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Fittest on Earth (2015) and the Challenge of Crossfit

“Crossfit does not operate within the formalized world of sport or the corporate gym establishment. It features contests involving sandbags, tractor tires, ropes, weights and surprise challenges. It promotes itself on social media, and is rarely written about in newspapers, except in the business pages. Ten years ago there were 13 Crossfit gyms in the United States, where it started. Now it has conquered most of the world – it has a presence in Mongolia, Fiji and Kazakhstan – and there are 11,000 Crossfit affiliates. Forbes magazine valued the brand at $4bn.”  -The Guardian, December, 2015

A documentary appeared on Netflix recently and showed up at the top of my recommended lists. The name of it is Fittest on Earth (2015).

As a total documentary junkie, I tend to simply add any and all documentaries that pop up in the recently released lists on Netflix and Amazon straight into my watch lists. Subjects range from parking lots to serial killers, and I love them. While not all of them are the most high-end on the production front, the majority are executed well enough to entertain me, if not spawn an entirely new obsession cycle—like this one did.

Fittest on Earth is all about Crossfit, the fitness craze that has apparently been taking over the world for about two decades. In 2007, Crossfit put on the first Crossfit Games competition (the 2nd annual Crossfit Games is documented in another documentary available on Netflix called Every Second Counts [2009]).

For years I’ve kept up a fairly regular but always changing workout routine at home with my light and medium weight dumbbells and lots of different workout videos. My mother still has ridiculous VHS footage of me in a leotard doing her 1980s Firm workouts (Vol. 2 was the best! lol). I continued to love workout videos and rotated them, returning to them again and again even if there were some hiatuses ranging from a few weeks to a few months.

After college, moving in to my own apartments and eventually a new house with my husband, I continued to look for hour long-ish workouts that I could do at home with my little dumbbells and a yoga mat for abs stuff. In 2009 I picked up running after discovering a lovely park with a four mile trail that I still visit regularly today, even though it is a little bit out of the way now. The key with keeping some kind of regularity with my workouts has always been that I could change it up and not get bored doing the same thing all the time. I love running, but I can’t just run every day, it would drive me crazy. Some days I want to just do a workout video and just sweat it out at home, working different muscles and exhausting them in ways that they aren’t accustomed to (always resulting in lovely and intense amounts of soreness the following day).

Anyway, when I began watching this Crossfit documentary, I was just mildly interested. It was something about a subject I did not know anything about. My husband goes to a gym and has coworkers that have mentioned how much they love it now and then, but I didn’t know what it was all about.

Within the first half hour, I was watching it for the athletes being followed during the 2015 Crossfit games. The Icelandic women Sara Sigmunsdottir and Katrin Davidsdottir, a beautiful and funny Brook Ence, ridiculously strong Samantha Briggs, down-to-earth and hilarious Mat Fraser as the underdog chasing first place with all he’s got, superhuman Ben Smith, Dan Bailey, etc. All of these people were unique to me and showed a lot more going on in their personalities than I usually think of when I think of the muscle-clad, self-obsessed stereotypes surrounding the men and women who spend endless hours weight lifting and training in a gym. (Mostly this idea comes from ignorance on my part of course.) Most of the guys I have known who spent hours at a gym every day didn’t even compete in a sport, just took pictures of themselves to put online lol.

But here I’m being introduced to a group of incredibly dedicated athletes who actually heavily support each other in a sport that has gotten so popular so fast that they have become celebrities in their own right. Individuals who have dedicated years of their lives to becoming the most all-around fittest people in the world, but still able to exude awesome personalities and incredibly supportive and encouraging sportsmanship…because they know that everyone else there is going through hell just like them. And maybe that’s a big part of it.

Crossfit is not about doing so many reps, lifting so much weight, and getting so good at a single objective that you can display your ability effortlessly at a competition and win by a landslide. Not anything like that. While all of the Crossfit Games athletes have strengths and weaknesses, not one of them flies effortlessly past these challenges to get to the podium at the end of the weekend. It is a grueling and unpredictable test that tears these people apart and throws them into so much pain that they have to be hyper-aware of how they are parading their complete vulnerability, giving everything they have, strain visible on their faces, to a gigantic audience in the stands and watching from all over the world—that has to be humbling, and it must be what gives these athletes a level head when it comes to how they train, how they compete and how they view the other athletes around them.

Throughout the film, many of the top contenders at the 2015 Crossfit Games are commenting on how this person is way stronger than they are in this particular field, how they weren’t ready for this, how they didn’t train properly for that and they will need to change it up to improve. Mat Fraser knows (at least back in 2015) that he isn’t the strongest sprinter in the world. And when, in one of the workouts called the “Soccer Chipper,” a 500lb+ “pig” tore apart his biceps to the point where he couldn’t even execute a single legless rope climb, he bought one of them after the competition (in which he placed 2nd) to bring home with him to train with for the next year; it must have constantly reminded him of his failure, but more importantly given him a way to improve and prepare if it were to come up again.

And therein lies one of the most interesting facets of the Crossfit Games. You train all year round, but when the Games finally approach, you have no idea what you will actually have to do once you get there, and there is no more time to prepare. Some of the workouts are revealed beforehand, but some of them no one is aware of until the day it is time to perform them. Crossfit is about a whole new level of serious all-around fitness. Not only do you lift, run, sprint, push-up, hand-stand, swim, climb, etc., etc., but there are so many different kinds of challenges that there is no way to perfect all of them. And that is why it is a really good test of the “fittest on earth.” When you can face something you’ve never faced before, but you’ve trained your body well enough that you can adapt to that level of intensity and challenge from any and all direction…”that’s how you get batman” as director Dave Castro puts it.

