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Literally and figuratively.
Architect, painter, and writer—author of seven books, including "Metaphysical Warrior," "Picasso Lessons," and "Visual Ef9ects"—Hildner explores the visible and invisible architecture of life and art.
Hildner cowrote the award-winning screenplay "Trust No One." He is currently working on a series of new screenplays—"Thought Experiment," "Wild Card," and "Dream House"—and on the design of "The Daedalus Project | A Trilogy— Part One: The Hero's Journey House."
The Seagull (2018)
SEAGULL DOWN: the misery of unrequited work & love shot through the lens of art / Silver Knight Rating: 7.75 Cameras
I saw THE SEAGULL last night at Tower Theater here in Sacramento, California. I'm glad I did. The agony of love, the agony of art . . . the pleasure and pain of human relationships and the joy and trauma of creativity--the tragic comedy of unrequited work & love. How could I not love it? I'm the sweet-spot of their target audience: a heartbroken artist.
This smart, entertaining, soul-searching riff on Checkhov's play by screenwriter Stephen Karam and director Michael Mayer looks and sounds beautiful on film.
I burst into a catharsis induced cry at the crucial moment, the thematic climax of the story, blissfully blindsided by the storytellers' beautiful insight into what it takes to be an artist. Once again, I experienced the power of art to lift me up and help me soar when my wings feel clipped or I feel shot down.
My Silver Knight Rating of THE SEAGULL--
White Knight (Form): 7.5
Black Knight (Story): 8.0
Silver Knight (Form & Story): 7.75
The Silver Knight Rating scores a movie's level of play in what I call the Chess Game of Art. (See my IMDb commentary on ARRIVAL.)
The Rider (2017)
Silver Knight Rating: 8 Cameras
My Silver Knight Rating of THE RIDER--
White Knight (Form): 7.75
Black Knight (Story): 8.25
Silver Knight (Form & Story): 8.0
The Silver Knight Rating scores a movie's level of play in what I call the Chess Game of Art. (See my IMDb commentary on ARRIVAL.)
DISOBEDIENCE obeys the first rule of storytelling / Silver Knight Rating: 8 Cameras
DISOBEDIENCE is a beautiful movie. A beautiful story beautifully told. Thoughtful and sensitive. Bold and brave. Delivering emotionally satisfying surprise after surprise. Because the filmmakers know the first rule of storytelling.
DISOBEDIENCE delivered the kind of emotional power that made me blissfully unable to hold back flowing tears. Tears that well up from the depths of our hearts and minds when we're overwhelmed by empathy and insight--what Robert McKee calls "aesthetic emotion." Uncontrollable tears evoked by the plight of the story's characters and the sight of the story's tellers. The kind of "I can hardly breathe" emotion I feel when I'm earthquaked by life seen through the lens of art.
DISOBEDIENCE gave me what I paid for. What I hoped for. Waves of redemptive heartache and euphoria. Waves of awe-inspiring beauty and truth. The transforming power of catharsis. And as in any really good story, DISOBEDIENCE delivers a knockout punch of multiple catharses at the end. For four people: the three main characters and me. The three main characters and you, if you're lucky.
And I chalk that up mainly to the great pleasure that I couldn't see the story's major turning point a mile away. Which means, I got to feel the full power of this story. Because the story's full spectrum of impact--the story's only power--flows from that major turning point and its reverberating collateral "damage."
So if you know about the major turning point, the crux of the story, ahead of time? Well, I'm so sorry. Because that means you have to sit there knowing what's going to happen.
We don't get a second chance to feel the first impression of a story's full power. To get blindsided by a story's naked truth. To feel the deep visceral lightning strike of the eye-opening moment when a story takes a riveting unexpected turn. That magical moment when the storytellers Reveal what they have tried so hard to Conceal. Which means we don't get a second chance to experience a story the way the story designers intended for us to experience it. And feel it. Feel its full power. Its only power.
So it won't come as any surprise to you that I didn't know anything about DISOBEDIENCE when I went to see it. Nothing. Only the title. And its rating: R. I wouldn't even look at the poster as I walked into the theater and made my way to my seat--because a poster usually gives something away. Nope. Just tell me the movie title and have a friend I trust encourage me to see a movie, and I go. Total blank slate.
It all goes back to my days as a camp counselor.
I got to tell stories around the big campfire on Saturday nights. Not a single camper wanted to know before I told them the story what it was about. Who the characters were. What happens. Somehow the 10-year old campers knew instinctively what David McKenna taught me in his Columbia University screenwriting course--the first rule of storytelling: "The only power of a storyteller is to withhold."
The campers knew this. They knew that hearing anything about the story before I told it to them would spoil it. Anything. So they trusted that I would simply tell them the story. No synopsis. No log line. No nothin'. (No poster with a picture giving it all away like the poster for DISOBEDIENCE. Really??? Who in the marketing department made that call?) The campers and I had an unspoken contract. We respected the art of Story and our collaborative roles as teller and audience enough to let a story reveal itself--to let the story itself, through the calculated structure of its design, reveal everything an audience needs to know. And when they need to know it. The campers sitting in a circle around the campfire knew that the only power the story I was going to tell them could possibly have was surprise.
