a mental health year

It seems to happen every four or five years, doesn’t it? That cycle of personal growth. Quarter-Life Productions started in 2005 – a mere four years ago. Perhaps that’s a testament to my advancing age (advancing, not advanced), that four years seems a small speck, a blip in the otherwise murky waters of my sea of emotional instability. Four years. That’s nothing. Four years from now I’ll be a thirty-year-old. A thirty-year-old I’m slowly getting acquainted with. Four years ago I was twenty-two. A small baby. I don’t know that kid anymore. But in tracking the chronological path of Four Years, it’s within the scope of cognitive recognition. Like when you were a kid on a camping trip, and you’d shine the flashlight at the stars, just to see how high up that beam of light could go. It didn’t reach the sky, just like now, at twenty-six, I have no possible way of casting any light on who I will be or even what I will be when I’m old and grey (if, indeed, I ever get there). Yet now, thirty is the trees on the edge of the campsite; close enough for the flashlight to reach. I’m not entirely sure who, or what, or where I will be, but the closer I get, the possibilities narrow.

Four years ago, when Jason and I started QLP, had we any clue this is where we’d end up, at the end of 2009? I think our plans were far grander then. We didn’t have the proper understanding of time depth that it takes your mid-twenties to figure out. We were only having our quarter-life crisis, where one suddenly realizes that adulthood is not all it was advertised to be. I guess we now qualify for the post-quarter-life crisis: slowly figuring out what your adulthood actually is. Naturally, this means 2009 was unprecedented in the number of old friends from grade school who got married and/or became parents and/or homeowners. 2009 seems like a blip for me. The fact that it has passed so quickly quite frankly scares the shit out of me. I feel like I’ve barely done anything, but in the objective sense, I have. It has been a big year for wading in new waters, rather than plunging deeper in existing ones. A big year for growing up. Not only in the material sense (yes, I’ve moved out; yes, I’m going back to school, and so on), but I’ve come to appreciate that life happens slowly and widely, even if time seems to be running out. And if you really want life to happen, it takes hard work.

In the months since I’ve returned from my trip (almost all twelve of them), I’ve come to the conclusion that, yes, I want to work in film. I want to work in the arts. Yes, it will be difficult. Yes, I will be poor. Yes, I will need a day job. It’s going to be a long road, but a rewarding one. It’s what I want, and I’m willing to work for it. Coming to the conclusion is one thing, deciding how to proceed from there is more difficult. It’s not about setting a goal and then outlining a firm series of steps with which to achieve said goal. It’s not a video game, is it? It’s not a series of increasingly more difficult tasks that, if you execute them correctly, will spring you up to the next level. End goals are funny things. They need to be vague. If they are firmly black and white, the impeding fear of failure hangs over you until Accomplishment. It’s difficult not to be engulfed in anticipatory guilt, anxiety, stress.

Far more than failure, however, I would fear success. With such a narrow-minded ambition, you’re always left with the burning question: “What now?” What does Mario do after he rescues the Princess? It’s never really explained, is it? Do they get married and live Happily Ever After, only to have their marital dischord revisited ten years down the road in a film by Sam Mendes? Does Mario bog off back to Italy and his lacklustre plumbing business? It reminds me of a great quote of Carrie “Princess Leia” Fisher’s: “There is no point at which you can say, ‘Well, I’m successful now. I might as well take a nap.’” Success, to me, lies in fulfillment, which is not some single moment but rather in a state of being. Sure, if I won an Oscar, I’d feel successful, but I would rather consider success to be making a career out of something I loved, of being well-read, writing aplenty, working with great people making great films, and having a loving support network of family and friends. Cliched, right? Yet somehow more emotionally sustaining than winning an Oscar.

My point, as deeply embedded as it might be, is that in the four years we’ve been with QLP, we’ve transitioned from this single goal-driven mentality, to the more generalist happiness-first mentality. I wish I could say that our ambition has taken on a more Zen-like stance, but really, we’ve just been frustrated. We’re still going through the growing pains of this post-quarter-life crisis; we’re still connecting the dots. Between Jason and I, we’ve realized that this year needs to be one of personal growth. When we look at it objectively, QLP has achieved quite a lot in four years – especially considering our complete lack of funds. We’ve been so busy working in the moment that we’ve burnt ourselves out. I’m going back to school. Jason wants to travel a bit. I also want to travel some more. We’re taking a personal year to get our shit together.