I started thinking about all the times in my life when I was happiest. There is nothing like getting on track with eating right and challenging your body through workouts. There is a natural high to running that instantly dissolves anything else that may have been the center of your world a few minutes before. When you are in that place, nothing else matters and that is what life is about. Your senses are heightened and you can feel every inch of yourself working. And then you wonder why you ever let yourself slack off or get lazy. This month especially has been incredible, taking late afternoon runs through the leaves on the trail at my favorite park. It’s like I don’t need anything else and it makes me so happy, especially when I exhaust myself but am able to push through to complete a goal and get a little further or a little faster than before.

One element of Crossfit that interests me is the objective of taking your body to its absolute limit. I think of other types of competition, let’s say a dance competition, something I’m familiar with. Everything you can expect at a competition, you already have with you. You have steps. You practice them, you get them down as perfectly as possible. Eventually it’s not so much about the energy you expend, but how well you can train your body to have the proper turn-out on this step, get to this height on this step, perfect the rhythm here and there. You compete with yourself, but you know what is in front of you, you know what is expected of you, and you know exactly what you are capable of. The only thing left up to chance is the mood of the judges that day and whether they care if your hair is out of place.

With Crossfit they take their body to limits that they haven’t seen before because they keep pushing themselves further than before. One day it is a ten minute routine, then you add some backflips, then you have to do eight of them, then you have to turn around and run a million miles afterwards, etc. It’s like an ever-evolving routine that never ever feels like a routine, it just feels more challenging than you did it last time, because you’re trying to push to get more, go longer. That is really interesting, and something that I always thought was dangerous. And it is of course, if you don’t know how to listen to your body and understand your limits. But at the same time, I watch these athletes after completing the infamous Murph workout. They’re blacking out, passing out on the field, can’t move their arms the next day, getting carried out on stretchers…but then they recover and say they can’t wait to do it again next year…WHAT?! lol

And that’s where a lot of my admiration for them comes in. It is obvious that these peoples’ minds can be even stronger than their bodies. When they get to the wall that most people don’t care to push through because it hurts so much, they do it. They keep going, they keep pushing even though they are in pain.

Lastly, I wanted to comment on how awesome it is that the incredible Crossfit women are being adored for their strength and discipline, their beauty in a world culture that has been so quickly seduced by the concept that thin and soft is beautiful and feminine. “Strong is Beautiful,” as the Guardian article quoted at the top of this article states (read here.)

I know I’ve always had a hard time dealing with the fact that I was not built to be stereotypically feminine. I have big arms and broad shoulders and monstrous calves from years of stomping around on a dance floor competing in Irish dance. I’ve done all kinds of diets thinking that I could somehow alter my body in a way that is not actually possible. But when I work out, lift weights, do 200 squats and feel how much work I was able to put my body through and still feel good, I wonder how important being soft and pretty is, and why I think that would make me a better person in the first place. I look at Brook Ence and I think she is incredible looking, I hope that my generation and the generation after me can begin to look at strong women like her as their role models and start to move away from the silly dreamland for which we’ve been drowning ourselves in guilt for so many years. Nope, we can’t all be the size of Taylor Swift, but with hard work, focus, and dedication, anyone can turn themselves into a strong, healthy woman ready for new challenges, both mentally and physically.

The Theory of Obscurity: A Film About The Residents

“If you wait until you understand enough to do something, you’re never going to get it done.”

-Penn Jillette, The Theory of Obscurity

 

Until about a week ago, I had no idea who The Residents were, but I know I’ve seen reincarnations of the big eyeball head with a top hat. As far as their sound and art though, I’d never been exposed. So watching 2015’s documentary The Theory of Obscurity, written and directed by Don Hardy Jr., was a brief introduction that got me devouring everything I could find of their work, mostly from youtube, where a wealth of their videos and live performances can be found.

As the introduction to the film states, there is certainly no “definitive” history for the art group, and no personal histories for the members. Their identities have still, after over 40 years, never been revealed.

One of the interviewees in the film makes a comment that the group can really be looked as “failed filmmakers” primarily, even before their sound. Their music, as far as I know, from the earliest time they were making it was always accompanied by film in some form. Whether it was a matter of designing and making a set, objects and costumes for a specific song, or messing around with newspaper one day then much later deciding to use it for a music video for another tune.

I was drawn in by how atmospheric and over-the-top their art is, going as far as possible into the weird and approaching a space that is subconscious and nightmarish, but pleasantly so, like the feeling you get after waking up from a nightmare; knowing you are safe, you bask in the coolness of having had such a horrible nightmare, and you dwell on it while taking joy from it. (Perhaps not with really, really bad nightmares I should say, this is just my experience.)

The film shows snippets of their videos and a great deal of commentary by those who surrounded The Residents during their group’s lifetime, including founding members of the Cryptic Corporation, but of course there is nothing so revealing in the film as to feel like we can hone in on the personality, or indeed even person-hood, of the group. They are the one-for-all, all-for-one mentality described in the “Theory of Obscurity,” which basically states that artists can more fully realize their artistic visions when they are outside and apart from the public scrutiny that comes along with celebrity. In this reality, they have the best of both worlds; they have achieved the highest of cult status with fans all around the world and a working career spanning several decades, but at the end of the day they can always go to the grocery store and the local diner without ever dealing with fans in a personal way. This isn’t to say that there is no personal connection between the group and their fans. Somehow I think it is even greater because there is a malleability in the group and their art that make it relevant to individuals in individual ways. The Residents’ work is not muddied by personal histories or personalities that tend to distort whatever the body of work the group has created. You think of big name artists and many of them now have strings and controversy attached to their work because of this thing they said in an interview, or that thing they did off stage, etc. The Residents’ body of work is untouchable and infallible in that sense.

