Monday, 29 May 2017

King Arthur - a Gritty Camelot

Director: Guy Ritchie
Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Astrid Berges-Frisbey, Jude Law
Release: 12 May 2017
IMDB Rating: 7.3 (Review)
Rotten Tomatoes User Rating: 77% (Critics gave it 28%)

I should start off by saying that it is a real shame that this film flopped as badly as it did namely because not only do I tend to quite enjoy films by Guy Ritchie, but he also has this ability of adding his own personality into his productions. While his first forays into the world of mainstream cinema tended to be stories that he had created, of late he has been exploring more popular topics, in particular Sherlock Holmes. In fact his portrayal of everybody's favourite Consulting Detective was the impetus for me actually going back to the original works to see what they were like. However, I will leave any further comment on Sherlock Holmes for another day as today it is King Arthur's turn.

As I do with most of my posts involving films, here is the trailer, though it was originally the trailer that initially grabbed my attention (which meant that it did its job):

The Legend of the Sword

I'm not claiming to be an expert on the legend of King Arthur, and to be honest there are so many different versions of the story out there that it is actually difficult to know what the official version actually is. In fact it is quite unlike other legends, such as that of Odysseus, but then again the legend of Odysseus tends to be accepted thanks to The Odyssey. However, if you go beyond the Odyssey you will discover that, with the exception of a number of major events, the actually story also changes.

This happens quite a lot with myth, and King Arthur is a story that I would also place in the category of myth, even though the truth of the story is quite vague, and it is more than possible that it is simply nothing more than a fantasy story based upon some guy that may have never existed. However, while I have read books on the historicity of King Arthur, this isn't something that I'll be writing about today either, though I will mention that one theory was that he was an Ancient Roman general in Britain, and another was that he was basically a particularly successful king in the Dark Ages whose legend was blown all out of proportion.

As far as I am aware (though I could be wrong), the first mention of King Arthur appears in Geoffry of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain. What is interesting is that if you go over to Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, you will discover that the period in which Monmouth places Arthur is missing - it seems as if Bede literally skips over a period of one hundred years. As for Monmouth, he claims to have got the information from a book that was given to him, and from that book he created his own works.

It is more likely than not that the story of Arthur was actually an oral tale that was passed down from generation to generation. In a sense it looks back on a period of history where England (or Avalon as the case may be), was great, and it is a case of a fallen empire pining for the past. The story was later written down into a hideously huge work by Thomas Mallory, who was said to have written it while he was sitting in gaol. This is actually quite believable as there is generally not all that much to do in gaol, though it also begs the question of where he actually got his paper and writing implements from.

The story has since been written and rewritten time and time again as poetry and as novels, and lately as a series of films that seem to take a different viewpoint everytime. In many cases we see the story of Arthur and his knights as a tale of high adventure set in an idealised, and somewhat romantic, past. However, it is also tainted with questions of tragedy and sadness, with the story of Lancelot Cuckolding the king, and also his fruitless, and eventually fatal, quest for the holy grail. However, when it comes to the crunch, the story of Arthur really comes down to who is telling it.

Ironically, I also found this YouTube video on King Arthur.


The Legend as we Know It

I probably don't need to actually go over ground that you probably already know, but I do feel that maybe exploring the legend would be helpful as we continue. As I have suggested, while the story may change depending on who is telling it (from Thomas Mallory to Rudyard Kipling to Monty Python), there are still a number of things that generally remain the same. For instance there is a wizard named Merlin, though whether he advises Arthur or not depends on the story - with Monmouth Merlin had died before Arthur was even born. His father's name is Uther, and he was given the sword Excalibur by the Lady of the Lake. However, Uther is defeated in battle, and plunges the sword into a rock so that only his rightful heir is able to remove it.

It seems as if Arthur, up until adulthood, never knew his father or his rightful place as the King of England. However this all changes when he removes the sword, quite easily mind you, from the rock. He then goes and marries a woman Guenevere (though whether she is a commoner or not once again depends on the story). He then gathers a group of knights together to be his generals, establishes the castle of Camelot, and builds a round table with the idea that everybody who sits at the table is equal, and has an equal voice.

The story then finishes off with Avalon being at peace, though it becomes apparent that Guenevere is actually pretty unfaithful because she runs off with Lancelot. While it isn't in every story, the cuckolding of Arthur is another one of those generally accepted parts. In a way it adds to the tragedy of the story, and even though it is a tale of high adventure and of medieval romance, it is also a dark and tragic tale. However, the cuckolding of Arthur is actually a more recent addition since while it doesn't appear in Monmouth, it does appear in a later work, Le Morte d'Artur.