It comes from a stance of motivation. As Jason put it, when we started we had the motivation, we had the things we wanted to say, but we lacked the know-how, we lacked the ability, we lacked the voice with which to say it. Now, four years later, we have the ability, we have the know-how, our voice is coming along, but we’re struggling for motivation. What is it we really want to say as artists? How can we bring our own voice to that statement? Jason has called this personal crisis a lack of motivation, and while I never thought of it that way before, I realize that this lack of motivation comes because I’ve been struggling for something to say. I have many ideas, many gripes, many perspectives, but I’ve felt a little lost. There’s nothing more vexing than writer’s block. Style issues I can overcome. I can write putrid drafts with terrible sentences and terrible word choices – words like ‘putrid’ – and it can be fixed in revision. I don’t mind that. I like revising. I just hate not feeling like I don’t have anything interesting or original to contribute to the world. The last great thing I felt I wrote was the Two Lava Lamps and Thirty-Nine Staples script (not my title, my title was Five Years Later). That was 2006. I need this year. I need to find my voice. It won’t come overnight, but it’s there. It’s spent this last year incubating. I think – pardon the ridiculous metaphor – it’s finally ready to be born. Give 2010 a fair shake, and hopefully I’ll end the year on a high – skilled, connected and ready to create. And QLP – and myself – can finally live up to our potential.

film fonts dos and don’ts

If you’re going through the pain and torture of creating a film, it’s not that much more difficult to dedicate a little extra effort to the credits. Simply inserting whatever font in Final Cut works is really just half-assing it. Let’s be honest. So, yes, I can be a bit of a typography geek, but there really are some basic typographical rules that one should adhere to. Typography is an art, but one of those subtle arts that has been dragged kicking and screaming into the contemporary, post-modern era where it has a chance to sink or swim. While even an eight-year-old could pick Arial out of a line-up, there’s enough evidence to suggest that apparently there really is a knack to using typography effectively. Take note. Learn it, love it. And never use Comic Sans. Ever.

Sometimes I see a film where I wonder if there was anyone that film passed through in the journey from set to screening that had even the most remote knowledge of typography. If you’re going through the pain and torture of creating a film (I know that pain and torture, I make films myself), it’s not that much more difficult to dedicate a little extra effort to the credits. Simply inserting whatever font in Final Cut works is really just half-assing it. Let’s be honest. So, yes, I can be a bit of a typography geek, but there really are some basic typographical rules that one should adhere to:

1. Avoid fonts that any person with a basic knowledge of Microsoft Word can name: Courier, Arial, Times Roman, several others, and of course, Comic Sans. The use of Comic Sans in film credits is kind of like capital punishment in the mind of a liberal: acceptable under no circumstances, ever. Ever. Helvetica presents a mixed bag. Some love it, some hate it. There’s even a documentary to that effect. I, personally, can’t see it without thinking of Douglas Coupland. Without recapitulating the utter horror of Comic Sans (there is even an entire website devoted to its banishment), the simple reason not to use these fonts is that they undermine any credibility you were hoping to achieve. It’s a similar experience to when I was watching Battlestar Galactica and recognized the market in Caprica City as the main courtyard of my university. If you see a font and think “Hm, Papyrus,” it instantly snaps your belief that was already suspended so thinly. It’s like a seeing a boom mike hanging from the ceiling. It breaks the verisimilitude (*gasp* there’s that word again!). The only situation in which you would want to use one of these fonts is if this reaction is exactly what you are going for; if you are aiming for that golden bough of irony, passing off an in-joke,or  smothering yourself in self-reflexivity. Even then, Comic Sans is still, never, ever, ever acceptable. Even as a punishment for high treason.

