The Column – The Free Tea Guide to Hurricane Sandy

Miguel Penabella | 30 October 2012

The Column is a Free Tea segment that serves as a forum with which to discuss random topics on cinema and topics outside of it in a pseudo-opinionated manner, much like your weekend newspaper column. A little more informal and more concise than your regular Free Tea feature, these pieces are meant to both inform and express personal thoughts on various issues.

“It was a rainy night. It was the myth of a rainy night.”

- Jack Kerouac, On the Road

Rain is a powerful image. The look of gathering storm clouds, torrential downpour, and the brief shock of lightning make for momentous cinema, building mood and obscuring depth of field under layers of meteorological turmoil. Oftentimes, rain and storms reflect an inner conflict within a character, projecting this inner chaos onto nature itself as it wreaks havoc and destruction without discrimination. Storms can carry a redemptive quality as well, with rain signifying the cyclical nature of rebirth with the coming spring, or even with characters finding a strange solace amidst the fury of nature. The image of rain can also be tied to the discovery of truth (see: the eye of the hurricane/tornado), but also Biblical wrath and devastation. And then there’s the image that accompanies a great storm, of people taking shelter with the companionship of others, even strangers, as everyone somehow becomes equalized amidst the mighty power of a tempest. With Hurricane Sandy bombarding the East Coast right now (see above picture, curiously not from a Roland Emmerich movie but from the actual hurricane), people have found themselves not unlike various characters from cinematic history braving a passing storm: each and together sharing a moment of wordless humanity.

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The Column – On the Man of Steel Teasers

Miguel Penabella | 28 July 2012

The Column is a Free Tea segment that serves as a forum with which to discuss random topics on cinema and topics outside of it in a pseudo-opinionated manner, much like your weekend newspaper column. A little more informal and more concise than your regular Free Tea feature, these pieces are meant to both inform and express personal thoughts on various issues.

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Watch the trailers here and here.

Zack Snyder, love him or hate him, but his upcoming Superman reboot Man of Steel looks unlike anything this fanboy director’s ever done. I feel compelled to discuss his two teaser trailers for the film (both visually identical with only a change in the voiceover differentiating the two) because of Christopher Nolan’s involvement in the project and my ongoing Directors Series critical foray into Nolan’s filmography. Firstly, the look and tone of the film really doesn’t feel like a Snyder film at all, substituting his usual gory, slow-motion stylistic brandishing for more somber, introspective shots of rural America. DC Comics’ most powerful, iconic superhero doesn’t receive a booming introduction meant to electrify audiences for breathtaking action, but intimate personal musings on choices and morality. Version one of the teaser features Kevin Costner narrating, “You’re not just anyone. One day, you’re going to have to make a choice; you have to decide what kind of man you wanna grow up to be. Whoever that man is, good character or bad, he’s going to change the world.” The alternative version has Russell Crowe offering his own voiceover, reciting, “You will give the people an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you. They will stumble. They will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.”

These are surprisingly contemplative voiceovers that explore issues of human responsibility and growing up, immediately casting these trailers as melancholic pieces of poetry. To add to the weightiness is the fact that both narrators play father figures in the film, with Costner as adopted father Jonathan Kent and Crowe as biological father Jor-El. Already, these teasers hint at a personal journey into the relationship between father and son and the complex, ever-changing notions of masculinity and maturity associated with this bond. Such voiceovers frame the narrative as a more developed story than the underwhelming Superman Returns back in 2006, and the fact that Christopher Nolan and his Batman writer David S. Goyer are present to guide the project only lends more hope for this film. From these teasers, it seems that the filmmakers are more interested in focusing not on Superman but on Clark Kent. Superman doesn’t have any physical weaknesses aside from Kryptonite, but Kent certainly isn’t impermeable to the distrustfulness and hatred of humanity. This hero looks more conflicted, more existentially doubtful because of his vagabond drifting as an aimless hitchhiker and even a fisherman. Yet the voiceovers almost seem to push Kent back towards moral responsibility, reminding him of his unique connection to the human race. In this way, Man of Steel looks spiritual, even directly religious in its framing of the hero as a figure similar to Christianity’s Jesus Christ: split between two distinct roles as all-powerful savior and a human being unsure why he should even help humanity not unlike Martin Scorsese’s powerful character study in The Last Temptation of Christ

