Sunday, July 31, 2005

M (aka Murderers are among us)

Returning to old, very old, practically ancient films, often has a historical value; We are interested to see first stop-motion effects in “The lost world” or “King Kong” and we are surprised at how much is achieved with such technology, but such effects don’t cause the effect that they did then – the effect that was the purpose of making it, actually; These films aren’t thrilling, they don’t hold our breath; But with time, they gained another purpose; These films have to be seen with mind on when they were made.

But this often isn’t the case when it comes to cinematography that is, after all, greater than those old monster spectacles. Take, for instance, Fritz Lang: his films aged very well, and if time changed our perspective on them, it is the realization that such good, deep and intensive films, won’t be made very often in future. Which is the reason more to go back to those 30ies classics.

Back then, cinematography was much more spread over the western world. USA, Russia, Germany and France, were early cinematography centers, and neither of those could’ve been called a leader, not in a way Hollywood can be called nowadays. Some other countries had rich film production as well, including Italy and Scandinavian lands. They all equally influenced ways of film storytelling and formed what is today accepted as conventional film narration.

WWII changed this situation greatly; Not only that development of cinematography was on hold for good two decades, but many of early European film masterminds found shelter in USA where they were swiftly accepted by USA film establishment where they helped forming what Hollywood is known to be today.

One of those immigrants was Fritz Lang, already an established director, member of so called German Expressionism - together with Murnau (“Nosferatu”) and Dreyer (“The passion of Joan of Arc”) - early film school known for favouring dark, eerie, intensive atmosphere of streets populated by shady, dark characters, putting put in best use black/white photography, with big contrasting areas separated by sharp edges. All this can be seen in his early masterwork “M”, also known as “Murderers are among us”.

Fritz Lang was often accused to have elements of Nazi propaganda in his early films. On example of “M” it can be seen how much those accusations were forced, how much they were result of too ambiguous reading of said films. In fact, during the production of “M” in 1931, Lang was approached by Goebbels who was, as well as Hitler, fascinated by Lang’s early masterwork “Metropolis” and who offered him to became an official Nazi filmmaker like Leni Riefenstahl would be some years later, that is to produce Nazi propaganda films. Being partly Jewish (probably unknown to Goebbels), Lang rather decided to leave Germany and flee to America where he would continue his career with equal success. However, his wife Thea von Harbou, established scriptwriter, decided to rather stay and work in Germany.

“M”, Lang’s first sound film tells a story based on the case of Peter Kurten, mass killer of the time. Film tells a story of Berlin under the terror of serial killer of children, successfully managing to catch the atmosphere and paranoia, with spanning through all layers of society – from beggars and criminals, to lower and middle class, with no distinctive main character, except the killer, of course. Atmosphere is hard to describe, it has to be seen; Film is a world of shabby street corners, walls and menacing shadows passing over them. It is definitely a Berlin that is not a safe place to live. Stylized visuals go with sketchy characters and situation, and not without humor, citizens are shown turning on each other, seeing a murdered in passers-by as well as friends. Futile attempts of police are told parallel with the decision of criminal circles to try to put murders to the end themselves, as constant police raids affect their business. Film intentionally disorients the viewer in the way that it switches to various points of views of numerous film characters together with technique of revealing facts that change viewer’s perspective to events he’s just seen; These techniques, nowadays conventional, are some of the deciding influences of German expressionism.

Film starts with a poster of a hand with big letter M drawn on a palm. This picture carves in our mind until the half of the film, where we recognize it as probably the central symbol of the film. Namely, a blind beggar recognizes a murderer by a melody he is whistling all through the film. The younger beggar follows him as he walks with some kid, and, watching at him from behind the pile of boxes, he draws in a letter M on his palm with a chalk. Next, pretending to casually pass by a murderer, he leaves a chalk sign on the back of the coat. This letter M, now on murderer’s back marking him to outside observers, symbolizes what is marking him inside, and what is making him commit murders again and again. It’s a mark that he can’t shake off, and he can even pass unrecognized beside people on the street, wearing a letter M on the back of his coat, yet he is still different. In that way, both alternative titles of the film, “M” as well as intended original title “Murderers are among us” represent the same thing: ever-growing paranoia and fear of the one who is different, dangerous, mixed with the mass and perhaps closer to us than we might imagine. We may even go further and ask ourselves, whose is the hand at the beginning of the film that puts this sign on one of us.

Plus, symbolism on the side, it’s really a great, distinctive imagery, one of those things that stay as a part of global culture, a film’s legacy.

Another thing that marks this film is the performance of Peter Lorre, back then unknown comedian, whose talent was spotted by Lang, as capable of delivering a puzzling performance, as the comical, childlike, naïve meet in this actor with weird, creepy, hidden danger. Working at day on film set and at night at night club as comedy performer, Lorry gave performance of his life, particularly at the finish of the film, where he is faced with raging makeshift court made by criminals who caught him, and to which in his striking monologue he begs for his life, explains the ill nature of his craving for murder, and accuses the “court” of not having a monopoly on justice – being that the court is consisting of criminals as well, the killer questions the weight of the crime done by mental illness, over the weight of the crime done by decision. Lang does a good job of not morally sentencing the murderer, but not defending him either, emphasizing the fact that in such case, there is probably no definite solution or definite justice.

Lorry, a Jew and, ironically, one of Hitler’s favourite actors, moved to USA together with lang. In a following long career of a well-known supporting actor, he was typecast as a creepy, yet darkly humorous person, usually a negative character and he became a rather familiar face of noir film, playing memorable, supporting roles such as Joel Cairo from “Maltese Falcon”, black market trader Ugarte from “Casablanca” and one of the pair of murderer in “Arsenic and old lace”.

“M” is sometimes interpreted in the light of Nazi propaganda as well as other Lang’s early films. But these are usually the cases of lowest common denominators. Lorre’s final monologue from the film was later took by Fritz Hippler, Nazi propaganda filmmaker, and made into fake documentary and presented as a speech of a Jew who can’t control his homicidal urges. This is, of course, an extreme case of taking things out of context.

Lang, on the other hand, became known as one of the greatest masters, known best for his early German films that include, besides “M” and “Metropolis”, also “The Nibelungs”, “Woman in the moon”, “Dr. Mabuse: the Gambler” and “The Testament of Dr. Mabuse”. His later, American films include classic detective noir “The big heat”, “Fury”, “Moonfleet”, “Clash by night”, “Human desire”…

Friday, July 29, 2005

Webcomic: Tales Of The Traveling Gnome

Hah. This one is gonna be easy to read, it has around ten pages so far. Which actually makes it hard to review, I think that most of reviewers wouldn’t accept it for reviewing, but then again, I am not a reviewer.

It is a secret to me how writer, Netpoet, manages to find very good artists to work with him, when noone on the entire net doesn’t seem to manage it. In any case, I know that he has a serious approach to his writing, but I can’t really get an insight in it from 11 pages. In USA graphic novel format, 11 pages are usually just about enough for a narrated intro and half of the first battle. Intro doesn’t come as too aggressive; In general, I consider those nourish internal monologues aggressive and fake poetic. Here, luckily, that is not the case, narration is done through the retrospective of one character, which is, in my opinion, much smoother method. Then there is a battle, as good as any way to start the story; there isn’t a proper introduction of characters, but that’s ok if script later lets us get to know them through their actions rather than through the words. It’s bad when writers rely of a cast page or other secondary content, but I have a feeling that Netpoet doesn’t intend to. There isn’t anything particularly bad in writing so far but that doesn’t mean much.

Now, art, I can judge. Dragonmajik has some stunning colouring skills in Photoshop and her drawing is rather self-assured realistic drawing. I think she is at best with landscapes, medieval buildings and such, as there are some stunning scenes near the beginning (even if a bit eerie since no character appears in them at first). Other sights are drawn very well too. Of course, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t spot something to complain so here it is: The human figures come a bit stiff to me, mostly when they’re not in an action position. Of course, you have to draw a person sitting down or just standing straight, and that’s when they look a bit unnatural (take, for instance, the narrator’s figure in the first page). Related to that, there isn’t much expression on character’s face, they seem to wear similar expression all the time. Kinda reminds of old He-man cartoons, where He-man is always animated with the same sequence so we always wear the good-natured half-grin, no matter what he’s saying. Of course, now I’m exaggerating but I think that, given that they’re in an extreme situation, there isn’t much of extreme emotion on their faces. I think the problem might be in the pencil. There are artists who wheel free with their pencil and sketch the basics in a very short time, so no matter how much careful they work on the page later, it still has the same natural spontaniousness (take “The Jaded” for example). On the other hand, there are artists who labor over their sketches, who still aren’t used to sketching with wide and free hand moves. Dragonmajik seem to be the artist of the second sort to, even if the results are realistic art, there’s that problem with figures.

Now I noticed that I paid more attention and space to that one single bad thing. I don’t want to make impression that Dragonmajok’s art is flakey, I just wanted to point to her where, in my opinion, she has to improve. Other than that, as I said, well drawn and more then well coloured – or rather, painted – her art is very, very eye-pleasing.

Curiosity will make me come back to TTG. Really there wasn’t much of the story that would hook me. But I’ll be curious to see what these two particular people will come up with.

Webcomic: Reckless Youth

There should be a genre called “random". This genre, specific for webcomics, would include comics based as humor, but with little regard of actual humor – rather, expecting that random, irrational, anarchistic happenings would be a cause for laughing. This genre, very wide, would include comics that start with “I’m bored, let’s start a webcomic”, “talking heads” comics with two characters copy/pasted to infinity to exchange bad jokes, but also much more worked out stories that, well, basically have in common that they don’t really have a point. Most of those comics would probably be of “wacky roommates” sort: wacky roommates get themselves into the trouble, then by a set of happy occurrences, not always satisfying for the readers, get out of trouble, and so on. After all, how many times have you used – or heard others using – the term “random humor” to describe a webcomic? That high population must deserve a new genre.