Finally we have the quest for the Holy Grail. The interesting this is that it is suggested that Arthur never actually got the grail. I'm not entirely sure what the grail is supposed to be, though it could be one of two cups - either the cup that the disciples drank from at the last supper, or a cup that was used to collect Christ's blood during his execution. The first cup clearly appears in scripture where as the second doesn't, however my understanding is that the Holy Grail is actually the second cup. In the end the quest is fruitless, and this obsession of Arthur's is actually his downfall - he obsession with the cup, which is said to provide immortality, ends up being that which not only kills him, but also destroys the Kingdom.

The last sleep of King Arthur

The Legend of Guy Ritchie

So, now we come to the most recent incarnation of the story of King Arthur. Basically the movie is about Arthur's rise to power, and actually deals a lot with his insecurities as to his destiny and how he eventually overcomes it. The story begins with the sorcerer Mordred attacking Camelot and Uther Pendragon single handedly defeating his army. However, Uther's brother, Vortigen, has plans of his own and before we know it, Uther is gathering his family together and sending them down river. At first we don't actually know what happened, namely because the last thing we see before Arthur is pushed off into the river, is a dark knight killing his mother. We later discover that Uther fought the knight and lost, however the sword turned him into stone and he sunk into the river.

Arthur grows up in a brothel and basically becomes what is effectively a powerful underworld figure. However, the water around Camelot drains away revealing the sword, and Vortigen decides to round up all of the men Arthur's age to attempt to remove the sword from the stone so as to reveal the Born King. Arthur, even though he has a number of blacklegs (Vortigen's soldiers) on his payroll, he doesn't have all of them, and he is eventually captured and thus it is revealed that he is the true king. So, the movie them moves into the stage where Arthur prepares himself to meet Vortigen in the final battle and thus claim his throne.

So What went wrong

A part of me is tempted to suggest that maybe people don't get Guy Ritchie's style of filmmaking, but the thing is that it isn't as if he is a lesser known director who has yet to make any blockbusters - Sherlock Holmes is a testament to that. Further, this is a similar style of film making that he has always used, so it should come as no surprise that Ritchie crafted the film the way that he did. However, I suspect that maybe, just maybe, the critics simply weren't to impressed with it, or that it simply wasn't the time for such a film to be released. Though, another thing is that if you consider the Rotten Tomatoes rating you will notice a huge discrepancy between the Critic's rating and the User's Rating.

However, I would have to argue in the opposite here, namely due to the popularity of Lord of the Rings and of A Game of Thrones. Somebody has suggested that maybe Ritchie over extended himself, especially with cost, and that he probably should have toned it down quite a lot. However, the fact that Lord of the Rings was an incredibly expensive film to make, this doesn't work all that well here either. It wasn't as if Fellowship of the Ring was cheap, and due to its popularity they decided to spend big on the later movies - all three movies were filmed at the same time. The other thing is that Peter Jackson actually wasn't a well known director at the time either.

The other thing is that it could also be the style of movie - maybe a gritty King Arthur wasn't what people were looking for. In a sense it is more realistic considering that the story is set during the dark ages, and the idea of nobility and well spoken individuals simply didn't exist. Having Vortigen come along and speak in a cockney accent seemed to be out of place for a person of such high standing, except that this is more connected with later periods in English history. What we have is a story set not in the Middle Ages, but in the dark ages, where it was much rougher, and the kings were only a couple of step above the ordinary person.

Yet the tale of King Arthur is also a tale not only of high adventure, but of high fantasy. This isn't the case - Ritchie seems to be trying to emulate A Game of Thrones just a little too much, and it is here that I feel that he may have fallen down. Unfortunately the story isn't one of a boy growing up in a brothel, and of soldiers and kings with Cockney accents, but rather a tale of refined individuals of high and noble character. Men of valour, and heroes of old. Sure, it is a dark and tragic tale, but more in the lines of Hamlet than of West Side Story. However, while it may not have come across that way to others, I still believe that it worked, and worked really well.

Some Final Thoughts

There are a couple of final things I wish to toss about with regards to this film. First of all is the use of fire and ice. The minions of Mordred, and in turn Vortigen, are represented by fire, whereas Excalibur appears to be a frost blade of some sort. It suggested that Excalibur is always, without fail, going to triumph over the forces of Mordred since frost destroys fire much more easily than the other way around. The other thing is that there is a lot more magic in this version than in many of the others - even though it is a gritty tale, it is a gritty tale of magic and adventure. Excalibur isn't any normal sword, it is clearly a magical sword, and one of no mean power either. In fact the images of the tree spirits near the end of the film was also quite striking.

The other thing is how similar to the story of Macbeth this film seemed to be. In a sense Vortigen seemed to be a reworking of Macbeth - he had sold his soul to three witches, and regularly went to them for advice. Further, the more he desired power, and to protect his own position, the more he drove others away. However, for a while I have viewed Macbeth in a different light to other Shakesperian tragedies as it seems to basically be your typical hero and villain action piece, except that the story focuses more on the villain than it does on the heroes.