And most of all, surprise that comes in the form we least expect and treasure most--the type of surprise woven inextricably into the fabric of the story's soul. The type of surprise where we suddenly realize that the storyteller has now disclosed the deep secret at the heart of the story that they could have disclosed earlier but chose instead to withhold. Thank God.
You deserve to feel the full power of DISOBEDIENCE. So maybe try being disobedient--don't read about the movie and who's in it before you see it. Don't find out ahead of time what the story is about. Don't look at the poster. Just kick back and let the filmmakers tell you a story. A story you'll have the sacred privilege of knowing nothing about until they tell you. Until they show you. Maybe like me, you'll be rewarded at the highest level of storytelling power.
And if it's too late for you to do this for DISOBEDIENCE, why don't you try if for the next movie someone you trust encourages you to see. Picture yourself sitting around the campfire. Innocent. Hoping and trusting--praying--the camp-counselor filmmakers will tell you a story that you know nothing about ahead of time.
My Silver Knight Rating of DISOBEDIENCE--
White Knight (Form): 7.0
Black Knight (Story): 9.0
Silver Knight (Form & Story): 8.0
The Silver Knight Rating scores a movie's level of play in what I call the Chess Game of Art. (See my IMDb commentary on ARRIVAL.)
Final Portrait (2017)
Stanley Tucci paints a beautiful "Portrait of an Artist as an Old Man" / Silver Knight Rating: 7.5 Cameras
My Silver Knight Riff
1. I think a lot of people, especially artists, will enjoy this movie, even though it's kind of slow.
Kind of like watching paint dry.
Ouch. Sorry. Does that sound unfair? Too harsh? Well, maybe, but don't get me wrong. I really like the movie.
I like slow. I like watching paint dry.
I'm a painter.
And so this movie speaks to me. I admire it. I admire Alberto Giacometti, whose life and mind I didn't know a whole lot about. I admire the screenwriter and set designer and all other facets of this refined 1h 31m movie--a terrific example of the Jean-Luc Godard concept that a movie is "the world in an hour and a half."
In all kinds of satisfying ways, FINAL PORTRAIT paints a compelling portrait of Art.
2. But I'm just being honest with you. Because when I went to see FINAL PORTRAIT the other night at the 1938 Art Moderne architectural gem the Tower Theater here in Sacramento, California, that thought, "like watching paint dry," flashed through my mind 1/2 way through the movie.
A movie about a painter and painting and paint.
So in a way, you can't help yourself having this thought, right? But it interrupted my concentration. I was sitting there in the theater as focused on the screen as Giacometti on his canvas. The film hooked me. But my mind wandered. Which broke the spell.
Because as this moment signified, when you get right down to it, the story design of FINAL PORTRAIT lacks the multi-dimensional development and depth that produces a sustained and irresistible emotional response.
3. I wanted more from FINAL PORTRAIT than intellectual appreciation. I wanted to feel and experience what I'm always hoping a movie will deliver--what all types of art will deliver, but especially a movie: what Robert McKee calls "aesthetic emotion" . . . and what the ancient Greeks called catharsis. Related concepts, but not the same.
And when I watch a movie, I can't help yielding to the upwelling of these two magical forces any more than Jude Law's leaky-faucet character, Graham, can avoid tearing up in THE HOLIDAY.
But FINAL PORTRAIT didn't trigger in me these emotions. I went into the theater hoping to come out like Jude Law's Graham. But I exited the theater like Cameron Diaz's Amanda. Dry eyed.
4. FINAL PORTRAIT didn't affect me the way I expect a great story exceptionally well told to affect me. But FINAL PORTRAIT is a treat for our eyes, ears, and soul. And it is most definitely a good story well told.
And the movie takes me back 25 years ago to memories of seeing 32 SHORT FILMS ABOUT GLENN GOULD. (24 Short Films About Glenn Gould for my mom, because she entered the theater late and missed 1/4 of the film.) Makes me want to see both movies again. The pianist and the painter.
And for 25 years, I've been breathing in Glenn Gould's artistic spirit and intellectual temperament, and to at least some degree they've infiltrated my being. I already feel the same thing happening because of FINAL PORTRAIT's rendering of Alberto Giacometti.
I'll take what I saw and learned from the filmmakers' portrayal of him and their portrayal of art back to my studio to paint and repaint a new portrait of myself.
For years to come.
5. A few quick notes about the actors. Armie Hammer, in the role of James Lord, the American writer who narrates the movie and the model for Giacometti's final portrait, strikes an appealing pose in his reserved way as he did even more so in one of last year's most exquisite films, CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, for which James Ivory (at 89) so deservingly won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.
And Geoffrey Rush . . . well, such a wonderful actor . . . what an engaging and compelling portrait of Alberto . . . his spirit . . . heart . . . mind . . . . His face molded by the filmmakers into a likeness of one of Giacometti's sculptures . . . his physicality makeupped and dressed to reflect the gray of his paintings. What a gift for Rush to play such a role. And he gives us the gift of his art in return.