It’s unfortunate though that the marketers decided on such a well known piece of music to accompany the trailer – Howard Shore’s hauntingly beautiful piece “The Bridge of Khazad Dum” for The Fellowship of the Ring – but it’s not surprising either. Let’s not forget the countless uses of Clint Mansell’s “Lux Aeterna” (originally written for Requiem for a Dream) piece in many other promotional videos, including a trailer for none other than The Two Towers. The mood itself sounds fitting to the beautiful cinematography, with shots that evoke Terrence Malick imagery from The Tree of Life: scattershot images of childhood play, rural skies, idyllic fields, untainted nature. So despite the trailer’s mishaps – the final shot of condensation trails streaming behind a fully costumed Superman flying through the air (I honestly don’t know the science behind this) – Man of Steel looks and feels sublime. If Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan execute this film right, we can expect one of the most meditative, existentially solemn superhero adaptations ever filmed. And that’s worth getting excited for.

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The Column – On Movie Trailers

Miguel Penabella | 18 July 2012

The Column is a Free Tea segment that serves as a forum with which to discuss random topics on cinema and topics outside of it in a pseudo-opinionated manner, much like your weekend newspaper column. A little more informal and more concise than your regular Free Tea feature, these pieces are meant to both inform and express personal thoughts on various issues.

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Last summer I compiled a list of striking film trailers that can really leave quite an impression, for an analysis that deconstructed why these trailers were so effective (article found here). Looking back on it, I completely ignored actually defining and laying out what a good movie trailer actually is in theoretical terms; I just jumped straight to examples with only a minor introduction at best. Simply put, a good movie trailer should garner anticipation for a film without giving the entire plot away. Perhaps it can announce the main struggle of its protagonist, but it shouldn’t illuminate the entire conflict over the course of its rashly edited two minutes and fifty seconds set to a Hans Zimmer-derived BRMMM horn from Inception. Recent trends in trailer development and this summer’s fanboy-packed roster of blockbuster titles (The Avengers, Prometheus, The Dark Knight Rises, The Amazing Spider-Man, to name a few) have greatly changed this dynamic. Rather than titillating audiences, studios have simply decided to placate the burning loins – er, win the hearts and minds – of its near universal audience demographic. To satisfy such a ravenous fan base, trailers have gone above and beyond what they’re meant to accomplish, now giving enough crucial footage to piece together the entire plot of a film. When considering the sheer amount of full-length theatrical trailers and television spots released for just one film (Prometheus has over a dozen promotional videos), eager fans can likely hypothesize how a finished movie could play out in so-called “trailer breakdowns.” And they did.

This investigation doesn’t even include the number of extended trailers released for some films, which are basically entire scenes directly spliced from the film and grafted together with some music and titles slapped on at the end. The recent Amazing Spider-Man movie had so much footage circulating around that the forums and boards were packed with fans who excitedly speculated on certain characters and plot points to the point where many have lost interest in actually seeing the movie in theaters altogether. And if people come away with that sentiment – that the trailers have given them all they need to be satisfied with – then the studios have failed miserably. But what exactly initiated such a growing trend? Surely the fans share the primary blame for willingly sitting through a half hour’s worth of promotional material, but do these spoiler-packed movie trailers reflect trends in the cinema as a whole? I discussed J.J. Abrams twice in my “Deconstructing Movie Trailers” article, talking about the merits of his Cloverfield (which he produced) and Star Trek trailers. Rather than resorting to the typical montage of scenes that trailers often do (sometimes giving too much plot information away), Abrams prefers a calculatedly mysterious tone for his promotional footage, giving a flash of a name – “Enterprise” on the Star Trek teaser – or even a cryptic money shot like the decapitated Lady Liberty in Cloverfield. These are great tactics for early teaser trailers meant to incite discussion, but these trailers don’t give enough way for substantial theorizing of the entire plot of the film (unlike Prometheus’ rapidly edited montage of shots which doesn’t discriminate in using imagery from the final act).