Anyway, a post on King Arthur is not going to be complete without a look back at one of the greatest retellings of the tale of all time:

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King Arthur - a Gritty Camelot by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me

Monday, 22 May 2017

Lies of the Admen

Ah, yes, advertising - a pet hatred of mine, yet it is one of those things that capitalism seems to need to produce in order to survive. In my mind the concept of advertising (and marketing in general) is to convince somebody that they need something that they don't want, and to then make them part ways with an extraordinary amount of money to possess it. The other aspect is built in obsolescence, and I have to admit that I cringe every time I hear a sales person mention that the product I just bought will need to be replaced in around two years (though my laptop is currently four years old, as is my desktop computer, and at this stage I see no need to replace either).

Yet it is advertising that really gets me because while I can basically ignore built in obsolence, it can be hard, very hard, to fight off the tactics of the advertising executive, whether it be through flashy posters, eye-catching covers, or an engrossing television commercial. However, while I do manage to avoid the lure of looking good by buying brand name clothing, or a prestige car, I still cannot avoid the lure of a well put together movie trailer, or an eye catching book cover (and this is not to mention the sweet taste of a packet of chips or a craft beer).

I was going to suggest that you may be wandering why I am writing a post about advertising, but then I realised that if you have been following my blog then such a post probably wouldn't come as a surprise, especially with some of my previous anti-capitalist rants. However, it isn't the case that I have just binge watched Mad Men, but rather it is because when I visited the Communications Museum in Frankfurt there was an exhibition on the history of advertising, and since I did spend some time there I felt that maybe I should use it as a topic of my post.

Advertise or Die

The truth is that for a business to survive in the modern world they need to advertise, but they need to advertise in such a way as to grab the attention of the consumer. The reality is that there are lots and lots of stuff out there, and people have limited time and resources, so the role of the adman is to be in sync with the consumer - they need to understand what attracts them, what desires they have, and what will grab their attention. However it goes beyond that because as every marketer is told they must know their audience. In fact the reality is that audiences aren't prebuilt, so you need to create them, and to do that you need to know who your target is, and how to draw them into the honeypot. More so, you need to have an understanding of where their attention lays so as to be able insert yourself into their field of vision - it is no good placing ads in newspapers when everybody is getting their news off of the bubble that is Facebook.

The world is indeed changing because it has actually become much easier to measure how well an advertisement is working, and in fact how productive a adman happens to be. In the past it was very hit or miss, and with the cost of producing ads, particularly television ads, being so high one mistake could cost a company millions in lost sales. However, if one manages to hit upon the right note, and capture the attention of the audience, then sales would boom. However, these days, with Search Engine Optimisation, cookies, and website tracking, is is now much easier to see which adds are working, and which outlets are generating the most traffic.

However, demographics are changing, and changing a lot. In the past things were pretty cut and dry - the women wore dresses and men drank beer. However that isn't necessarily the case any more. In fact it isn't just the rise of the LGBT community but also numerous role reversals. These days we have men staying at home looking after the kids while the women go out to work, and we have young metro-sexual men who take as much interest in their appearance as women do. One way that advertisers grab the attention of the viewer is by stepping outside of the ordinary, and changing things around, and even adding a little humour, but the reality is that these days the norm is so diverse that there isn't necessarily one common theme left in our society. Yet in many cases advertisers still focus on what is considered the main stream since that is where the largest source of revenue is, and only targets minorities when they have something that is specific to them.

Behind the Curtain

It sounds as if I have been speaking about advertising in general, however we can't forget that this is a German museum, and for about fifty years Germany was divided into East and West, with the east being a planned economy while the west was a capitalist market economy. It is easy to dismiss the East as being a backward communist country with no life and no soul, and in a sense there is the fact that in East Germany there was no competition - there would only be one company and that company was owned by the state. However, that did not necessarily mean that there was no advertising. In fact even in Orwell's dystopian world of 1984 we had advertising.

The thing is that there is more to advertising than simply attempting to capture the attention of the consumers and convincing them to purchase your product as opposed to somebody else's product. No, advertising has a lot to do with information distribution, as well as propoganda. In fact that is basically what advertising is, propoganda - there is no two ways about it. The reality is that no matter how many times the add tells you something, Coke simply does not add life, and that small car made by Toyota is basically no different than that small car made by Ford. Oh, and the only reason that BMW costs a lot more is because you are paying for a brand (and a lifestyle).

In the German Democratic Republic, the idea behind advertising was to promote the government, and to make people believe that the government was working for them, and was supporting them (which to be honest with you sounds pretty much what is happening here in the West). However another aspect of advertising was to make people aware of what was available, and to also organise the planned economy to make sure that there wasn't an oversupply of goods, and if there was then to direct the populace to buy that product so as to bring the supply down.