If you stretch it, you could put a lot of earlier webcomics (most of which later evolved into adventure comics or dramas) in that definition, but these comics still relied on gag concept, delivering more or less successful punchline at the end. “Random” comics, that is, what I make of them, evolved from those comics when later authors decided that actual punchline isn’t a prerequisite for a humor comic and that the randomness will do instead.

Needless to say, I’m not very much into random comics, I think that randomness is just a way to make up for effort/talent/inspiration/whatever you lack when creating a comic; Or to put it milder, it’s an easy solution; After all, it doesn’t require pre-thought in creating. But to be fair, there are variations among them too. There are comic that are barely watchable, then there are authors who are largely booed whenever they plug their comic somewhere, and then there are rather successful random comics, mostly those that have fairly good art, or integrate elements of satire. And, of course, there is the fact that many conceptually more serious comics will reach for randomness when their spring of ideas runs dry. To which I say that it’s better to be random, but consistent about it. But anyway…

Was there such genre, “Reckless youth” would fall in it. True, RYClaude is trying to put some deliberation into it, by sketching some sort of generation message around the randomness. Comic starts with the quote from “Fight Club”; Repeated many times before "Fight club", true to the point where it’s obvious, but also often misused by youth that wasn’t always so progressive – the entering quote sets the general idea, helped by the title of the comic and by some roadside signals, like when the apelike business man is conveniently referring to the main characters as “you reckless youth”, equaling three local trainspotters with their entire generation.

The idea is, of course, that every generation in their youth form rules that are going to be applied when they are in charge (that is, middle-aged), by which time a new generation will be there with their recklessness that is actually a set of new rules and modes of behaviour in making. Therefore, RYClaude is explaining behavior of his characters with the generation gap. Rules of this new generation might be: randomness, laziness, lack of moral principles and most of all, destructiveness. From which the term “reckless” has came. Indeed, comic’s main characters are a set of undeniably reckless people. One of them held his brother locked in a basement for 8 years, the other one is seen hacking his hand off with a saw without feeling any pain (later, he is shown with no visible damage on his hand – which shows that the violence here is not to be taken seriously), and the main character is so blunt that he’s bound to run into troubles from which someone else will suffer.

Which is where I come to the first contradiction in the idea: reckless behavior is shown here with no consequences, which brings it down to the level of cartoonish violence, giving us hints not to take it seriously, and what is not to be taken seriously, by no means can be a generation message.

But maybe RYClaude is right, maybe that is indeed the form of behavior for the new generation; Just look at the comics around, if there’s so many random webcomics that I am spending a couple of paragraphs to suggest development of a new, “random” genre, that means, that youth definitely is such as Claude describes them – at least on spiritual level. If Claude’s comic resembles average random comics so much, could it be because those comics are created by a kind of people Claude is talking about?

In short, Claude is suggesting a new sort of anarchy as the fuel that will push society to the next step.

There is also a major storyline, slowly drawn through the comic, that Claude is the new Jesus Christ. Ironic, I’d say even tacky twists on religion, aren’t new. I remember seeing one first in an old random comic, “Spork”, where main character is rooming with god. This, easygoing approach to religion is another reoccurring theme of random comics. I hope Claude is into the Christianity books here, that he knows material with which he is intended to deal, otherwise he will be limited to usual preconceptions about religion, usually simplified and very often actually contradicting the original religious teachings, and it will all be a rather guideless mishmash.

Now, all this, but something is amiss. I don’t think I can quite put my finger on this, maybe Claude didn’t implement these ideas too deeply in the comic, maybe he isn’t consistent enough, maybe he tends to forget the basic idea in favour of some wacky sidestories, but I have a feeling that whole this idea is just an excuse for making another average random comic. In short, I have a feeling that the last few paragraphs, I have been simply reading too much into the comic. Perhaps I did it deliberately, to point out the effects of what he did – casually attaching seemingly serious ideas to the concept that isn’t very serious. The result is, I am looking at something deep in his comic, I can’t quite find it, and then I have problems to see it as a random comic, I keep seeing it as a message comic. But then again, there are some moments so consistent with the given message, that I always get back to thinking that they are deliberate. I think that, as a message comic it fails, while as a random comic (for what it’s worth) it doesn’t.

Perhaps it fails as a message comic because Claude is saying what kids are like, but never why are they like that. Or even worse, if the reason is given, it is laziness, stupidity, lack of moral, etc – not a conscious rebellion. Claude’s characters are opportunists, and by keeping an ironic grin, Claude is managing to keep them good guys, to which their nonexistent generation message gets aura of good too. But as I said, that message is a product of opportunism. But maybe that’s the price of keeping your characters likeable.

Plus: for an archive of over 100 pages, there are devastatingly little things happening in it. Barely a basic shape of what is supposed to be reoccurring storyline, is out yet and, by god, it’s 100 pages. With this rate, when are we going to see the end of that storyline?

There is another thing, how should I say it? This is what it basically boils down to: the comic is random, and it’s its message. Somehow, it doesn’t seem fair. Whatever I put as a flaw of the comic, whatever inconsistency, lousy plot devise, dues ex machina, badly wrapped up story, whatever that would leave reader unsatisfied, could be as well claimed as the part of the message because, after all, its randomness and all the flaws that come with it, is the message of the comic. Kinda circular thinking.

Ok, let’s leave it on side, I said that I don’t think that “Reckless youth” makes a good generation statement and I repeated that through several various reasonings so now I won’t talk about that anymore; After all, my impression is that Claude simply wanted to make a random comic, but needed to support it with a few premises that would frame the randomness. Whether it makes it any better, is a different question.

So I’ll try to see what “Reckless youth” is like as a random comic.

Well, I guess it’s not bad if you like that kind of humor. I had a few laughs all through the comic but as I said, it’s not my kind of humor. Undoubtedly, there are a lot of people who like it. If I was to evaluate “Reckless Youth” in this category, I’d have to know the best and the worst of the genre, and I don’t think I do; So I’ll just limit to naming a few things that I liked.

There are more than occasionally very nice ideas to see here. The first one I really liked was, when the characters are seen through the eyes of the long-captured brother as characters from the silent film. I liked this idea and I think it’s well done in Claude’s penciled interpretation. I got a really good kick out of the guy who threatens to revenge at everybody. Storyline with pigeon with hockey mask had several such kicks, including the one with the Incredible-machine-like assembly whose purpose is to tap the character at the shoulder and remind him to kick the pigeon with the hammer. There are indeed good ideas scattered over “Reckless youth”. On the other hand, a guy who was sawing his hand off didn’t really give me creeps. It was too overdone to be believable.

If “RY” was to be a comic to my liking, Claude would get an editor who’d help him shape up his storylines into something with a point and, specially, shape up his pacing; and Claude would enrich it with the said ideas. This way, it is obvious that he doesn’t put much into his writing and that good moments are a result of momentarily inspiration that borders with the coincidence. More effort put means better odds that the good moments will shine, that the bad moments will be hidden and that it will all make a good unity.

On the other side, some effort is put into art. Claude is competent artist, his figures are well drawn and correct. His inking comes boring, though, because he uses a bland pencil with no weight variation. Claude puts some effort into adding a bit of dynamism to the drawing that the ink line doesn’t have. On black/white comics he does by outlining characters with a thicker line. On colour pages he relies on colour and shading to do the job, and it does hide the blandness of the line, even if not completely removing it; I am mentioning this so point at how his art is much more deliberate, resulting in a slick look of the comic, and that it is in contrast with the leisured approach to writing.

Claude experiments with the background a lot; At first, for instance, he used a lot of cutout-like backgrounds that look interesting combined with lined figures, this maneer is similar to the one in “Killroy and Tina”. Later, he uses various methods to create background, even the watercolour-like effects, and it’s interesting to see how he progresses that way. There have been some experimenting with lineart too, but fewer and brief (the page where character pukes a dragon egg). Art has also been slowly progressing, and we can spot the moment when he started to use Photoshop effects rather smooth.

There’s a lot of copy-pasting, you could say that the jokes are such that they require copy-pasting, but that’s just the partial truth. The other side is that writers sometimes write the joke such, that it requires copy-pasting. Or to specify: random humor is often based in repetition (however, without a real climax that would put repetition into the use of a joke) so the copy-pasting can often be justified by repetition in the script. However, justified or not, copy-pasting gives rather visually unpleasing pages. Claude managed to get over this and make rather interesting pages based on copy-pasting: for instance the one in which two characters are walking through the room so, while their gestures are repeating, background constantly changes. Other example is copy-pasting of the entire block of buildings so that the fact that the group is lost, is underlined. There are various cases of handling c/p in RY, some worse, but then again, some better.

So, in short? Keep working on that writing, Claude.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Webcomic: Legostar Galactica

Ok now, “Legostar Galactica” has a giant archive, daily updates since 2002. Luckily, you get the right impression of the comic right after first several comics. So you know whether to go on or to quit, unless you want to review it so you have to read all ;)

But honestly, I had to skip chinks of archives on occasions because I wanted to do this review soon and because I want to save some read for later (it’s enjoyable read).