2. Avoid handwriting fonts, or even handwritten credits unless you’re okay with your film garnering the  label “Hipster Wet Dream”: In the not-so-distant past, handwritten credits were acceptable, quirky even. Cute. Then, along came a film which ruined it for everyone. I’m speaking, of course, about Juno. Personally, I liked Juno, but then I saw it way back when it was only playing in one art house theatre, before the Oscar hype, before the inevitable backlash. (I liked Slumdog Millionaire, too.) The thing I didn’t really like about Juno was the opening credits. I thought they were rather pretentious and totally unnecessary; as if Jason Reitman had a friend who had been bugging him for years, “Can me animate some credits? Please, please, PLEASE?!” until Reitman finally gave in just for the sake of peace. Not to say that only Juno is to blame, but now any handwritten credits instantly scream “HIPSTER! LALALA LOOK AT ME, I’M SO EDGY AND COOL!” It’s a shame, because there are instances when handwritten credits really work well; when they aren’t pretentious, but are sweet and… *ahem* wild. I’m thinking, of course, of Where the Wild Things Are. In Spike Jonze’s latest (and, I think, his masterpiece), the handwritten credits work because they are used so sparingly. They are of the subtle type, rather than the bright day-glo variety . They underscore Max’s childlike subversiveness. They connect the audience to both the innocence and the wildness of childhood without slapping you across the face with the typographical equivalent of a giant fish. 

3. Keep it Simple: Always a golden rule. Now, this is a generalization, but the point of opening credits is to transmit information without distracting the audience from everything else that is happening on screen, and the point of closing credits is to provide all the legally necessary information without somehow ruining everything everyone has just seen. If you’re going to get fancy with the opening credits, there better be a damned good reason. I think immediately of the short film, Boxed In, where the Very Important People credits are in that could-be-cheesy style of “hey! the credits are ACTUALLY WRITTEN ON THE PROPS!” In Kial Natale’s short, this works wonderfully because it is so perfectly in keeping with the tone of the film. In fact, it actually helps to establish it. Another brilliant example: Zombieland. With a film like this, an opening credits stance of “cheeseball chic” really works. If the credits can’t help establish tone or mood, keep them so I barely notice they’re there. As for closing credits, simplicity is even more important. Serif fonts are okay, but I don’t want feel like I’m analyzing artwork rather than processsing information. Every credit should not look like a logo. Please, no calligraphy. 

4. Respect intertextuality: People who see movies usually see a lot of them. They are familiar with general touchstones of popular culture. You’re going to have to be aware of any fonts you use that are used elsewhere. People don’t always notice fonts explicitly, but they sure as hell notice them subconsciously. If you go around throwing Impact in all your films, people are going to associate you with Lolcats, even though they probably won’t realize why. Of course, if your intention is to draw this comparison, then all the power to you. Just so long as you know. The Informant! used intertextuality in its credit fonts with pitch-perfect resolve. The opening credits in their yellow bubbliness slyly stuck their tongue into their cheek, remarking with a wink, “I know exactly what I’m doing here. Trust me.” You sigh comfortably, knowing that Steven Soderbergh is safely steering the ship, and sit back to enjoy the cruise. 

Typography is an art, but one of those subtle arts that has been dragged kicking and screaming into the contemporary, post-modern era where it has a chance to sink or swim. While even an eight-year-old could pick Arial out of a line-up, there’s enough evidence to suggest that apparently there really is a knack to using typography effectively. Take note. Learn it, love it. And never use Comic Sans. Ever.

breaking the fourth wall

You know those moments in films – where random guts and/or water hit the camera lens – they are there to shock you. They shake you out of your seat! They add to the realism of the film! They highlight the tragedy and/or humanity of a life lost by an explosive device and/or hand-made prison shank! They bring the experience of exploding death right into your living room! They can break the fourth wall.

So there was an episode of Lost that aired back sometime in the spring that bothered me. To expand upon what I wrote back then, I want to talk about the improper use of breaking the fourth wall.

You know those moments in films, they are there to shock you. They shake you out of your seat! They add to the realism of the film! They highlight the tragedy and/or humanity of a life lost by an explosive device and/or hand-made prison shank! They bring the experience of exploding death right into your living room! They can break the fourth wall.