The visual effect that comes across when I see the music video to, say, “It’s a Man’s World,” or the photographs of the members wearing giant eyeballs on their heads is hard to describe, and I think I came closest to explaining it for myself personally above, when I said they are visually akin to the feeling of waking up safely from a nightmare. The images stay with me and I am intrigued because they trigger so many individual emotions into an amalgamation that is completely different from any other artistic experience, save for certain film directors’ movies. The Residents’ visual work manages to capture emotions without story, but with abstract and shocking images. The weirdness touches on a strange human capacity to latch on to and obsess over something grotesque and distorted, but that somehow satisfies a deep voyeuristic impulse. Like something disgusting in a video your friends show you, but somehow you can’t keep your eyes from watching. Les Claypool describes it succinctly when he talks about the first Residents’ song he ever heard, Constantinople. He says he hated it, he thought it must be the music they play in hell to torment people. But as time progressed, the sound he’d heard stayed with him, somehow going from something he couldn’t stand to something he couldn’t shy away from. He describes it like a fungus. It just kept sticking to him, growing. “The Residents were my fungus,” he states, hilariously straight-faced. The next clip shows him singing with Primus a cover of that very song.

The film also touches on how it is easy to dismiss The Residents if you refuse to look beneath the surface. Like I mentioned, I latched on to the atmosphere of the music, then watched some of the visual work, finally I looked into lyrics. There is something so tragic and personal in some of their work that perhaps would not be possible without masks to cover the bareness of their souls they are showing to the audience.

Last night I watched Freak Show, as performed in Prague. The show swings you from fun and hilarious, to beautiful, tragic, morose, and then dumbfounding. The Freak Show is something that is something of an analogy for the Residents themselves, they prove the universal fascination in human deformity, but at the expense of empathy and acceptance that these creatures are still human with human hearts.

The show is divided into two parts. In the first we play the part of the audience at a Freak Show, the boisterous and funny MC takes you on a journey through the history of the freak show and then we get to see the show’s stars one by one. The second part plummets you into your own soul, showing the behind-the-scenes of a possible reality after the lights are dimmed and the curtain falls. Each freak is engaged in their own reality in extreme deficit of something anyone on the street would call a basic human need for love, something everyone deserves. But beyond this, and more painfully I think, we then get a demonstration of these pitiful creatures’ attempts to fill the void within them, to keep up the façade of life and meaning where they’ve been stripped completely of their humanity. Such uncomfortable moments make the viewer grimace in disgust at the same time that she finds the twisted image of the reflection of these vain efforts in her own heart. My personal take-away is that we are all caught in the absurdity of life and in equally vain and pitiful attempts to frame our lives with meaning. We are all caught in the freak show.

 

Like I said, I am just at the beginning of my journey through The Residents’ work, something I am excited and perhaps a little nervous about! =)

 

A Few Thoughts on a Few 2016 Oscar Nominees

Room (2015)

I’ve seen a lot of movies where the bulk of the story is set inside the cage and the happy ending culminates in the escape from the cage. This film addresses the experience and escape from a whole new, intimate level. One of the most unforgettable scenes and corresponding concepts in the film is the scene in which “Ma” (Brie Larson) breaks down because she cannot understood why she isn’t happy after having been rescued. She has survived, she has a comfortable bed to sleep in, she is safe, she has good food. But she is damaged, and this is something she doesn’t understand fully for a long time.

From another angle, we have Jack (Jacob Tremblay), who has never known anything but life inside “room”. Once he is outside, his mother, and the audience, is a little shocked when Jack expresses his desire to go back to room; to what is familiar, simple and comfortable. He does not want toys and comfy beds, he wants the broken sink and tiny, claustrophobia-inducing wardrobe bed. He too does not feel what everyone would expect a newly escaped survivor to feel and through this process the film asks us to contemplate what sits at the bottom of our everyday lives once the chaos settles and we have nothing and no one but ourselves and our minds to cope with. We get used to dealing with things that do not make sense all the time because it is required. In a way, Jack was free of these obligations and was, in a very real sense, more free inside room than outside.

Lastly, the film addresses the moment when we decide to move on from the pain and self-torture of a traumatic experience. The path is not smooth and it takes longer than we want, but in the end we must give in and let life take its natural course, even when everything imposed on it is anything but natural. 2/22/2016


Spotlight (2015)

This movie was fascinating for a couple of reasons, aside from the subject matter. I love that the movie played in a streamlined, documentary kind of way while maintaining momentum through incredible dialogue and the emotional reactions of the main characters to each cornerstone of their discovery. Mark Ruffalo is intense, and I’ve never seen him quite this invested. The film plays like a documentary because it is nearly completely driven and sustained by the delivery of information. All of the emotional peaks and valleys that make a good movie are carefully paced and embedded within this unraveling. We are interested in the characters based on their positions and how we get to see them react to the information. 2/22/2016


The Big Short (2015)

When Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job (2010) came out, I was incredibly enraged and fascinated at the same time. The documentary was able to clearly and fully explain the events and the causes of the 2008 financial crisis that included many clips and interviews catching the guilty in their own betraying words and actions, as well as illustrations and graphs to help wrap the viewer’s brain around it visually; which is helpful for me as I learn better visually than trying to process a bunch of words alone.

I saw The Big Short in a theater with a couple of friends and I thought the devices the director and writers used to explain important aspects of the story’s subject matter were wonderful. I also felt that the point of conveying this information to the public as a very important story we should know about was driven home because the movie itself went to such creative lengths to explain everything to us. Like Spotlight, I felt in some parts of the film similarly to the experience of a great documentary, but here I was able to process the information through a very entertaining and unconventional way that incorporated not just words, as in Spotlight, but in visual spectacle and gags.  In several spots the film cuts away to some celebrity in a unique situation, there solely to explain a concept to us. It was jarring only in so much as to realize, wow, I should pay attention to this.  2/20/2016


Steve Jobs (2015)

I don’t know how accurate the depiction of Steve Jobs is in this film, but I did find the performances outstanding and having not known much about the man before viewing it, I feel I have a better grasp on the story of Apple itself as well as what drove the creators. Kate Winslet is brilliant as usual, and Michael Fassbender (Jobs) created an excellent profile of a man obsessed but also progressively aware of his downfalls as a human and father. I’m always fascinated by a good obsession story. I’m interested in how the object of obsession changes the brain to act and feel only in accordance with the fulfillment of that obsession. The key tends to lie in what element of human satisfaction the object of obsession projects, and what justifications it hides beneath. 2/24/2016