“Legostar galactica” is a mix of parody and a sitcom. Though I always found it strange that most of what we call sit-coms are actually character comedies but I’ll stick to the usual terminology. So yes, LG is based on a set of characters, and their differences, quirks and running gags make the comedy. Parody elements, besides the fact that the setup is a loose throw back at “Battlestar Galactica” and “Star trek”, are contained in absurd and silly humor, and sometimes, twisting reoccurring setups of action series (giant squid, evil twin). When saying parody, most of people will think of Mel Brooks, but I think that LG humor is the closest to Abrahams/zucker team (“Airplane”, “Top secret”, “Hot shots”) with sheer hit-and-miss piling up jokes taking reign from the strictly directed jab. Someone said in review of their “Naked gun”: First you’ll laugh at how stupid the joke was, and then you’ll laugh because you fell into their trap and laughed at the joke. I think this is often applicable to LG, but that’s not to say that there’s something bad in stupid jokes. I’ve found that sometimes, it takes more acquired way of thinking to get stupid jokes, than the conventional humor; It takes understanding of irrational thinking; Ok, well, maybe I’ve gone too far, but the fact is that final judgment of a parody boils down to whether you laugh at it or not. Well, you laugh at LG, very much.

Comics relying on humor often fade with time as you get used to a certain type of humor and it doesn’t seem as funny to you in later re-hashing, for one, running jokes became stale. I haven’t seen this effect in LG yet, even though later good jokes are not as regular as at the beginning, they still manage to take a good laugh out of me. True, I read LG in several sittings, while those who read it daily for years might feel different, but I can’t know that. Anyway, LG is a kind of read that is very quotable, that is, it contains quotes that might just became reoccurring in-jokes, would LG became very popular, because they’re funny for themselves, without visual or contextual aid.

Similarly to that, conventional judging isn’t applicable to parodies. Do you think that comics have to have good characterization? But that’s not true for parodies, in fact, sometimes characterization drags down the parody, obviously one-dimensional, cliché characters are often much better actors for parody (with LG, most of characters are a kind of elaborated running gags. As you see them, you know that there is only one thing that can happen to them. Red shirt guy is always going to be killed, stubble guy is always going to be scared of something trivial, doctor is always going to put someone down…) Similarly, stories that work the best in parodies are the ones that are well known, re-hashed: there are a lot of such stories in LG. I consider those better than the others. Other stories are more sitcom-natured, happening mostly on the ship and centering on character quirks during the everyday activities; I consider these sitcom-style stories a bit boring, but I guess they can serve as a break between parody-stories. But it’s all good there.

Now, LG has a steady update for years now and you can say that it’s achievement, but considering that activities that take most time to other webartists are here brought down to taking several snapshots, there’s a clue at how Dusan does it. All in all, it seems like LG takes very little pre-planning, except for building a setting if needed. By pre-planning I consider, first, drafting a script before writing it out, and then planning the layout, camera angles, etc, possibly even making (or thinking up) a storyboard before actually talking shots and assembling them. I see a little of that in LG, and while you could say that parody needs no pre-planning, there are still two complains I could direct regarding this:

First, I don’t think that storylines are properly drained. Sometimes, he cuts a storyline too soon, sometimes you feel that there’s a lot more jokes lying there unspoken, opportunities are missed, sometimes you simply want to see more of it. A bit more organized approach to writing might help there, parody or not. Second thing is related to narrative language used and I’ll elaborate that a bit more later.

Now, visually, the thing that astounds me all the time is Dusan’s resourcefulness, the way he manages to show unexpected things with Legos, certainly limited means no matter how many sets of them you posses. You could call those “Lego-effects”, changes of bodies for a different outfit, changes of head for different expression, and even much more elaborate tricks that Dusan employs, like the one where you see legos in the first plane and a picture of the mountain they’re watching further in the distance. It impressed me to see lego parts that were used only once and in the background (various alien heads in the market, for instance), that shows his sense of measure, as too often and obvious re-using of same parts would probably look cheap. Photoshop effects and usually smooth and fitting, only in a few cases (mostly when they represent speed lines) they’re not.

LG has playfulness, a melancholic feel for people who remained children in soul. It’s like our childhood plays have come alive and with a backstory. Even when characters stumble on to each other clumsily, because their knees don’t bend, or turn over to one side, it still has a feel of the child play. I don’t think Dusan could escape from this even if he wanted to, Legos have their place in pop-culture, which, in return, makes LG’s twist on such familiar theme a sort of pop-art, while, on the other hand, instant recognisability of figures gives a lot to comic’s credibility – our will to believe that those are real characters. Managing all this, while maintaining clever humor and script, is the achievement of GL. It’s possibly a direction to which toy comics should strive in general.

I am practically forced to draw a parallel between “Star bored”, as the other resident SF parody. Comparation makes me realize how SB is West-European humor in nature, as its obvious influences are euro comics that are oriented to parody (“Lucky Luke”, “Umpah Pah” that Bob, strangely, never read) while LG seems, as I said, closest to “Airplane” film parodies. Bob’s humor relies on drama-queen and exaggerated reactions of characters, while LG is given flavour to the fact that the characters are disabled from exaggerating in expressions. In fact, LG characters will say the silliest things while retaining the same straight face, of will go through a horror with the standard grin, and that gives LG a kind of sustained emotion quality, both absurd and contrast (note: absurd is good).

LG is put in a position where its closest relatives in webcomic world are a vast majority of crappy photo comics, either made by kids photographing their action toys or teenagers assembling photos they found on the web. It’s a very unfavorable position because people will mostly want to generalize on photo comics as they do on sprite comics. I don’t really like to reject one medium just like that, I figure, if for instance there’s no good sprite comics (which is debatable), that’s just because there’s no good authors making sprite comics not because sprite comics can’t be good by their nature or something, they’re just too wide category for that. Similarly with photo comics, if you’ve read 10 crappy photo comics and you conclude that all photo comics are crappy, you’re just applying incomplete induction or whatever. LG position here is also unfavorable because, being one of a percentually small number of good photo comics, it is unwillingly put in a position of one of leaders of that genre (both with its script and visual resourcefulness). It doesn’t seem like Dusan’s ambition is to be any sort of leader or to break into new visual territories, but when talking about photo comics, more objective people will bring up best cases of photo comics, so LG will inevitably be brought up. The subject of where photo comics could go further to be accepted as equal among other webcomics, is inevitable so I think I’ll talk about it for a bit now.

It’s mostly a matter of graphic narration or, being that photo comics have some similarities with film, film language. One of Dusan’s great leaps from average photo comic is his variation of camera positions, slight zooming or unzooming, rotation of camera around the scene, occasional close shots that work as well as a parody of standard film close cuts (as the face here, shows no expression). Camera angle, though, changes almost never, something I’ll go back to a bit later. Needles to say, this is a big step from comics made with webcam in a fixed position, where nearly nothing is done to give credibility to the sight that is photographed. Which is another big step that Dusan makes, as he gives his best (beyond Lego limitations) to give his scenes credibility. He never lets object from outside of the scene peak into the shot, thus giving hint of real size of his characters, he always fills the scene with credible, lego-made background, all in all you can believe in what’s happening and not for one moment you’ll even ask yourself whether Dusan is keeping his legos on table, on floor, what his room looks like, you’ll never know what colour his wallpapers are.

There’s one thing that steps in the way of credibility, and that’s where I come back to camera angles. Namely, most if not all of LG is shot from the upper angle, looking down at the scene. This is a major give-away at the real size of LG characters and setting, we are watching them from above, thus we know they are much smaller than us. This is too bad, I believe that the impression would be much stronger were we at the same plane as they are (I don’t know how possible this would be, though, I was never actually trying to take a shot of such small objects) – that doesn’t exclude upper angles, but you know what such shot means in film: it usually gives impression that characters shot from above are being watched by the outsider, and that’s actually the overall impression in LG – that we are outsiders watching at those characters from the same, but ambivalent distance. Is this impression good or not? On one side, there is playfulness that I was mentioning earlier, which is supported by this upper view at the world, because we are put in position of the person who plays with toys. On the other hand, if he wanted to make his stories more convincing, he’d have to step back from it and do a bit more experimenting. It’s his decision, and I don’t think the results would be bad in either case.

If it was my comic, however, I’d vote for experimenting, if nothing, because it’d take comic to territory that noone evaded before. For the sake of mind-chewing, I will now consider in which direction this experimenting could go:

I’d like to see more classic film language, or to call it that way, film trickery in photo comics. To explain, film language is, as you all know, full of tricks. Two characters might seem to talk to each other even if two actors playing them never met in real life. Their shots might’ve been taken separately and then edited together. Film is to me similar to a magician’s show: you know it’s a trick but, by coming to the show, you accept being tricked. Even more, because of the wit and skills with which the tricks are performed, you feel even more joy than if he was performing the real magic. That, to me, is the essence of the film and if I was to consider the further development of photo comics, I would point to that direction. We have examples of this in said resourcefulness of LG: take, for instance, if an artist draws a fire. Big deal, he drew a fire, fire is not so hard to draw – one way or the other, all you need is a pencil and paper. When Dusan sets a fire, you notice that it is a particular lego piece that represents the fire. I think I could find better examples of this, but the point is there: you see that it’s a plastic fire-piece, you accept that it is a real fire because it’s credible. The fact that it’s obvious that it’s a plastic piece is like when a magician tells you how he does his trick, and then you enjoy it even more, because the trick was very clever. It is a kind of impression that you get in Dusan’s tricks too, helped by the fact that you can actually say how he did it. But in his place, I would go even further:

Take camera angles. I haven’t seen anything shot in lower angle yet, but would he want to, for instance, make a scene with lego giant, he’d have to shoot a lego figure from above and the impression that the figure is a giant could be credible. He’d need a pair of giant feet if he wants to shoot him in the same shot with normal people.

Other example: LG is most literally a comic without 4th wall. That is, all rooms have no 4th wall because that’s the wall Dusan is taking photos through. But in a few instances, he did give a 4th wall, specifically in cases when his crew talks with an alien through a screen. How does he do it when there’s no actual 4th wall? Well, of course, he shoots a wall that is separate from the rest of the scene, and the central figures that he keeps in front of the wall, support the impression of spatial unity. Dusan could use this more often to avoid that 3 walls impression that his comic has: by building opposite “walls” (could be landscapes, even) of the scene separate and then shooting them against each other, switching shots of those two parts and making an impression that everything is just the part of one big scene. I think I’d flip off if I saw this being a part of usual narrative language in a photo comic (as I said, in LG this happens just occasionally).

