Sunday, July 24, 2011

Guitar Practice

I identify myself, at least partly, as a classical guitarist. I've played for around 13 years and studied it in school for 5 years.

I haven't practiced seriously in probably 6 months.

The reason? Primarily because I wanted to practice "legimately." I started learning the Chaconne in D minor by Bach, a massive and difficult piece and decided to do it right, by which I actually mean, in the way I read it was right to do. This entailed playing only what memorized and moving on only when the preceding passages were mostly comfortable under my fingers. I got three pages in and more or less said "Screw it," and have touched my guitar only to teach since then. I have repeated this process more than I few times in my career.

No profound point is coming. But here's the lesson I am learning: if doing something in a somewhat arbitrarily decided correct way produces nothing, and doing it in a tried it true, somewhat arbitrarily decided unorthodox way produces recordings and recitals, there is need for reassessment. Or, as one my favorite teachers once said, "Theory cut loose from reality tends to be silly."

I'm going to go practice guitar now.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

3D film, Director Jon Chu, and MTV-style editing Pt. 1

**The following paragraph is a recounting of my personal experience in 3D film. It explains a few terms and why I care, but feel free to skip to the main bit in the 2nd paragraph and beyond.**
2 years ago, if asked my opinion on 3D films, I would have said it's a pretty neat technology with some potential. I saw Pixar's "Up" in 3D during this time and was really impressed with how the 3D really lent to the beauty of many of the landscapes and even to the intimacy of the smaller scale scenes. 6 months ago, after a year and a half of seeing every flippin' film come out with a 3D counterpart, I was tired of it and would have described film 3D as an annoying and worthless technology, that dims the picture, makes everything look like crap, and costs more to do so. A bit later, however, I discovered that there are two types of 3D films, namely those that were concieved of and shot in 3D, meaning this addition of entire dimension to the film was considered and planned for from the beginning, and then there were those that were "dimensionalized," meaning some time after things were well on their way, someone decided the film should be in 3D, and then some folks in Post-Production force the film (that was concieved in 2D) into 3D. Knowing this distinction softened my opinion of the technology, at least the non-dimensionalized type, and allowed me to think of it again as something that might have some unfortunate features (like the dark glasses) but ultimately might have some real potential. However, when Walter Murch's declaration of the impossibility of the technology's success came, unpersuaded by James Cameron's rebuttal, I immediately abandoned hope for 3D film and adopted a "2D 4ever" attitude. Finally (And I thank those who have hung on through my recounting of my personal history with 3D film. There is a point coming), I attended a forum at San Jose's Cinequest Film Festival with director Jon Chu on the merits of 3D technology and in the following will recount how his insights have offered me renewed hopes for and even excitement about 3D film technology.

The first thought he offered, and which I'm sure somewhere I knew but had lost due to the sensationalism and excitement of "group-hating" on 3D, is that it is a tool. As such, it can be used poorly or well. The failures of 3D in "The Last Airbender," in which 3D was tagged on, are not the failures of "Avatar," which was at heart a 3D film. And further, whether success or failure, what we are seeing is the beginning of the technology and hopefully, those films that really drop the ball will be lessons to those innovators who want to explore new territories in 3D film and we won't have to see the same mistakes made.

Secondly, 3D allows film-makers to use space and depth in new ways to tell their stories. This again should be an obvious one, but perhaps it is my unfortunate strong familiarity with 3D films who do not consider this fact that makes it not so obvious. I believe many people would equate effective 3D to something you might find as Disneyland, where a snake might come out of the screen and make you feel like you need to reel back in your seat to avoid his bite. And yes, to some end this is an effective use. But, what Jon Chu spoke of, and what I'm intrigued by, is the use of space extending into the screen. Chu spoke of one scene, I believe from "Step Up 3D" (filmed in 3D), in which two characters had a conversation in a telephone booth. The 3D effect used in the scene allowed the viewers to see and feel the low roof overhead and the small confines of the booth, creating a sort of claustrophobia and very particular emotion that could not be achieved in 2D film. Essentially, 3D can be used to draw an audience into a scene, rather than just making them feel like fools for (and yes, maybe have some fun) trying to avoid something coming out of it.