 The fourth wall is the boundary between the audience and the actors, between the stage and the seats. In film, it’s become the camera lens. The eye with which we view the events of the fictional world. It is part of the suspension of belief between the fictional work and the audience. Some works have characters break the fourth wall for dramatic or comedic effect. Breaking the fourth wall, when the characters address the audience, reveals to the audience that the characters know that they are fictional. I think instantly of Mel Brooks’s films, but this sort of obvious instance of characters addressing the audience does not bother me. Hell, Shakespeare even did it. I’m bothered by a far more subtle technique, but a far more dangerous one. It’s like the passive-aggressive younger sibling; the one who is actually more frightening than the bully because they touch a deeper, more insightful nerve. I’m speaking of the aforementioned lesser-acknowledged splattering-of-crap-on-the-lens. With that said, it doesn’t necessarily have to break the fourth wall.

 It can work very effectively when done in the right context or style. These being:

 1. The film or show operates on that premise; for instance, in Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg’s main intent is to present the experience of the second world war in as realistic a way as possible.  Enough films had romanticized war, glorified the violence, downplayed the true traumas (‘the horror, the horror’), that Spielberg believes that recreating the D-Day landings in as realistic way as possible was the only way to truly do justice to the men who experienced it. If those men had the balls to actually live through this, you better have the stomach to watch it. In this instance, the splattering of blood and water on the camera lens only heightens this experience for the audience. You react with a jolt, and a realization that, “wow, this is real.” It works.

 2. The whole film or show uses that style; it is not an isolated incident. In Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, while the premise is a work of fiction, Cuarón effectively employs a style that is much more than an attempt at making this fiction seem fact. With his hand-held camera work, panning, Steadicam shots (absolutely amazing), dark grey, muted cinematography and colour schemes, and an overall ‘second-hand’  feel to the production design, Cuarón’s dystopia is instantly understood by the viewer as a clumsy, bleak, tough-as-nails place to be.  Like most dystopian fiction, it serves as a warning; a lesson to be learned. When random things hit the lends, you react with a jolt, but rather than think “this is real,” you think, “wow, I’m so glad this isn’t real.” It works.

 2. The whole film or show continually employs metafiction; (Hot Fuzz spoiler alert!) it’s not breaking the fourth wall, because, let’s face it, they’re pretty blunt about the fact that this is a film. With Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz, anyone who’s seen the film remembers letting out a terrified gasp and squirming like a kid about to wet the bed at the moment the remains of poor Tim Messenger’s head splashed across the camera lens. Hot Fuzz, like Shaun of the Dead before it, is a fantastic satire of not only action films, but of films in general. Wright, and co-writer Simon Pegg have their clichés down. In addition to meeting every genre expectation in the book, Hot Fuzz brilliantly (and subtly) references everything from Baz Luhrman’s Romeo and Juliet to Murder on the Orient Express to every buddy cop movie ever made. Because of these continual instances of metafiction, Wright has created a Film. Capital F. A breaking of the fourth wall doesn’t occur because you expect the fourth wall to be broken. The shock in this moment is not that blood splatters on the camera, or that Tim Messenger dies, or even that a church spire made his head explode, but all three put together. You know it is coming, the genre requires it. So when it does, the pay-off is incredible. You react with a jolt, thinking, “Wow, it actually happened!” It works.

 When doesn’t it work?

 There’s one easy answer. When it breaks the fourth wall; which is to say, the verisimilitude of the film is broken. This elaborate reality is shattered by the explicit acknowledgement of the camera lens. Before I go on, I’m going to clear up a few terms here. First, let’s not confuse Realism with Metafiction with Verisimilitude. “Realism” is a term that gets bandied about, when in actuality, the terms Metafiction or Verisimilitude would do so much better.

 1. Metafiction is a type of fiction that self-consciously addresses the conventions of fiction, i.e. it lets you know that this is a film, or that this is a written document. Sometimes you see the creation of the story, often through a frame narrative, take a journey behind the camera, or, in Metafilm, the film itself becomes a metaphor for the production of the film itself. Metafiction, while addressing the “reality” that the film is just a film, it not Realism.

 2. Realism  is the depiction of people and events as they are in real life. While this is often an idealistic aim, as in “what is truly real,” Realism is a warts and all approach to film. If a film refers to the fact that it is a film (Metafiction), it often breaks its realism. In order for Realism to be achieved through the medium of film, it needs verisimilitude.

 3. Verisimilitude in its literary context, is defined as the fact or quality of having the appearance of being true or real. But even films with events that are wildly unrealistic, such as with Lost, the film or show creates its own verisimilitude, within the creation of its own mythology.  The fictional world is true in and of itself. It has its own laws, its own style. While having the perception of being true and real, this is not necessarily Realism, because it is often discontinuous with the laws and style of our external reality.