Then there’s a matter of lightning. In LG, light always comes from above, a little on the side, probably camera’s flash. I’ve seen this actually look good in a few cases, like when character is standing in frond of the wall and his shadow is behind him, on the wall, but in most of cases, I think that LG misses on a lot of expressiveness that it could have, would the light source be a bit more deliberately placed. Perhaps Dusan could experiment with them if he was making stories where light is more important (like stories with horror elements). This, then, makes me think of possibilities of lenses, filters, etc, but this would be far out of the reach of ordinary, house-made photo comic. I suppose if Stanley Kubrick ever made photo comics, he’d use those as well ;)

Close shots get a bit blurry, I’m not sure you can actually make them sharp unless you have manual objective, I remember trying to shoot something very close once and getting a blurry image. In one instance, Dusan gets a very blurry character but the background behind him is sharp. My impression was that this was not intentional. Automatic objectives have a sort of, hm, invisible concentrated ray that measures the distance of the object and lets the objective length to that. Ray usually goes from the center of the objective; In this case, center point wasn’t containing the character, ray fell on the background and sharpened to it instead of to character.

Oh, yeah, I loved double-exposition shots, even if they were made in Photoshop (I can’t tell).

I generally think that layout format of 4 equal panels is rather static. Such layout requires very dynamic content of panels to avoid looking dull from times to times, which is, in LG case, tough. With no sizeable panels, or even circular ones for close cuts, Dusan in forced to feature entire scene with all characters in it every time, unless he goes for a rather close cut. With sizeable panels, he’s be able to avoid that, to show just one character, a detail, or even to skip on background sometimes which might, in return, make more centered and elegant pages.

Also, LG could use a bit smoother speech bubbles.

But as I said, Dusan shows little will to experiment, and maybe he shouldn’t, at least as long as he has material for what is going on now. His intention is simply to play with Legos, and that’s mostly what playfulness and spontaniousness of the comic comes from. Also, if he decided to indulge into more complicated layout or script, it might take him significantly more time. I’m not sure if most of his readers would prefer experimenting over a steady update.

Webcomic: Darken

Some friends asked me to review their comics here, knowing that I write long and labored reviews. As I started with it, I wasn’t sure whether to post those reviews on blog or to leave it on forum.

The thing is, on blog, these reviews come out of content, after a long string of glorifying film texts, reviews where I chop these comics into bits come… well, I think that the overall impression that you get of those comics is worse than they deserve. After all, we are talking about something that is created as we speak, with no time to filter important things from unimportant.

After some doubt, two reasons made me prevail for posting on blog: first, reviews are more readable. Second, it could be a smooth intro into some further webcomic reviews that I’d do, even though I don’t plan to make new ones, other than the ones that are requested. There’s a third reason, it’s easier for people to link reviews of their comics this way. Fourth reason is, I've been overly cautious in past, it's possible that I am now too.

So, now I’ll post two reviews that I’ve done so far. I'll do it as they were posted in forum, so there might be a few confusing bits. Also, they were full of digressions intended only for ears of reviewed ones. I am posting them like that because in future I'll post reviews directly in blog, not in the forum.

* * *
"Darken" review:

Reading “Darken” gave me the idea for the next Newsletter article, where I’d write most of what I intend to write here, but without directly referring to “Darken”. I don’t wanna use it as a bad example of some sorts. As I see it, fantasy genre is plagued by all sorts of clichés and narrative mistakes and if a competent author like Komi can’t escape from them, then the situation in that genre is red alert. That’s what my article will be about.

Ok, to cut it short, “Darken” started with a very interesting premise, then disappointed me because it turned direction to rather by-the-numbers fantasy, and only in recent few months (since the update became regular) she has shown great improvement in writing. And I mean great. I feel the need to try to analyze what’s so great in it and if it helps Komi to stay on that path, it will not be a waste of time. On the other hand, I also feel the need to dedicate some time and space to the middle part of the story, because it seems indicative for most of online fantasy so I think that a few things can be learned there. E them, and I believe that some would find it interesting too.

In any case, Komi asked me to be brutal and I will be brutal.

Now, art is something I have no objections to. “Darken” is a sort of comic where characters have similar physiognomy and the main differences are in details like hair, eyes, personal marks (tattoo, dark skin); Common physiognomy includes short face, big nose, short forehead, wide eyes, and, although it seems limiting, it actually gives consistency to the art. The obvious impression is that these limitations, as well as stylization, are artist’s decision, even though artist is capable of executing different styles. Given physiognomy lends characters instant appeal so “Darken” is a kind of comic that draws people to read it by just how it looks. Characters are cute and somewhat feminine but there’s a certain leap from the usual “cute” and “feminine” (definitely not bishounen) so we can actually imagine these characters being cruel or doing ruthless things. Which they do, actually, right at the beginning.

Another thing that marks Komi’s art is pencil cross-hatching. Everyone knows that I’m a sucker for cross-hatching, ever since I read Bilal for the first time. Komi is very skilled, her black/white comics are marked by variety of shades achieved my hatching of various densities. She has a good sense of texture, surface, so the can achieve nice variety of materials on background objects with hatching too. When she goes to colour, she keeps penciled hatching as a support and I think it fits perfect, because objects retain the texture and yet, gain colour.

I think that Komi’s art isn’t very buggy. That is, she doesn’t make obvious factual mistakes, characters aren’t in awkward body positions, their body proportions don’t vary, etc. I noticed a certain inconsistency in sizes of characters, some of them appear unusually tall on some pictures, but besides that I don’t think that heights of characters are defined, so some come out a bit taller than the others sometimes, and then sometimes shorter – which can be explained by standing on uneven ground but then again, why? That’s something Komi should probably work on, but honestly, it’s not a big mistake. It’s nowhere near buggines of average webcomics, with characters in improbable poses and necks that look like broken. So on that side, Komi is good as well.

Graphic narration in “Darken” comes a bit plain to me. Camera is usually watching characters from some kind of total shot, rarely does come close to them or even among them. It’s that impression that I, reader, am standing on the side and watching, while I desire to partake in events too. There aren’t tricky camera angles but, even though they would give the comic an edge, this can be just explained as artist’s visual style. Later in the comic Komi applies more swift changes of camera positions and planes, which gives it a certain dynamics that most of the earlier strips lacked. There are two major action scenes and, even though they were soon one after another, I saw a great improvement in the second one, much more inventive, much better planned, characters acting much more plausibly. It’s a big step in right direction.

I don’t like the layout, I think that the page is too wide so it contains too many frames by width. So pages seem a bit crowded, and there are often no obvious centers of the page where I could lay my eye. There are exceptions, like excellent page where eye is drawn to a nice landscape of the kingdom of Darken, but usually there’s just too many equally accented things going on in the view field.

“Darken” has very good pacing, things aren’t rushed in and there’s a breath-in between important events, on the other hand it’s not dragged out like fantasy comics can be (when one day is long over a year of archived comic and stuff). There is no corny mock-medieval-speek to which I never say a point anyway. Even though it features mythical creatures, it bears no fan-like obsession with them, which often happens in fantasy as well.

“Darken” starts interesting. Character named Gort is killed, and then revoked to do some job, and on the way he acquires a sort of servant, Komiyan, who had to slay some of his own priests. Komiyan alone is as interesting character, a regular coward but, then again, he doesn’t hesitate to kill to preserve himself. Story behind Gort seems interesting too, partly because it remains untold, and being untold and mysterious is has something of a myth quality.

But right after this setup, things go downhill because “Darken’s” plot starts to look like any old fantasy webcomic plot: Gort and Komiyan assemble a gang of five, then pick a quest, then even find a sub-quest that would lead them closer to the main quest – which suspiciously look like adventure games, where you pick an object, give it to someone, who gives you another object in return, and so on and so on. Then, what follows is talk scene – fight scene – talk scene – fight scene.

Now you know that I often seem to put originality in front of all. But that’s not exactly true; Take later Hollywood films: they all rely on an interesting premise that is handy to put in tagline, but they’re usually executed very poor. Take Arthur Clarke, one of people with the wildest imagination, but a writer with such poor, dry, plain writing style, and such lack of sense for drama or for story structure, that I can barely manage to read any of his books without throwing it into the opposite corner of the room. But I do appreciate originality, thinking out of the box, when I see that people sit down to think a bit and say: ok, let’s do something that noone has done before. And when it comes to various overly abused genres (like fantasy is in webcomics), the same plot schemes are used, overused and abused so many times in so many variations, that I can justify their reuse only in context of a parody or some other kind of conscious (which means deliberate and very obvious) throw-back at a particular work.

Here are some things that “Darken” took over from webfantasy. Sadly, what it took is nothing but troubles:

First, I gotta mention what Teammayhem pinned as “suddenly” syndrome. It’s when monsters or some other battle opponent appears virtually out of nowhere, but I’d pan it to whenever a character does that. I spotted two examples in Darken, giant’s appearance and Duches’s first appearance, although I think there were more, that I didn’t pay attention to.

Basically, they all come down to this: making a character enter the stage is not easy. It involves an act of entering, walking, that the artist would rather skip because it isn’t always very interesting to draw. Also, you have to make that entrance subtle. So webartists go the easier way: they just assume that character already entered the stage, it’s just that nobody noticed. It is easier that way, yes, but the impression is that nobody walks normally anymore, people just sneak.