The Look of Silence (2015)

Last year, Joshua Oppenheimer was nominated for the documentary feature, The Act of Killing (2014) which I think I’ve written about before. This time he’s done it again with The Look of Silence, though there isn’t the absurd spectacle of the perpetrators trying to produce a piece of theater from their legacy. Instead, this film I feel was much more face-to-face confrontational, especially in integrating one of many murdered’s brother in the interviews. There are a few moments when the interviewees suddenly realize that they are being brought into the light in an effort to make them acknowledge the atrocities they or their family member has committed, and accept responsibility for it. Some are receptive, others lost forever in self-deception and denial. 2/20/2016


Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (2015)

Reminiscent of Jehane Naojaim’s documentary The Square (2013) dealing with Egypt’s uprising, which was also nominated for best documentary feature, Winter on Fire deals with the horrendous social injustices going on in the Ukraine. I can’t say anything more clearly about the situation than the film does itself. 2/25/2016


Amy (2015)

There are a lot of things I didn’t know about the artist until I saw this very well-executed doc. Including how much of a tool her father was. It is tragic how much support she clearly did not receive in the time when she needed it most. 2/15/2016


Cartel Land (2015)

What’s interesting about this documentary and the issues it tackles is that the film features people on all sides of the issue, explains their situation, and then manages to make you feel for each one of them, even on opposing sides. On the one hand you have the victims of cartel violence in Mexico, then you have those on the US border desperate to protect their families and lands from the invading violence, then you have the members themselves who are quite often manipulated and are in turn trying to protect their own families. 2/20/2015


What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015)

A really good documentary following Nina Simone throughout her life as a performer and black rights activist. What is fascinating is how extreme her conviction and mission progresses, driven by the passion and urgency of the peoples’ suffering all around her, and by her belief in her duty to be a spokesperson for them. Her lyrics directly address the things that most other artists were trying to side-step and ignore, trying not to stir up anything dangerous or controversial. Her life was filled with emotional turmoil and insecurity, triggered in part by an abusive father and husband. What is impressive is that she came out on the other end successful, happy, and changed. Awesome documentary. 2/20/2016


The Martian (2015)

This film could be used across the country in film school as a near perfect example of effective Hollywood film. The editing, music, acting, story, characters, ups and downs in all the right places, well thought-through amount of humor interjection, scary scenes, nervous scenes, and a smooth transition to resolution. Damon is wonderful. I laughed, I cried, I lost 15 lbs…ok not true, but Damon certainly did. Quite shocking. There is nothing like a good space movie to take you completely out of your own head space. Excellent. 1/17/2016


I haven’t seen The Revenant yet, though I’m pretty sure I will love it.

I’m one of maybe two people in the country that did not like Mad Max, Fury Road.

 

Movies I Can’t Wait To See 2015 (and slightly in to 2016)

There are lots of movies coming out in the next few months that hit a 7 or 8 on the “I can’t wait to see this” scale. But there are a few that I am ridiculously excited to see. I’m sure there are tons I don’t even know about that I will eventually discover and love. Rather than throw up a bunch of trailers that are all over everywhere already, I just wanted to post my top 6, just in case there are one or two you don’t know about yet, #1 being the most insanely excited to see film of 2015, (might be obvious.) =) I’ve also thrown in most anticipated in TV, warranted simply because we’ve had to wait so loooong for it. =)

 

#6 Irrational Man

Directed by Woody Allen. Starring Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone.

I will see anything with Emma Stone in it after her incredible performance in Birdman! Releases July 24.

 

#5 Set Fire to the Stars

I immediately am attracted by any drama about a writer. I like Elijah, except for when I don’t (Maniac (2012) lol.

 

#4 The Wolf Pack

Documentary I can’t wait to see. Here is a discussion of the film alongside another film called Finders Keepers, (Wolf Pack discussion starts around 1:40). I am incredibly interested in the subject matter here. Everything these kids think about the world has come through movies.

 

#3 The Revenant

Didn’t find much on this film to show you. “The frontiersman, Hugh Glass, who in the 1820s set out on a path of vengeance against those who left him for dead after a bear mauling.” -IMDB

Basically you don’t need a trailer to get excited once you know it is directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu and stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy. January 8, 2016. 

 

#2 Crimson Peak

TOM HIDDLESTON, MIA WASIKOWSKA. GUILLERMO DEL TORO!!! YES. October 16, 2015.

#1 Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens

December 18, 2015

 

And then there is Hannibal season 3 airing (finally) on June 4!!

The Burning Embers of Film Maker Jafar Panahi

Watching Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not a Film (2011) and Closed Curtain (2013) in conjunction gives a clear shade of insight into the mind of a filmmaker tormented by the constraints put upon him following an indictment from the Iranian government accusing him of making films filled with anti-regime propaganda and subsequent “ban” from making films. I had actually never seen Panahi’s films until recently, having missed the 2011 Academy Award-nominated documentary which gives the world a glimpse into Panahi’s world in a “day-in-the-life” style. What is interesting about the choice of watching these two films together is the striking congruity of theme, emotion, and obsession, right down to nearly identical scenes of the “movie-inside-a-movie” concept with cellphone cameras filming real cameras filming cellphone cameras, etc, as well as a similar structure; we begin with still, lingering shots of the morning life of an assumed “character” we expect to lead us through the film’s journey. A little ways in, however, this façade is openly and deliberately shut down, in favor of getting rid of the “phony” in an endless effort to deliver the very “real and present danger” of the moment. This moment is dressed differently in each film, but resonate the same. Panahi highlights the humanistic sentimentality that casts light on the hardships of Iran’s people, notably women, under the Iranian government. After telling us that he will not continue appearing in the film (This Is Not a Film) as someone unaware of being filmed, we watch minute by minute as Panahi engages with his reality; unable to make films, and not yet knowing the verdict following an appeal to the government, hoping to lessen his 6 year prison sentence and 20 year ban on making or writing films. There are telling moments when Panahi assumes the camera man will cut and does not, forcing him to try and save face in crushing moments when the positive outlook his passion brings him falters, if only for a few minutes. Closed Curtain shows us this pain in a more fabricated, though no less potent, form, going so far as to touch on the effects of suicidal thoughts and playing through possible outcomes in one’s mind, until the time that those strings of thought are interrupted.