The Marlboro Man

If there is one product that demonstrates the nature of advertising and that is the cigarette (though you could also argue clothing to an extent - how different is a t-shirt with a Nike symbol on it to a t-shirt with an Adidas symbol on it?). The truth about cigarettes is that across brands there is actually no difference. In fact tests have been performed where people were given cigarettes made by different brands and they weren't actually able to tell the difference. Mind you, I am still sitting here scratching my head wondering how this whole plain packaging is supposed to work, particularly since removing the branding on cigarette packets seems to do little to stop people smoking - however forcing stores to hide them in cupboards certain does do the trick (as does demonising smokers).

Yet if there was one industry that had mastered the nature of the brand, and the iconic image of the Marlboro man, sitting astride his horse wearing his huge stetson had is a testament to that, it is the tobacco industry. In fact I still remember sitting in the car on the way to church every Sunday morning and passing a billboard that had the Marlboro man sitting there and looking out over the banked up traffic - and from what I can remember that billboard sat there for years, right up until the time in which all cigarette advertising was banned. In a sense what was being said was that real men smoke Marlboro.

I probably should mention as a side note that the Malboro billboard, and the alco-pop billboard, that I would regularly see as an impressionable young kid, did have an impact upon me, though I don't actually drink alcohol - still, there were a lot of other things that shaped my development than a couple of billboards on the way to church.

However on the other side we have Camel, a cigarette that, at least where I was concerned, came across as being exotic. Yet the brand image that came across was that it was adventurous, and took the image of the man who wandered across deserts and made his way through jungles. Yet it was the exotic nature of the cigarettes that captured my friend's imagination because, well, it had a soft back, and cigarettes that came in soft packs must be better than the ones that come in the hard packs. In fact the nature of the brand even makes us believe that the cigarettes that come from one type of packaging differs from that which comes from another - when it reality that are both cigarettes.

Researching the Market

So, with the high cost of producing advertisements, companies, and advertisers, need to know whether their strategy is going to work, and one way they do this is through market research. You may have received calls from people asking if you would like to participate in some form of research (I have, and I usually decline because, well, I'm not all that interested in buying anything). The thing is that before they go ahead with their project, they need to know whether it is going to work, and what it is that will attract people's attention. In fact they will also bring groups into rooms to see how they will react to certain products and posters.

Yet things have changed a lot since when I was young. First of all we now have mobile phones, which means that there is a much greater reach for researchers to get information from, because previously they were only really able to get people who happened to be at home when the phone rang (and that is if people are at home). The other thing is that we now have social media, and we are putting so much of our information on line - our likes and dislikes, our wanderings, and our interests and hobbies - that marketers are able to mine this information to be able to customise their products.

One way that they do this is by creating profiles - not profiles such as our various social media accounts, but rather a profile of a generic type of person and the type of things that captures their attention. Mind you, we are still very much in the early days, but as this develops advertisers will be able to tailor adds to specific individuals that are designed to grab their attention much more than a generic advertisement would. Further, as your online activity increases, marketers are able to determine what you like, and what you are looking for, so that wherever you turn on the web you will be confronted with ads that basically reflect your greatest desires.

The Jagerbomb

The only time I have heard of Jagermeister was a cocktail known as a 'Jagerbomb', which is supposed to be some Jagermeister mixed with Redbull in a shot glass (and it is pretty pricey by the way). However, it appears that sometime in the past the drink was basically was one would term as an 'old man's drink', that is a drink that was only consumed by a certain demographic. To be honest I have a lot of difficulty picturing Jagermeister as being such a drink, but that is probably a testimony to the way that they managed to turn its image around. In fact the campaign that they used was termed 'Jagermeister, Eine fur Alles' (Jagermeister, a 'drink' for all), and the way they did this was through a series of adds where the subject began the sentence with the phrase 'I drink Jagermeister because ...'.

Well, while the campaign was a successful (as is evidenced by the popularity of the Jagerbomb), it sort of opened itself up to some criticism, namely through a German parody magazine Pardon. Here they had an image of a child holding a glass of Jagermeister with the words 'I drink Jagermeister because my dealer is currently in goal' (and later changed it to 'I no longer drink Jagermeister because me dealer is now out of gaol'). Jagermeister wasn't particularly happy with that and sued the magazine, however the judge ruled against then namely because the content of the ad clearly indicated that it was satire. However, what the ad did do was raise awareness of the problem of underage drinking, and also drinking to solve one's problems.

