the benefits and shortcomings of both. While far from perfect is a good entry point into learning more about the matter.

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Now again, with the pros and cons of certain technologies, there are situations and times where one technology makes more sense than another. If I want to go for a run and have music, I am going to use my iPod and not my Discman. Yet how many of us are using our computers or iPods in our homes to listen to music when we could have a turntable and be hearing our music in a fuller, richer manner (this pertains to the compression used in digital formats that removes some of the sounds in a recording to save space)? At the very least using a system with proper speakers?

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The ease and convenience of a technology should not be the only factors we take into account when we want to have an experience. What troubles me is that many of us are not making a choice between digital and analog. We are not making an active choice regarding the quality of the experiences we are having. Many of us are buying or using what is at hand (or is popular) without putting much thought into the choices available to us.

When I began writing this post (two years ago) I was in a place where I understood that the process of doing anything should be as important, if not more, than the result. I was trying to write more with a pen or pencil since I prefer that to typing on the computer. I was trying to stop picking up my video cameras and shooting without a plan, trying to approach my projects as thought I were shooting on film and had to be careful and thoughtful.  I was trying to reach for my (stills) film camera instead of my digital camera for the same reasons. I was making a more concerted effort to play a CD (since I do not own a turntable at present) rather than an mp3 from my phone. In all of these cases I have failed.

Life gets in the way. It’s a poor excuse but it is true, things come up, you want to do something with ease and simplicity and you choose the easiest path. Although it most certainly is an object of ridicule of nearly every serious film person now, the speech that Al Pacino gives at the end of Scent of A Woman (the point of the film, really) is about how his entire life he’s always known what the right thing to do was but he never did it. Because it was too damn hard.

I don’t usually delve into philosophy and existential matters on this site but this is the choice we are all making so often with how we experience our lives. This past weekend I took my digital camera to a family gathering and put on a lens that has autofocus because I just wanted to take pictures and have it be easy. I’ve spent at least three hours since attempting to correct the footage because my white balance was off. I took over four hundred pictures and about one hundred and fifty are decent. Maybe ten are great. If I hadn’t been lazy (because I brought my kids without my wife and had to be a child-wrangler and a picture-taker) I would have used my film camera. I wouldn’t have had as many pictures but I would have taken the ones I did with intention and purpose. I would have put thought and effort into them. Which is why so often with film pictures that are flawed, blurry, out of focus, having light leaks, still make wonderful pictures.

Making these choices, for whatever reasons – financial, artistic or practical needs to be more of a conscious effort. I am amazed at how badly I have failed at this in the past two years, despite having given it enough thought that I wrote the bulk of this essay.

My hope is to do better, to make the right choice more often despite it not being an easy choice. I know that the best method to ensure this is to make an effort, before the moment occurs, to allow this to happen. Whether this means having a pad of paper and pen sitting by my desk or my film camera ready to go and easily at hand, it’s about making an effort when I am able to in order to have a better experience.

 

 

 

Wes Anderson – Reality and Magic

It pains me to write it but for eight years I did not have much of an appreciation for the work of Wes Anderson. Shortly after viewing The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou I felt that Mr. Anderson had begun to engage in a form of filmic navel-gazing. I was not alone in having this opinion and the chorus of voices agreeing with my assessment made it all that much easier to dismiss his works.

What I would like to put forth here is something of an explanation as to how I stopped appreciating the works of Mr. Anderson and, more importantly, how I began again. I would like to start with a quote:

I think there should be distance between an audience and what they’re watching on the screen. I don’t want reality. Somebody can say, oh, it looks so real.  Well, dammit, it’s not real. It’s a story. I don’t want to blend the two, I want distance between me and what I’m watching on the screen.  Otherwise there’s no magic there. And I think that’s probably what’s missing a lot now, no magic.

Gordon Willis

The first Wes Anderson film I saw was Rushmore. I went in with no expectations and I came out bemused. It was unlike anything I was watching at the time and although there were a number of people in the cast I recognized it did not have the aggressive approach that the film Magnolia did with its casting. I do not come to Bill Murray with the same same attitude that so many seem to today. I think he is a fine actor and, especially in a Wes Anderson film, capable of complex and interesting performances. His laid back attitude and general air of detachment do little for me. His past films do not sway me in his favor. He is, like many actors who rose to great heights in the 80’s, a little boring to me. I find him self-satisfied and not terribly interesting.