In This Is Not a Film, Panahi scrambles to define the parameters of a screenplay he is not allowed to make. He tries reading the screenplay while recreating as much of the story in physical space as he can for us, using objects from around the room and putting tape on the floor to represent rooms and doorways. After a few minutes, however, we watch as Panahi pauses, exasperated and without hope, commenting “why would anyone make films if we could tell them?” With these words, he walks out of the room, mid-scene.

It has not been as bad for him as it could have been, thanks to a large international pool of support and a growing prestige as a filmmaker from awards and winnings from international film festivals, like Berlin. As a result, Panahi has remained in a kind of government “limbo,” and has not had to serve jail time, though he is not allowed to leave the country, (The Guardian, read full article here). Panahi has continued to make films post-2010, and has continued to win awards for them.

Closed Curtain (2013) is a striking film in many ways, but the most blatant of them is linked directly to the effects of his documentary. In both films, we begin with stillness. The camera is still, the environment is still. The eye is drawn to simple, flowing movements from the character(s) as we wait for the starting gun. This element is a lovely shot from behind the gate of a large, vacant home on the beach in Closed Curtain. In Not a Film, it is Panahi himself eating breakfast and answering phone calls. In both instances, we are waiting patiently to be told something. The telling becomes very clear in the documentary, but in Closed Curtain we are given metaphors and questioned realities to play with for the majority of the length of the film. Each is very personal, and revolves around the central themes of dedication and passion for one’s art, never having been phased, it seems, by the bigger hardships the director has had to face. While in Not a Film, the reality comes through in the sound of gunshots in the streets while Panahi goes about his business at home, the reality in Closed Curtain occurs inside a controlled, more surreal environment at the point when we connect the story with Panahi’s own life. This film uses characters from Panahi’s mind in flesh and blood, demonstrating the constant chaos and conflict going on inside the creator’s mind, all the while being shut in behind closed curtains, at times paranoid of what lies outside, and at others nearly going crazy with the desire to create and venture into his characters’ worlds. It is an inescapable momentum that nothing can destroy, even the hopelessness that accompanies thoughts of suicide.

In any instance, the fire returns without an invitation, most recently in Panahi’s latest film Taxi (2015), and as has been demonstrated worldwide, there are plenty of people showing their gratitude for the embers that refuse to die.

TCM’s And the Oscar Goes To… (2014)

With the absence of filler, melodramatic music, heavy voice-over or static shots lasting more than a few seconds, TCM’s documentary And the Oscar Goes To… is a wonderful, insightful look at the history of the Oscars, from the very beginning. It highlights the environment in America through the years which have had an impact on Hollywood and the way it is run. The film is loaded with shots and footage from Oscars ceremonies and films from the 20’s and every decade forward.

A comment made by one of the actors asked how it felt to receive an Oscar in the 20’s struck me. She commented on how it was nothing like what you’d expect because there was not the tradition of “The” Oscars yet at that time. People got their awards, then kinda forgot about it the next day, nothing like what it has come to mean today, at least in the industry itself, it seems. Ever since I was a kid I watched the Oscars as the biggest thing ever. It was classy and fancy and beautiful. The climate in recent years, at least in the news, is that young people aren’t very interested in the ceremony anymore. People watch TV for entertainment and spectacle and the Academy’s efforts with poor host choices and stage material show a groping for a foothold with today’s young (ish) audience just to get people to tune in to the three hour show, beginning with the seemingly endless red carpet prowl pre-show. In my opinion, there seemed to be a nice balance hit with last year’s Ellen DeGeneres hosting. She is one of the funniest people I’ve ever watched, the material was funny and loose, but retained the “classiness” that distinguishes the Oscars from many other award shows. One of my favorite moments was the sharing of pizza with the audience, Harrison Ford nudging Ellen on the shoulder for a napkin!

As we approach the 2015 Oscars on February 22, I thought it would be appropriate to watch this newly available TCM doc on Netflix and include some of the facts, fascinating things I learned, and most enjoyable moments I had never seen before from the Oscars.

Bob Hope is the classic host everyone associates with the Oscars. In 1940, arguably one of the greatest movie years ever, the winners were published prematurely in California to the outrage of the Academy. As a result, henceforth the winners would be sealed in an envelope, only to be revealed on stage at the Oscars. As Bob Hope conveys in a following year, now the secretaries prepare the envelopes in a sealed room, then they’re taken out and shot, now here we are…

Frank Capra marked a turning point in Oscar history when he became the President of the Director’s Guild and President of the Academy at the same time. He altered the “Academy Bible” so that the Academy would have no role in labor, political or religious affairs. This was essential as the membership dwindled and the industry was being split by different labor and political interests. From then on the Academy would simply concern itself with the art and merit of its industry.


I love George Clooney’s comment about Spencer Tracy. “You always knew where he stood.” He tells about how Tracy would look down at his mark all the time, without any pretense or trying to hide it, then nonchalantly continue with his lines. But he was so no-bullshit about it that you never doubted him or his character.

 


Hattie McDaniel, first African American to win Oscar.

One of my favorite categories is the feature documentary. The category was established during WWII to document war footage. But soon after with the expanded to include an important genre of honest, and sometimes brutal and heart-wrenching, film making. Some of my favorite Oscar nominated documentaries include Inside Job, The Act of Killing, Exit Through the Gift Shop, Restrepo, and Man on Wire.