Nevertheless, summer blockbuster titles contain even longer running times, and this factor seems to justify spitting out a two minute and fifty second trailer with shots from nearly every single scene in the film. As for me, I’m perfectly content watching only – and I emphasize that “only” – the initial teaser trailer and the first theatrical trailer, unless of course another trailer happens to roll on by before a feature presentation I watch in the theater (This is how I came to watch the fourth theatrical trailer for The Dark Knight Rises when it played before The Amazing Spider-Man). Which brings us to the bigger root of the problem – the audiences. Rather than exercising some self-restraint, fanatical hordes of people with access to the Internet flock towards any new piece of footage they can get their hands on, even if it’s an international trailer dubbed in another language. The boards don’t help either, as the trailer breakdowns often extinguish any excitement for an upcoming film, leading to hypocritical complaints of trailers ruining the entire plot of a film. Here’s the thing: you’re not meant to watch all twenty trailers released for a film, and if you’re going to argue that studios consciously released all these trailers with easy access for anyone willing to watch, then I suggest you get off your self-entitled high horse because studios don’t personally attend to your every whim. Don’t blame the marketing campaign; blame yourself for intentionally becoming a nosy detective to fulfill your fanatical needs.

Studios aren’t ruining the films for you; the hungry fans who participate in overly obsessive guesswork in the forums spoil the films for themselves because they dedicate so much time to unwarranted pre-release analysis. Trailers aren’t meant to sit in the front of your mind for weeks’ worth of deliberation and hearsay; they’re meant to slowly burn in your unconscious, slowly building excitement rather than cathartically exploding the entire narrative of a film in a Big Bang of Comic-Con internet fan culture. To movie studios: if you want to sidestep the fans who ruin the films altogether, I suggest the brighter half of the Prometheus marketing campaign – the viral advertisements. Because these clips are constructed with footage not included in the film, very little (if any) plot points are revealed, but these ads do enrich the mythology and mystique of a film. Just look at the wondrous “David 8” video, a piece of advertising brilliance that could even make for a great short film. To the hardcore fans out there: it’s perfectly fine not to watch all twenty theatrical trailers, television spots, international trailers, teasers, viral videos, featurettes, production diaries, etc. Watch only one, maybe two.

It can be done.

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The Column – Money Never Sleeps: On Fixing the Global Financial Crisis

Miguel Penabella | 27 June 2012

The Column is a Free Tea segment that serves as a forum with which to discuss random topics on cinema and topics outside of it in a pseudo-opinionated manner, much like your weekend newspaper column. A little more informal and more concise than your regular Free Tea feature, these pieces are meant to both inform and express personal thoughts on various issues.

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I once took an economics course, but most of that time sitting in lectures either witnessed me browsing Reddit or reading music reviews off Pitchfork. Naturally, I suppose I’m more than qualified to speak on the global financial crisis and potential approaches with which to solve such a quandary. I have to admit, I’m completely oblivious to the various G-20 summits held around the world and I have no idea what the term “hedge fund” means, but I do enjoy reading Bloomberg Businessweek and I did actually pay close attention in my Asian studies class, the syllabus of which focused on late 20th century and 21st century contemporary global issues ranging from glocalisation to critical media theory. By no means am I supposing that what I have to offer to economic discussion carries a profoundly intellectual, even mildly thoughtful weightiness. What I do hope is for an amusing spiel of a column that may or may not instigate some kind of appreciative consideration, or even an amused grin on one’s face.

Ever since the major turning point in 2007 when the global financial crisis and recession became an immediate thing within our society, global think tanks and politicians have been squabbling on how the bloody hell to go about solving the problem. I for one oppose austerity measures in Europe and champion the tried-and-true rules of elementary economics concerning expansionary fiscal policy. An increase in government expenditures and a cut in taxes will increase aggregate expenditures and real GDP growth, thus gradually lowering the rate of unemployment and balancing the budget. That’s the old route taken directly from economics’ fundamental level, and that tends to work in 20th century politics. Unfortunately, the 21st century has complicated the issue, what with the Eurozone, more recent changes in the Glass–Steagall Act, globalization, so on and so on. The truth is, people will hesitate in investing in such an unstable economic atmosphere no matter how safe it may seem; political mudslinging in the upcoming election and media spin will likely exacerbate already build-in anxieties for the future. On the other hand, people will also doubt the integrity of the banking system, especially considering how interconnected the world’s economies have become due to our incessant championing of the virtues of globalization. With vital countries on the brink of economic collapse (specifically Greece, Italy, and Spain), the thought of their failures causing a catastrophic domino effect on a majority of the European Union, and unavoidably, on the United States warrants uncertainty and anticipation lest people’s savings and pensions disappear should Greece ever implode from all the chaos. 

