Tag Archives: film

A Window onto a Confucian Society

By Claude Tate

Movies are great tools for those of us who tell the stories of humanity’s past and present. Consequently, throughout my career I have constantly been on the prowl for movies I could use in my classes. I first became acquainted with “Raise the Red Lantern” in a MALS class I took here at UNC-G under Professor Tony Fragola. Besides being an excellent movie in and of itself, I’ve found it to be a valuable addition to units I’ve taught on both China and on Confucianism.  When I taught World History, I used it on numerous occasions to introduce my unit on China. I do not use it in any of my BLS classes.  But when we do our lesson on the Confucian approach to organizing the state in my “Self, Society, and Salvation” course, students sometimes want to know what a society built on Confucian principles would actually look like in practice.  I haven’t hesitated to recommend this movie.  I can think of no other resource that bring those age old principles to life to the degree that this movie can.   Zhang Yimou portrays not only the force and oppressiveness of the culture that evolved in China in which everyone has a clearly defined role, but also how people cope within this highly structured society, and what happens to those who rebel.

One note…Many people avoid movies that are subtitled, but Zhang Yimou is so effective in telling his story with the lens of his camera that one can understand the movie completely without reading a single subtitle.

Click here to read a 1996 review of this movie by James Berardinelli, and the trailer is below:

One more thing…I love this movie. It is well worth your time even if you are not viewing it for academic purposes.

Beyond Apple

By Marc Williams

Following Steve Jobs’ passing on October 5, countless articles, blogs, and remembrances have paid tribute to Jobs’ contributions to the technology industry. I could certainly join that chorus, given that I do so much of my online teaching for the BLS program from my iMac, iPad, and iPhone. I’m a dedicated and unabashed Mac user and I thank Steve Jobs for helping make life a little simpler through these brilliant gadgets.

Somewhat overlooked in the tributes to Jobs are his contributions as the owner/CEO of Pixar. Jobs purchased Pixar from Lucasfilm in 1986, which at the time was developing 3D animation hardware for commercial use. Pixar’s hardware development and sales business was not terribly successful and the company began selling off divisions and laying off employees.

During this period of struggle, Jobs was willing to consider a proposal from one of his employees, John Lasseter. Lasseter, an animator who had been fired from Disney and subsequently hired by Lucasfilm, had been experimenting with short films and advertisements, all completely animated by computer. Lasseter pitched Jobs on the idea of creating a computer-animated feature film. Such an endeavor would be tremendously risky for a company like Pixar, which had not been organized as a film studio. Not only did Jobs sign off on the idea, but he was able to secure a three-picture deal with Walt Disney Feature Animation. Jobs shifted the company’s primary focus to making movies.

The feature film Lasseter pitched to Jobs became Toy Story, and he went on to direct A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Cars, and Cars 2. Lasseter also served as executive producer for virtually every other Pixar film (Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, WALL-E, Up, Toy Story 3) and he is now the Chief Creative Officer for Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios.

There’s no denying Lasseter’s genius but Pixar as we know it today would not exist without Steve Jobs. Jobs took a tremendous leap of faith, entrusting the company’s future to the brilliance of his collaborators.

A leader doesn’t necessarily have to be the person with the best idea; sometimes the leader simply must recognize the best idea in the room—and get out of the way. Harry Truman said, “it is amazing how much you can accomplish in life if you don’t mind who gets the credit.” The story of Pixar demonstrates that Steve Jobs fully understood this simple truth.

John Lasseter

“Steve Jobs was an extraordinary visionary, our very dear friend and the guiding light of the Pixar family. He saw the potential of what Pixar could be before the rest of us, and beyond what anyone ever imagined. Steve took a chance on us and believed in our crazy dream of making computer animated films; the one thing he always said was to simply ‘make it great.’ He is why Pixar turned out the way we did and his strength, integrity and love of life has made us all better people. He will forever be a part of Pixar’s DNA. Our hearts go out to his wife Laurene and their children during this incredibly difficult time.”

– John Lasseter, Chief Creative Officer & Ed Catmull, President, Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios

A Thousand Faces

By Marc Williams

I teach a number of courses involving dramatic literature, including Big Plays, Big Ideas in the BLS program at UNCG.  In most of these classes, I discuss dramatic structure—the way that incidents are arranged into a plot.  Whenever I teach dramatic structure, I always turn to Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex to serve as an example.  Aristotle believed this play to be tragedy “in its ideal state,” partially because the incidents are arranged in a clear cause-and-effect manner.  One incident logically follows the next and although there are some surprises, none of the events are random, accidental, or tangential.

The story of Oedipus is an ancient myth.  20th century mythology scholar Joseph Campbell wrote about Oedipus frequently, including in his seminal book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  In this book, Campbell outlines the “monomyth,” a dramatic structure that many, if not most, stories seem to adhere in one manner or another.  The monomyth consists of several stages of the hero’s journey: a call to adventure, a refusal of that call, followed by aid from a supernatural entity, crossing a threshold into unfamiliar territory, entering/escaping the belly of the whale, traveling a road of trials, and so on, all the way through the hero’s return.  Oedipus’ journey follows Cambell’s pattern almost perfectly. The pattern applies not only to Ancient Greek myths but to stories from virtually every culture across the globe.