About the Weather

The thing is that iconic ads lead to parodical ads, and this was the case the Deutschebahn. When the automobile because ubiquitous all of a sudden people began to believe that trains were, well, on the way out. In fact they were expecting them to suffer a slow, and rather painful, death. Well, that never happened, and if you travel to Germany today you can pretty much get to most parts of the country (or at least most cities and towns) by catching a train. Actually, that is the case with a lot of Europe (which is probably the main reason that I love the place). Anyway, they came up with a poster - a black background with white letters, and the phrase 'Alles reden vom wetter ... wir nicht' (everybody talks about the weather - we don't).

This iconic imagery basically captured the hearts and minds of the German people, and it basically turned Deutschebahn's fortunes around. However it was one of those images that kept on coming back again, and again. For instance the student communist league used the words, but changed the background to red, and instead of the train have the heads of the three communist icons. The Greens also used the concept with their posters.

So, there we have it, some thoughts on advertising, and the way that it works. In a sense it is a part of our culture and our society, though I have to admit that it is a shame that so much creativity simply goes into creating pithy things that are used to sell stupid products, that is until I discovered that Andy Warhol began his career in advertising.

Creative Commons License

Lies of the Admen by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me

Monday, 8 May 2017

Deutches Filmmuseum - Creating the Illusion

The thing with film is that it changes the way that the story is told, and the way the narrative can be produced. The thing is that even in a western industrialised country, not everybody is literate, which means that not everybody is able to read and enjoy a good book. Okay, there are probably a lot more people out there who can read, it is just that reading takes time and effort, neither of which many are willing to invest, so simply don't do it. However, it hasn't always been the case that people have been as literate as they are now, and there was a time, even after the invention of the printing press, that books were only in the possession of the wealthy, the church, and the upper class. As such, there has always been a need to be able to allow those who aren't able to, or aren't willing to, read to enjoy the story and understand the narrative.

The Ancient Athenians worked this out by inventing theatre, however theatre was simply an extension of what we would know as a poetry reading. Back in those day bards would travel the lands, visit a village or town, and in return for food and shelter would tell stories of times past - this is how the Illiad and the Odyssey, the stories of the Trojan War, came down to us. However, the theatre came about when some bright spark (we believe it was a guy named Thespis), decided that instead of having a single person recite a story, to add a second person who would interact with this first person - thus we have the first actors, and the first play.

The First Theatre

The other way of being able to tell the narrative beyond the written word is through art and sculpture. Walk into a European church - most notably the Catholic ones - and you will see a building that is bursting full of paintings and images, the most common one being the story of Christ's crucifixion, and in particular the stations of the cross. Along with these paintings you will also find statues representing the apostles, and also images reflecting the other stories of the Bible, though the most common ones are the story of the fall, and of Christ's death and resurrection.

And of course The Last Judgement

However, this isn't a post on the history of film, or even the history of the narrative - that was in my previous post on the Deutches Film Museum. Rather, this post will explore how the movie is created, as that was what we learnt when we visited the second floor of the Film Museum.

Birth of the Cinema

Okay, I probably should say a few things about the beginnings of Cinema, namely because I didn't really touch too much on it in my previous post. While there has always been this fascination with capturing images, and even making them move, the development of cinema didn't suddenly see huge and extravagant movies appear in the screen. In fact at first it was really only a bit of a fad which involved short films in traveling carnivals - the modern movie cinema didn't come until much later. Further, the types of films were either comedy, namely slapstick, or naughty (which isn't at all that surprising that one of the first films that came about involved naked people, usually women, running about). However, it wasn't until around 1915 that the first full length feature films appeared, particularly birth of a nation.

However sound didn't come about until much later, namely the 1930s. Initially the films would have somebody in the cinema playing the piano, and the music that you actually hear on the modern renditions aren't necessarily the scores that were originally played - even though films started to be distributed with musical scores, that didn't necessarily mean that the cinema would actually play that particular score. The 1920s was generally seen as the golden years of the silent film with directors such as Fritz Lang and Sergi Einstein and actor directors such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. This of course fed into the Golden Age of Hollywood, which lasted until 1960, with the rise of television, and also the anti-trust suits which began to break apart the Hollywood Monopoly.

Anyway, enough of the history and instead let us look at what goes into the films (and since this is a German museum I'll also use the German names).

Acting - Schauspiel 

Ahh, yes, the actors - people, as was described by James Franco in 'This is the End', who when thrown into the real world actually have no ability, or worth, to be able to function, but do an incredible job of pretending to be something that they are not. Actually, this is probably being a bit harsh because a number of actors have gone on to become politicians, but then again people would probably point out that politicians also belong to a class of people who have absolutely no clue with how to function in the real world and can only survive thanks to an army of advisors helping them out. 

These days acting seems to be incredibly glamorous, but that is because the successful ones tend to be front an centre of our culture. Sure, many actors come and go, and it is quite possible that one wrong word, and one disasterous night out, can completely destroy a career. Still, some of these actors (such as Robert Downey Jnr) manage to survive these periods of indiscretion, and others have built up such a safety net that they can survive outside of Hollywood stardom.