Same with giant, pre-beholder opponent in “Darken”: do you think that such giant presence would manage to sneak itself into the scene unnoticed? I don’t think so, no matter how indulged in conversation characters were. But apart from that, see the missed opportunities in this: imagine the scene where monster is approaching them from distance, and they see it. Imagine how the dilemma, whether to fight or to try to avoid the encounter, forms the tension. Gort would want to fight, that’s certain. Komiyan would want to avoid. That conflict, plus menacing appearance of the giant slowly getting closer and closer, could form, I believe, a particular kind of tension and thrill in that scene. Instead, here, we go straight to action. Big deal, there’s always opportunity for action.

Second: I want to turn to the habit of fantasy writers to form a group of characters. These characters are often introduced in a very quick period of time so we don’t get to know them or to care about them. Same here, with exception of Gort and Komiyan. Other thing is, most of these characters seem unnecessary and only the inner logic of the writer, who knows what he’ll use them for later (or, in other cases, just wants to have them, just in case) says otherwise. But readers aren’t aware of that. Take Casper for instance, I couldn’t figure out why it was necessary to introduce him, other than to have larger cast. I think Komi felt the same way, maybe subconsciously, because she gave him a lot of space later (after a fight with beholder) and made him, actually one of the most intriguing and deep characters of the story; I feel that this might be due to the guilt that she insisted on giving him more depth, and maybe even overcompensated (because at this point, I think he is even more profiled than Gort, who is supposed to be the second most important character).

But there’s a few more problems with such group casting: to forget that most of them may seem excessive in a story – because that problem might be fixed later and they all might fit into their places - but they often seem excessive in particular scenes. When you have presence of five or more characters in every scene, most of them aren’t active. They just stand on the side and crowd the stage. This is obvious in “Darken” during the first fight (with the giant, again). All the time you have exchanges of shots of some members of the cast fighting, and then some members standing on the side. Aside the question why they didn’t attack all at once, you have dynamic shots constantly switching with rather static shots of people standing on the side and observing. This ruins the dynamism of the entire sequence, every time the action huffs up, static scenes make sure to hold it down.

On the other side, try drawing an action scene where all characters are involved at once, all fighting against one opponent. I think that this conception would be very hard to pull out. I think that most of webartists aren’t skilled enough to pull out such scene (which is not to say that artists in print are). Which is why webartists never try it anyway. They can be very resourceful when coming up with reasons why the entire cast is not active. Take the action scene with Beholder, where half of the cast is injured or unconscious all the time. Injured or unconscious members of the cast switch so that they all participate the fight, but never more than two or three at the same time. But the problem of the most of scene being painfully inactive, you could say, mannequins, remains. This entire argument goes against forming too large casts that stick together all time during the comic. Which, fantasy casts do.

Which brings me to the third point: as it is, we usually follow one group of people on a sort of mutual quest. They never separate. Camera follows them all the time (except sometimes when some bad guy foreshadows or during flashbacks). This enforces a very simple story structure in such comics. There’s no various storylines intersecting, no unexpected encounters, no action taking place behind reader’s back – it’s all so linear. Why? Well, because it’s the easiest way.

More interesting would be, if group separated for some reason. Then we could switch between two groups of characters, and that would give the story a dynamics, a tension based on differences between those two storylines. Also, because a reader, while reading one storyline, inevitably desires to see what happens next in the other one.

Even more interesting would be, if we rejected the whole “group on a quest” concept and accept something else. Take the “7 samurai” story, for instance: 7 warriors protecting a village; This theme has been re-hashed many times (on top of my head, at least in three movies), but not in webcomics, and rarely in fantasy. There’s nothing wrong in using a known story outlines, the problem is when what you use is the most obvious choice (“quest” story here is, indeed, the most obvious choice).

But if we don’t want 7 samurai, we can acquire other setups too. What about the general “siege” setup? What about the “Deliverance” setup, where main characters are basically fighting for their lives? Or, characters can go to quests, but do they have to be homeless? Can’t they have a home somewhere? Or, you’re read “Twice destined” probably – people go on for their business there, they have their quests, but they move in a rather rounded-up universe, they meet each other and re-meet later, circling in that universe. With standard quest setup, characters go on and on in straight line, they are deemed not to meet people they get to know along the way again, so the only constant characters are the members of the group themselves. But then, writer wants to have more characters, so he increases the number of members of the group, which brings us to problems tied to a large group, see above.

Another problem of “quest” type story: when does it end? Of course, if the entire story is revolving around this quest, as soon as the quest is finished, the comic has no reason to exist anymore (unless you plan a sequel). If artist doesn’t feel like finishing the comic, he drags the story out, quest is never achieved and neither is a total fulfillment of a reader. Therein lays the problem.

I am trying to figure out why is the whole idea of “quest” so much integrated in fantasy. It seems to me that writers are sometimes practically unaware that fantasy could go in other direction. They think that their character must find a fire of some sorts and throw a ring of some sorts in it. But I’m not inclined to believe that this is “Lord of the rings” heritage. I’d rather believe that its RPG games heritage. But we have to keep in mind that writers of RPG games are more limited by requirements of the game as a, well, medium. We don’t have those limitations but we still cling to them because our knowledge of fantasy is often limited to RPG games or to webcomics whose writers, in return, played PRG games. If I was fantasy author, frankly, I’d want to get away from it.

“Darken” does get trampled in some of these traps. So far it has mostly been a quest comic, thus my disappointment after the first thrill. I know that changing the direction, cutting up the cast, or any abrupt change like this, in the middle, wouldn’t end seamless, so “Darken” has to go in other directions to make up for this. It has to have originality on micro level, through particular scenes, events, relations. People, enemies and friends characters encounter will have to leave quite an impression, to be far from the usual, far from cliché, and even far from unremarkable. Dialogues will have to be clever; “Darken” will have to avoid further traps of fantasy.

Fourth: setting of fantasy comics, for the same reasons, are often wastelands with rare remaining of rural society. This is another by-the-book rule. Once again I have to call upon “Twice destined” where one story is based in a dense forest/rural society, while the other is in an urban setting, which I’ve rarely seen in webcomics. No wasteland where you have to travel for ages to meet another living soul.

Fifth: Even if we stick to a “quest”, we realize that the nature of the quest is always either material possession or some heroic deed. “Darken” goes a step from that, the goal is personal revenge and some not very nice motives on the side. So, Komi is good there. Artists could consider other ideas, like finding their roots, their home, their families, their true love, whatever different. (Interestingly enough, in such comics, romance is usually a subplot but never the subject)

Sixth: Let’s consider action scenes: are they dynamic enough? Are they inventive, resourceful? Recently I was blogging about “Chinatown” and mentioned how Polanski found himself in the orange field and simply couldn’t resist making a car chase in the orange field. There’s a hint of that kind of invention in the scene in “Darken” where characters have to handle ten times bigger opponent. There’s a lot of opportunity for camera angles, effective contrasts in size, all sorts of things that could make this scene unique, that makes it more that, you know, two guys kicking each other and throwing magic at each other. Comics aren’t films, they’re static medium, and they don’t handle scenes where two guys are just hitting each other very well. Movement is not enough, action scenes in comics need something else to give them edge. As I mentioned, I don’t think that the scene with the giant was handled very well. But she’ll learn.

Now that I ended that long rant, I think that the last few months of “Darken” have shown a great improvement. No more clumsy writing, no more plain dialogues, characters start gaining depth. Komi shows more wit in writing. Some might interpret this wit as a comedy, but the humor never goes as far as to comedy; In remains in the reign of real life: Just like it’s out of reality that the characters would crack jokes all the time, followed by a can laughter, so is improbable that the characters would be dead-serious all the time, without doing anything that would be a subject of laugh, at least for an outsider. Take, for instance, are “Pulp fiction”, “Smoke” or “Buena Vista Social Club” comedies? Nope, neither one. But they hold things that could make you chuckle in them, as much as humor is a part of real life. It’s the humor that gives them depth. I believe that such is the nature of humor in later “Darken” comics (unlike earlier, “Gort is violent, Komiyan is coward” character-type humor). One example of such humor is the encounter with the nuns, or the line of side comments that Casper delivers.

I love the scene with the apple: two kids can’t reach the apple. What stroke me the most was, when the boy can’t reach the apple, the girl answers “It’s ok”. It’s not only cute, but it’s so life-like, but it’s also a showcase of genuinely good characters. It reminded me of my second date with my first love, when some street seller of roses wanted to trick me and overprice the rose, she said “It’s ok” and got me out of the awkward situation. I related to that scene, I believe that this part of “darken” holds other scenes that people could relate to.

I believe lots of people will find the scene that is drawn in chibies an inconsistency, out of place. I believe it would be, in printed comics where one issue is more rounded-up unity than in webcomics. In webcomics, I find it ok.

I mentioned that these comics lack parallelism. “Darken” holds one scene that is in my opinion, a wonderful display of parallel actions that is taking use of contrast of those actions, to create dynamism.

I couldn’t be the judge of whether there’s more of old material or new (better) material. Old is dragged over more months, but with very severe updating. Consistent updating with improved writing might lead to the part that I critiqued here, being insignificantly small part of the comic very soon. It’s not the case yet, though, and many improvements I saw here are on half-way so it might be hard to tell. As it is now, I would recommend “Darken” to people who like fantasy comics with quest-type story, because it’s one of technically the best comics of that kind. However, I’ll wait a bit to see how the things go on before recommending it to others.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Note: Banners

Banner for "Oh! You pretty things" is requested. Here:

Will do for now, I'll make larger ones too, but I think this one is the only one needed.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Film: Chinatown

In my eyes, Roman Polanski, Polish director residing and working all over the western world due to various circumstances, is the man. Him films are consistently good, in various genres and moods, and he worked in at least four different film industries (Polish, British, Hollywood and French) adjusting very well and with success to each of them.