Tony Shalhoub portrays Alberto's faithful gatekeeper-brother Diego so well too. Understated and nuanced. And Annette (Sylvie Testud) and Caroline (Clemence Poesy) also well written, cast, and rendered too. Pretty much not a wrong note by the artists of the cast and the artists who comprise the filmmaking team.
6. We get lines that educate and entertain about Giacometti himself, his artistic process and exacting patient search, and other artists about whom Giacometti has fascinating things to say, succinctly honoring Cézanne, nothing surprising revealed there, but slamming Picasso, way surprising.
And even James weighs in about Dora Maar and Cézanne's wife in witty lines of exposition and observation.
I also liked the brief scene of Alberto doing coffee with actor James Faulkner's Matisse--a surrealist twist given that Matisse died in 1954, 10 years before the time of the movie.
So Giacometti liked Cézanne and Matisse, but not Picasso? That's OK with me--Cézanne and Matisse are the two kings on the chessboard of modern painting. Picasso himself knew that. But disappointing to learn that Giacometti undervalues the importance of Picasso and Braque and Analytical and Synthetic Cubism. Especially when Giacometti's sculptures and paintings reflect their influence.
7. I guess the deepest most lasting impression for me--if I were to fast forward 25 years to what I might then look back and recall--will likely prove to be the pleasing feature that struck me right off the bat: the muted, gray color palette of a movie about the artist called the "Grey One." The filmmakers paint the look and feel of Giacometti's World in tones of gray, warm and cool. A World, an Arena, that includes his Studio . . . and his Home . . . and the Courtyard that connects them--the Space between that unifies the turbulent angst of Giacometti's somber intense melancholy gray world of Work and Love.
Freud said those are the two basic human needs. The two that most people need fulfilled to feel happy.
Work and Love.
FINAL PORTRAIT gets that.
8. We see the twilight struggle of Alberto's Inner World at the end of his life given poetic expression through the gray portrait of the artist's Outer World.
A world of light and shadow and hazy windows and mirrors and broken glass . . . quasi reflections of emotional truth and complex gray human relationships . . . reinforced through the subtext of Giacometti's compressed and mid-toned work-and-love venue where the unfolding of the drama of his life takes place.
I believe that architecture is the stage set for the drama of life--the drama of life and death. The world in a building.
The filmmakers of FINAL PORTRAIT are in touch with these concepts.
9. The set design of Giacometti's studio features sculptures ranging in size from XL to XS. We see variants of Giacometti's trademark sculptures: stick-like, elongated, vertically distorted--an echo of El Greco.
But we also see more classically volumetric studies, including an XL sculpted head that Giacometti especially adores. A self-portrait? Probably. Like all of his work.
And this particular sculpture of an XL face helps us grasp Giacometti's brave eccentricity and obsession with the plasticity and rugged terrain of the human head. Sculpted and molded by the artist's hands as if by God from the clay of the earth--but sculpted true to Cézanne's view of the world as formed essentially by geometric primaries: cubes, cones, cylinders, and spheres.
We get the feeling that all of these sculptures are Giacometti's best friends. Expressions of his zest, life force, and love.
And through the art of film, we view Giacometti in a studio where sculptures of people interact visually and symbolically with flesh-and-blood human beings, all in a crowded sacred space that runs on the psychological energy and physical work of the artist and on the fuel of the tense interplay of the artist's and his models' minds and emotions--from buoyant Caroline, Alberto's prostitute girlfriend, so eager for him to paint her portrait . . . to low key James who's honored to sit for the artist but can't wait to leave Paris and get back to New York . . . to agonized Annette, the wife, distraught but steadfast and accepting.
10. FINAL PORTRAIT presents the layered emotional choreography of this odd ensemble of souls, united by Alberto Giacometti's fiery passion, on a stage set of life where the artist isn't the typical starving artist. Just the opposite. Giacometti is so successful selling his art that he has money to burn.
But he doesn't care. Because he knows that money can't buy him the one thing he really wants--what all artists worth their soul really want:
11. I didn't know anything about this movie before it started. Zero. Only the title. Just the way I like it. So I had no idea it was about Giacometti. Or who was cast in the roles of a screenplay I didn't know who wrote. So the credits at the end revealed the beautiful surprise. Wow. Way to go Stanley Tucci. Director and Writer. Thanks to James Lord and your sensitive adaption of his memoir "A Giacometti Portrait," you've painted the canvas of the silver screen with beautiful brush strokes, evoking in me associations with James Joyce through your Portrait of an Artist as an Old Man.
My Silver Knight Rating of FINAL PORTRAIT:
White Knight (Form): 8.0
Black Knight (Story): 7.0
Silver Knight (Form & Story): 7.5
The Silver Knight Rating scores a movie's level of play in what I call the Chess Game of Art. (See my IMDb commentary on ARRIVAL.)
ARRIVAL: 9 / The Chess Game of Art -- My Silver Knight Rating System Explained
Cinema is Art--a grand creative chess game costarring Form and Story. And in keeping with the metaphor of chess, I cast these costars in the role of knights: the White Knight of Form and the Black Knight of Story. When I evaluate a movie, I evaluate the performance of each knight.