Campbell describes the stages of the hero’s journey at length in The Hero with a Thousand Faces and also diagrams the hero’s journey thus:

I was instantly reminded of Joseph Campbell and his diagram today when I came across this:

1.  A character is in a zone of comfort
2.  But they want something
3.  They enter an unfamiliar situation
4.  Adapt to it
5.  Get what they wanted
6.  Pay a heavy price for it
7.  Then return to their familiar situation
8.  Having changed

This diagram was developed by Dan Harmon, creator of the NBC sitcom Community, and according to this article on Wired.com, is apparently the inspiration for every episode of the show:

Dan Harmon

[Harmon] began doodling the circles in the late ’90s, while stuck on a screenplay. He wanted to codify the storytelling process— to find the hidden structure powering the movies and TV shows, even songs, he’d been absorbing since he was a kid. “I was thinking, there must be some symmetry to this,” he says of how stories are told. “Some simplicity.” So he watched a lot of Die Hard, boiled down a lot of Joseph Campbell, and came up with the circle, an algorithm that distills a narrative into eight steps:

Harmon calls his circles embryos— they contain all the elements needed for a satisfying story— and he uses them to map out nearly every turn on Community, from throwaway gags to entire seasons. If a plot doesn’t follow these steps, the embryo is invalid, and he starts over. To this day, Harmon still studies each film and TV show he watches, searching for his algorithm underneath, checking to see if the theory is airtight. “I can’t not see that circle,” he says. “It’s tattooed on my brain.”

The eight-step Harmon embryo model is simpler than Cambell’s monomyth, which contains seventeen structural units. Harmon’s embryo model, because it is simpler than Campell’s, is probably also more universal.  And indeed, Harmon uses this embryo as a litmus test to determine if an episode of Community is structurally sound. It is, after all, a tried and true formula for great storytelling.  So where else can this structure be seen?

The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars come to mind.   Have you encountered a monomyth on television or in a movie theatre recently?  Or a story that follows Harmon’s embryo model?

The Rise and Fall of 3-D

By Marc Williams

I have always loved going to the movies.  Now that my wife and I have a young child at home, we don’t get out as much as we used to, so going to the movies is a particularly special treat. We subscribe to Netflix so we can watch movies at home sometimes but actually going to a movie theatre for the big-screen experience is rare thing these days.

Over the past year or two, most of the movies we’ve seen in the theatre were offered in 3-D. Moviegoers nowadays are often given a choice between traditional 2-D and 3-D–we typically opt for the 2-D experience but we have, of course, occasionally opted for a few 3-D titles.  For example, we saw the final installment of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II, in both 2-D and 3-D.

How and why did this trend of 3-D films start?  3-D is not a new idea–filmmakers have been experimenting with the technology for nearly one hundred years and feature films have been offered in 3-D for well over fifty years.  But 3-D has become a craze.  I think it began with Avatar, which was probably the most successful and critically acclaimed 3-D film of all time. Hollywood knows a good money-making machine when they see it, so in the wake of Avatar‘s success, the major studios mobilized and started offering more and more 3-D titles.  Theatre chains have also found a way to cash in on the phenomenon; ticket prices for 3-D films are significantly higher than prices for standard 2-D films.

While I admired Avatar for its technical achievement, I personally have not been able to embrace the 3-D craze. My personal distaste for 3-D primarily stems from the fact that most 3-D films I’ve seen use the 3-D technology as a cheap gimmick, not as a storytelling device. If there is an explosion in a 3-D film, is the story truly enhanced by making the viewers feel as if shrapnel is headed in their direction?  I don’t see much payoff for this use of 3-D, yet this is precisely how most films choose to employ the technology.

Avatar is a different kind of 3-D film for several reasons. First, the lush physical environment is given tremendous depth through the use of 3-D; this is important because the film is about the beauty and fragility of the environment.  In this regard, Avatar does not use 3-D as a cheap gimmick.  In fact, the film was shot in 3-D; it was part of the director’s plan for the film all along.  Most 3-D films today are not shot in 3-D–they are converted to 3-D from a 2-D format.  Disney’s re-release of The Lion King in 3-D is a great example of this; they’re simply capitalizing on the 3-D craze, offering viewers only a slightly different experience from the original 2-D film.  To me, that experience isn’t worth the extra $5.00 the movie theatre wants to charge for a 3-D ticket.

Another issue with 3-D is the amount of light on the screen.  3-D technology depends upon darkening the picture by about 50%.  Film critic Roger Ebert has been particularly critical of 3-D films specifically for this reason–the picture is simply too dark.  I found this to be true in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II when I saw it in 3-D.  Images that are intensely white in the 2-D version (bright light, for instance) lost their luster in the 3-D version, seeming more gray than white.  And given that the 2-D film was already very dark and shadowy, some of the picture was rendered incomprehensibly dark in the 3-D version.  Some of the other technical concerns with 3-D are outlined in this letter to Roger Ebert from Walter Murch, arguably the most distinguished film editor in the industry.