I thought I knew all the interesting little facts and tidbits about Star Wars from the hours of special features I’ve watched over the years. Somehow I missed this one. When talking about the category of sound design, the film talks about how the sound for Chewbacca were made. Essentially the crew would record a poor little bear who was hungry as they tortured it by dangling food in front of it! Poor bear…


 



Watch the 2015 Academy Awards on Sunday, February 22, 2015

Who I’d vote for: (not predictions) =)

Best Film:               B i r   d   m a  n

Actor (leading):                    Eddie Redmayne! (The Theory of Everything)

Actress (leading)                Julianne Moore (Still Alice)

Actor (supporting):                   Edward Norton (Birdman)

Actress (supporting):                    Emma Stone (Birdman)

Animated FF : Have not seen =(

Cinematography:      Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski for Ida (Poland)

Costume Design:                Milena Canonero for The Grand Budapest Hotel

Director:                    Alejandro G. Iñárritu for Birdman

Documentary:                             not seen all, no fav yet.

Doc (short):       not seen

Film Editing:                    Sandra Adair for Boyhood

Foreign Language Film:            Ida (Poland)

Makeup and Hair:                             Frances Hannon and Mark Coulier for The Grand Budapest Hotel

Music (score):                          Hans Zimmer, Interstellar

Music (song):               not heard

Production Design:                           Adam Stockhausen (Production Design); Anna Pinnock (Set Decoration) The Grand Budapest Hotel

Short Film (animated):               not seen

Short Film (Live):                             not seen

Sound Editing:                                Martin Hernández and Aaron Glascock for Birdman

Sound Mixing:                       Gary A. Rizzo, Gregg Landaker and Mark Weingarten for Interstellar

Visual Effects:                                 Paul Franklin, Andrew Lockley, Ian Hunter and Scott Fisher for Interstellar

Writing (adapted SP):                         Screenplay by Anthony McCarten for The Theory of Everything

Writing (original):                              Written by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. & Armando Bo for Birdman

 

 

Honesty and Artistry in The Theory of Everything (2014)

Without voice-over, tagline, quote, or hook, the film begins as if present from the very beginning of Hawking’s life. Eddie Redmayne plays a young, awkward brain of a man whose sense of humor is subtle and sharp, connecting with unique minds wherever he goes, especially with that of a young woman named Jane, played by Felicity Jones. The narrative moves very quickly, and the film has a somewhat tentative feel that I can’t really explain. Slightly unsure of itself yet strongly present, giving the viewer honesty without the over-polished feel of a typical bio-flick in which you feel as though the director is trying to push the idea of the subject’s noteworthiness without any reservation. In The Theory of Everything, I felt like I wasn’t quite given permission into this energy field, but I was quickly drawn close to the heart that would become harder and harder to see as Stephen Hawking’s body slowly succumbed to motor-neuron disease, known as Lou Gehrig’s.

Redmayne’s performance paints a picture of a beautiful, curious, and brilliant aspiration. His portrayal is more the essence of a universal consciousness than one man. We don’t get much in the way of introduction outside of his typical interaction with a few friends; what we see instead is the focused gaze of a mind hard at work on the puzzles of the universe. His eyes seem to represent the common human condition caught at one and all points in spacetime itself. The emotion of the story escalates as that gaze becomes more and more obscured by the devastating disease, and we fight alongside Jane to hold on to the promise of revelation. Redmayne’s depiction of the gradual progression of this disease is absolutely incredible. There is no moment where the reality of the disease is questioned. As a result, the film gives us quite the intimate look inside one of the most interesting and challenging lives in existence. Jones and Redmayne together is a performance of absolute synergy. I could at once sympathize with each reality as they were made so clear through honest filming and no shortage of close-up and personal shots of faces and profiles.

The strength of character comes out strongly as the marriage between Stephen and Jane is challenged on multiple fronts. Difficult questions and developments brought on by a life that has lasted far longer than was predicted show just what time alone can do. At the base of any genius is a human being, and like anyone else, a brilliant mind becomes tired, depressed, excited or selfish. We are with them through to the end because of a familiarity and empathy.

What I was unsure of when I went to see the film was whether it was going to be all about Hawking’s life or his work. If you are thinking this movie will let you in on the complexity of Hawking’s work, explaining things with a lecture scene or something like that, you will be disappointed. If nothing else, the film  plants an undeniable desire to go out and read Hawking’s book, A Brief History of Time, but there is only the general dancing around of Hawking’s ideas. The film is very soundly a focus in on the life shared by Hawking and his wife Jane, and encompasses a large range of his life. In this way, the film is much more of A Beautiful Mind (2001) bio-pic than any shade of documentary involving complex physics. And I guess I have to say I was just a little disappointed that I didn’t get a little further into his brain, but the journey that is The Theory of Everything is a unique and beautiful one, and I am more curious than ever to embark on my own exploration of Hawking and his accomplishments.

The marriage of space and time is the subject of Hawking’s life-long study, and this film is a beautiful portrayal of a mind challenged by the very things of which it is both in awe and in fear. As I mentioned before, one of the most striking things about the film is the absence of chronological or agenda driven markers. The viewer slips into the story effortlessly and unnoticed. The tie is a foggy shot of Hawking and his family walking the halls of Buckingham Palace after meeting the Queen, but even at this seeming pinnacle we are reminded of one of the very fundamental and mind-blowing realities of physics which observes that there is no answer as yet to the question of why events and occurrences cannot travel “backward” through time as easily as it does forward. It is one of the grand mysteries to which minds like Hawking are trying to enter. Another observation is that the idea of past, present and future are illusions and that all realities in these perceived fields in fact exist simultaneously. In the end of the film the viewer glides “backward” through time and everything we have just seen as if a statement of this very principle. There is no time lost or gained. The universal consciousness staring through dark, beautiful eyes is omnipresent, and no number of decades of neurological disease can change this astounding presence.

