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Posted by on Mar 26, 2015

Objective camera in Wild Tales

I visited the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s cinema the other night, where for the past two weeks, they’ve been screening Damian Szifrón’s Best Foreign Langugage nominee Relatos Salvajes (Wild Tales). A Spanish-Argentine co-production, this anthology series explores the theme of revenge through six unrelated stories set in different parts of Argentina.

The film is clever and often hilarious (I screened it late on a Monday night in a theater with maybe 10 people, but the laughter from the small audience was uproarious.) It is also disturbingly and unapologetically violent, but the blend of humor and violence never seems distasteful. Like the films of the Coen Brothers or Paul Thomas Anderson, violence in Wild Tales is often presented on a equal playing field as the rest of the action. As the title implies, Szifrón’s film demonstrates the wild size of human behavior, as if it were the subject of scientific study. The film’s title sequence is comprised of National Geographic-like photographs of feral animals of all sizes; Szifrón is letting the audience know: what we are about to see doesn’t take place in “society”; we’re in the wild.

Szifrón is very concerned with reinforcing this idea. He often employs a technique in which the camera is attached to an inanimate object: stuck to a door that a character swings open or from the inside of a explosive device, to name a few examples. Szifrón uses this effect to imply a totally objective camera (quite literally from an object’s point of view).

I am usually skeptical of camera techniques that draw attention to the presence of a camera, particularly when they seem to be solely for style purposes and don’t serve the story. In the instances where Szifrón used this technique, I was certainly reminded of the camera’s presence, however, I never found the technique overused or gratuitous, and in fact, felt it effectively re-established on several occasions the film’s theme of “objective” scientific study.

Argentina has always had an impressive cinema industry, and Wild Tales demonstrates the type quality films coming out of that country. I look forward to seeing more work from Szifrón in the future.

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Posted by on Mar 17, 2015

The Reinvention of Sid: Creativity and Villainy in Disney’s Toy Story

This piece was originally written for a college English course. I recently rediscovered the article and reedited it for publication here.

I always thought Disney did a good job of creating truly repulsive villains who in the end deserved their comeuppance. When Whoopi Goldberg and those other talking hyenas chewed apart Scar at the end of The Lion King, I had no problem watching him get torn to pieces. It was cathartic. Scar killed his own brother then blamed it on his nephew. That’s really evil. Jafar, in Aladdin, was a greedy psychopath hell-bent on destroying anything around him to get what he wanted. He deserved getting stuck inside that genie bottle. Cruela Deville? Pure evil; the woman tried to murder 101 Dalmatians for the sake of a coat. A coat! These are some pretty heinous villains we’re dealing with here.

But in 1995 Disney released Toy Story, a film whose “villain,” Sid, really wasn’t a villain at all. The real villain in Toy Story is Woody’s inability to cope with change. Once Andy’s favorite toy, Woody, a cowboy action figure, finds his stature jeopardized by the appearance of Buzz Lightyear, an astronaut who refers to himself as an “action figure,” never as a toy. Toy Story serves as an apt metaphor for the death of the western and the advent of the technological age. But Disney’s young audience needs a more obvious conflict, something more tangible. Enter Sid, Andy’s neighbor who spends his time blowing up or dismembering toys. Sid is your typical mid-90s problem child: slightly mean to his little sister and constantly donning a a black t-shirt bearing a skull. When Woody and Buzz accidentally fall into Sid’s possession, they put aside their differences in order to defeat the evil “villain” and get back to Andy. Along with Sid’s mutant toys, Buzz and Woody put together a plan to frighten Sid out of ever going near a toy again.