I was intitially going to suggest that it is only in the modern era that the cult of celebrity has raised the actor from humble beginnings to the idols that we worship today, however acting has always been one of those professions that has a make it or break it aspect about it. Just as the struggling Hollywood actor trying to make it in Los Angeles has become a modern stereotype, the band of players that wandered the land in the days of Shakespeare lived a similar existence. While the band of players in Hamlet neglects the actors and playwrights that lived upon the patronage of the king and the nobles, our modern world sees onto the handful of successful actors and seems to ignore the amateurs that toil away on stage in community halls, and those attempting to break into the scene by snapping up whatever opportunity might come their way.

While the actors tend to take centre stage in the production, it is not so much the actor that we focus on but the character that the actor plays. This can be difficult, especially when we have some actors that tend to be type cast. The main reason for this is because when we watch the film we don't see the character, we see the actor - Jason Stratham is a prime example of this. However, there are other actors, such as the aforementioned Robert Downey Jnr, who is able to disappear behind the character that he is portraying. In one sense this has something to do with the actor's ability, and in other ways with aspects above and beyond the actor, such as costume design and script writing.

Beyond the Actor

In a way the scripting and the costume go as much into defining the character as does the actor, though it is interesting that stage acting and film acting are two completely different styles. Actually, as I think about it that isn't all that surprising, particularly since stage acting requires the actor to remember a lot more, and also they need to be able to exaggerate themselves much more due to the live audience, particularly in a large theatre. However, since mistakes in film and be cut and refilmed, the necessity of remembering lines is much less. Mind you, another thing about film acting is improvisation actually occurs a lot more, and there are even suggestions that there are some films where most of the lines are improvised.

However, the costumes also play an incredibly important role, namely because the character's clothes go a long way to being able to define the character. Characters that wear ordinary clothes tend not to stand out as much as characters whose clothes are unique. However, costuming goes a long way beyond the clothes that the actor wears, particularly when we are looking at characters that aren't necessarily human, or are younger, or older, than the actor (though I do get this feeling that some actors seem to spend an awful lot of money on plastic surgery).

But as we consider costumes let us move beyond costumes a bit to the role of animation. As computers have become much more powerful it has become much easier to not only manipulate the images of the actors, but also create entities that didn't actually exist. Mind you, animation has been around for as long as film has been around, however as technology has developed animation has become much more sophisticated. In a sense the physical character of the actor suddenly disappears to be replaced by what is in effect the costume, whether it is an image that has been altered by the computer, a clay model pasted into the film during editing, or simply the film itself.

The Soundtrack

The term soundtrack actually comes from a little strip that runs along the side of the film where the sound was encoded. The original film would shine a light through this strip (along with the rest of the film) which will fall onto a photovoltaic cell, and turn this light into sound. Of course film is rarely used these days, since most films are produced on laser disc and made using extensive computer imaging, unless of course you are somebody like Quentin Tarrantino (and there are still cinemas scattered about the place that still have film projectors, though don't expect to find them in your modern megaplex).
However there is actually a lot more to sound than simply having the actors being able to talk. In fact sound effects can be just as sophisticated as visual effects, with sounds being produced to create the illusion of something that isn't necessarily there. A classic example of this, as is seen in Monty Python's Quest for the Holy Grail, is the use of coconut shells to produce the illusion of horses galloping. Actually the sound, like much of the film, is actually added during the post-production stage, so the sounds that you hear in the film isn't necessarily the sound that the actors hear, which is similar to many of the visuals. For instance that machinegun that Rambo appears to be firing actually isn't firing anything at all.

The other aspect of sound is the mood - this is not just songs that are played in the background, but also a musical score. This isn't necessarily the loud musical scores that were played along with the silent movies, but it is a much softer score that helps generate the atmosphere (such as the famous theme that was played when Jaws was sneaking up on the boat). In fact I suspect that many of the big budget films have very little, if any, part of them that is completely silent - I suspect that there is at least some sound playing in the background.

Visual Effects

Yes, the good old blue screen. I remember watching a show in primary school about how the blue screen worked. Well, coming into this museum we actually got to play around with a similar device, though instead of using blue it was using green. Basically what the editor does is that it erases all of a specific colour from the film and then replaces it with a different film, such as an alien planet where you are being chased down by a giant insectoid creature, much like the one that we played around with here.

Yet there is much, much more to visual effects than the use of the blue/green screen, to it is used in quite a lot of films these days (namely because it tends to be much cheaper than building a set, though if you are planning on regularly using the set, such as a living room in a sitcom, then it is probably much cheaper just building the set - or a town in a western such as Westword). Another way of creating sets on the cheap is through the use of matte painting, where the image is painted on the screen and placed on the back way, and the use of lights and shadows (as well as computer effects) make it appear more real. Further we have the use of models, though in some sense models, matte paintings, and the blue screen are all used together.