Even more distressing is how flawed our banking system operates, because if people decide to begin taking out their savings in a nice about-face to the global financial sector, then the entire industry would crumble. No matter how much we loathe the overpaid, underhanded Wall Street money machine, they’re here to stay simply because they’ve written themselves into the global financial system in such a way that their removal would sink economic conditions even further. And because unmitigated economic globalization has now become central to economic thought, the complex interactions within the market and its contribution to gross domestic product becomes a bit fuzzy. We’d like to spend more money in an effort to appease our government’s push for investment and consumption to stimulate the economy once again, but that’s not taking into account the actual goods produced. Because the manufacturing sector of developed countries like the United States and the United Kingdom have been outsourced to areas of cheaper industrial labor, namely developing countries China and India, buying imported goods only stimulates their GDP. Truth is, a majority of the goods we purchase are produced overseas, and this factor confounds the conversation on how to stimulate the economy once again.

So what does the cinema have to say about the global financial crisis? As history tells us, no other industry during the Great Depression in America prospered quite like the film industry. Granted, there were a number of theater closures and flops, but the classic, monopolistic studio system of RKO, MGM, Paramount, Warner Bros., and 20th Century Fox continued to make money all throughout the Depression to the point where the Supreme Court allowed these monopolies to exist because they were so vital to the economy. Hell, even a company as significant as 20th Century Fox emerged in the midst of the Depression in 1935. Clearly, if an industry that produces nonessential goods/services can subsist and even flourish in an era where entire populations waited in soup kitchen lines, the film industry can thrive in this era’s recession, right? For the most part, the 21st century has shown that cinema is recession resistant, but not necessarily recession-proof. MGM tanked in 2010 when it declared bankruptcy, but in the context of the modern movie industry spectrum where dozens and dozens of growing companies exist (and not just the five major studios back in the 1930s), MGM’s failure comes as no surprise. Even as one monolith lays low in a slow recovery process, numerous other studios are rising to take its place: Lionsgate (The Hunger Games), The Weinstein Company (The Artist, The King’s Speech), etc. People will always turn to the cinema as one of the cheapest sources of escapist entertainment because of the medium’s role as mass entertainment. An increasing number of films are being released with each passing year, and the top earners are already surpassing the billion dollar worldwide gross mark, regardless if the numbers are adjusted for inflation or not.

The widely successful Harry Potter series has earned $7,706,147,978 in the course of a decade, which is still greater than the total grosses for 24 James Bond films or 7 Star Wars films (including that animated one that nobody remembers), proving that even in the midst of the worst part of the economic crisis, the cinema will prosper. And let’s not forget the flourishing newcomer that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, whose six films have entered into the pop culture consciousness as one of the surefire moneymakers at the box office. People go to the movies even when food needs to be put on the table and mortgages need to be paid because these troubles simply vanish in the dark, air-conditioned palaces where recession woes cannot enter. Movie theaters are the purest form of bread and circus to appease unruly masses – the junk food of the lobby paired with the bright, Orwellian screens looming over passive audiences. There are a number of exceptions to the rule, however, as some films also reflect social realities to comment on modern times. The critical and commercial results that come out of these films reveal significant insights on how many Americans feel about the political/economic topics implied within, and these results speak a lot about our current social atmosphere.

One recent example is Oliver Stone’s flop back in 2010 with Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, a film that features the iconic Gordon “Greed is Good” Gekko (Michael Douglas) returning to the screen. While the film may be a sequel to a high profile title, box office returns have resulted in a much talked about failure amongst the film community. What Stone failed to anticipate was the worsening financial crisis and the tarnished image of Wall Street, and the film’s depiction of moneyed figures representing the corporations/financial institutions that played a major role in our current economic malaise simply alienated audiences. In contrast, 2010’s surprise hit The Town won over critics and audiences with its premise of populist everymen from a working class background combating the forces who’ve plagued the economy in the first place. Director Ben Affleck portrays his characters as bank robbers on surface level, but in the context of the financial crisis, a heist film as this pretty much serves as a middle finger to the banking system itself. Then there’s the Occupy-tinged Coriolanus and the upcoming The Dark Knight Rises, and you can see for yourself the vast majority of America sympathizing with working class woes and shunning the corrupted institutions that brought down the economy to begin with.