The last thing I took away from the presentation, and probably the most intriguing to me, is the concept that it is not possible, or rather it is very difficult, to cut quickly in 3D films. Because of the mind's peculiar engagement in 3D films trying to decode movement from non-existent space to non-existent space, moving too quickly can prevent the brain from being able to process a scene, leaving the viewer disoriented, disengaged, and probably with headache. However, for this very same reason, longer shots that would normally either tax the viewers attention or exhaust whatever meaning or significance a scene could have, can dwell longer as the brain takes all the nuances of the space in which the scene takes place. And this is why it's vital that the 3D space be considered from the beginning. Simply, if you're going to limit yourself to the pace of the 3D, you best have material that makes it worthwhile.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Sorcerer's Apprentice

I wonder if it's misleading in a blog about Music, Film and Faith to use the title "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" as the head of an article in the one category, namely "Faith," in which "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" has not made some sort of history. Whatever the case, I chose that title because it is an image that fairly frequently comes to mind when I read or listen to a great number of contemporary preachers, evangelists, or maybe just Christians in general.

The image is very much akin to the classic story: the new/fervent/convicted Christian sneaks into his Master's workshop, opens the spell-book left on the table, and begins conjuring out of it shades of Sinai to march about helping him get things done.

Before sneaking into the workshop, the Apprentice has everything he needs to fulfill his charge of sharing the love and salvation of Christ Jesus. For many, this is an adequate task and is its own reward. For too many others, however, I imagine the following progression of thought:
"I am to share the love of Jesus Christ to other men. Sometimes I share that love, the Gospel, and I don't see any results. This is discouraging. If I could see tangible evidence I would really see the power of that love. Obedience to the law is good tangible evidence. I'll couple Christian morality with my pronouncements of the Gospel. Then, if they love Jesus, I'll be able to see it in their actions." 
Before proceeding I should offer a couple of disclaimers to clarify what I am and am not saying. I am not implying that Christians should not be obedient to the Law of God. I have not forgotten that Christ Himself says Christians will be known by their love, a form of action. What I am implying is that, that obedience is not a product of brute effort and should not be coupled as any form of condition to the Gospel of Grace.

Frequently, during sermons I feel like I'd really love a map to understand exactly which type and degrees of obedience will get me which blessings, and when I can expect those. Other times I wonder how my faith ever took off amidst the crippling conditions of spiritual bureaucracy. It's as if Paul forgot to supply the "if" statement at the end of Ephesians 1:3 ("Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places), or as if Jesus Christ didn't actually become a curse for us, but rather offered us the option, or as if Peter would have handed the list of "Terms and Conditions" whenever Christ would simply state "Follow Me."

To return to the image in the beginning, I feel the spells the Apprentices (of which I am one from time to time) are casting are the if/then statements, the conditional Grace, and the hard-won salvation. But these are the spells from the front of the book--the easy ones that make a man refrain from R-rated movies or maybe feel compelled to put some money in the offering plate. But, to borrow a phrase from C.S. Lewis, there is a deeper magic, more powerful spells that the Apprentices will never utter for they are reserved for the Master Sorcerer. These are the spells that cause a man to put money in the offering plate not by compulsion, not by desire for blessing or reward, but because at the moment its the greatest way he can express his gratitude to the Master. The Apprentice's spells put into affect the hands of man. The Master's transforms man's heart.

To paraphrase Paul in 1 Corinthians, "When I was an Apprentice I cast from the front of the book, now that I'm a man, I leave the damn thing alone and let the Master Sorcerer take care of the spells."

