Category Archives: Other

Framing Spencer

Don’t think for a second that you’ll be treated to a biopic or historical-events-as-flashback in the vein of this Naomi Watts number or this Madonna-produced drama should you decide to watch Spencer (Pablo Larrain, 2021).  If you’ve seen Larrain’s previous work Jackie (2016), arguably more biopic-ish in premise, you may have a better tonal reference point for what it’s like to watch this sometimes tense and inexplicably alluring meditation on how to deal with trying to adhere to stifling standards.

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Self-identified as a fable, per the on-screen text at the start of the film, Spencer is a textbook example of how to employ shot scale, composition, camerawork, sound design, and musical score to conjure a suffocating and disquieting atmosphere where the main character, who married into the royal family of royal families, is trying to make it through a Christmas weekend.  Kristen Stewart may not be the first actress you envision as portraying said main character, but in performing this role, she has shed those signature traits of annoyed exhales, severe shoulder drooping, and fidgety limbs for anxiety-induced panting, expressive gazes, and a certain grown-up-ness that many of her post-Twilight roles hadn’t required.

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Does it help that the wardrobe department did a very good job to make it easier for the viewer to stop seeing Kristen Stewart on screen and start seeing her playing Diana?  Oui.  Does it help that she doesn’t talk like she normally does?  Oui.  Does it seem like there are certain scenes where she’s self-aware in channeling a different persona through speechUn peu.  But it works.  I watched this film twice in a row after I got the DVD and fifteen minutes into the second viewing, I ceased seeing an actress of whom I’m incredibly fond and started seeing a woman desperate for meaningful defiance.

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Larrain’s film isn’t supposed to be scary, and yet, it succeeds in presenting psychological unease through elements of the mise-en-scene, the music, and the many close-ups around Diana’s face.  If you’ve seen Spencer and remember this dinner scene with the soup and the pearls, you’ll know what I mean.

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The director talks about this scene with The New York Times:

Kristen Stewart talks to Howard Stern about the accent:

I’d wanted to see this film in the theatre so badly a few months go but waited for the DVD because I knew I wanted subtitles and that I’d get it on home video anyway.

I might add Spencer to my quasi-annual Xmas movie-watching tradition.

Pic creds: Amazon, IMDB

Timing Counts

Being in the right place at the right time can lead to many positive and meaningful experiences:
~ An interception return for a touchdown that puts your team ahead with only one minute left in the fourth quarter.
~ An interaction with one of the many loves of your life.
~ An introduction to someone who will end up (in)directly ushering fortune your way.
~ A sense of acknowledgment by and connectedness with a wild animal.
~ Relief as you obtain a much-needed retail item.
~ Bikers being awesome.
~ And perhaps the most coveted, random acts of kindess that saved you time, effort, or money or any combination of the above, and that didn’t happen for likes and more subscribers.

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I was in the right place at the right time twice today while I was on a grocery errand.  The first instance was in the parking garage as I was circling methodically a few aisles to find a desirable parking spot.  I had almost reached the end of one of them when I saw an SUV turn in and stop because a car had its reverse lights on.  I assumed the SUV would park where that car was about to vacate, but the woman driver motioned for me to take the spot.  The second instance happened as I paused to decide how best to get a six-pack of 1-liter water bottles from the top shelf and into the cart.  A woman and her possibly-fifth-grader son were looking at products near me and must have interpreted my pause as an indication that I may need some assistance.

Before I could even take a breath and re-orient both hands to shimmy the pack off the shelf, I hear, “Do you need some help?” I responded in the affirmative, to which the woman said, “I’m not much taller than you, but….”

I made a move to cradle the waters after she brought them down but she put them into the cart.  I thanked her and she assured me it wasn’t a problem.  She was indeed probably a couple inches taller than I and maybe a dress size smaller, and yet she got that six-pack down faster and with more grace than I would have.  She saved me time and energy just because she could.

In many situations, unsolicited assistance leads to double the work because you have to redo something, and other times, you accept because you don’t want to seem ungrateful when you really could do something by yourself.  So, when the goddesses grant you this kind of unsolicited assistance, the kind you really do need, it feels like you passed a test…like you’re worthy of it.  Like you did something right and are being rewarded…even when you were just at the right place at the right time.

Penetrating Personal Space in Juice

I’ve had the 25th anniversary edition of Juice (Ernest R. Dickerson, 1992) for a few years and finally watched it today.  I was suddenly in the mood.

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According to the making-of featurette, the director had envisioned making a film adaptation of Claude Brown’s autobiography Manchild in the Promised Land, and upon graduating from NYU, he conceived of the film as a film noir with high school kids in Harlem.  Co-written by Gerard Brown, Juice follows a brief period of time in the lives of a group of friends Quincy aka Q (Omar Epps), Bishop (Tupac Shakur), Steel (Jermaine Hopkins), and Raheem (Khalil Kain) and the consequences of one of their actions.

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As I watched the film, three contemplations occupied my mind:

~ Penetrating personal space is an act of intimacy or menace, depending on the situation.  A person who threatens someone else invades personal space faster than a person will inflict gestures of lust onto another person.  You can desire someone else with much intensity and do nothing that would suggest that’s the case.  The viewer might know that two charaters are not going to kiss just because their faces are that close together, but there is a moment when the passion that underlies an act of domination could become one of passion…if the genre and plot were different.

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~ Quincy is you — everyone sucks here.  One gun in a friend group is no good.  Everyone having a gun isn’t that much better (unless you’re in a western, I suppose).