The populist-minded mood of filmgoing audiences couldn’t be farther away than the current American government, which many critics have derided as a “Wall Street government.” Indeed, such big names as Federal Reserve chairmen Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke (the latter of which is our current one) have been plagued with controversy over their support for Wall Street names. And let’s not forget Treasury Secretaries Henry Paulson and Timothy Geithner (the latter of which is also our current one), both of whom have worked in Wall Street and thus, to many Americans’ populist eyes, view them simply as out of touch with everyman misfortunes. What the government needs to recognize is its constituents’ disproval of Wall Street and major corporations – having them onboard may perpetuate our continuing financial crisis. Instead, as Mr. Smith reminded us back in 1939, even an earnest common man can make it to Washington. Added to this prospect the current “We are the 99%” movement of Occupy, the masses are beginning to reawaken to more direct action against less than stellar government policies.

One last consideration on the global financial crisis: world markets. I’ve brought it up numerous times before, and I’ll bring it up again. Globalization has changed the face of international relations, and if developed countries are to pull through an economic downturn, leaders absolutely must turn to developing countries. These emergent powers drive economic growth, specifically the much talked about BRIC – Brazil, Russia, India, China. In the realm of the cinema, the popcorn blockbusters of the summer have proved time and time again that overseas box office grosses are vital for considerable ticket sales – especially China. Men In Black 3 grossed over $75 million in the country, a considerable return that exceeds any other national audience besides the United States. Just like in the economic realm, reception from overseas markets remains absolutely vital if consumers in America are reluctant to spend money. As a result, many films have received international financial backing such as the upcoming Iron Man 3 and Looper (both from DMG Entertainment, a Chinese studio) and even production company Legendary Pictures have created a Chinese offshoot studio Legendary East and partnered with Huayi Brothers Media Corp. to release The Dark Knight Rises.

In conclusion, the most straightforward way to help the American economy would be to cater to China’s whims. After all, refusing to admit that the country isn’t a credible superpower would be a step towards doom, and of course, we want to avoid a Cold War-esque manufacturing race because we’ll surely suffer for it. So then, I suggest taking a step away from Wall Street and looking across the ocean to brighter prospects that lie beyond the horizon: for the greatest good of economic recovery, we should all probably watch The Dark Knight Rises then.

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The Column – Deception of the Eye: On 3D Cinema

Miguel Penabella | 24 June 2012

The Column is a Free Tea segment that serves as a forum with which to discuss random topics on cinema and topics outside of it in a pseudo-opinionated manner, much like your weekend newspaper column. A little more informal and more concise than your regular Free Tea feature, these pieces are meant to both inform and express personal thoughts on various issues.

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If you ever visit the Church of Sant’Ignazio of Loyola at Campus Martius in Rome, Italy, and stare up into the ceiling, you can observe a very similar effect to what the stereoscopic RealD Cinema of your local multiplex hopes to accomplish with their brand of 3D cinema. Like Renaissance artist Michelangelo, Andrea Pozzo painted ceilings, though he did so a few decades later during the Baroque period of art history. Unlike the Renaissance artist, Pozzo’s great works at the church – the false dome and the grand Apotheosis of S. Ignatius – employ formal devices that create illusion rather than realism. French New Wave filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard famously claimed that “Film is truth 24 times a second,” emphasizing the power of the moving image taking precedent over theories of montage, or continuity editing. Yet the way modern audiences are viewing more and more films at the cinema contradicts Godard’s original claim, instead moving more towards Pozzo’s illusory work at Sant’Ignazio back in the late 1600s. Cinema is deeply enmeshed in art history, as both mediums involve similar techniques in creating a sense of space: linear perspective, atmospheric perspective, curvilinear perspective, and so on. Andrea Pozzo’s attention to illusionary space and the wonder it can conjure certainly resonates in today’s fascination of 3D blockbuster filmmaking. While many critics find 3D as gimmicky and burdensome to film, I find myself siding with Pozzo and the other Baroque painters of their day and age. 3D filmmaking is gradually returning to basic art values, namely an emphasis on convincing audiences in the reality of a nonexistent space on a flat surface, linking cave to canvas to camera in ways never quite seen before.