Box office receipts are beginning to show that 3-D is becoming less and less palatable for moviegoers.  This could be a rejection of the extra $5.00 being charged by theatre chains, or perhaps a reaction to dim, dizzying images.  I was surprised to learn, for example, that the 3-D version of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II generated only one-third of the revenue generated by the 2-D version of the same film.  Because profits are down, the 3-D craze is likely nearing its end.

The point is that a brilliant and promising technology can die if no one is willing to use it properly.  Director James Cameron made Avatar using processes no one had ever used before in a feature film, so he had to be willing to adjust his typical methods in order to maximize the 3-D technology’s potential. The question all of this raises for me is the employment of new technology in the classroom–especially the online classroom.  Given that the BLS degree program at UNCG is offered online, it seems we instructors and course developers run the risk of adopting technology without really using it to its fullest potential.  Or even misusing it.

I have certainly been guilty of using technology in ways that create a obstacles to learning–how can this be avoided?  Or better yet, how can technology be used to give students and faculty an advantage? In what ways can technology truly enhance the educational experience, especially online?

Maybe Almost Probably the End of Harry Potter (perhaps)

By Marc Williams

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II

The eighth and final installment of the Harry Potter film series is to be released this week, one of the most eagerly anticipated films in years.  It has generated excitement reminiscent of the release of the second generation of Star Wars films.  Indeed, tickets for Friday’s opening began selling out in the U.S. several days ago–a week ahead of the July 15 premiere–making it one of the fastest-selling films ever.

The opening is bittersweet for many fans who would like to see the series continue and at the July 7 London premiere of the final film, author J.K. Rowling left open the possibility of future Potter stories. While her statement doesn’t indicate that more stories are imminent, the possibility is tantalizing for fans.

In the meantime, serious fans await Rowling’s online venture, Pottermore, which won’t be fully available to the public until October but promises some new Potter content that has not been previously available.

Here’s J.K. Rowling on Pottermore:

Fans can also visit Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida, home of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, a very impressive theme park treatment of Rowling’s vision that allows fans to immerse themselves in the world of Potter.

It’s Not Just for Who Anymore?

By Marc Williams

A funny thing happened on the way to my DVR.  I watched the 2011 Tony Awards and enjoyed it.

Here’s a little back story:  my background is in theatre as both an actor and director.  When I was studying theatre as an undergraduate and for a few years after that, I always watched the Tony Awards live and always enjoyed them.  However, the Tony Awards has been holding on by a thread to its relationship with CBS due to historically low ratings.

In order to boost ratings, the American Theatre Wing has spent the past decade trying to validate the Tonys as a major celebrity event.  The Tonys looked to Hollywood, borrowing their celebrities for Broadway’s big night. Whichever Hollywood star happened to be on Broadway that season was begged to attend and present awards at the Tonys.  In 2004, for example, Sean Combs, Renee Zellweger, Nicole Kidman, and Scarlett Johansson presented awards—and their presence was endlessly emphasized by the broadcast.  Theatre icons like Helen Mirren and Joel Grey were virtually ignored.  This, to me, was not a celebration of Broadway but rather a desperate attempt to make Broadway seem relevant to a broad audience.  I understand the desperation.  In my BLS classes, we discuss the role of theatre in a variety of historical eras, including our own.  While students connect intellectually and emotionally to the plays we study, many students have trouble conceptualizing the texts as live performances; and that’s no surprise, really, because many students have never been to the theatre.

The Tony broadcasts of the past decade have literally begged the television audience to visit Broadway, using the glamor of Hollywood to sell its appeal.  These efforts have always seemed disingenuous to me.  Why can’t Broadway showcase its own stars?  If the work is solid and well-executed in the broadcast, surely audiences will want to see it in person. On these grounds, I’ve refused to watch the live broadcasts for the past few years.  I recorded them on my DVR and watched a few days or weeks later, skipping through all the stuff that I knew would annoy me. A few days ago, I watched the 2011 ceremony, which had aired live on June 12.

Host Neil Patrick Harris delivered an opening number that smacked the Tonys back into reality, both acknowledging and poking fun at the theatre’s niche audience.

The opening number even acknowledged that Al Pacino is “too famous” to participate in the song’s gag.  And I can’t imagine previous broadcasts would have mentioned Joe Mantello’s presence in the opening number–it was a joke only theatre fans could love. It was clear that the 2011 ceremony would be different from the recent broadcasts that had so annoyed me—and indeed it was different.  I watched every second of the broadcast, as it celebrated Broadway and avoided phony attempts to legitimize theatre’s place in popular culture.  I even found myself laughing hysterically at what appears to be Broadway’s biggest hit in years, The Book of Mormon (a new musical written by South Park co-creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone).

I immediately went to my computer to try to score a pair of tickets and plan a trip to New York.  I thought to myself, “yes! This is exactly what a Tony broadcast ought to make us do.”  The Tonys didn’t beg me to come to Broadway; they showed me something that I actually want to see.  I don’t know if next year’s Tony Awards will be as genuine as the 2011 ceremony but I am hopeful.

A side note:  I didn’t score tickets to The Book of Mormon.  The show is nearly sold out for the next six months.