The problem is that Sid isn’t really a villain. Because the film is told from the point of view of talking toys, we as an audience view Sid as a diabolical sadist. But let’s look at this from Sid’s point of view. Does he know that after Geppetto got Pinocchio to talk, every other toy apparently decided to follow suit? Does Sid know that toys have emotions? No. Nobody does! Not even Andy. For whatever reason, these toys find it appropriate to keep their ability to communicate verbally and formulate rational thoughts a secret. They choose to allow the human race to remain ignorant of their ability. Sid performs his tortuous acts of violence against the toys not out of malice or evil, but because he is ignorant to the fact that they have a consciousness, an ignorance perpetrated by the toys themselves. He didn’t even steal Andy’s toys! And as far as Sid’s concerned, he obtained those toys in an entirely legal fashion, believing Woody and Buzz to be apart of the grab machine he paid to use. And as for Sid mistreating his sister, well, that strikes me as normal big brother behavior.

I’ll even venture to say that what Sid does with the toys demonstrates acts of creative genius. Post-modern critiques of consumerism, perhaps. After all, what creativity does Andy exhibit? He receives the newest toy on the market for his birthday, forgets his old toys, and then proceeds to buy all the memorabilia related to the new toy. Bed sheets, for Christ’s sake. Oh sure, he gets a little creative when he writes “General Store” on the side of a cardboard box. Real imaginative, Andy. Compare that to what Sid does: a legless scuba diver attached to a skateboard, a baby’s head on spider legs, an alarm clock with an arm sticking out of the buzzer. These reveal imagination rather than sadism.

I’ll put it this way: If Andy got a Lego set for Christmas, he’d build his medieval castle by following the instruction manual step-by-step. Sid, he throws away the instruction manual and builds whatever the fuck he wants.

That’s the difference between Andy and Sid; one follows the norm, while the other questions it. And that’s usually the difference between the non-creative type and the creative type. It’s also usually the difference between the good guys and the bad guys. Disney’s unjust vilification of Sid led me to think: Is there a connection between repressed creativity and villainy? Toy Story could successfully turn Sid into a villain because he was already an outsider, a non-conformist whose creativity had not yet been accepted.

Maybe there is a connection between artists and villains. Here are some examples from films: In Tim Burton’s Batman, Bruce Wayne comments that Jack Napier became the Joker, he was an art school drop out. Once he becomes the Joker, he reverts back to his artistic ways, “a fully functional homicidal artist,” “making art until people die.” Edward Nigma, in Batman Forever, was an eccentric scientist, fired from Wayne Enterprises for his unconventional inventions, leading him to become The Riddler. Hannibal Lector, in his dark prison cell, paints cathedrals in Italy from memory. To use an extreme, real-life example: Charles Manson, before ordering a wave of bloodshed through Los Angeles, tried to be a musician but never achieved any real recognition for his art.

A lighter, but still sinister exameple: Robert Johnson, the inventor of the Blues, according to legend, sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads in exchange for his musical talents. Is that what it takes to be an artistic genius? Some sort of embrace of the sinister?

When someone doesn’t make the grade as an artist, we tend to view them and villains in a similar way: outsiders, freaks, degenerates. Both challenge the established system. Creative people have ideas that differ from the expected or the normal; villains, similarly, disregard those expectations, those norms. The paradox is that we claim to encourage creativity, but not so much that it questions the constraints of normality. Think outside the box (the cardboard box, Andy), but don’t break the box. “To infinity and…not too far beyond.”

When an artist is accepted for his creativity, we tend to not look at them in the same fearful way we view unaccepted artists. Creativity, when accepted, is generally associated with goodness and morality. We appreciate artists for their contributions to humanity. This makes it difficult to consciously associate villains with creativity. “If to be a creative person is to be a good person, then it’s hard to argue that Josef Stalin or John Wilkes Booth were particularly creative,” psychologist James C. Kaufman wonders (Kaufman). In fact, when we appreciate and respect someone for their art, we often excuse their shortcomings. Had Roman Polanski worked as the key grip on Chinatown rather than as the director, I doubt that Hollywood royalty would call for his release from prison. Yet, when an unaccepted artist does something for seemingly moral reasons, like Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping, we view them more as a nuisance than an activist hero. We tend to crucify those who challenge the system to the extent that they inconvenience the system.