Polanski started as s wunderkind, making his first successes with short films in a renowned Lodz Film School. His first feature, “Knife on the water” (1962), nearly a masterpiece, shot in black/white is a cruel psychological drama of three people cruising on a boat during one night. Black/white photography shows its beauty (and sometimes, superiority over colour) in this film as Polanski uses close cuts to seamlessly move the camera in unexpected positions in a small space that the deck of the boat is. Free-jazz soundtrack with never more than two instruments employed, was just the right touch.

“Knife on the water” was success in Europe (particularly Venetian festival) which allowed Polanski to make his next three films in Great Britain. These films were horror/thriller stories with a touch of eastern-European film schools, and the last one was the film I love very much: “Fearless vampire killers” aka “Excuse me, but your teeth are in my neck”, aka “Dance of the Vampires” - last one being preferred by me as it mirrors the gracefulness of this films black humor, influenced by Czech comedy school.

Next step for Polanski was Hollywood, where he achieved his greatest commercial success in 68’ with his first American film, “Rosemary’s Baby”, made along the line of his previous films but in more self-serving production and without bizzare comedy elements that made his previous films so unique. Polanski’s USA career continued with “Macbeth”, milestone retro-noir “Chinatown” and the mystery “The tenant”.

Having to escape to Europe in 77’ in order to avoid legal persecution, Polanski continued working mostly in France, scoring success with period film “Tell”, thriller “Frantic”, in which Harrison Ford is involved in an 1 ½ hour race after his kidnapped wife, chamber political allegory “Death and the maiden” and finally, Oscar-awarded recount of his early childhood holocaust experiences, “The pianist”.

Polanski’s personal life was always a tabloids subject, sometimes unfairly drawing attention from his film career. His early childhood was scarred by a holocaust family tragedy. He experienced another personal tragedy when his first wife, Sharon Tate, became, together with several guests of the party in their house, a victim of serial killer Charles Manson. His exile from USA, on the other hand, was forced by a persecution for sexual relationship with a 13 year old girl. The bizarre and irrational element of his films often makes people perceive him as an insane person, through a dreaded art psychoanalysis that starts from the (completely untrue) theory that author’s work is always a direct autobiography (while, in reality, the most frantic films were made by the most deliberate authors).

Now, “Chinatown” is a piece of work: Nominally noir, made in 60ies but with a look behind at 30ies and 40ies classics of noir (who, on the other hand, look at early German expressionists, etc etc), “Chinatown” has all elements that a Chandler book would have: Cynical bum detective, not exactly a perfect character and not exactly a hero; Dame in distress who enters his office one day; A mystery that unravels slowly, but without impression that the viewer will have everything laid on the table at the end; Fight scenes that don’t often finish in main character’s favour, even less often thanks to him; A world full of shady characters, where noone is really good.

Even though “Chinatown” is affectionate, even though it can be considered a homage, it is picked mostly as a vehicle for Polanski’s ideas, for his story of corruption and abomination. Thus he makes leaps from the tradition of the genre right away: Jack Nicholson, playing J. J. Gittes is not exactly a Sam Spade; he, in fact, doesn’t have financial problems like the former, he earns respectful money photographing cheating wives and husbands, and even though he retains some of the cool of Bogart’s character, the way he allows a woman to sneak up on him while he is telling a dirty joke to his associates, is something too undignified to happen to Bogart. Then again, the mystery hasn’t got that detachment from the real life that original noir often has: Gittes deals with corruption on high level, and Polanski allows us to see consequences of that corruption, through images of farmers getting kicked out of their own land. And all in all, “Chinatown” is more bizarre and sick than any 40ies noire has ever been.

So basically, it’s a story of moral degradation on personal level of one man on important position, that leads to moral degradation of the society. The story of how he triumphs, regardless of victims, and how it’s given opportunity to continue spreading his corruption to new directions, in this film with the saddest possible ending. This man seems to disease everything he touches. Central character of the story appears to be the person who doesn’t even have very much screen time. This character, Noah Cross, is incidentally played by John Huston, one of directors who established noir genre with his classics “Maltese falcon”, “Key Largo”, “Treasure of Sierra Madre”. That Polanski acts in this film a thug in service of John Huston’s character is more than a mere coincidence.

There’s also a lot more than a coincidence in Polanski’s cameo that lasts less than five minutes: this sleazy thug slits Gittes’s nose, lending him a bandage that the detective will wear all through the film, one of the details after which the film is remembered the most. Polanski’s short role is impressive; he totally steals the scene with his high-pitched voice and weasel-like appearance. (Apart from this, Polanski has a history of screen appearances. He cast himself as the Professor’s assistant in “Vampire’s ball”, using his own boyish looks to play several years younger character; In “The Tennant”, he casts himself as already an elderly man).

Chinatown” is a showdown of Polanski’s subtlety, cleverness and the sence of detail; Opportunities are used all over: for instance, one of the most inventive car chases that I’ve seen is the one taking place in the middle of orange field; Polanski spots visual inventiveness of this scene and runs along with it. Note these examples: In earlier scene in the film Evelyn (Faye Dunaway) hits the wheel of a car with her head, triggering a siren. In last scene of the film, while she is running away in a car while policemen shoot at her, as we hear the siren moaning, we are reminded of the previous scene and we know that her head is leaned on the wheel without even having to see it. In earlier scene, again, Nicholson spots a birthmark on iris of her eye. In this last scene, as she falls out of the car, we are allowed to, for one brief moment; see that she is shot through that very eye. It’s as if her birthmark has exploded, and indeed it is her father who brought suffer and, finally, death to her. “Chinatown” is full of such moments, it’s worth watching over and over, as long as we can see new little metaphors that Polanski has left to us.

Nicholson’s role is a classic one, from his best years. It is what holds the film together, as he is on the screen almost 100% of the time. He verges on the border of sophisticated and vulgar; He plays a cool Bogartian figure, trampled by the knowledge that this “cool” is just a facade; He has a lot of excellent lines, and he knows just how to say them to keep them ringing in our ears; The subject of “Chinatown”, as the dark past that he’d rather not remember, is brought up rationally, until in the end past that hounds him comes back at him in a violent showdown; In short, Nicholson is perfect. Fay Dunaway is excellent in a very torturous role. A very few lines in the script refer to the suffering of Evelyn Mulwray, the rest, Dunaway does with her acting.

Script by Robert Towne, based on the real L.A. affair of 1930, is clear of plotholes or inconsistencies, and lends a lot of memorable lines to actors; One of the funniest might be, when Noah Cross asks J.J. Gittes whether he slept with Evelyn, Gittes answers: “If you want an answer to that question...”; pause as he stands up; “...I’ll put one of my boys on that case.”

Before “Chinatown”, Polanski already proved that he’s capable of making classics (at least two of his previous films were classics). With “Chinatown” he proved that he is able of freely browsing through genres while being faithful to his poetics; His poetics, again, including bizarre, irrational, cruel displays of human behavior, some that might be considered just a bit too much cruel to be taken lightly even nowadays.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Film: Kafka :-(

Buh? Franz Kafka involved in a conspiration-theory plot, partly in black-white, partly in colour? So then I guess that putting his objects of affection out of context and logic is not a new thing to Steven Sodebergh, he’s been doing it since the beginning.

Yes, I dedicate my first negative text to Steven Sodebergh. This guy started his directorial career with “Sex, lies and videotapes”, chamber drama about sex, but without graphic sex. It made him one of the most promising directors of his age, but it still remains the only completed work of his, even if it was not the only that has shown potential. He made some commercial successes (“Out of sight”, “Ocean’s 11”), even scored some oscars (“Erin Brokovich”), but the fact remains that he made it as a commercial director of one-watching funny films, and he wants to be accepted as an art director – yet he fails every time he tries to make another art film.

My main grudge towards Sodebergh goes for remaking “Solaris”, masterpiece of Andrei Tarkovsky. I can’t possibly imagine what he had going on in his head, when he thought that he could add anything to the original film, or that his directing skills can in any way be compared to Tarkovsky’s. Sodebergh’s “Solaris” was bound to fail; It does not appeal to any audience; Audience of art films hates it for being a blasphemic simplification of original with romantic plot added for “good measure”; Audience of commercial films hates it because it tries to mimic the original, with the slow tempo and wanna-be-contemplation; Thus remake of “Solaris” was artistic as well as commercial failure. Sodebergh’s and Clooney’s response to this was rather predictable: yelling “philistines” on stages and in interviews, which, however, didn’t convince anyone that both audience and emminent film critics were philistines, only makers of this film aren’t.

My first paragraph reffers to “Kafka”, Sodebergh’s follow-up to “Sex, lies and videotapes”. This is visually rich quasi-biographic film about Franz Kafka shot mostly in black/white. Kafka (Jeremy Irons) is an aparatchik living in a bureaucracy world and working for a big firm, different from others only for being a writer at the spare time. When his friend gets murdered, he becames involved in a conspiracy that reaches to the highest levels of society – basically into a castle above the city, where all levers of society are pulled. At the end, Kafka manages to sneak into the castle and the interior scenes of the castle are shot in colour. After some mussing around and inexplicably being not reckognized as an insider, Kafka delivers a bomb inside the castle and has detonates it. Then he runs away. Tomorrow, he is surprised to see that nothing’s changed, that the same strings are held by the same people, that the bureaucracy is more enduring that he thought and that (duh!) one bomb won’t change the world. I wonder how this plot would be interpreted nowadays, after the escalation of terrorism.