But these two knights not only stand alone. On the rectangular chessboard of the silver screen, the White Knight of Form and the Black Knight of Story also partner as one unified knight, through collaborative "conflict"--"the basis of every art," as Sergei Eisenstein said in Film Form (1949). Just as opposing sides of a coin, heads and tails, partner as one unified coin.
In the Chess Game of Art, I dub this one unified knight The Silver Knight of Form & Story.
The Silver Knight of Form & Story is the Avatar of Art, which represents an ideal-- indicated by a perfect Silver Knight Rating of 10. The Silver Knight Rating reflects my restrained judgment as to how well a movie hits this mark.
And the Silver Knight Rating measures more than my intellectual perception of where a movie falls along the spectrum of artistic merit that ranges from mediocrity to mastery. The Silver Knight Rating also factors in how psychologically pleasing I find the movie, how deeply the movie impacts me emotionally . . . induces catharsis . . . inspires in me an involuntary welling up of "aesthetic emotion"--a term coined by Clive Bell in Art (1914) that Robert McKee redefined in Story (1997) as "moments that blaze with a fusion of idea and emotion . . . the simultaneous encounter of thought and feeling." The Silver Knight Rating reflects the power of a movie's presentation of Form & Story to do what McKee says life typically can't do, but art can: unite insight and emotion.
My Silver Knight Rating of ARRIVAL:
White Knight (Form): 9
Black Knight (Story): 9
Silver Knight (Form & Story): 9
I developed my concept of Form & Story and my chess-based terms White Knight of Form, Black Knight of Story, and Silver Knight of Form & Story in my work as a practicing architect and architectural theorist. I draw from a deep well of research into literary theory and painting to highlight the concept of chess as an analogy or metaphor for art--and a metaphor in which the chess piece of the knight plays the lead role dating to at least Russian Formalist Victor Shklovsky's book Knight's Move (1923). I have written extensively about this research and the meaning of my special terms--for example, in my IMDb commentary on THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI. And in my book Visual Ef9ects.
But the terms Form and Story as applied to a building do not entirely parallel these terms as applied to a movie, so when it comes to movies, here's what I mean.
Form = Quality of Production. The Aesthetics of Sight & Sound. Cinematography & Soundtrack, including musical score and sound design. The visible and audible (optical and acoustical) expression of artistic choices that also include set design and film architecture, lighting, wardrobe, visual effects, and editing . . . as well as the quality of acting and directing.
Story = Quality of Screenplay. Shakespeare or hack? Does the screenplay present a good story well told? I base my rating on how much a movie sinks below or rises above this bar. For example, does the screenplay present a bad story well told? A ho-hum story told by an amateur? A great story beautifully told, rendered by a Story Master? And of course, Story itself represents an expression of Form, a very demanding expression of Form, requiring of the Story Architect special artistic powers and command of archetypal principles to first design an excellent story and then to craft its telling into an excellent screenplay. All of which factors into the dimension of cinema that I call Story.
So for example, by way of analogy with the allied art of theater, Bertolt Brecht's play GALILEO can either benefit from an outstanding production or suffer from a poor one. Which would affect the rating for Form, but not for Story.
For my rating of Form, I rely on a frame of reference shaped by my study of music and acting and by my work as a visual artist, principally as a practitioner and theorist of painting and architecture.
For my rating of Story, I rely on a frame of reference shaped by my education as a screenwriter, which helps me size up the degree to which a screenplay reflects advanced and inspired application of universal principles of Story Design spelled out in books like The Writer's Journey, by Christopher Vogler; Memo from the Story Department, by Christopher Vogler & David McKenna; Save the Cat!, by Blake Snyder; and Story, by Robert McKee.
I also factor in the degree to which Story Design measures up to what I call The Symbolic Rectangle, which I lay out in my IMDb commentary on MERU.
Bottom line, by way of analogy further afield, Does the expression of Form & Story that a movie presents have more to do with the level of amateur cycling that my nifty three-speed Brooklyn Flyer and my cycling skill set represent? Or with the level of professional cycling that we associate with the quality of bikes and skill sets of the competitors in the Tour de France?
Only movies that rank as worthy of the Tour de France, as it were, get highest Silver Knight Ratings.
An expression of Form & Story summed up in one word: Exquisite.
The Big Sick (2017)
Silver Knight Rating: 3
The Silver Knight Rating scores a movie's level of play in what I call
the Chess Game of Art. (See my IMDb commentary on ARRIVAL.)
My Silver Knight Rating of THE BIG SICK:
White Knight (Form): 3
Black Knight (Story): 4
Silver Knight (Form & Story): 3.5
CLOCKWORK DUNKIRK / Film magician Christopher Nolan tells the harrowing World War II story code-named Operation Dynamo by crisscrossing the Architecture of Place & Time . . .
1. If you haven't seen DUNKIRK, don't read this. And if you have seen DUNKIRK, go see it again. Ideally, 70mm film (not digital), 2.20:1 widescreen.
