Dark Rooms and Headsets

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I am so legitimately impressed that my overly-specific search term found this image that I don’t even mind the watermarks

When I watch films it’s normally in one of three ways. On a computer, on a DVD player or in a cinema. I feel like that’s basically how audiovisual content is consumed these days by the vast majority of people. However, I have recently had the opportunity to experience a few different forms of moving images and it’s been an interesting journey.

The first that kept surprising me was the idea of film as a physical commodity. I guess somewhere in the back of my mind I always knew this was the case but I hadn’t ever thought about the implications. Now that I study cinema at Uni the implications, I have realised, are wide and varied and they come up when you least expect them. Early manuals on how to edit films talk about how many feet of film a certain shot ought to be. Film was rationed in some countries during the second world war and this helped solidify 90 minutes as the length of a film. Subtitles had to be manually added to every frame of a film print and couldn’t be removed at the touch of a button. All these things blew my small 21st century brain, but at least it got me thinking.

I spent a good deal of time this term watching films projected on original 35mm copies and while thinking about these films (for reasons that will soon be very apparent. Wink wink, nudge nudge) I came to realise how different the experience of watching a physical copy of a film is to a digital copy. A physical film turns itself into an event every time. It can’t be seen without dimming the lights and projecting it from the back of a dark room. Yes, of course, this is still what happens in any cinema projecting any kind of film but it’s no longer necessary. We keep the spectacle of the cinema experience without actually having a cinema experience. Everyone knows that a digital overhead projector works just as well in an open-plan boardroom as a hushed cinema screen. Secondly, a physical film makes noise. Well, the large mechanical projector makes noise as it shows the film. It clicks, it whirrs, it makes a low humming noise and sometimes, just sometimes, the bulb flickers. There’s no point when you can forget the physical presence of the film; especially not when every ten minutes or so the reel needs changing. Here the projectionist has to execute a smooth change or pull the audience out of the film for the second it takes to figure it out.

Apart from anything else, a film on 35mm jumps into life from white, not from black. A dead computer, TV or phone screen is black. Even the default “no media” screen in editing software is black. But a projector, before the film is loaded and blocks the light is a square of white light on a white sheet. The people, places and situations that you see aren’t what’s projected, it’s what’s blocking this pure white light. Very literally a 35mm film is a series of photorealistic shadows telling a story. It’s really no wonder early thinkers likened this to hypnotism and ghosts.

On the other end of the scale I also recently had a chance to see a film in 360 VR. I’d seen 360 videos around but until now had never put on a VR headset and tested the immersive experience. I don’t recommend it for people who get travel sick in trains or cars. If that’s you, you’re gonna have a really bad time in VR. If not, go for it, you don’t really get the hype or potential of the medium until you’ve seen it for yourself, and it is a new medium. The whole experience is different even on the most basic physical level. In a cinema if you’re moving, shifting in your seat, looking around it most likely means you’re bored (or me hiding from the screen in literally any horror film). In a VR headset moving is how you know you’re engaged with the story. You reach out to touch things, you brace yourself for balance when the camera moves and you look around frantically following sources of sound. If a cinema paralyses you when it’s good a VR film is like an invitation to a dance.

 

Una (2016)

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I saw 10 films at the London Film Festival and while I have a lot to say about many of them, that will come later in its own time. Today I want to talk about the film that has stayed in my head since the moment I saw it, Una.

Una is directed by Benedict Andrews, starring Rooney Mara, Ben Mendelsohn, and Ruby Stokes and is adapted from the play by David Harrower. It bears the aura of being adapted from a stage play, as many such adaptations do. However I don’t feel that this is necessarily a bad thing. One of my favourite films of all time bears this same aura and it’s that which makes David Hugh Jones’ Betrayal so special. But back to Una. Benedict Andrews is a long-time theatre director just now making his first film. What strikes you straight away is that this doesn’t have the shy, mannered feel of a first film. It could just as well have come from a director with 20 blockbusters under his belt. Although this is due in large part to the three key performances that hold the film.

Rooney Mara plays a woman, Una, who has come to confront, or maybe even simply see, the man with whom she had a relationship with, be it sexual, loving or abusive 15 years earlier. Over the course of an hour and a half the two dig up the past, going over what happened between them and what went wrong. The question of right and wrong is almost totally ignored as the film focuses in on the emotions between the two. The film opens on the young Una going in search of something or someone and cuts before we see what she does. Fifteen years and some exposition later we see who she’s looking at in a sweeping long shot that starts on Rooney Mara’s defiant yet vulnerable face, zooming out to show her standing in a warehouse, dressed to impress before swinging round to Ben Mendelsohn, Ray, whose face bears the absolute lack of composure of someone who has seen their own demons brought to life. There is no cut,  no shot reverse-shot. Their meeting is a strong and shared moment that fills the immense space in time and the physical warehouse space chosen for the film.

This is Andrews’ touch of genius, to have transformed a stage play that takes place in a single room into a winding story of spaces and windows and the opaque. The young Una (Ruby Stokes) waits behind a glass pane for Ray to return. Now Ray shoves her into a break room to talk in private, compartmentalising the situation. Yet the break room is made of glass walls and so their drama has to play out in words alone so that it won’t be seen. In a demonstration of a continuous rebellious personality in Una she refuses to sit and wait, in either case. She walks the empty streets as a child and the towering warehouse structures looking for Ray, looking for the one simple answer. One of the few lines spoken by Ruby Stokes as the young Una is to ask Ray why he left and it’s this question that she still wants to ask now. As a child she could never have the answer, the question is asked to Ray through a television screen and so any real communication has been blocked off, once again, by a pane of glass. Here Ray can hear and see her but she has nothing. They get close to communicating when they are forced into hiding in dark rooms, finding once again the codes and habits of how they used to relate to each other Later in the film the two share genuine intimate insights while physically divided by a cubicle wall. We know there is something between them but we don’t see the wall, the frame stays just on their faces and they seem to talk to each other properly for the first time. As much as seeing each other rendered them speechless, not seeing seems to allow them to talk.

