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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (10/13/08) 10:09am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  American Graffiti, An Evening with Don Hertzfeldt
TV:  MythBusters [Collection 1, Disc 2]
Books:  <none>

American Graffiti
This was George Lucas's 1973 film about the last day of high school in Modesto, California in the summer of '62.

In retrospect, I should've watched this movie first. 

A bit of explanation:  I've watched Dazed and Confused, where Richard Linklater uses the exact same setup on Huntsville, Texas in the summer of '76.  I've watched countless high-school TV shows (most notably Freaks and Geeks), which probably owe a tip of the hat to American Graffiti's picture of high-school.  Basically, I feel like I saw the things that did it *better*, and then I saw the thing that did it *first*.

Like with Dazed and Confused, American Graffiti is loosely structured.  Four high-school kids -- Curt, Steve, John, and Terry -- meet at a drive-in, and then go off on separate adventures.  Curt gets abducted by a local gang.  Steve has a bunch of fights with his girlfriend.  John winds up babysitting a bratty tween.  Terry picks up a hot girl and desperately tries to cover up what a hopeless geek he is.  Eventually, they all meet to watch John race a cocky out-of-towner (played by an impossibly-young Harrison Ford).

And that's... pretty much it.

The movie isn't really about the characters, who all struck me as clichés.  I mean, Terry thoroughly fails the Passover test -- "How is *this* geek different from all *other* geeks?" -- and I don't know much about Curt, Steve, and John apart from that they're a bit nervy, whiney, and cocky, respectively.

And the movie isn't really about its plot -- the storylines wander languidly through well-worn plot devices.  Curt gets in trouble with the gang and has to do various gang-y things for them.  Steve has the typical boyfriend-girlfriend fights we've all seen (or been in) before.  John's bratty tween is bratty, but eventually the two mismatched kids learn to understand each other, gosh darn it.  At the end, the film shoehorns in logical (if un-earned) conclusions for all those storylines.

Nah, I'm guessing this movie is just about its setting and its mood.  Lucas wants to capture the world of his teenage years before he forgets about it, so we see as much of this nostalgia-tinted version of Modesto as he can fit into 112 minutes.  And we see it the way a teenager would see it -- or more accurately, the way a man pushing thirty and thinking back a decade would see it.  It's halcyon.  Yeah, the kids get into kerfuffles that leave them thinking "OMG it's the END of the WORLD!", but as a viewer you just chuckle and think about kids and their drama -- those happy kids, driving around in those spotless, broad-finned cars, without a care in the world.

After all, the decade would soon move from American Graffiti to Malcolm X and Apocalypse Now and Woodstock, and troubles like 'getting into an argument with your girl at the sock hop' would suddenly feel like no real troubles at all.

I suppose I was disappointed, but that's just because I'm awfully picky:  just a good setting isn't good enough.  The story has to work, too.  You have to show me characters I haven't seen before reacting in ways that only they would react, and earning a conclusion that really matters.  But I suspect that 1962 Modesto will linger in my memory long after all its mediocre story elements have dissipated.

An Evening with Don Hertzfeldt
Animator Don Hertzfeldt stopped by the Drafthouse to show his newest movie (my response:  "What?  He has a new movie?") as well as some older work, and also to do a Q&A with the audience.

First off:  this evening really turned me around on Hertzfeldt's last couple of films.  I watched "The Meaning of Life" on the big screen for only the second time, and this time around I was really amazed by it.  The movie makes no literal sense (to me, anyway), and has no real narrative.  But this time around, I didn't go in *expecting* a narrative, and I think that way I got a lot more out of it.  I watched the opening crowd scene, which one reviewer pegged perfectly as "this is what the world looks like to an introvert".  I watched the gorgeous space-scapes, painstakingly animated using lamps and pinholes.  I watched the fantastical creatures, and the beautiful color washes during its closing conversation.

This time around, I still have no idea what I just saw -- or more specifically, I can't explain it or its impact.  Storytellers often talk about how if they could just explain in words what they had to say, they wouldn't bother going to the trouble of expressing it as a story.  That seems to apply here especially:  what Hertzfeldt has to say about life is, well, "<movie>", and what he has to say is profound, if abstract.

I had liked "Everything Will Be OK" when I saw it at the third Animation Show.  It's something Hertzfeldt described (in the Q&A) as "a children's book for grown-ups" -- a narrator takes us through bits and pieces of the day-to-day life of Bill, who is dying of some unspecified brain illness.

This year, Hertzfeldt brought "I Am So Proud of You", which is the sequel to "Everything Will Be OK".  The sequel makes the first film retroactively better.  The sequel starts with the source material in "OK" and expands it out -- instead of just bits and pieces of Bill's hospital trips and sick days, we see his whole world:  his family, his childhood friends, his coworkers, and so on.  Suddenly the story has become something like Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth -- and suddenly, the fragmentary, impressionistic[1] structure of the *first* movie makes a lot more sense.  He's not telling a story from A to Z, he's giving us an amazing mosaic.