However the use of shadows and lights, as well as manipulating the image, are also used to generate mood. For instance horror movies and thrillers tend to always be set in dark and gloomy settings, while romances are set in bright and happy settings. However the creators will change the mood depending on the stage of the film - at the start of Alien, before they had entered the ship, the atmosphere was much brighter, however in a romance, where the protagonists are having a fight, it is likely to be much more sombre (and even raining).

One thing I wish to touch on before I finish off is the use of the camera. When I was younger I did a six-week video production course and one thing we were taught was to make use of the camera, and the edge of the screen. Basically the television is bound by a frame, and we cannot see anything beyond the frame (unless the camera moves). As such we can do a lot in creating the illusion simply through the use of the frame. One trick I did back then was the POV (point of view) shoot, where the entire film was shot from the point of view of the main character, in this case a monster - the nature of the monster was shown not so much by the monster but rather by the reaction of other characters to the monster.

The Editing Suite

Back when I was in university I had the privilege of producing videos for the church, and I also had the privilege of having access to an editing suite. Mind you this was back in the days that video cameras were huge and we still filmed using video tapes - in fact mobile phones were pretty much in their infancy and digital cameras simply were not readily available, or even cheap. Anyway, editing basically consisted on having two (or more) video recorders and you would cut and past the footage from one video tape onto another. The reason that you do that is because films are rarely, if ever, filmed in chronological order.

However the editing suite, as I have indicated above, is much more than just cutting and pasting the various scenes together - it is in here that the film comes out in its final form. Here the sounds and visual effects come together, and the images are placed onto the film. In a way this is probably the most complicated part of the production, though not necessarily the most expensive since the actors, especially big name actors that can command a lot of money, don't come cheap.

Anyway, it is probably time to finish off, but I will do so with another classic of the silent era - Buster Keaton's The General.

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Deutches Filmmuseum - Creating the Illusion by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me

Monday, 1 May 2017

Mists of the Past - Pinter's No Man's Land

My only previous encounter with Harold Pinter was through another play called 'Educating Rita' by Willy Russel. That was, and still is, a play that I hated, first of all because it was one of those plays that one of my teachers at high school pushed on us, and also because the main character, the teacher, was a miserable alcoholic. Then I stumbled across Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion and discovered that this Educating Rita was pretty much a modern version, and that the original was so much better. However, this isn't a discussion on Educating Rita but of one of Pinter's play, the first that I have actually seen (though I saw it on one of the National Theatre Live broadcasts).

Normally I wouldn't have thought too much about Pinter, namely because in my mind he was basically that 'playwright from Educating Rita' and anything from Educating Rita wasn't going to be something that I would go out of my way to pursue. However, as I was walking past Wyndham's Theatre when I was previously in London I discovered that there was a play starring both Iain McKellan and Patrick Stewart. So, out came my phone and I checked the availability of tickets, only to discover that since it was the opening night there weren't going to be any. Actually, my understanding is that since this play stars a couple of really big names I suspect that you would need to book months in advance, and tickets aren't going to be cheap. As it turned out, when I was in London in 2013 the exact same theatre had another play starring another famous actor - Rowan Atkinson, and it turned out that the one day I was able to actually see the play was the one day that it wasn't playing (though, once again, I suspect I probably needed to book well in advance).

I guess the next time I plan on going to London I should type the following question into Google: Are there any plays in London with famous actors?

However, before I begin, here is a brief trailer from Youtube:

A Bit of Beckett

The first thing that struck me about this play was that it seemed to run along the similar line as a play by Samuel Becket - a single location, two acts, and what appears to be two people interacting in a way that makes them, and reality in general, appear to be quite absurd. However, the more I think about it the more I feel that while there seems to be some influence by Becket in the play, Pinter seemed to have move on from where Becket was at the time of his writing. In a way No Man's Land isn't about the absurdity of reality but rather about the fears of where an artist, in the case of this play a poet, might land up.

Howard Pinter
It is probably no surprise to know that Stewart and McKellan actually played the two main characters in Waiting For Godot, however unlike Godot, where the location seems to be incredibly vague, and the main characters to effectively be any man and every man, No Man's Land seems to have a lot more certainty. Sure, at the beginning there is some mystery as to who each of the four characters are, but it is clear that we know where the action is happening - Hirst's house in Hampstead - and the characters of Hirst and Spooner, and well as Briggs and Foster, have a lot more clarity. In a way they aren't so much anyman and everyman, they are characters with real names in a real location.