The Allowances of Amnesia: A Revelation in "Unknown"

I believe it was in Walter Murch's "In the Blink of an Eye" that I came across the concept of the film editors ability to influence a characters credibility or trustworthiness in the amount of time the camera is allowed to remain on that character's face after they have spoken. For example, if Character A says, "This olive and cream cheese sandwich is the bee's knees" and the camera immediately cuts to Character B nodding in agreement, we will tend to accept that Character A has genuine fondness for the sandwich and we really ought not to worry about anything. If on the other hand, Character A says, "This olive and cream cheese sandwich is the bee's knees," and the camera remains on his face for more time than we really need to process such a statement, we will tend to begin studying and analyzing Character A as we have been subconsciously cued, and are allowed time to question the character and his statement--Perhaps he does not like the sandwich? Perhaps something bad is about to happen to Character B? Frequently, before we have enough time to come to some real conclusion--"There's something in his eye. He hates that sandwich."-- the scene will cut, and our lack of certainty will be harnessed to propel the drama of the story.

**Spoiler Alert for those who have not seen "Unknown"**

So, what I discovered in the film "Unknown" was this logic applied not to characters but to settings and situations. I will readily confess that my revelation in this film might be due to my lack of experience with films in which the protagonist has some form of amnesia. That is to say it may be old as dirt, but here it goes.

There were a number of scenes in which I felt at once security and strong discomfort with my understanding of a scene. For example,  let's go to the point at which Dr. Martin Harris has left the hospital after his accident, has visited the hotel where he confronted his wife and meets the alternate "Dr. Martin Harris," has been (possibly?) chased down the entrance to the metro, escaped on a train and is now exiting that train, presumably having slept there the previous night. What is so curious about this bit is that the story-telling, the shooting and the cutting at this point is that they allow us to be certain that we are privy to any secrets Dr. Harris may have, to be confident that there is no immediate threat to him at the subway stop, and to study his face to see that confusion and uncertainty entirely sums up his present circumstance. In the "Murchian" paradigm explained above it is as if we have been allowed to study the face of Character A to exhaustion, as if the editor never cut from his face at all, to the point where we can't believe we can't trust him and instead doubt the reality of his experience. It would be no surprise if Character A, after stating his enjoyment of the sandwich, was not eating and had never eaten an olive and cream cheese sandwich, but was rather enjoying some honey-dew bubble tea.

There seems, then, to be a third degree to Murch's concept. After quick-cut-trusted-character, and slow-cut-dubious-character, there is extremely-slow-cut-renewedly-trusted-character-doubted-reality.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Active vs. Reactive Art

Listening to Episode 10 The Cutting Room podcast, I came across a very useful delineation for types of art or artists. Film and Television Editor Darryl Bates, who was interviewed on the podcast, makes the distinction between Active art and Reactive art. Active art, I believe, is the more commonly understood and appreciated sort. It is generative, meaning the artist creates his art virtually in whole from native, creative impulses. By way of example, my wife regularly writes songs, melody and lyrics, while performing mundane daily tasks. She only last night performed the (beautiful) first verse and chorus of a song she had written while preparing dough to make pretzels. (I do not mean to imply that the active artist has to be accidentally creative, or that he cannot be engaged and attempting to create. My wife in this example may as well have been sitting at the piano. The point is she was not reacting to bits of melody or words presented to her.)

I, on the other hand, am very clearly a Reactive artist. A reactive artist is provided, or finds stimuli and creates something new from the pieces of something other. I once wrote a piece for my mother as a Christmas present. Rather than creating and developing my melodies, I found my voice for that piece in deconstructing and reassembling the melodies from lullabies my mother used to sing to my brothers and sisters and I.

Film editing is most certainly a reactive art, as the film editor is given many pieces of film, sound etc. to orchestrate into a complete film. Note though, that reactive art, while maybe not following the "ex nihilo model" of creation, is absolutely creative. I'd defy the individual who condemned James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, or Benjamin Britten (on occasion), Igor Stravinsky, Walter Murch, among many others as derivative or uncreative because their work revolved largely around reconstructing and redeveloping what has already been created. And further, I would not corner every engagement in art as purely active or reactive, but I do believe that they are most frequently primarily one or the other.