The ceiling frescoes of Pozzo fall under various artistic techniques including quadratura (di sotto in sù), trompe-l’œil, and perspectival anamorphosis. I won’t go into detail behind these concepts, but the effect of these three ultimately results in one singular thing: an opening up of nonexistent space that distorts a viewer’s sense of reality. In cinema, there exists two major, widely diverging forms of 3D filmmaking. The first represents the more commonly ridiculed, gimmicky nature of 3D that most audiences have grown up with prior to the explosion of more complex technologies of today’s market, and that form of 3D concerns elements of positive space jumping out into the audience (like that old paddleball gag from 1953’s House of Wax). More recent films of this design like Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over or My Bloody Valentine 3D feel more like gimmicky attractions like those dark rides in amusement parks rather than actual films. Indeed, these earlier forms of 3D use the in-your-face visuals to mask the rather flat storylines, revealing that the technology is more style than substance (with a few noteworthy exceptions like the surreal playfulness of Coraline, a psychedelic trip of well-executed practical effects). It’s really not until 2009 that 3D technology really breaks into newer, more reputable ground.

One can’t discuss the merits of 3D without venturing into 2009’s monolithic Avatar, a film that’s already faded from the public consciousness but still warrants credit as the modern film that really proved 3D technology as bankable. Eschewing the flimsy, outdated blue-and-red lensed Anaglyph 3D of days past, director James Cameron tread new ground with Avatar’s visuals, opening up spatial possibilities not in terms of positive space but negative space. Rather than focusing on a main protagonist onscreen as the focal point of the 3D effects, Avatar lends much of the technology to the surrounding empty space, thus giving off the effect of three-dimensionality that recedes inward rather than outward. Recent films have experimented with Cameron’s technology, vastly improving the spatial dynamics established to the point where the cinematography of some films feel as though an audience member can simply walk into the frame like something out of the Dutch Golden Age of painting. Films like Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo phenomenally employ 3D as a means for glorious long shots in wide angle that picks apart every single little object in a spatial plane. Tintin’s intricately constructed chase sequence in Morocco is a prime example of the merits of modern day 3D filmmaking, the technology allowing audiences to accurately pinpoint the characters from the chaotic destruction snowballing throughout the scene as characters race down from rushing floodwater. And in Hugo, the technology brilliantly accentuates the labyrinthine spaces of the meandering hallways and the tiny details that comprise the turn-of-the-century Parisian train station setting as the camera glides seamlessly through empty space.

Of course, the shiny promises of 3D technology only heighten the depth of space, not the depth of story, a thought that James Cameron apparently overlooked when filming Avatar. 3D technology does hold great promise in the hands of the great auteurs of cinema and not just the multiplex heavyweights. People like Michael Bay, James Cameron, or even Peter Jackson may use 3D as a means for visual flair, but those who understand the power of the technology for both opening up space and even as a way to add emotional depth to the narrative transform the gimmick into a worthwhile cinematic element. Werner Herzog’s overlooked Cave of Forgotten Dreams back in 2011 used 3D to portray ancient cave paintings, melding modern technology with the earliest records of image. The effect profoundly adds to the viewing of the film, reminding audiences of our continued fascination with vision and our perception of imagery. In the aforementioned Hugo, Scorsese executes a similar effect with his revamping of Georges Méliès’ impeccable A Trip to the Moon, linking the modern with the classic. But to end this column, I’d like to revisit Jean-Luc Godard, that enfant terrible of cinema. Always challenging our notions concerning the rules of editing, image, and language (see: the brilliant but near incomprehensible Film Socialisme on Joycean and Proustian terms), Godard is shooting his next project, Adieu au Langage, in 3D. While many mainstream, Western 3D films are in paralysis because filmmakers can only focus on special effects and technical gimmickry, Godard has interests vital for the continuation and progression of this cinematic technique that really uncovers the potentials for 3D filmmaking: “I always like it when new techniques are introduced. Because it doesn’t have any rules yet. And one can do everything.”

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