The Q&A was interesting.  They got it all on video, and I'll twitter the link if I find it online.  (I should have taken notes.  Grr.)  Hertzfeldt's next project is either (1) the third installment of "OK"/"Proud", or (2) an animated TV miniseries.  Yes, I am giddy about both possibilities.  I would love to see Hertzfeldt do work on TV, just because TV -- especially animated comedy on TV -- *needs* someone like Hertzfeldt contributing to it.  TV animation has gotten stale and samey -- it's either random incomprehensible stories for stoners or it's shambolic piles of pop-culture references for hipsters (and frat boys, oddly enough).  Hertzfeldt's work is made of simple elements, it's got a lot of accurate human observation to it, and it nails timing like no other animation anywhere.  Frankly, having Hertzfeldt putting a miniseries on TV could be like having Brad Bird working on The Simpsons in the early 90s -- he could do work that's so good, and so different, that it forces everybody else to step up their game.[2]

There were also a lot of questions about Hertzfeldt's animation style.  He is one of the only modern animators who doesn't use computers[3]; he uses a 35mm camera, and he shoots one hand-constructed frame at a time.  That's the main reason we only see a new short from him every couple of years.  But he made a good point about computers:  computer animation (Flash, CGI, what-have-you) lets you do exactly what you want.  Why is that bad?  Because it blocks out the possibility of 'happy accidents'.  You can't have setups where (say) Hertzfeldt tries shooting frames through a pinhole, and winds up with a beautiful blurred-edge effect.

Something he didn't mention that I've been thinking a lot about lately:  working with harsh technical limitations forces you to pursue your own aesthetic.  If you're not just trying to make something that 'looks cool' (the way everything else 'looks cool'), but instead trying to make something that 'looks cool given these constraints', you often wind up with something unique and memorable.  (See also:  Tron.)

MythBusters [Collection 1, Disc 2]
Again, this is the reality show where two special-effects wizards test out various urban legends.  See my first review here.

To my surprise, I'm already hitting diminishing returns with this show.

The padding is becoming noticeable.  Maybe it was there all along, but now I'm hitting points in the show where the amount of content < the amount of time, and I'm fighting back the urge to whiz through the program at a 1.5x fast-forward.

Also, towards the end of this disc, Adam and Jaime are joined by additional crew members, all of whom are more conventionally-attractive and (AFAICT) not nearly as interesting.  On the one hand, this is a good thing:  they're members of Jaime's crew that were toiling unseen all this time, and it's good for them to get some face time and credit.  On the other hand, this just feels like studio meddling:  "Put pretty people on the screen!  Bored channel-surfers like pretty people!"  I'm disinclined to like the newbies.       

It might also be that I now have a general idea what a MythBusters episode is like.  When they set up the urban legend for the segment, I have a pretty good idea what experiment they'll cobble together.  Maybe the novelty of ballistics gel and crash dummies is wearing off.

I also noticed that on this disc, we're seeing less of folklorist Heather Joseph-Witham, who helps provide background on the myth in question.  This means that (1) I find out fewer interesting historical facts about the myth, and (2) they have to stretch out the experiment footage a bit more, leading to (again) padding.

This is not to say that it's become a bad show.  Jaime and Adam are still wildly entertaining (especially fun:  the episode where the experiment requires both of them to get really, really drunk -- Adam goes all goofy; Jaime shows no obvious signs of intoxication).  The experiments are still neat, and the myths are still intriguing.  It's just the delivery that's a bit watered down this time around.

For next time:  I'll watch There Will Be Blood (no, really!), start in on the last season of The Wire, and perhaps finishThe 10-Cent Plague and King Lear.

Still reading/listening to Noel Murray's  "Popless" column at the AVClub.  No real discoveries this week.  In other music-news, I pulled down my latest emusic tracks.  (w00t!)  I finally have a copy of "Twilight Creeps".  Other highlights:  The Nice Boys' "Teenage Nights" is a great Cheap Trick ripoff; Nino Moschella's "Didn't You See Her" is a cute bit of neo-soul; and as for Smoosh's "Find a Way", no twelve-year-old girl should be that good at the drums.  (Freak.)

I've plodded through more of the TEDTalks podcast.  Recent highlights:  Dave Eggers's "Once Upon a School" and (for fellow linguistics buffs) "The Stuff of Thought" by Steven Pinker.  Grammar Girl has continued to be a fun listen, and congrats to ptevis on successfully ransoming four episodes of "Have Games Will Travel".  (Hooray for novel business models!)

[1] I'm using this word to mean "constructed out of momentary impressions", as opposed to something like "painted with blurry brushwork".

[2] Yeah, I know:  TV animation never got up to the level of those early seasons of The Simpsons ever again.  But people working in TV animation *know* that that pinnacle is possible -- and if you know it's out there, you just have to try a little harder, right?

[3] Maybe Bill Plympton is another?

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[User Picture]
Date:Monday (10/13/08) 10:55pm
WRT mythbusters, for what it's worth the padding continues to be annoying. One of the most annoying things about it is that they constantly reference the huge amount of film they shot that didn't make the show, that you can apparently see on discovery.com (I've never tried). So you *know* there's stuff that they could be showing you instead of pad. After long experience (and DVR) I find that the padding reliably happens for the first 30s-1min after the commercials end, so if I let the FF go a bit too far then I end up in the right place. Near as I can figure the padding is mandated by the network shirts who want to make sure that channel surfers can get up to speed quickly (and get sucked in). It drives me up a wall.... Also FWIW you will continue to get diminishing returns on the show - all too many of them (as you said) end up with ballistics gel, crash test dummies, and explosions. You should seek out the true standout episodes - escape from alcatraz, plane on a treadmill, mentos and diet coke are some of my favorites (yes I am that geeky, I have favorite MB episodes).
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[User Picture]
Date:Tuesday (10/14/08) 8:11am
Thanks!  Yeah, I may start cherry-picking from now on.
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