This film is a failed attempt to be quirky, outrageous, new, but Sodebergh shows utter misunderstanding of the topic he has taken. For one, he misunderstands Kafka as a person; A lot is said about Kafka’s life, I doubt that there was any writer who was more psychologically analyzed after his death, both through his books, diaries and his famous “Letter to a father”. Kafka was a person with deep complex of inferiority, marked by an opressive figure of his father, Jewish religion in time and place where being Jewish wasn’t very favourable, and many other reasons; Results, strong impulse of self-destruction, exilerating paranoia and constant self-doubt; So much that he instructed his best friend to burn all his scripts after his death – only a few short stories were published at the time.

For those reasons, Jeremy Irons was a gross miscasting for this role. His Brittish cool is full of self-confidence, something very undesirable for interpretation of Kafka; His mothives seem to be simplified and brought down to pursuing a mistery and not a hint of an inner conflict. Irons, otherwise good actor, shows poor understanding of Kafka as well: he gives an impression more of a Scherlokian curious and confident detective, than of what Kafka was known to be. at one moment when he tells an occasional acquitance to burn his script, he does it not with a pain or self-doubt, but routinely, as if he was saying “they’re not finished yet”. At the end, when he sits down to write a letter to father, he does it routinely as well – regardless of the fact that this was the most painful act of self-searching that Kafka has ever taken in his life. For making a writer into a character, they had to grasp his character much better – at least with Kafka, they had material to work on.

But Sodebergh doesn’t understand Kafka’s work either. He takes a premise of cold, heartless bureaucratic society from Kafka’s novels. Atmosphere of opression by this society was so strong in his books, and became so well-known that today, “Kafkian” is a term that is often used for similar atmosphere in art. But what Sodebergh fails to realise is that opression in Kafka’s work is stronger inside of character’s (reader’s, writer’s) head than is the society; Kafka’s characters are deeply paranoid, their surrounding is merely a physical manifestation of their paranoia; However, the film doesn’t take viewpoint of main character for one minute, never looks through character’s eyes, thus the danger is real-life and outter, which is simplification of Kafka’s ideas. In fact, Sodebergh labours very much to, in last sequences happening in the castle, materialize every segment of society and thus make is as little as possible a product of Kafka’s mind.

Another element of Kafka’s work is sence of imminence; As much as character of “The trial” knows that, should he give us fighting, he will die, and yet, still slowly gives up, that much the character from “The castle” knows that he will never reach the castle – and yet he keeps trying. What’s more, Kafka penetrates a castle at the end of the film, with which castle loses it’s symbolic value.

Finally, world of conspiracy is not Kafka’s. Opression is his books always comes through legal channels, not the least hidden or even subtle. The world in which Kafka moves in this film is not the one of Kafka’s novels; It’s more resembling Pinchon’s novels, but even then, not much. One has to wonder whether Sodebergh ever actually read Kafka: From this film, it seems more like someone re-told him these books, after which he decided to make a film. Relations to factual details of Kafka’s life or even to elements of his books seems very brief and unimportant; We start wondering why was is important to actually make this a film about Kafka. It seems like, not relying on cheap hints at viewer’s erudition, this would be much better off as a story about unnamed victorian detective than this way. Because this film sure as hell has nothing to do with Kafka.

Finally, plot of this film is simplified, the process of unravelling the mistery is slow and confusing, only to find that there isn’t much mistery at all – nothing that we couldn’t’ve guessed at the beginning of the film. The idea that Kafka would try to destroy the entire society with one suit-cased bomb is silly and the surprise after he didn’t suceed seems fake – real surprise is that he assumed that he would. The way he penetrated the castle is also trivial and too easy. There is no connection between happenings and Kafka’s character, he seems intacted all during the film, and if he displays any emotions or changes, they seem incidental, not influenced by the whole conspiracy story. In fact, there hardly is any Kafka character in this film, as Irons practically walks through this film.

There is one good thing about this film, though, at the moments, it’s visually stunning: in black and white part, streets and buildings from the dawn of the 20th century have great appeal, wonderfully lit and photographed to create a menacing atmosphere. Even in coloured part, there is a lot of visual invention, specially the scene where Kafka and his enemy are walking on a glass floor projecting the brain of some poor guy who’s being experimented on. As one moment, some henchman peeks into the camera and his eye gets gigantically projected on the floor while fight between those two is still on.

But this is not nearly enough to make up for weak plot, equally weak main performance by otherwise fine actor, and for irritating insisting on pushing Kafka into this story, that might only flatter to erudition of people who barely heard of him.

About ten years ago, he practically did the same with “Solaris”. Maybe he hoped that fans of original “Solaris” would be intrigued to see the new one? The joke’s on him, I watched pirate version.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Book: Apocalypse in Solentiname

"No one can retell the plot of a Cortázar story; each one consists of determined words in a determined order. If we try to summarize them, we realize that something precious has been lost."
Jorge Luis Borges

It’s not really a book that I'm going to talk about – well, to be exact, among various compilations of Julio Cortazar’s short stories, some have been named “Apocalypse in Solentiname”, but the story of that name deserves a text for itself.

Cortazar has been one of my favourite writers since I’ve read him first time. He is considered one third of a trio of Argentinean greatest writers of last century - others two being Jorge Luis Borges and Ernesto Sabato. It just happens that those three writers made an immeasurable impact to (post)modern literature and made Argentina one of literary giants.

However, Cortazar’s writing style seems plain, with sentences so long that sometimes drift away from initial purpose. The thing is, Cortazar often writes instrumentally, without a lot of preparation or drafting. But it just happens so that this style is able to create peculiar atmosphere, sometimes menacing, sometimes terrifying, sometimes awaiting. He throws his story out of his head at once, and the fluent style compels us to read it at once as well.

But the strongest side of Cortazar is his wild imagination and his peculiar kind of fantastic. In fact, you can say that Cortazar redefined the term of fantastic: his stories, nominally realistic, always linger on a thin edge of fantasy, and it depends solely on us, readers, whether we’re going to take events as fantastic, or just as hallucinations, strange coincidences and weird behaviors. He never gives a final answer on the real nature of those events; He never shows the real face of the beast, instead he leaves it floating in area of allegories.

No doubt I’ll talk about Cortazar again very soon. But now I want to concentrate on one peculiar story.

It all started with “'Las Babas del Diablo'”, his early story. This story follows a self-esteemed photographer wondering around in search of nice sights that he could photograph. He decides to take a picture of young man and elderly woman walking across the park. In his usual style, Cortazar gives us an entire life story scenario of these two people, as imagined by a photographer while he’s taking a picture of them. But what seemed like a naive sight might actually be a scene of the crime in preparation and the photographed woman requests to have the film from a photographer. He declines.

Instead, he goes home and develops the photos. One of the shots of the odd couple he made, pleases his eye so much that he makes a big poster out of it and puts it on his wall. In that moment, his eye starts deceiving him, and image on the poster becomes alive. He stares at the picture on the wall, sees scene of him being murdered, as seen through his own eyes. He is left with a poster showing a sky with clouds floating across it.

Not much of a story, really, “Las Babas” had an interesting idea of a photograph taking the place of the real life by force, but it hasn’t got subtlety that many other Cortasar’s stories have. However, in 66’, Michelangelo Antonioni was driven to it and made his famous film masterpiece “Blow up” loosely based on this story. Cortazar was, they say, not pleased with this film, especially with its title. No wonder, film took very little from the story: main character and the idea that he photographed something that he shouldn’t have. Everything else in this film is Antonioni’s invention (including a giant airplane propeller that I would like to have in my house as well), and the most well known scene from the film is probably the one from the beginning where main character (David Hemmings) lustfully photographs a model in the studio – although no less impressive was the one where mimes play tennis with the inexistent ball or the one where he fights with the entire mob over the neck of a broken guitar, only to throw it away moments later, after the fight is over. All in all, “Blow up” is a careful and detailed study of a character and a time, that leaves nothing of the original Cortazar’s story, or at least nothing significant.

But that’s ok because films don’t have to follow the stories they’re adapting. In fact, they usually come out better when they don’t - thus I look cross at everybody who comments that some film betrayed the idea of the original story. So what! There is no place for fandom here, and even though I’m Cortazar’s fan, I can’t care less whether Antonioni betrayed his point or not, because Cortazar’s story is fine as it is, and it definitely doesn’t need film adaptation just for the sake of being adapted into a film. You hear me, “Lord of the rings” and “Dune” fans?

Anyway, years later, Cortazar decided to – rewrite his original story. Well, not to rewrite it directly, but to use the original idea of an image taking over the role from the life, and to expand it to new metaphorical meanings. The result is "Apocalipsis en Solentiname" ("Apocalypse in Solentiname").

“Apocalypse” is a story in which the main character is him, writer Julio Cortazar. At the beginning of the story, he is on a tour in Costarica, in the middle of “Blow up” awe, asked many questions about his impressions and earlier comments on the film, things that he really doesn’t want to talk about. This beginning, mirroring real life, links with “Las Babas del Diablo”, slowly preparing us to the idea that similarity between it and this story is not unintentional.

So, writer Cortazar, after being asked many questions by reporters, gets a moment of rest in a small place called Solentinameo. There, he finds a whole connection of beautiful naive paintings, executed by a local woman, presenting sights of the idyllic village life. Children playing, old people resting, native houses and fields, still lives... These pictures flourish with beauty, so Cortazar decides to photograph them all, one by one. And he does to (which is where photo camera enters the scene yet again).

Returning home to Paris (which is where he lives), Cortazar is eager to see those photos. Almost as he enters the door, he puts the film into the slide-show projector and proceeds in watching the photographs. And this is where picture projected on the wall betrays him, Julio Cortazar, writer of, among others, story “Los Babas del Diablo”. The same thing that happened to the hero of the story, now happens to it’s writer.

Instead of photographs of those happy paintings, he sees sights of the recent revolution; He sees scenes of the massacre that hit Solentiname not long ago. Some of those images are very brutal and very bloody. Cortazar is so shocked by what he sees that he can’t even think of how the sights of the beautified everyday life were replaced by another, more exact and more brutal reality. He photographed what he thought was Solentiname, and instead got what Solentiname really is.