 

Nick Cave-20,000 Days on Earth (2014)

There is a state we keep coming back to and the more we do the more potent it becomes. Most of the time when I find the FALL in a piece of music it takes a minute, two, three, maybe six before it appears, suspends, then resolves and returns me to the ground, but Nick Cave seems to have discovered a way to lock you into that room for longer than what is supposed to be allowed. The result is a staggering trance-like experience outside of yourself and space and time and suddenly you have a new addiction. A short riff repeated over and over that builds upon itself, is self-sustaining, powerful enough to deliver more than you expected, more than you know what to do with, and in that building moment the repetition becomes a necessity. A demonstration of confronting something you can’t believe the first, second, third and even sixth time.

Searching for new discoveries in music–new to me, not new to the world–has proven relentlessly rewarding. I saw the film 20,000 Days on Earth just released on Amazon prime and realized I’d never really listened to Nick Cave. The film includes fascinating clips of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in the studio, playing through Higgs Boson Blues, Nick playing around on the piano, reworking parts of other songs and lyrics in the making. The film goes back and forth between ordinary conversation with associates and profound observations on the life and time of an artist.

I’m still in a strange awe-struck space working through lyrics and songs from Birthday Party to Grinderman and I’m a little surprised that I don’t have many words to put down here. Usually I can sit down and get into a flow of words on a film that has shifted my world in some way. I feel as though whatever energy I usually have from this is displaced and intent on taking in as much from this man as possible. Maybe some time in the future I will have more words to write on the film. But it fits, that this blog is about the short and long term effects of the cinema, and right now the effect is speechlessness.

Under the Electric Sky (2014) _ My Weird Electronic Road

I got an idea for this week’s post after seeing an amazing documentary called Under the Electric Sky, all about the Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas. What is amazing about right now is that I’ve just in the last year or so begun exploring electronic music, mostly through recommendations from friends and surfing spotify and youtube playlists. There is nothing more satisfying than discovering a new love for an artist you just happen to find through searching like this. It also tunes me in to exactly what it is that I focus in on because this kind of discovery works like love at first sight; I know within a couple of seconds whether or not I’m gonna fall in love with the track, and I fall in love a lot. =)

The point I also wanted to focus on this week, just for fun, connects to an observation made while watching a documentary on artist Marina Abromovic, (write-up recently added to the Netflix page). There are many interests in my life right now that I easily see myself having completely written off a couple of years ago, maybe even a few months ago. It is the pathway that I’ve followed that has led me to the point where I am ready and willing to listen and be open to the value and power in wildly varying modes of artistic expression, especially music. For this post, I want to focus on electronic music, and follow the pathway that led me to the mind blowing experience that is Under the Electric Sky (2014). It’s weird to think that this path that began with Enigma‘s “Return to Innocence” is now at Die Sektor‘s “The Beating of Broken Wings.”

The Film 

Under the Electric Sky takes a look at the annual Electric Daisy Carnival held in Las Vegas and the people that attend, as well as how they got in to the type of music featured at the carnival. The production itself is massive and beyond anything I can imagine seeing. The documentary does a great job of highlighting the incredible visual spectacle that aims at creating a truly awe-inspiring environment. The film also frames the event as one of unending peace and love, or modern day “Woodstock.” This overlay and presentation can come off almost as self righteous sounding as the trance music itself, but if you can get past that and imagine the sensory overload taking place, it is intoxicating. The stories are also pretty cool, I thought. Each interviewee has a unique reason for traveling miles and miles to the event. It encourages the viewer to be open to the various motivations people have for the interests they carry with them, and not to judge so quickly, thinking you know all about a person based on the name on their T-shirt.


The film moved me to take a look at where I’ve been and where I’m going regarding electronic music.


Meditation and Movement )_\performance (stage 1. age 10)

Deep Forest, Mike Oldfield, Karl Jenkins, X-Files theme, Sacred Spirit

I get a Keyboard as a Birthday Present

Arpeggio/Keyboard Presets_

minor chord transition qualities; “sad” chords that resonate with joy and originate with Return to Innocence. Biggest obsession characterized by steady gentle beat, with gorgeous chord progressions.

’80’s synth pop!!!

Then I found Tangerine Dream through the film ~Legend~


I begin writing music on keyboard. There are fundamental differences in feeling and attitude between keyboard and piano. I think I may have gone down in completely different directions had I started with and fallen in love with piano. But piano lessons got boring and I loved playing on my keyboard more. Though the stand-up piano sound was something I loved as well. Translating pieces from keyboard to piano was a common practice for me as a hobby. I found that I would naturally slow down and hear the tonal and intensity differences between keyboard and piano. I grew to appreciate the subtle moods and effects that resonated from a piece performed on keyboard and piano, and loved both.

Expansion, Pink Floyd, Meditation

  1. College was a fast-track evolutionary change that involved philosophy, music, dance clubs, and some very important and lasting discoveries.
  2. Pink Floyd
  3. Beatles. principles of songwriting and melody
  4. Intense guitar growth. not so much keyboard because my dorm room was too small. =)
  5. Spirituality that is in close association with music. movement meditation. christening a space. physical manifestation of music energy. stage 2. music as private meditation. but at this stage still very balletic and small. power rising.

Years Later, Coming back to electronic. (very) Late discovery of Radiohead

  1. Radiohead one of biggest revelations in music life. OK Computer. Discovered power and role non traditional sound could do towards emotional impact of music, from the weird to the emotional. Suddenly, I could mentally tie together the previous conceptual rift in my mind between instrumental and electronic music. Electronic was no longer just a private meditational experience. It was something I could play in my car and listen with other people and really get in to. Some biggest impact tracks: Kid A, Idioteque

Spotify was a real launch into music discovery. I would spend hours just listening to new music and making playlist and exploring related artists to the stuff I really loved. My electronic exploration went into completely random, unstructured directions, but it was fun. I began breaking from the emotional, chord progression, sad sound a little in that it wasn’t the most important aspect that would make or break whether I listened to an entire track or not. I can also say confidently that this period was a time when I was pretty solidly “anti” dance music because I felt that the heavy beat was insubstantial as a music experience. Obviously, I hadn’t really delved in to it, but the dance beat would immediately turn me off. My perception seemed to be that it was strictly a club, mass entertainment thing where the musicality was neglected in favor of simple party music that everyone could jump up and down in time to. I had never been introduced to rave culture and had no idea what it was or was about. As a result, I completely by-passed the genre and delved into some strange electronic sounds…