 

I do not write this to tear him down. As I already stated I think he can turn in quite wonderful performances. I do feel that he needs proper handling to do so and the person who seems best equipped to handle him is Wes Anderson.

While Rushmore did not feel like reality to me it did not feel as removed as The Royal Tenebaums and certainly nowhere near the level of abstraction as The Life Aquatic. I liked Rushmore and I liked the quirkiness and style but I connected with the “reality” of the picture. It has a heart and that heart is of a wounded high school boy who pours everything he has into the love of his school.

After watching Rushmore I discovered that Mr. Anderson had already directed a film, Bottle Rocket. I vaguely knew of the two lead actors and when watching it I was surprised when James Caan came on screen. Again it was an interesting and unexpected bit of casting that added to the story and did not detract from the film. I enjoyed Bottle Rocket very much, it was even more realistic and, to me, accessible picture.

 

The connection that I feel with the characters of these two films was absent when I watched his third, The Royal Tenebaums. There are many possible reasons for this. His use of a narrator and the strange detachment all of the characters have, to themselves and others, certainly play a part. The unreality of New York City, a place I had visited a few times, seemed to call attention to itself as if to say, “See I am not real,” which confused me.

 

I have never been a fan of artifice. The costumes in this film, the styles of speech, the bizarre moments that seem to be connected to little else (the hawk on the rooftop) all jolted me out of the film. Ultimately what tainted the experience for me was the cast. This is the first time that the casting called attention to itself in a Wes Anderson film. Nearly every central character is played by someone I knew well from other roles (the Wilson brothers in part from Wes Anderson films). Several cast members, in particular Gwyneth Paltrow and Ben Stiller, are playing against type. She is sullen, secretive and withdrawn. He is terrified, abrasive and overprotective. What I experienced with this, as I am sure many others did, was the undesirable experience of being pulled out of the movie at numerous points because of these associations. Watching Danny Glover walk around in his very specific, very artificial costume will always be jarring to me.

I could continue on but I feel I have belabored the point already – what worked in the first two films, most likely because of casting, did not for me in The Royal Tenenbaums. This experience, coupled with negative reviews undoubtedly contributed to my initial response to The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.

 

What strikes me now is how funny this film is. Yes, Bill Murray is doing his thing being emotionally distant and disaffected. Yes the film contains more artifice than any of his earlier ones. Yet, as strangely as it is told the story is relatable. It is very human and knowable and, yes, it is often outrageously funny. At the time none of these things registered with me. What I took away from my initial viewing of The Life Aquatic was that Mr. Anderson had stopped caring about the viewer and started making films for himself.

So now, finally, I would like to discuss what changed for me. It is my sincere hope that by sharing my own “revelations” I might help others who have ceased enjoying these films (or never began). For me the change came about after watching The Fantastic Mr. Fox. For those of you paying attention this means I skipped The Darjeeling Limited. I also avoided Moonrise Kingdom, waiting until the spring of 2014 to give Mr. Anderson’s films another chance.

 

The reason for this was the trailer for The Grand Budapest Hotel. Madcap, zany and filled with Ralph Fiennes- I thought, for the first time in nearly a decade, “this looks interesting.” So why start with Mr. Fox? First, it is an adaptation, which made me think that the self-indulgent aspects of his filmmaking would be less prevalent. Second the film is animated, which led me to believe that my prior issues with well known actors jarring me out of the film would not occur.

I can safely say the film greatly exceeded my expectations and did so largely for the very reasons that had caused me to dislike The Life Aquatic. Here the attention to detail, with the costumes and the sets, even the music, all worked in the film’s favor. I never forgot that it was George Clooney speaking (although I did with Meryl Streep) but it did not matter. I was not looking at George Clooney in some strange costume moving mechanically. Because the film was animated I was not distracted by his hair or clothes or car. Since I was not familiar with this particular Roald Dahl story I was not annoyed with the changes made for the adaptation. In short it was exactly the experience I needed to reignite my interest in Mr. Anderson’s live action works.

 

The next day I sought out The Darjeeling Limited. The scales had not been lifted from my eyes but I did feel that perhaps I had been too quick to judge. What struck me while watching the film, almost immediately, was the playfulness. The warmth Mr. Anderson clearly feels  for the characters, despite how they act or what happens to them, is undeniable. There is no villain in the film. There is no ‘bad brother’. As the film continued I began to notice the attention to detail, whether with the train itself or with the character’s costumes, and how it did not strike me as simply artifice. In this story the clothes that Adrien Brody’s character wears matter. They are important to the story being told and they inform who the character is.