Because DUNKIRK presents far more than a thrilling visceral spectacle and dramatic reenactment of an historical event. This movie must be seen twice--at least twice--to fully grasp its clockwork architecture.
2. For screenwriter and director Christopher Nolan, Cinema is Art--a grand creative chess game costarring Form and Story. On the rectangular chessboard of the silver screen, the White Knight of Form and the Black Knight of Story (my terms) engage in collaborative "conflict"--"the basis of every art," as Sergei Eisenstein said in Film Form (1949).
Nolan knows, A movie is a game, and a game has rules. And in DUNKIRK, a Bobby Fischer level expression of the Chess Game of Art, Nolan plays by very special rules.
3. My second viewing confirmed things I saw the first time about Nolan's One Word Theme: Time. (And sidekick, Place.) And revealed far more I didn't see.
Time serves as Nolan's OWT throughout his work--for example, MEMENTO and INTERSTELLAR. Specifically, Story Time. Which in DUNKIRK, Nolan elastically shapes, bends, staggers, previews, rewinds, fast forwards, accelerates, and compresses . . . through his RASHOMON-like artistic filter . . . most obviously conveyed by showing us the downed British pilot's water landing twice.
Think about it. Nolan shows us that water landing twice!
4. Through titles, Nolan posts the Place & Time structure of his story up front. Events on the Mole (Land) take place over a week. On the Sea, in a day. In the Air, in an hour--virtually real time relative to the duration of the movie. Slow Land and faster Sea take place in the Past relative to fastest-of-all Air, which takes place in the Present--the Future relative to Land and Sea--until one fateful moment.
My second viewing revealed methodical nothing-is-random telling and retelling of key scenes as the Past of Land and Sea catch up with the Present of Air. Land and Sea time moves faster and faster, compression accelerating, to the second act climax when BAM, KABOOM . . . the German bomber (Villain) goes down. Conflagration ensues (signaling False Victory), the Moonstone rescues Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) . . . and action rebuilds until Land and Sea and Air intersect, EXPLODE, for one split second into a synchronized convergent Present of cheers at the end of the second act . . . when the three Place & Time Zones crisscross into a reversal, Sea and Land moving forward into the Present and Future . . . and Air gliding into the Past. All Place & Time lead to that crucial climactic Moment . . . when just when he thinks they're safe, startled--the Villain rising to strike one last time--Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) closes his eyes, resigned to their devastating fate . . . and the frame starts to go white . . . then suddenly, this False Defeat turns to Victory as the last German fighter plane gets shot down.
5. On first viewing, how could we know, Follow the Moonstone--captained by Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance)--which first-time viewers will unlikely spot in the frame of Nolan's first unspooling of the plane's water landing. How could we know, Follow the trawler--the beached bullet-riddled fishing boat--that we see sinking long before we see the soldiers climb into it. But on second viewing, we can see more clearly Nolan's magic act, his sleight of hand, his deft design, simultaneously concealed and revealed, of the Architecture of Place & Time.
6. The stunning Hans Zimmer score and the sound design reinforce Nolan's exacting choreography of Time. Listen for the tick tick. And watch how many times characters look at their watches, including British pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy), who checks his watch and chalks the time on his control panel to calculate how long his fuel will last.
See how beautifully Nolan edits the film at the end, collating the frames of Hoyte van Hoytema's breathtaking cinematography so that the slow peaceful heroic descent of the airplane onto the beach--when Air and Land and Sea again poetically merge--parallels the same slowing down, the same timing, of the train with our mole. (Nolan plays on the meaning of mole, threading our stand in, Tommy, through the story from beginning to end, seen from the back in the first frame and from the front in the last frame. Mole in a figurative sense: The mole is our spy, one of the main ways we get inside the story. He spies for us.)
7. I need a third watch to unravel Nolan's Möbius strip moves. When does Farrier shoot down that last fighter? Does he loop back after he glides by Bolton? Or does Nolan pull a MEMENTO, showing the sequence backward-because Farrier shot the fighter down before gliding by? A riddle signaling how Nolan ups the complexity of his artistic chess game of Form & Story at this dramatic moment. Not only crisscrossing Time and Place . . . but also Direction and Space.
8. Yes, a movie is a game, and a game has rules--rules that the magic of movies can sustain, bend, and break that the Place & Time-bound reality of life can't.
But at the same time, the Form & Story art of DUNKIRK presents a creative demonstration of the scientific truth of the relativity of Space and Time.
Nolan riffs on Akira Kurosawa's RASHOMON (1950), gathering witnesses inside and outside the story, summoning us to witness the film's deep structure as we sort out what's happening . . . where . . . and when.
9. My Silver Knight Rating of DUNKIRK:
White Knight (Form): 9
Black Knight (Story): 8
Silver Knight (Form & Story): 8.5
(I explain my Silver Knight Rating system in my IMDb commentary on ARRIVAL.)
Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920)
CUBIST KNIGHTMARES | Form & Story @ 24 fps
I don't like horror, but I show "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" in my film architecture seminar, because the filmmakers hold graphic violence in check, present a good story well told, and conjure a brave visual work of art.