Yu Miyashita “Noble Niche,” Kabutogani   “bektop,” Yaporigami, Luzmelt, Konami Kukeiha Club

Industrial Rock

Rammstein changed everything for me. The direction I was heading and what I began latching on to. My taste began gravitating towards darker sounds. I drifted in and out of the electronic world and eventually came back to reorient myself when I found something I really loved–something that a year ago I would have turned my nose up and scoffed at…


Uplifting Trance

  1. Simon O’Shine, Soundlift…So I put an effort in to getting past the gimmicky self-righteous aspect of the music and focused in on what I found to be really beautiful music to listen to. Suddenly I found the chords married to the trance beat enjoyable, and have incorporated the music to my meditation playlists

 


sta_ge 3.= m=usic%, meditatio#n and ]move[ment are \one and a_re carried everywhere, w^ith an easi~ly access_ible= swi_tch


At this point I was still shooting in the dark. At some point in the last couple of years I decided to try a more systematic approach to electronic music and have since put more effort into looking at the evolutions and origins of the music I was latching on to. Most recently, Ishkur’s Guide to Electronic Music, http://techno.org/electronic-music-guide/ has been an amazing resource.

Now: A little backtracking to Industrial. In love with a lot of EBM and Industrial I-don’t-know-what sub-genre.  Favorite tracks right now: Acylum-Enemy and Die Sektor-The Beating of Broken Wings

 

 

link to Spotify playlist here and here.

Huge EBM/Darkwave playlist here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writing While Watching 1: Leviathan (2012)

A new sub-category, writing while watching, begins with Lucien Castang-Taylor and Varena Paravel’s Leviathan (2012), a fascinating visual experience set on a fishing boat in the North Atlantic. These writings are written while viewing the film and follow my reactions from beginning to end. 

Point of view is absent. There is no point of reference from which to orient myself. As a result, the film is all-encompassing, immersive, and at times terrifying. In a typical camera shot we can ascertain that the camera lens is not moving or focusing on its own. In Leviathan, the assumption that a camera must have an operator is continually challenged. There are shots that take the viewer past all boundaries. There are no warnings and we are not guided by any sort of compass or captain on this journey. The lighting itself is phantom. We are not necessarily shown what is there in front of us at all times, instead there is a magic that conjures what is in ourselves and in the recesses of a viewer’s mind like a Rorschach image does. What we can imagine presents itself as the modest synthetic light and low hum of natural resonance suspends us in time, watching and waiting for something that never quite presents itself, and yet is omnipresent.

The film is eery and fascinating, and in ways that I’ve never experienced before. I find myself pulling back from the screen as giant dead fish eyeballs gaze and threaten to remove the safety of being the watcher from the space between me and them. It is something more than weird. Unsettling.

There is a brief relief when the camera finally comes to rest at eye level with the fishermen, even sharing a quick glance here and there. But the reprieve lasts only a minute or two. Then we are forgotten, this time on the floor of the deck, as fish heads are washed into the sea. That is except for one…it lingers. One decapitated head among many that hesitates to try and stare us down. The movement is subtle as the water gently brushes past, never quite moving the head from its place. The sound fades as we get used to the water sloshing back and forth, the sound of the wind slightly below the rest. Then thump! another load is dropped to the deck floor and I jump out of surprise, the hiding Leviathan having been successful in rocking me into a quiet lull of fascination before pouncing.

Water pellets flying towards the camera look like snow and I think we are screaming for them to see us, quick, before we are buried. But it is no use. I am swallowed whole. At the same point I realize that there will be no buffer between my eyes and whatever the camera decides to show me. I know now that it doesn’t care for anyone’s sensibilities or comfort level, let alone concern itself with expository preparation for any action. We will drown, be thrown about, in nets, in blood, in guts, confusion, disorientation and surprise. But above all, I learn about midway through, we will hold in rapt attention to the screen to wait for the next time something as beautifully captured as the flock of gulls appears, almost as an intended break from the director like a breath of fresh air, parallel with the alternating submerge and surfacing of the camera above the ocean.

…not sure about the guy in the shower…

Thousands of helpless starfish pop in and out of existence like electrons and latch desperately onto the first thing it finds. The shot fades and blends into another, multiplying the number and throwing me off balance. Then I focus on the bubbles flying through toward the surface and the starfish become disfigured hands. The thought of being touched by one is so disturbing I cringe.

Ahhh, a voice appears in the form of a crushed aluminum can in the midst of what at first seems like a pile of dead things…but then a creature’s mouth moves, crying for continued life, in a jolting and bizarre alignment with the can’s green exterior.

Uncomfortably close to the human face and body, I start to feel like an intruder. My instinct is to back a little from the screen. Perhaps the more unassuming I become the more likely it is that I can continue to spy unseen.

The camera seems to have found a sufficient hiding spot. Towering above the ship is an overhead shot which captures the movement on the deck below like a silent overseer. The following shot seems to explain as the camera sits stoically in front of a man who is sitting, watching television just above where the camera is. The eye is determined to capture from all views possible, from the most terrifying and chaotic to the most dormant. How cool. His space becomes my space. The paper towels and bottles on the counter. They are all here. The objects in my space match his, if not in form, in timbre.

Movement is slowed and becomes groggy as the camera floats above the sea, foggy light emanates from the ship.

The film comes to its conclusion in a dream of white birds, their movement like the starfish falling through the ocean. The camera tilts and the images above and below come together, the white shapes multiply against the blackest black of night. Through the greens that remind me of the playground of Germany’s Nosferatu the Leviathan finally appears. The roaring and whining of the ocean and its prey grow louder as the figure we are shown chases us down; he will look different to each one of us. But rest assured he will put you down at last, to calmly float on the surface as the film retreats once more into the darkness.