Saturday, May 19, 2012

You've Got to Come Back With Me

So Doo Dah Day is tomorrow.  It's a great event in Birmingham, sort of a giant love-in for dog lovers put on every year by the Humane Society.  People from all over bring their dogs to the park for parades, music fun, and games.  The Humane Society also helps dogs find forever homes, which is always a good thing.  It's a great event, one that would be even better if I actually had a dog.  I'm almost afraid to go down there this year, I might be tempted to pick one up.  I'd love to get a dog, actually, but my lease doesn't allow them.  Then again, my landlord is pretty great and I bet if I called him up and asked, he'd let me have one in the house (almost makes me afraid to call him, then I'd have no choice but to go down there).  However, there are a couple of ladies living in my house already that might have some thoughts on the matter.  Not sure if Sammy Jo and Captain Kitty would take too kindly to someone else moving in on their turf.  I'll get in touch with their people and see what they have to say.  It's hard to get a face-to-face with cats if they don't want to see you.  Sure, feeding time, lap time, sleep time, they're all up in your business.  But need to ask a serious question, they are harder to reach than Old Yeller (what, too soon?).  Anyway, one of these days I have a feeling another four-legged friend will make an appearance around these parts.  We'll see what happens.  But oddly enough, when I think about Doo Dah Day, my first thought isn't dogs.  Instead I think about driving to the beach in the middle of the night, putting on a suit, and watching the sunrise over the ocean, hoping the rapture doesn't occur.  It sounds strange, but that's exactly what I did around this time last year when Joe Walker asked me to be in his Sidewalk Scramble film and had the crazy notion of driving all the way to the Gulf Coast to get a shot on the beach at sunrise.  It's also the date when crazy Harold Camping told everyone the rapture was going to happen.  Since we only had one shot at this shot (and only 48 hours total to complete the whole film), we were relieved when Camping proved to be a wackjob.  God never showed so we were able to finish the film on time.  And after we drove all the way back to Birmingham, bleary-eyed and exhausted from staying awake all night, we arrived smack dab in the middle of Doo Dah Day.  There were dogs everywhere, dressed in all manner of doggie costumes, which took forever to navigate around in order to get back to our cars to finally go home and get some sleep.  It was like we had escaped the real rapture and found ourselves in the middle of some bizarre doggie version where all dogs go to heaven and get to wear funny hats on the way.  So this year, I think I will forgo the beach trip and look into finding a dog that might need a place to stay until the real rapture occurs.  Who knows, maybe if I get one, I can take them to the beach next year.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Deconstructing Bad

I am addicted to Breaking Bad.  I came to the party late, I only started watching it over the last few months, but I have made up for lost time very quickly.  I have just wrapped up the third season and am about to embark on season four.  Everything about the show is amazing; the cast, the writing, the cinematography, the use of Bob Odenkirk; it's quickly moved up into my list of all-time Top Ten television shows.  It may have even pushed Lost off the list.  Blasphemy, I know, but the show is just that damn good.  For those not familiar, it stars Bryan Cranston as Walter White, a middle-aged high school science teacher who learns he is dying of cancer.  In order to provide for his wife and handicapped son before his impending demise, Walt starts secretly cooking and selling meth with one of his former students, a slacker pothead named Jesse Pinkman played by Aaron Paul.  Things go good for about five minutes.  And then shit starts hitting the fan.  Constantly.  What transpires over the course of the show is something I won't dare spoil here, suffice it to say that it is well worth the time to find out.  Watching the show is like getting a master class on filmmaking.  The episodes are compelling, exciting, funny, violent, and all manner of surprising.  The relationships between the characters and how they weave the story together is something I find huge inspiration in.  It is a show I have tried to not only enjoy as a viewer, but also study as a filmmaker.  There is one scene in particular that I remember watching and thinking, "Wow, this show is working on a different level than most."  It's not a huge moment in the overall arc of the show, but it's a perfect example of the kind technical artistry on display on both sides of the camera.  It's a moment involving Hank, Walter's brother-in-law (played by Dean Norris) who just happens to be a D.E.A. agent.  I'll try to keep this as spoiler-free as possible, but the scene is in the second season of the show, when Hank is trying to track down a meth dealer known on the street as "Heisenberg."  Heisenberg's meth is something of a legend in the meth world, far purer and stronger than the normal stuff cooked in somebody's bathroom.  The search for Heisenberg has become Hank's obsession, one that has put a huge strain on his home and work life.  What Hank doesn't know is that the dealer he is looking for is Walt, who is doing anything and everything he can to keep Hank from learning the truth.  In the episode, Hank has finally tracked Heisenberg down to the old RV he produces his meth in, sort of like a mobile drug lab.  Thinking he has Heisenberg cornered, Hank is  about to move in.  Suddenly gets a call on his cell phone, informing him his wife has been in an accident and is in intensive care.  Suddenly, everything in Hank's world changes.  The color in the picture drains away, the contrast increases, the sound becomes muffled and dark.  It cuts to a frantic Hank, speeding away in his car as fast as he can drive, arriving at the hospital.  He's panicked as he races down the hospital hallways, desperate to find his wife.  A nurse finally calms him down and tells him they don't know what he is talking about, there haven't been any accidents today.  Hank stops.  The realization washes over his face.  Heisenberg faked the call from the hospital.  It was a trick to get rid of Hank so Heisenberg could escape.  The anger on Hank's face sells the moment perfectly, but here is where the technical wizardry at work really started to catch my eye.  The sound slowly comes back, and the color begins to return to normal.  But ever-so-subtlely the color starts to increase.  The reds start to take over a bit, combining with the light reflecting off Hank's sweating face, to turn his face red.  It seemed like Hank's blood was boiling over, like you could almost see steam rising off his face.  It was subtle, but it was beautiful.  I played the scene back a couple of times and really started to deconstruct it, paying close attention to the editing, the lighting, the framing, and all the other elements, trying to learn the magicians' tricks.  But these are tricks I don't mind having spoiled for me.  I have been very fortunate in the past to have seen up-close how a lot of movies and TV shows are made, but sometimes when you are working on a set, you get so caught up in the rush to get things done on-time and under budget, you can lose the artistry of it.  There's so many different moving parts that it's not always possible to keep them moving properly.  I have worked on many projects, large and small, where when I watched the final product, it was a letdown.  Just one wrong moving part and it can ruin the entire thing.  Pick the wrong actor, the wrong location, the wrong costume, or even the wrong caterer, and you can doom a project to failure.  Believe me.  I worked on this, I know what I'm talking about.  But, on those rare occasions when they do get it right, when you find a film or TV show where all the moving parts are working in unison, it gives me hope that it's not impossible.  That if you keep your eye on the details, and surround yourself with other talented artists who can keep an eye on them too, something genuinely moving and worthwhile can be created.  Of course, I say this now.  I said the same thing about Lost at the end of it's third season and look what happened to that one (A light in a cave?  Really, Lindelof?  A LIGHT IN A FRAKING CAVE?  REALLY?????  Sigh.  Sorry, I'm still a little bitter).  Anyhow, I hope Breaking Bad keeps up the amazing work on both sides of the camera and avoids the pitfalls that have sometimes befallen past shows when they try to land the plane (coughLostcough).  But for now, I am glued to the screen for the rest of the ride Breaking Bad is taking me on.  I'll also be taking lots of notes along the way.  And if my film plans don't work out, the show will probably have taught me how to make meth by then, so I've got that to fall back on.  Who says TV isn't educational?