Most of all, I like how this silent 1920 surreal thriller illustrates the unity of what I call Form & Story—a concept that helps me design my screenplays and my books, paintings, and buildings.
Let me set up my commentary by laying some theoretical groundwork, using terms and concepts I've devised in my practice of architecture.
Architecture is a silver coin. Inscribed on one side, FORM: Architecture is the stage set for the drama of life. Inscribed on the other side, STORY: Architecture is a story told through a building. One side emphasizes Aesthetics: architecture as an Abstract Aesthetic System that expresses compositional and physical technique. The other side emphasizes Symbolics: architecture as a Symbolic Image System that expresses intellectual and emotional meaning.
Chess offers a helpful analogy. Think of Aesthetics as the system of abstract Moves that chess pieces make when deployed by a chess player, toward the goal of winning the game. Moves like left, right, back, forward, diagonal, slide, jump. Think of Symbolics as the associational Meaning of a set of chess pieces, meaning conveyed mainly by the names of the pieces: a medieval army of warriors (knights and pawns) and counselors (bishops and queen) dedicated to defending the king and to destroying the opposing army and its king. Chess Meaning has nothing to do with the Chess Moves, the strategies and tactics required of a chess player to win the game. So on the one hand, these two systems of chess exist independent of one another. And on the other hand, rather exquisitely, these two systems of chess, Chess Moves (Abstract Aesthetic System: Form) and Chess Meaning (Symbolic Image System: Story), weave together to form a self-referential game, logistical and metaphorical, about war.
The complex interplay of the two sides of the Silver Coin of Architecture—the Silver Coin of Art—add up to The Visual: the sum of The Visible + The Invisible . . . stirring within us, ideally, waves of pleasure and insight that reward our twin powers of observation and contemplation. Our desire for beauty and truth.
The artistic consciousness that governs Caligari trades in this coin. For example, take the moment at 6:18 into the film, where Alan stands in his attic room, centered in the cinematic frame, pillar-like and pensive, his face the center of visual impact, the book in his hands vying for this honor, our focus then zigzagging (like the zigzag of the room itself) into the picture space, first to the chair and shard of the story-significant bed in the shallow space to Alan's left then to the desk and window in the deep space to his right. Look how the triangle of light on the wall behind Alan diagonals through his left jacket lapel, signaling precisionist control of the architecture of the visual canvas, collapsing character and set into a unified geometric system, integrating figure and field, object and space, man and place, not only spatially and visually, but also emotionally. Alan doesn't stand as an isolated object against a neutral background. He stands enmeshed within the woven fabric of a story-charged background, as much a part of him as his clothes, a man in tension-laced alignment with his well-organized but off-kilter environment, alone in a room that looks physically empty, but feels atmospherically full. Trapped. This introverted book-holding attic dweller, suppressing a recent scare, becomes an extension of the architecture, and the architecture becomes an extension of him. Man and architecture collage together as one.
The visible geometry of the Outer Cubism of the Room reflects the invisible anxiety of the Interior Cubism of the Man. The optical architecture of Alan's outer world reflects the emotional architecture of his inner world. And vice versa. Through this device of inner/outer reciprocal reflection, the controlling visual device of director Robert Wiene's suspenseful frame story (written by Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz, art directed by Herman Warm, Walter Reiman, and Walter Rohrig), architecture is an exterior expression of interior cogitation, a counterpoint to the ordinary take on architecture as "form follows function." The form of Caligari's architecture does follow its function, but this function has less to do with physical construction and more to do with psychological projection. And mood.
In Caligari, architecture not only presents the stage set for the drama of life, architecture externalizes the drama of life. On the chess board of Alan's room—within the carefully arranged chess-board space of his weird world of light and dark (and wall with a giant rotated black square)—the White Knight of Aesthetics and the Black Knight of Symbolics assert their coequal presence, blending into a shining Gray Knight of Visual Storytelling: what I dub the Silver Knight of Form & Story. Caligari's unified Abstract Aesthetic System and Symbolic Image System create the Meaningful Form of Alan's eccentric home: a sepia-toned arena of inner and outer conflict, menaced by shadows and foreshadows, contorted by currents and undercurrents that flow from the eerie and mysterious Story in which Alan plays a pawn.
What a difference a room makes, jagged, barren, spooky, alive, and dead.
Welcome to Caligari's Cubist Knightmares. Where German Expressionism suffuses Cubism with a dark vibe. Welcome to the terribly beautiful architecture of Caligari's Form & Story. A strange, poetic landscape that unspools, ultimately, from the inner movie reel of the story architects' imagination. Enter, if you dare, for 77 minutes, Caligari's spellbinding Cubist Chambers of the Silver Knight.
© Copyright 2017 by JEF7REY HILDNER
Base Camp | "The Symbolic Rectangle"
Divorce can crush you.
No, I'm not talking about Meru. That's the lead I wish I'd written for my commentary on Her. www.imdb.com/title/tt1798709/reviews-734
But IMDb won't let me revise my commentary, because I hit the max tweaks IMDb allows.