This is not to say that everything is resolved. The best that can be said is that a void that lasted Una’s whole life has been filled, at least to her satisfaction. What truly happened between them, truth or lie, right or wrong, remains unknown. Ray’s life and behaviour is certainly no more stable, but this isn’t his story, this is about Una, who, after years of searching, finally walks away.

 

 

Theatricals

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Trust me this picture is as weird to you as it is to me and I’m in it.

I think a great test of whether or not you could truly love doing something as a job for the rest of your life is to do it for a really long time every day and see if you want to run away screaming. Unless it’s your life’s passion this will most likely be the case. I know from experience that weeks of four films a day in uncomfortable cinema seats, 12 hour shoots and 18 hour editing marathons as well as endless paperwork have not turned me away from my film-based dreams. Theatre, however, is a different story.

A lot of people seem to think theatre and film work must be similar environments. I mean I suppose both are entertainment mediums and involve actors so there are undeniably things in common. Personally, I feel the relationship is more like the one between the two very definitely opposite and differently formed sides of a coin.
Now don’t get me wrong, I really like theatre. The distinction I’m making here is that I don’t think I could dedicate my life to it (but then I’ve got such problems being consistent that I’m too scared to buy a plant in case I get bored of it – so this may change) For the last six months I’ve been surrounded by more theatre than I ever could have expected. Granted, a lot of this was because I was filming and editing live theatre performances (which, by the way I recommend as an experience to any aspiring director) It’s a strange task that puts you halfway between crew and spectator. You have a job to do but that job involves watching the performance and, if the performance is good, it’s relatively impossible not to end up enjoying it and being moved like any other audience member. In two months I had filmed seven different student plays ranging from the bizarrely provocative to the sublime and at least twice was brought to tears by what I was seeing. There were some truly amazing shows in there that I would otherwise never got an opportunity to watch.
During this time I’ve remembered or maybe rediscovered a lot of things that lay dormant since my amateur theatre days. Because yes, I too, had a time when I performed on a stage. I wasn’t a revelation, I was far more interested in the lighting box and bossing people around. Besides, my theatre group wasn’t exactly the Cambridge Footlights but I’ll be damned if we didn’t have fun. There’s a joy in the backstage that doesn’t exist in any other place. My first discovery was that if you have to ask “am I allowed to go there?” the answer is no. Within a professional working theatre me and the shooting team quickly found our boundaries. The auditorium? Free rein, even with a red rope across it. Stage manager’s box? Fine, so long as the stage manager’s in there. Offices and equipment store? Basically our terrain. Green Room? NO. Are you INSANE? The ARTISTES are in there. Enter at own risk or if invited specifically by a friendly company member.
My next foray into theatre land has been a little more prolonged, and I’ve had the pleasure of being witness to, if not entirely part of, a rehearsal team and residential from the very start of a theatre project. I’m working on the video-projection for a production and so I was invited to the residential to see the production come together. (If the director happens to be reading this, yes I am actively working on this, yes it is slow, I am more than aware). I was thrown in at the deep end to the world and habits of actors. I was once very in touch with this atmosphere and even good at the kinds of games and physical exercices that are used as warm-ups. Somewhere along the line, however, all of this became associated with the feeling of a very specific time and place and being younger. I was almost shocked to find that there are people to whom this is still normal, everyday life. It certainly resembles nothing I currently know.
This whole theatre immersion came to a head when I spent two consecutive nights at theatre events, the first of which was an introductory presentation of the most recent play from a famous French theatre director. It was an opportunity I couldn’t quite believe to be able to attend and I listened attentively to everything said, excited to be hearing it at all. The next night I went to see that old theatre group of mine (by my calculations I spent over 10 hours on trains that weekend – someone remind me why I thought moving was a practical long-term arrangement?), or at least what the next generation of them has become. They’re far better now than they were when I was there and I was moved to tears by a show for the third time in six months. The group is now directed by a friend I had while I was there. The play I’m working on in Paris also happens to be directed by a member of that same group. My experiences and impressions of backstage life are pretty inextricably linked to that little local theatre. While I’m very happy to see these plays or even be involved in as much as I can, this recent theatrical immersion has mainly served to inspire and point me back towards a cinema and a camera, equipped with new skills friends and ideas that I wouldn’t have got from anywhere else.

Uncertainty.

When you walk out into the future you will undeniably be walking on shaky ground.

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I’ve noticed with a creeping, growing sense of irony, that I have been waiting to start my new, shiny united blog until I had confirmation that my two previous blog subjects were going to be united (namely, that my cinema blog and my education blog would meet in the middle as I head off to study cinema). Recent developments, that would make even the most experienced of red tape warriors cry, (including a situation where I had to provide a piece of paper I never had, due to a previous series of poorly-planned decisions), have brought home to me that this might not be something that happens.

In a clumsy segue, my country just pulled a shock move and voted to leave the European Union. I am a British student living in Paris. That’s the most technical definition, but I am also European, English and the daughter of an immigrant. Until this morning none of these identities seemed to be a contradiction in terms. There’s talk of an independent Scotland, an independent London, and a re-unified Ireland. We have no Prime Minister, potentially no leader of the opposition, and no unity.

Everything is up in the air but we have to keep moving until it hits the ground.

I’ll check in if anything happens.