Without a Screen: New Adolescence

Having entered the press screening of Red Hook Summer blind to its every detail (something this reviewer would love to do more often), I was surprised to find that Lee had chosen to film in HD format. It confirmed to me that HD is something of a great equalizer. It brings seasoned veterans back to a stage of vulnerability, where the tried-and-true methods of yore don’t necessarily apply. The so-called greats are being held up against the mettle of the nascent who have honed this new language as their first. The challenge of HD/Digital is to render something cinematic out of a new medium that reads differently than film, and to adapt to new qualitative expectations. This is probably similar to the more gradual transition of Blank & White into Color experienced between the 40’s and 60’s.

HD / Digital is slowly advancing as the preferred medium, allowing filmmakers to get into the midst of drama and interactions, and to respond to what has been film immediately. With the physical temperament and exchange value of film eliminated, digital technology offers filmmakers more “do-over” power than ever before. It places filmmaking technology – cameras, software –  within the reach of creators that find film prohibitive. It is not surprising that the likes of David Lynch, Koji Wakamatsu, Danny Boyle, Michael Mann, and many others all took the leap in this exciting and evolving enterprise.

Experienced as they may be, these practiced filmmakers are themselves coming-of-age within their own medium (cinema), lapped by the ripples of a technological sea change. Thus, HD/digital has been a gift of re-invention and re-invigoration, a new adolescence so to speak. To celebrate Lee’s induction into this adventurous camp, and his highly cinematic digital effort Red Hook Summer, Without A Screen compiles films that fall under the “coming of age” banner in similar ways to Lee’s film. These titles are cast alongside films by veteran filmmakers who made their new marks with digital. Lee’s Red Hook Summer expresses both.

The Return (2003) Director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s masterful debut film is a dark and uneasy narrative about two boys taken into the remote Russian wilderness by their estranged father Otets. Despite his long absence, or in-spite of it, Otets over-compensates with a stern discipline that affronts his sons who have no idea why they are being taken on his journey that feels like a punishment.

Side By Side (2012) A documentary produced by Keanu Reeves (perhaps his most redeeming contribution to cinema, save for Point Break) investigates the “history, process and workflow of both digital and photochemical film creation.” More to the point, the inevitable HD transition is discussed in the round, by admirers and detractors. Yet to be released in theaters.

Public Enemies (2008) Michael Mann goes full digital after testing the waters with sequences in his earlier Collateral. This film portrays the Fed’s attempts to take down John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), Baby Face Nelson (Steven Graham) and Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum). Although Spinotti’s (Last of the Mohikans) cinematography never seems especially confident (curious for someone so seasoned) Mann’s film does one thing marvelously, which is introduce the digital aesthetic to the period piece.

28 Days Later (2002) Danny Boyle has always been a go-getter. He has never shied from a challenge and has proven this before and after 28 Days Later. This film, a vision of a viral apocalypse, was shot mostly in digital format and was easily one of the first mainstream features to present this raw aesthetic to mass audiences. Boyle knew exactly how to exploit that textural rawness for the violence and desperation of his narrative, while exploiting the invasiveness allowed by lightweight digital cameras to tell a story that is equally intimate and personal. He also mixes subtle grades of digital, as well as a sequence shot in 35mm to make 28 Days Later a dynamic and effective visual experience.

Inland Empire (2007) David Lynch discovering digital is like Kurosawa discovering color…. a match made in heaven. Lynch’s enthusiasm for the medium is apparent in his 3hr labyrinth-within-a-labyrinth. “A Woman in trouble” indeed. The dvd contains additional footage that is feature length in and of itself! Lynch has been quite vocal about his new love affair with digital, and has decided – more or less – that film is dead to him. Inland Empire is a crazed fever-dream and is a genuine thrill to experience. Laura Dern gives the layered performance of a lifetime With such a bevy of details and ambiguities to interpret in one’s own personal way, Lynch is a most generous filmmaker. Digital has allowed him to spin a web more visually, structurally, emotionally, and psychologically complex (and disturbing) than ever before.

A Summer at Grandpa’s (1984) Taiwanese heavyweight Hou Hsiao-hsien’s early career was composed of very personal semi-autobiographical tales. Like Red Hook Summer, Hou exposes one summer in the life of his young protagonists (a 10 year old boy named Dongdong and his 5 year old sister). The two are sent to the rural town of their physician grandfather as their mother recovers from an ailment back home, and the story begins as they depart. Dongdong makes fast friends with local boys and does everything he can to get rid of his sister. Hou easefully reveals uneasy realities about family and townspeople – on par with the revelation at the heart of Red Hook Summer. And like Lee’s film, it ends with the season.

The Life Aquatic (2004)– Steve Zissou is an aging aquatic explorer whose celebrity is waning. After his best friend Estaban is eaten by a “Jaguar Shark” – the first of its kind sighted – Zissou tries to reinvigorate his crew to go on a mission to find the shark and possibly kill it. Ned arrives as the plan is being hatched and reveals that he is Steve’s son from another woman. Steve takes him into the rough-and-tumble fold of typically quirky characters and caricatures. This estranged relationship is ultimately what forces Steve to confront himself and to affect what he has become, and offers childlike Ned a chance to be strong. This is the film Anderson was born to make.

Moonrise Kingdom (2012) – Sam and Suzy, two twelve year olds (Anderson has a penchant for writing his children like adults and his adults like children, which is where a great deal of his comedy is built upon) who live on the same New England-esque island share in their distaste for their circumstances. They meet and fall in love. If nothing else the represent an alternative to one another and decide to run away. The town goes into a panic and searches high and low for them, which breaks the façade of acceptance that many of the inhabitants present. Easily Andersons most strongly aesthetic film, which bears a living testament to the “from scratch-ness” he learned in crafting Fantastic Mr. Fox. For more connections between Moonrise and Red Hook check out cinedelphia’s review!

Petrel Hotel Blue (2012) – Koji Wakamatsu (United Red Army) has been stirring controversy and pushing conventions since the late 60’s. With Petrel Hotel Blue he leaps into the HD realm to resume that course and renders a brooding Lynch-esque tale with newfound purity. Wakamatsu hones the digital medium with simplicity and precision.  Three friends attempt a vehicular robbery, but fail miserably. One never shows, the other bolts at the scene, and the third is arrested. He never rats anyone out and does his time like a champ. When he gets out, he is bent on revenge. His goal is to find the one who flaked altogether, and locates the man at a small hotel on a reclusive black-sanded beech. A woman residing there complicates things for the two men in strange and unexpected ways.

Author: Aaron Mannino

Aaron Mannino is a Philadelphia area artist, film enthusiast, and some other things. He has made contributions on film analysis to the publication Korean Quarterly. Visit his blog or his website for writings and art-ings.

One comment

  1. Side by Side is currently in theaters in NYC, not sure if it will get released here in Philly. It is also OnDemand for $6.99 until Oct.23rd

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