So, undaunted—a fan of non sequitur, incongruity, Russian Formalist "strange-making," and eccentric creative leaps!—I won't bury the lead this time. Even though the lead doesn't go with Meru.
I know, go figure.
But I did get something right in my Her commentary: I introduced the concept that I call The Symbolic Triangle.
Her spins around a One-Word Theme*: Divorce. The only way through the dark labyrinth of divorce? Acceptance. Her presents a Rite of Passage story that requires the hero, Theo Twombley, to move through the heartache and grief of divorce into an emotional space where he accepts his fate.
And the simple geometry of Her's story triangle helps us see through the sizzle to the substance of the movie's deft thematic structure.
THE SYMBOLIC TRIANGLE. 1. TITLE: Her (secondarily, the digital-woman played by Scarlett Johansson—the attractive distractor; primarily, Catherine, the real-life woman who dumps the story's hero). 2. ONE-WORD THEME: Divorce. 3. HERO'S NAME: Theo Twombley (screenwriter Spike Jonze's artfully chosen name, which I translate: "A Man For Whom Women Are 'Deities Unknown'").
Which brings us to Meru.
Meru prompted me to reconfigure the geometry. I shifted to an iconic geometry shared by architecture, painting, literature, and cinema—the archetypal shape of windows, walls, and rooms, of canvases, books, and movie screens.
THE SYMBOLIC RECTANGLE.
Anchored by four cornerstones of thematic unity crucial to the art of story design:
1. TITLE | 2. ONE-WORD THEME | 3. SPECIAL WORLD | 4. HERO'S NAME
Same as The Symbolic Triangle—except I added Special World.
I learned about the Special World from David McKenna, who co-wrote with Christopher Vogler the book "Memo from the Story Department," in which Vogler presents the concept "one word theme." I took David's screen writing course at Columbia University. And one day during a class break, we walked and talked. I'd just watched All the President's Men, and I asked David, "What's the Special World?"
Now, I was thinking along the lines of The Washington Post, Investigative Journalism, Political Corruption, Abuse of Power...
You get the picture.
So imagine my surprise when David said, "The Wasp & the Jew." Ah! Woodward & Bernstein. That blew me away. And stuck.
My contenders for the Special World of All the President's Men play a role in story design: ARENA. And thanks to Barbara Nicolosi, who unpacks this concept in her screenwriter talks (catharsis.com), we can distinguish between Special World and Arena.
But where does Arena fit into The Symbolic Rectangle? Well, I had to mull that over. And I didn't want to turn the rectangle into a pentagon. For symbolic reasons, rectangle makes wayyyyy more sense. As an architect, a painter, and a screenwriter, no way I'm going to base my work on a pentagon! So it hit me: Make the Arena the space defined by the four corners of The Symbolic Rectangle.
Think of a story's Arena as Central Park. Or as The Lawn at UVA. The space the sacred space defined by the perimeter. The stage on which the drama unfolds.
Back to Meru.
THE SYMBOLIC RECTANGLE: Meru
1. TITLE: Meru—Meru means "High"
2. ONE-WORD THEME: Trust
3. SPECIAL WORLD: Team
4. HERO'S NAME: Conrad Anker—German origins: Conrad means "bold" and rad "counsel" (rad: "very appealing, good radical"). Anker means "anchor"—a person who provides strength and support.
5. ARENA: Mountain Climbing
Sure, Meru's a documentary, but the filmmakers clearly signal their awareness of story-design concepts encompassed by The Symbolic Rectangle. (Talk about luck for the hero's name!)
Meru tells a story about a trio of brave-beyond-measure mountaineers. But Meru also tells a story about us. Because as Robert McKee says in his workshop and book, Story, every movie is a metaphor for life. A metaphor for my life and your life.
Meru sends us the message: To reach our high goal, we too must act boldly—guided by radical good counsel—and provide strength and support for a team in whom we place our trust.
Meru asks: Like Conrad Anker and his team, do you have the wherewithal, courage, and bold character to sacrifice everything to achieve your worthy ideal? And when your goal's finally within reach, do you have the humility, wisdom, and grit it takes to retreat? Like the mountain climbers—and filmmakers—did just 150 feet short of the summit? (The filmmakers didn't have a movie after team Anker's 2008 unsuccessful climb.) Or are you so hypnotized by your goal that you blunder, ignoring wise counsel, your inner GPS? Do you have the brains, heart, and guts to hit the reset button? To regroup? To "fail, fail again, fail better," as Samuel Beckett put it? Can you endure an ordeal that doubles or triples in magnitude as you scale your mountain?
Because a mountain can crush you.
Meru's heroic story impels us to more fully realize our own heroic story. We climb to the summit of the human spirit. And return to base camp transformed, dumbstruck by a team of people powered by audacity, tenacity, foresight, mettle, and trust. And love.
McKenna taught me, "The only power of a storyteller is to withhold."
Where does WITHHOLD fit into The Symbolic Rectangle? First take: the Perimeter—the line that connects the four corners and outlines the Arena. Because that line? That's a story's Power Line.
Dimension six of The Symbolic Rectangle.