I’ve been careful about the examples I’ve used so far because I don’t want it to seem that I defend the actions of villains. Rather, I strive to point out that a creative mind can go in several directions: some constructive and some destructive.

Dr. Stephen Diamond explores the difficulty of seeing the co-existence of both evil and creativity in the artist. “Because we simplistically tend to want to view life in black and white, we think of people as being either creative or evil, good or bad, rather than recognizing that even the most virtuous, gifted or creative individuals harbor the capacity for evil, while the most evil have the hidden capacity for creativity or good.” (Diamond.) The Ancient Greeks had a word for these internal forces that make up the darker side of our being: the daimonic. Rollo May writes in his introduction to Stephen Diamond’s book Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic: The Psychological Genesis of Violence, Evil, and Creativity, “A special characteristic of the daimonic model is that it considers both creativity on one side, and anger and rage on the other side, as coming from the same source. That is, constructiveness and destructiveness have the same source in human personality.” (May)

This notion that artistic expression and anger have the same source made me think of a friend with whom I grew up. Most teachers and peers (myself included) viewed him as the “bad kid” in class; it was not uncommon to see him sitting on the bench outside of the principal’s office awaiting punishment. Until he started playing guitar all the time, and surprised everyone at school talent shows. After that, he mellowed out in class. Teachers respected him for his creative abilities. His change in behavior was probably related to the fact that he had a creative outlet for whatever inner conflicts and anxiety he had, and that creative outlet was encouraged and appreciated. But when the constructive aspect of daimonic is denied, when that vessel for creative expression is stunted for whatever reason, that’s when the destructive can emerge, that’s when villains are born. The toys in Toy Story, by silencing Sid’s artistic voice, may very well have created a villain, rather than defeated one.

Works Cited

Diamond, Stephen. Polanski, Evil, and Creativity: Does Talent Redeem Bad Behavior? Pyschology Today, 2009. Web. 27 Feb. 2010. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/evil-deeds/200910/polanski-evil-and-creativity-does-talent-redeem-bad-behavior

Kaufman, James C. Ghandi, Bill Gates, and…Hannibal Lecter? Creativity and Emotional Intelligence in all the Wrong Places. Pyschology Today, 2009. Web. 27. 2010. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/and-all-jazz/200910/gandhi-bill-gates-and-hannibal-lecter-creativity-and-emotional-intelligence

May, Rollo. Foreward. Anger, madness, and the daimonic: the psychological genesis of Violence. By Stephen Diamond. Albany: State University of New York.

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Posted by on Mar 6, 2015

“They Can’t Take That Away From Me” in Shall We Dance

TCM recently aired the 1937 Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers classic Shall We Dance, a film notable for its collaboration with the Gershwin brothers. This may be my favorite of the Astaire-Rogers films that I have seen. While “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” may be one of the more recognizable tunes from the film, the musical also features the bittersweet standard “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.” Fred Astaire serenades Ginger Rogers while abroad a foggy ferry ride from New Jersey to Manhattan, as they both realize their romance will have to come to an end when they reach shore.

While many of Astaire and Rogers’ more famous musical sequences feature elaborate dance numbers on extravagant sets, this one stands out for its simplicity. There are only three shots (a couple of medium shots and a close up); the rest is all in the lyrics and the acting. While Fred is the one doing the singing, Ginger really steals your attention here solely through her facial expressions. Her subtle performance demonstrates her talents as an actor. Her mood shifts from amusement at the song to sadness when she realizes the implications of what Fred is saying. Notice how she turns from Fred as the song goes on and her slight change in expression as she reacts to each verse (how she blushes at “the way your smile just beams”, then turns to a frown when Fred sings “the way you sing off key.”) Finally, her teary-eyed close up reveals the pain behind the song.

This YouTube video also includes a dance number the two performed in 1949 to the same song, but I don’t think it captures the sentiment behind Ira Gershwin’s lyrics.

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