By the end of the film I was certain that I was wrong about The Life Aquatic and The Tenebaums. I had the terrible realization that I, for whatever reason, had been missing the point. When I watched Moonrise Kingdom the following day the matter was settled- I had been a schmuck.

 

The revelation, for me, is that Wes Anderson has his own unique approach to story-telling. The artifice, which so clearly indicates what you are watching is not real, is not there to diminish the characters or undermine the story being told. I believe this is simply how he frees himself to tell the stories he tells. It seems apparent to me now, having re-watched his films with this understanding, that how he tells the story is as important as the story being told. Mr. Anderson makes these movie worlds because he likes them. Take a moment and think about this: the director is telling these stories in this way because he likes the stories themselves and the act of telling them. Now name another filmmaker who consistently does the same.

The more I have thought about this the clearer it has become, Mr. Anderson in making worlds that he himself wants to visit. The characters speak the way he wishes people would speak. They dress the way he wishes people would dress. They are able to live in a way he wishes we could, whether in a luxurious New York City home complete with its own hospital room, or in a modified ship that contains (among many other things) an editing suite and sauna. When you view his films with this in mind I feel you can see that so much of his world-building is just him creating things he wishes existed. The train in the Darjeeling Limited is a wonderful example of this. Perhaps it symbolizes something, perhaps it represents something- I choose to see it as a fantasy train made real. I think each film is populated by these places and things not to distract and not to dominate but simply to exist.

So to conclude with the quote I have yet to comment on,

I think there should be distance between an audience and what they’re watching on the screen. I don’t want reality. Somebody can say, oh, it looks so real.  Well, dammit, it’s not real. It’s a story. I don’t want to blend the two, I want distance between me and what I’m watching on the screen.  Otherwise there’s no magic there. And I think that’s probably what’s missing a lot now, no magic.

Gordon Willis

I believe that Wes Anderson is in full agreement with this statement. He is not looking to capture and present reality; which is not to say that his films are pure fantasies or that they do not deal with real, important matters. Most of his films deal with loss, often death, and although many aspects of the film are whimsical and playful he is never dismissive of the importance of these loses concerning his characters. What I believe he seeks to achieve (and I think he does) through the use of elaborate sets and costumes is this distance between the audience and the film. The artifice clue the viewer in early to the truth, ‘this is not reality’ and allow for the magic of filmmaking to take place. We can watch this particular story told in this particular manner and enjoy it because it is not reality. We can be captivated, allow the different techniques in the telling of the story to transpire because we know we are watching something that is not real. That these stories are told with such loving care and attention to detail only enhances them; it increases their value and the payoff, I think, is that much greater.

 

Two Rules for Storytelling

Working principles.

A story, whether it is screenplay, novel or something I am whispering in your ear should satisfy one or both of the following conditions. They are listed in order of importance.

1)    The story should entertain/titillate/engage the reader/listener/viewer.

2)    The story should teach/inform/educate the reader/listener/viewer.

I am sure I have stolen this almost directly from someone but since I cannot remember who I have decided to accept my unintentional theft and move forward.

So in my world the most important question to ask is – is this boring? Because despite the fact that your story is loaded with pearls of wisdom that could change the life of every person on the planet, no one is going to get past page one. Because it is boring.

For a very long time I took issue with this approach to storytelling. Why? Because people should have the wisdom, the fortitude and the decency to struggle through the boring bits to get to the genius that is this story. You, the writer, have devoted tremendous amounts of time and energy to telling this story – is it too much to ask that the audience meets you halfway? That they put a little effort in?

You bet.

How did I come to think this? I started sharing my writing friends and family. I soon discovered that many of them did not even bother to finish ten page stories. My loved ones! Those that did offered up the kiss of death – “I liked it.” No further comment beyond that phrase.

That is where I learned a very valuable lesson. If you can’t get your best buddy or your own sister to wade through your story, you will never get a complete stranger to do so either.

Sadly the drawback of storytelling is that is takes time. A good story needs time to unfold, to envelop and sway an audience. Unlike a photograph or a painting, a story asks for something more than the attention of the audience. It asks for time.

Which takes us back to rule number one – don’t be boring. If you are going to take up a person’s time have the courtesy to keep them interested. As a storyteller you are fighting for those minutes or hours needed to tell the story and the best way to get them is by entertaining your audience. If you are lucky or very talented you might be able to work in more than murder and mayhem, but if you can’t do that at least let the audience walk away feeling properly sated.