~ During the first day of intro to film in college, the professor brought up The Matrix (Lana Wachowski, Lilly Wachowski, 1999) and how we, the audience, know that Neo is the protagonist.  Aside from casting choices, costume, lighting, and the story, how does one determine that this person is supposed to have our support?  I thought about this question when watching Juice and how we know that Quincy is this character.  For me, it was because he’s the only one who has a hobby that can be monetized within the story world.  Q is an amateur DJ and the film spends a considerable amount of screen and narrative time on it (not to the extent that there’s a hidden “sports film” in there, but it’s important).  His friends aren’t given the kind of potential that he has in a conventional sense, which makes two of them disposable…after the film establishes which of his friends is the antagonist.

Watch some of the making-of clips here.

Pic creds: IMDB, Amazon

Boxes of Dirt, Shape-Shifting, the Un-Dead, and I Like the Book More

I went through a phase in junior high and high school where I only read novels about vampires, but I never wanted to read Bram Stoker’s Dracula until a month ago.  I didn’t do extensive research on which edition was better (as far as comprehensive introductions or notes or aesthetically pleasing cover design), so I went with the one I saw at a Barnes & Noble.  I was not disappointed.

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The story unfolds through letters, telegrams, and diary entries from various characters (also known as epistolary style).  I had already seen Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film adaptation of the novel a few times, so I enjoyed being able to imagine Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, Gary Oldman, Anthony Hopkins, Richard E. Grant, Cary Elwes, Sadie Frost, and Tom Waits as I read the book.  I finished reading it yesterday and promptly watched the collector’s edition DVD.

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I liked the book as I was reading it and loved it by the time I was done (even though it didn’t become really good for me until Lucy dies), but it wasn’t until after the film viewing that I could comprehend what it feels like to prefer a movie’s source material.  I’ve seen many film adaptations of plays, novels, true events and have found that while the adaptations (when done at least competently) strike me as being different for a variety of reasons, they seldom impressed me as being less satistfying.

But then Dracula happened and I get it now.  There’s a comical element to the film, particularly Cary Elwes’s acting and the tone of the insane asylum, that I never noticed in previous viewings.  The main differences between the book and the movie are how much direct “audience time” Dracula has and the way the character of Mina is depicted (what happens to her).  If you want (more) specifics, hop on over to YouTube, where many content creators have addressed it.

Pic creds: Barnes & Noble, Amazon

It Hurts So Good

Come on, baby.  Make it hurt so good.
Sometimes problems don’t resolve as they should,
so you gotta make it hurt so good…

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And not because the self-inflicted physical pain doesn’t hurt, but because when the physical pain stops, so does emotional pain.  Euphoria sets in like a runner’s high, an intense love-making, lust-maddening session, or a mind-altering substance.

Also known as “pain offset relief,” this phenomenon explains that when a person deliberately hurts themselves in such a way that the integrity of their skin is damaged (like bloodletting or burning), they still register that physical pain as something undesirable, but the moment that physical pain stops, they are filled with intense relief not only because the physical hurt has stopped, but emotional pain has as well.  What’s interesting is that studies done with people who do not deliberately self-injure as a means of coping indicate that they also feel very good after the physical pain has stopped.  Cornell reports the same: pain offset relief appears to be a near- universal phenomenon experienced by nearly all living creatures, not an abnormal psychological or biological feature that predisposes some people to self-injury… Once again, this work indicates that people who engage in self-injury are not “wired differently” to “like pain.” People who engage in self-injury simply tap into a natural and powerful relief mechanism that all people (and other organisms) have access to.

Moreover, according to Cornell, “researchers have discovered that there is a large degree of ‘neural overlap’ between physical pain and emotional pain (in particular, areas called the ‘anterior cingulate cortex’ and the ‘anterior insulsa’).”  Of course I had to turn to Robert M. Sapolsky’s book to see what it has on the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC).  The ACC’s function revolves around processing and recognizing sensory information about your body (is my heart beating really fast? why does my stomach feel weird?) and identifying anomolies in patterns and causality (behavior X yields Y but why not every time?).  Sapolsky notes that “unexpected pain is at the intersection of those two roles of the ACC” and it seriously wants to know what the pain signifies and what can be done to make the pain end (the placebo effect comes into play here) (528, 529).  The ACC’s role in recognizing and wanting to dispel emotional pain facilitates its role in empathy.

A person who is affected by seeing signs of pain in someone else has an activated ACC.  In fact, “the more painful the other person’s situation seems to be, the more ACC activation.  The ACC is also central in doing something to alleviate someone else’s distress” (530).  It also explains why some people can look at other people’s choices and avoid making the same choices if the outcomes are undesirable.  Now I’m wondering if I’ve got a hyperactive ACC because whenever my favorite people are in duress, I feel compelled to do something to help them feel better (or not do what they did to land themselves in whatever world of dismay).

But what does the purpose of the ACC, a highly engaged ACC, have to do with pain offset relief exactly?  My interpretation is that because this part of the frontal cortex has a duty to let you know when some aspect of your existing is amiss or inconsistent, it seeks to and is amenable to any course of action that will make things the way they’re supposed to be, which is homeostasis.  Things aren’t too hot or cold, they’re just right.  You’ve forgotten you have body parts because they don’t hurt.  You feel okay, steady because there’s no reaction to unpleasant stimuli (that would bring about physical or emotional distress or both).

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