 This verisimilitude is what Lost had created brilliantly. The mythology of Lost is hard and fast. There are certain rules to the Lost universe, and even when something as outlandish as time travel is introduced, it must work within the verisimilitude and style of the show. However, when those guts and/or water splash across the camera, it is completely out of line with the visual style. Yes, the show employs the use of hand-held cameras, but this is used to create atmosphere and tension, rather than to create any sense of Realism. So, when that blood and water splatter across the lens, it gives you a jolt, and causes you to think, “Wow, that’s so wrong.” It immediately breaks the fourth wall, in a highly inappropriate metareference to the fact that there is a camera there at all. I hate, hate, hate it when films that have a wonderful fictional reality suddenly destroy it. Part of what works with Lost is the fact that this elaborate mythology works; that you believe it in and of itself. It is simply ruined when you throw in something that reminds you that this is fiction. It jolts you back to the “real world” of the filmmakers, carelessly reminding you that this is just something created by mere fallible humans. It doesn’t work.

 It has happened before. Braveheart is perhaps the best example in recent memory. Admittedly, I never saw the jewel in Mel Gibson’s crown until a few years ago. I didn’t like it. I was told that my opinion was tainted by contemporary opinion of post-The Passion of the Christ, post-drunken-anti-Semitic rant Gibson; by the post-Lord of the Rings world, in which all other sweeping epics are rendered moot, and perhaps by the fact that I am English. All of which are somewhat true. The two former points in fact render the film anachronistic to contemporary audiences in a way that I fully believe this film will not stand the test of time like most “great” films. I do contest the latter English argument, as I realise Braveheart is a perfect example of a faux-history film. Its history, while based in fact (or legend), is a history grossly distorted, partially made-up, and twisted to fit the classic epic formula/1990s values and worldview. However, none of this was what made me dislike Braveheart. Yes, indeed, that moment was one of the battle scenes, where blood-and-other-bodily-fluids splattered across the camera. Braveheart engaged with far less Realism than Lost, yet like Lost, the style of the film does not allow for a breaking of the fourth wall. It was not a Realistic style, but it was not Metafiction.

 The splattering of guts on the lens defied its own verisimilitude. That is when it doesn’t work.

let the wild rumpus begin

My excitement to see this movie borders on cliche: like a kid watching the clock tick down the last seconds until summer vacation, or trying to fall asleep on Christmas Eve, or approaching the gates of Disneyland. All readily accurate cliches. Due to a weekend of various birthday celebrations, I won’t get to see it until Sunday at the earliest. I think I might catch a matinee alone. That sounds kind of sad, eh? I like to see movies alone, especially movies where I really want to lose myself in the experience. This seems like just that kind of flick. It’s being hailed as Spike Jonze’s masterpiece, which can only be a good thing.

Also, this is probably the cutest behind-the-scenes picture I have ever seen (director, Spike Jonze, and star, Max Records):

on to the next project that will encompass my entire waking life for the next several weeks

Filmtoberfest was this past Saturday, so that explains my: a) lack of blog posts, b) lack of sleep, c) lack of a balanced diet, d) lack of a social life, e) any other number of reason why I’ve been general weird(er).

The night went off with minimal hitches, and they were all technical, so – as the Artistic Director – they were officially Not My Problem. We screened nine films in total: Naked and Pigmalion, two shorts by QLP-alum Juan Riedinger, Jack of Hearts directed by Robert Tunold, Bored Game from 4 Cooks and directed by Daniel Zwiercan, the animated The Other Side, directed by another QLP-alum, Jennifer Guglielmucci, 3.8 Litres Per Flush directed by Christopher Westendorf, The Little Girl directed by Dae-Youn Hwang, Boxed In directed by Kial Natale, and, of course, QLP’s latest, Red Hood directed by Joe Verde and starring Becca Strom and David Quast. So many people came up to me to tell me how impressed they were by the films and by the evening in general, so hopefully this is the start of something special (and a great confirmation that we, QLP, should continue to do what it is we do). I would love to keep something like this going annually, so keep tabs on QLP!