He is still in shock when his wife comes home, that he cannot even explain what happened. All he can do is point to a slide show projector in the darkened room. Curious, his wife turns on the slide show and sees a series of photographs of naive paintings, showing pleasant images from everyday village life.

This is pretty much in the spirit of Cortazar’s fantasy. He never explains whether the other pictures were a hallucination, a trick, a phenomenon, a miracle. He leaves us believing in whatever we want. But he passes the message that, above the pleasant surface, there is often not so pleasant truth that we decline to see because we choose to stay on prettified surface, and that this is often case in lands that we consider exotic paradises. Going for any actual explanations would just turn the attention from the message and diminish the metaphor.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Film: Dogville

A difference between madman and a genius is very small, they say. But I don’t think that’s much of a problem. But the difference between genius and a merely talented eccentric person is sometimes even smaller. Take, for instance, the example of Danish director Lars von Trier: Career of this filmmaker culminated in 1991’s “Europa” (aka. “Zentropa”) that gained him world recognition - even though he gained attention with his early film “Elements of crime”, it was “Europa”, post-war Germany masterpiece shot partly in black and while and partly in colour (preceding technology-ridden lavishness of “Pleasantville”) that made him worldwide known and gained him a load of Cannes awards that year. But from the point where his reputation was made and his hands weren’t tied anymore, Von Trier proved to be more than inconsistent filmmaker, and my impression is that most of his inconsistency was due to his eccentricity; Take for example musical “Dancer in the dark” with Bjork in the main role; Praised by critics and winning Cannes Palme d’Or, this film was still a god-awful, incoherent, unwatchable; Bjork is a musician with unique composing and singing style, a figure so distinctive that it’s hard not to respect her – but her music does not make a musical material, period. That, and torn-apart cinematography...

But the best proof of Von Trier’s eccentricity and something that seriously shakes his credibility is so called “Dogme 95”, a list of ten filmmaking commandments that Von Trier and his colleagues gathered around the collective of the same name (, decided to follow strictly. I give their commandments here:

1. Shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in (if a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found).

2. The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. (Music must not be used unless it occurs where the scene is being shot).

3. The camera must be hand-held. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted. (The film must not take place where the camera is standing; shooting must take place where the film takes place).

4. The film must be in colour. Special lighting is not acceptable. (If there is too little light for exposure the scene must be cut or a single lamp be attached to the camera).

5. Optical work and filters are forbidden.

6. The film must not contain superficial action. (Murders, weapons, etc. must not occur.)

7. Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden. (That is to say that the film takes place here and now.)

8. Genre movies are not acceptable.

9. The film format must be Academy 35 mm.

10. The director must not be credited.

Furthermore I swear as a director to refrain from personal taste! I am no longer an artist. I swear to refrain from creating a "work", as I regard the instant as more important than the whole. My supreme goal is to force the truth out of my characters and settings. I swear to do so by all the means available and at the cost of any good taste and any aesthetic considerations.

Very restrictive, isn’t it? Makes one wonder, why would a filmmaker limit himself that way? As a real artistic ideology, Dogme 95 is hard to take seriously (but then again, so were Dadaism and surrealism in their integral forms); Their commandments lead not to creative freedom, but to creative restriction; They challenge conventional film language, but don’t give anything in return – instead they just strip that language down and leave it that way, forgetting that film language as it is now, is a product of a natural process of researches and discoveries that spans to over a century now. They search for truth, but forget that sometimes, truth is told more powerful indirectly.

But take it as Von Trier’s way to get out of creative crises, or interesting experiment, or homage to the trash aesthetics that I like so much as well. Yet it all made me think of Von Trier more as a talented eccentric than as a genius.

“Dogville” might just make me lean on to the other side.

Far from being perfect, “Dogville” suffers through a few plot holes, a few predictable moments, a few less than subtle messages and a few segments too long that, for a film that lasts straight three hours, editors might’ve considered cutting out. But “Dogville” has a strong and complex moral discourse within itself, a strong emotional charge, stripped-down poetics and excellent performances to make up. And yet, a warning: a stressful experience, it is.

Story in outlines: In a small village Dogville, locked up by dangerous mountains on every side except one road that leads to the nearest city, comes a pursued woman called Grace (Nicole Kidman). A local self-proclaimed philosopher and writer Tom (Paul Bettany) helps her hide from her persecutors who appear to be gangsters, and slowly helps her gain acceptance from citizens of Dogville, so stay and hide within them.

However, happy days don’t last long as Trier has something to say about small-town society - and humanity in general – and it’s not a very nice thing. As it appears, Dogville was the real danger, it’s seemingly harmless nature, it’s Thornberry bushes and it’s stiffly polite citizens such Grace in, get under her skin, and then, unnoticed, ask her for more and more, and finally for more than she is able to give. At which point they start prosecuting her, torturing her, taking anger because of their personal emptiness out on her, until just about every little bit of faith from her is betrayed.

This torturous drama lasts for hours before its lengthy ending. Such strong emotional violence and abuse is rarely seen, and the film is more torturous to watch than any recent Hollywood product that features physical violence. Thing is, with time we get used to a certain amount of physical violence after which directors have to raise the bar to keep us shocked. So it’s a no big deal. But it’s emotional violence that we never get used to, and it seems always as shocking as new. And then, it’s also bare truth that is hard to bare. Props to Nicole Kidman for going through what seems like the most frustrating experience.

But, you know, all this doesn’t describe “Dogville” nearly accurate. Yes, those are outlines of the story. But Von Trier doesn’t just want to talk about how people are awful; No, moral questions in this film go much deeper than just displaying that ordinary people can be evil. He shows that people are capable of going even further if they’re just able to keep a mask of righteousness in front of society. Then, he wants to explore mechanisms of thinking that make people justify their actions; He shows that nobody accepts themselves as evil, that everybody is just managing to justify their actions in order to maintain a picture of themselves in their own eyes.

And then, at the end, Von Trier even considers whether it’s possible to forgive them.

Which is a theme of the last part of the film. As it appears, Grace is at the end in position to judge her own torturers; She has seen that people of Dogville are capable of doing the most horrible things; And she contemplates, whether they are indeed just like dogs following their instinct; If evil is in nature of humanity and it’s survivalist heritage, is it right to condemn people for what is in nature of their species? For, is it right to judge someone for what he is carrying hidden in his genes? And isn’t than that nature the right basis for measurement of morality?

Grace does not forgive. This doesn’t necessarily mean the negative answer to those questions; Possibly, Grace has changed to the point where she is not able to be a right judge anymore; Possibly, she has realized relativity of moral and that the only solution to this is that she adjusts it to her own needs, just as everybody else. But the general picture is that, based on the image of moral they have chosen, they accepted or gave up on grace that Grace could’ve given them - and yes, the link in her name is obviously not a coincidence. Dogville does just what any film should, prompts you to think. You may think that it is just another story about how people can be evil, but that’s nearly missing the point of the film. Watch last half an hour closely as it gives clues to understanding a lot of this film, as well as some of the most intriguing dialogues.

And yet, I still haven’t fully described Dogville. The thing is, there is something in it’s execution that makes it different from nearly every other film: Von Trier has retained just about enough “Dogma” items to make him keep the stripped aesthetic that hits the target here; Namely, Dogville is a map, a model of a city with walls drawn on the ground with chalk, names of the street written down on said streets and Thornberry bushes scribbled with chalk on garden area; House and street areas unproportionally small compared to humans walking on them, and just about enough significant pieces of furniture placed to give recognition to locations. City is surrounded by pitch black or blindingly light empty area – depending o the time of the day.

This peculiar concept is introduced smoothly, as the first thing we see is the map of the city; Camera lowers from the bird perspective and finds people habituating on that map. So soon we get used to this that in most intensive moments, we don’t even notice it. Von Trier puts sound and light effects into a good use; Sound effects make opening of the door credible, even though there is no door there; Light effects mimic, for instance, sunlight breaking through clouds well, and occasionally make us see things that aren’t really there.

To add to this stripped concept, Dogville really has only fifteen inhabitants. It’s very easy to get to know them all. Von Trier also remains fateful to hand-held camera and quick cutting; Add through the film, this helps add the dynamism to otherwise static, stage-like quality of the film.

What does this do? It strips characters as well as the city to the level of symbols, where the became easier acceptable presentation of moral questions; Even though film is a drama, and a very emotional one at that, it is it’s stripped presentation that lifts it from the ground and makes it not the story about particular humans in particular time and space, but the story of humanity, timeless and spaceless. It makes us watch at their town as self-sufficient, cut out from the rest of the world, test area for various experiments in morality; Furthermore we see characters as displays of various types of morality – of which the most interesting is Tom, who as a self-proclaimed spokesperson holds a high moral ground because of the need to be superior, and only needs an excuse that would help him keep seeing himself as superior.

There was a webcomic “1/0” ( in which, in similar stripped-down manner, author build a small mock-up world in which he could perform tests in social behavior in a strictly controlled environment, just like scientists observe activities in small ecosystems in order to understand their rules. This excellent, thought-provoking comic ended a couple of years ago but it’s 1000 strips stand as a cult. “Dogville” is similar in many ways, though it concentrates solely on moral problems.

Besides Nicole Kidman and Paul Bethany, several more well known names spice the credit list, including James Caan, Jean-Marc Bar, Blair Brown, Udo Kier (Von Trier’s favourite actor), Chloe Sevigny, Zeljko Ivanek... Film is narrated by appealing voice of John Hurt, giving it almost a contemplative and almost fairy-tale note.

And still, I feel like I didn’t properly describe “Dogville” yet.