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Trivial Characters

          I hosted trivia at Rojo tonight.  Something I signed up for on a whim a couple of months ago.  In some ways the only surprising thing about it is that I hadn't signed up to do it sooner.  My head is filled with useless information I'm not doing anything with.  A storehouse of random crap I have gleaned from years of watching movies and TV.  Things like who the director of Buckaroo Banzai is (W.D. Richter) or who plays the voice of the talking Johnny Cabs in Totall Recall (Robert Picardo).  I don't remember a word of French from college, but I do know that French new-wave film director Francois Truffaut is in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  Go figure.  But for some reason, those are the things that stick.  Anyway, since my head is jammed packed with a lifetime of irrelevant information, I have labored to find a useful purpose for it all.  I mean, if it's going to take up space, it might as well make itself useful, right?  Well, tonight I found a great way to put it to good use.  This giant trivia-soaked sponge of a brain inside my head provided me with plenty of material to choose from when crafting the questions I asked.  Granted, the teams who played were very sharp and answered some of my most challenging questions with ease, but I felt like the range of questions was broad enough to make it interesting and they weren't all walks in the park.  Folks seemed to have a good time, and that was the main thing, but I did get to dive deep into the recesses of my random brain and pluck a truly trivial fact out.  This was a random fact I have been storing inside my noggin on the off-chance I might get to show it off one day.  It's not impressive, it's not important, and for most people, probably not that interesting, but it's mine, dammit, and I finally had a place for it tonight.  It was so special I saved it for the last question of the night.  And here it is.  Who is the only actor who appears in Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the 1989 version of Batman?  No Googling.  Any guesses?  No one at Rojo knew the answer.  It's not something the average person probably thinks about ever.  At all.  Not even once.  It's a piece of knowledge that has no bearing on anything useful, productive, or revolutionary.  I doubt there is a single situation where this fact would be of any use to anyone anywhere at any time.  But it's in my brain.
          The answer is William Hootkins (Who?).  An American character actor who played Red Six (affectionately known as Porkins) in Star Wars, Major Eaton (one of the Army Intelligence officerswho gives Indy his marching orders) in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Lt. Eckhardt (the fat, corrupt police officer who gets shot by Jack Nicholson right before he becomes the Joker) in Batman.  He one of the those guys who most people have seen before in small roles in big movies, but never give a second thought to.  But those happen to be three movies I have seen dozens (and in the case of Star Wars, hundreds) of times, so after a while those esoteric details kind of crystallize in my brain.  I remember realizing one day that the same guy showed up in all three of those films.  It was like a lightbulb went off in my head.  It made me realize that I know way too much about this sort of stuff.  No offense to Mr. Hootkins, but I have a feeling my knowing this fact about his choice of roles in films probably pushed out an important fact I once learned but had to lose in favor of this piece of fluff filling the space.  I used to know Algebra, Physics, and other science facts.  I used to know the names of Roman rulers and Prussian poets.  Now all I can remember is that William Hootkins played Porkins in Star Wars and gets blown up right after Biggs Darklighter tells him to eject.  Come to think of it,  how do I know that Biggs' last name is Darklighter when it is never once mentioned in the film?  Or that he is played by Garrick Hagon?  See what I mean?  Useless!  Hopefully I will get to host trivia again and I can put some of the rest of this useless information to good use.  And maybe if I start sharing some of it, it will be replaced with better, more useful information.  Like how to defuse a bomb, or save the rainforests, or design a longer lasting lightbulb.  But, considering that I know that the weird guy in Robocop who says "I'll buy that for a dollar" is named Bixby Snyder, I doubt it.