Yet there is something of a mystery about these characters, at least when they are introduced. Sure, we know that we are in Hirst's house, and from looking at the house, or at least the one room in which the play is set, we known that Hirst is quite wealthy. However, beyond that all we have is Hirst sitting in the chair, saying very little while Spooner simply wanders around, regularly refilling his glass, and yabbering on about pretty much nothing. It is not until Hirst suddenly cries out 'No man's land ... does not move ... or change ... or grow old ... remains ... forever ... icy ... silent" and then crawls out of the room, that the mystery starts to take some form, namely because we have the introduction of the photo album, as well as two new characters, Briggs and Foster.

The Fog of Memory

It seems to be the case that the older we become, and the more distant the past becomes, that the less distinct it is. However, is the reason that our childhood is merely a vague memory because our brains are underdeveloped and thus less capable of remembering things, or is it that we are growing old, and our brains are deteriorating, that we begin to forget. Yet it seems that we are constantly trying to hold on to those memories, which is probably why we are forever taking photographs and buying souvenirs, as it seems that the things that we value the most are the memories that we hold. In fact when we lose someone close to us, our one great fear is that we will forget them, which is why we do whatever we can to keep those memories alive. I am sure we all know of a movie there the ashes of a deceased relative are dropped, and in the process destroyed.

Then there is the idea of alcoholism, and the need for some people to drink to forget their pain. Throughout the play everybody is drinking. Hirst and Spooner arrive back at the house after meeting at a local pub, and continue their drinking session. When they wake up in the morning (surprisingly without a hangover) the first thing they do is drink, though they drink champagne as opposed to spirits, because one is supposed to drink champagne in the morning. In a way it is clear that they are alcoholics, but I don't think that is the point. Rather it is that alcohol not only dulls the senses but also dulls the memory, which is why it seems that at the beginning of the play everything appears to be rather hazy and fuzzy - the main characters are drunk, and in a way don't know who they are themselves let alone who the other is.

Yet as it turns out they do know each other because they went to university together. However that was so long ago, and they had changed so much, that when they encountered each other again they were effectively mysteries to each other - to an extent. The thing is that Hirst is famous and has done well in life, whereas Spooner is exactly the opposite. Where Hirst worked for the intelligence service during the war, and became a successful poet, Spooner was on a ship, and basically has made ends meet by doing odd jobs here and there. The thing is that no matter how much he tries to hide his identity, it slowly, and eventually comes out, particularly when Briggs and Foster enter the scene.

Trapped in No Man's Land

The idea of No Man's Land comes from World War I, in particular the Western Front. This was the area of land that lay between the trenches of the opposing forces and was termed as such because nobody controlled it. The thing with No Man's Land was that it was a muddy and treacherous place full of barbed wire and unexploded bombs, and any attempt to cross it would be met with bullets coming from the trenches and bunkers of the other side. Needless to say the chance of anybody returning after entering No Man's Land was slim, and you certainly wouldn't go there by yourself because to do so would most likely be a death sentence.

So this is the case with Hirst. Sure, he is a famous poet, but he has entered this stage where his life has pretty much ground to a halt - in a way he is caught in this horrible terrain from which there is no escape. He cannot go forward, and there is no way that he can go back. Sure, he isn't in the situation that Spooner is in, but then again Spooner is also in a situation where he is also trapped - he is definitely past his prime and he has basically been surviving through whatever methods are available, yet he is literally a pauper with no way to escape where he has being - no wonder both of them have resorted to alcoholism.

The interesting thing is that both of them seem to be able to offer the other a way out - Hirst moreso than Spooner - but Hirst is trapped, not so much by himself, but by his servants. In both ways, the way that Spooner offers Hirst a chance to attend a poetry reading, and then begs Hirst for a job - it seems as if Foster and Biggs now call all the shots. Hirst is going nowhere, and there is no way that Hirst is going to do anything to lift Spooner out of the sinkhole in which he has found himself. In fact the play ends rather suddenly, with no decision and no real conclusion - in a way it is left hanging there, letting us determine and work out how this impass is solved. In a way it is like that bus teetering on a cliff, with the thieves at one end and the gold at the other.

Yet let us consider our own lives, how back at university we had such big dreams for the future. How we were going to go out and change the world, to do big things, and become great people. Yet here we are, years later, where our life has suddenly hit a rut. Sure, some are successful, like Hirst, some aren't, like Spooner - but both share something in common: life has reached a point where the best years are behind us and we have now entered the twilight realm, a realm where things become ever more darker and the chances of actually making a difference are ever more disappearing. Also, like Hirst, many of us a trapped by our servants, whether it be the mortgage we owe the bank, or the family that we have built around us - in a sense that time to take risks has passed, and now life simply seems to drift, and when we arrive at May Day we look back and wonder where that time has gone.

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Mists of the Past - Pinter's No Man's Land by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me