I'm absolutely certain that there is enormous ground in this idea to explore and refine, but for now the model is extremely useful in defining how I work.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

On the Nature of Rough Cuts

I recently finished my first rough cut on a film that I've taken seriously. One revelation that's come to me as I've begun working through the footage again, reworking and tightening scenes is that the rough cut is not the filmic equivalent to writing's rough draft.

A definition of "Rough Cut" that I came across the other day, and which has become my working understanding is "a basic assemblage of the various scenes of a film in the order in which they'll appear in the final product." In some ways, the rough cut will be very similar to the final product. You can watch it from start to finish and genuinely get an idea of the story, characters, setting etc. It's plausible that some could confuse an early rough cut for a bad movie.

However, it's my belief that ultimately the filmic rough cut is more analogous to a literary outline than to a rough draft. This is based on the ideas that the primary content of film is emotional, and that an editor's job is to release and reveal the emotional drive of the characters in the story, much in the same way a musician, physically able to play a piece, begins the real work of discovering the motivation and character of each note. In this way, the rough cut essentially notes that, for example, the scene of the father and daughter arguing over dinner comes after the scene of the little boy playing in the sea, and takes a, b, and c are going to be useful in demonstrating what the characters are experiencing. For explicitness's sake, this would be large points in an outline followed by supporting sub-points. It's after this point, that the artist begins working to draw out and reveal the actual meaning of a scene--why it mattered that the boy played by the sea, what is the nature of the fight between the daughter and the father, what impact these things have on the characters. As these emotions and ideas come out I believe the editor moves into rough draft territory.

Usual Disclaimer: This could be the misguided understanding of a beginning editor. Or there could be something to it. For now, it works.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

This Bitter Earth/On the Nature of Daylight

This Bitter Earth/On the Nature of Daylight - Dinah Washington/Max Richter

I don't know if it's unusual or par for the course for a musician to be unwilling to commit to favorite songs, but whatever the case it certainly describes me. However, among the very few exceptions is "This Bitter Earth/On the Nature of Daylight," a mash-up of two pieces by Dinah Washington and Max Richter respectively, originally from the ending credits to Martin Scorsese's "Shutter Island."

There are a few reasons why I love this song so much, but if those reasons don't interest you, let it suffice that the song is beautiful and you should listen to it.

Whoever gave us this song in it's current form took two completely different pieces of music and interlaced them. (Incidentally, if anyone knows who this is, I'd love to know. Despite earnest searching, I have been unable to find out.) For those curious here are the originals.
On the Nature of Daylight - Max Richter

This Bitter Earth - Dinah Washington

With other works, I can imagine the performance, the setting, something definite. In this piece I cannot see the singer, I cannot see the music being performed. The experience is as if fragments from some ancient siren's song had fallen by pure chance into some "Ivesian-Unanswered Question" Universe. When listening to this piece I can only imagine darkness and a voice--but in a way that is something like seeing the Aurora Borealis in an already overwhelmingly beautiful night sky. I don't believe you could notate her part in this song to any good effect, because so much of its charm comes from the fact that her voice is so clearly from somewhere and sometime entirely other than the strings.

I suppose I should maybe ask your pardon for the overwhelmingly metaphoric and searching language, but, in some very real way I do believe it underscores why I love this song so much. Schubert (or Schumann- This is where 5 years of Conservatory training should provide some certainty. But Alas!), claimed that when words fail, use music. The implication being of course that music speaks beyond the realm of words. "This Bitter Earth/On the Nature of Daylight" causes me to feel and experience. It doesn't require me to explain.

Plus, as it played during the credits, it made me remember "Shutter Island," a pretty good film, as a phenomenal film. There's something to be said for that.