6. WITHHOLD: (See the movie.)
* See "Memo from the Story Department," by Christopher Vogler & David McKenna
© Copyright 2015 by JEF7REY HILDNER
THE SYMBOLIC TRIANGLE ("Her" isn't who you think she is.)
All I'd heard about Her was that it was about a man who gets romantically involved with a digital girlfriend.
But Her not only entertains through its pleasing visual design—from the understated film architecture of futuristic cool-toned LA to the vivid palette of protagonist Theo Twombley's warm-toned spring-season threads.
More important: Her educates through its equally pleasing story design. Which illustrates what I call "THE SYMBOLIC TRIANGLE": the thematic correlation of a story's TITLE, ONE-WORD THEME*, and HERO'S NAME.
For example. TITLE: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. ONE-WORD THEME*: Freedom ("To discover the mode of life or of art whereby my spirit could express itself in unfettered freedom," sings James Joyce through his alter-ego hero). HERO'S NAME: Stephen Daedalus (Greek: Stephen means "crowned one." Daedalus = the mythic Greek artisan-hero, inventor of the labyrinth and wings).
Her refers only superficially to Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), the virtual woman. Samantha's a decoy—story-wise for us and emotionally-wise for Theo (Joaquin Phoenix). Her refers more deeply to the physical woman, Theo's soon-to-be ex-wife, about whom Theo is heartbroken: Catherine Klausen.
At its emotional core, Her isn't mainly about a fantasy love story in which futuristic software conjures up through artificial intelligence a beguiling girlfriend. Her evokes the pain and futility of an all-too-common everyday love story in which age-old real-ware cannot conjure up sufficient relational intelligence between men and women to ward off divorce.
ONE-WORD THEME*: Divorce
Screenwriter Spike Jonze tells a classic three-stage Rites-of-Passage Separation story: Life Problem, Wrong Way, Acceptance (Blake Snyder's "Save the Cat!" classifications). The theme of divorce plays out primarily with Theo and Catherine (Rooney Mara), secondarily—analogically—with Theo and Samantha, and lower down the ladder of priority, with Amy and Charles (Amy Adams and Matt Letscher), a third couple that goes through a divorce.
Amy herself takes up after her divorce from Charles with a female OS—another Her—then gets dumped. Can we see, Jonze implies, that Her refers to all women in the story? To all women?
Jonze distracts us with the futuristic look and feel of artificial intelligence to blind us—momentarily—to the deeper and timeless mystery of genuine human-relationship intelligence that we'll always require if we hope to share with a significant other the joys of happiness, intimacy, and trust. The filmmaker blinds us to this core human-relationship challenge to better show how the story's hero, the emotionally withdrawn and confused Theo (the story's EveryMan), is blind to what love requires. A professional letter-writer who knows what love requires in the lives of others, Theo is clueless when it comes to what love requires in his own life, what women require of love.
Technology can help men (and women) with lots of stuff. But not this. Not marriage.
Jonze distracts Theo (and us) from the core theme and Life Problem, divorce, by the "attractive-distractor" experiment of Theo's relationship with a non-human: Theo's Wrong Way of dealing with his Life Problem. Caught up with the false "Her"—Samantha, a machine—Theo temporarily dulls the pain he feels from his dead marriage with the real "Her"—a human being, Catherine.
Samantha is the wizard of Her. And just as Dorothy's misplaced hope in the wizard of Oz has little to do with her eventual triumph over her ordeal, her growth and development, her return home, so too Theo's same-old-pattern emotionally-remote escapist relationship with Samantha will not bring him to a place of maturity and relationship intelligence he needs to become a member of the 20% club of successful marriages.
But unlike Dorothy who grows and changes, Theo doesn't. Experience along the yellow-brick road teaches him little about women or marriage and male-female relationships, little to spare him the same ordeal if he chooses to take another crack at marriage. A man without a flight manual. Winging it. Consult a book? "The 5 Love Languages"? "Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay"? "The Way of the Superior Man"? Not Theo. And by the end of the story, he accepts life as it is. Ready to move on. Still clueless about EveryHer.
Jonze visually bookends Theo's journey to Acceptance —
Opening Shot: Theo inside, office cubicle, looking at his computer, a nearsighted contracted view of life alone writing a letter for someone else about their life a man (Theo) facing a huge Life Problem: divorce.
Closing Shot: Theo outside, rooftop of a skyscraper, looking out over the city, a farsighted expanded view of life still alone inside himself (interior-wise) but not alone exterior-wise because he's with Amy, another casualty of divorce Theo having finally written a letter for himself about his own life to the woman he loved a man finally resigned to his failure and fate: divorce.
And Jonze hints that Theo (and Catherine) might have to accept much more. Did the couple lose their baby? Did a tragedy contribute to their doom? Does that explain their unspeakable pain?
HERO'S NAME: Theo Twombley (A Man For Whom Women Are "Deities Unknown")
Given his painterly celebration of color, expressed through his wardrobe, and his fuzzy contemplation of life and its emotional tension between what's fanciful and true, could Theo Twombley refer to artist Cy Twombly, whose signature scribbles of mythically inspired canvases and drawings represent the confused scribbles of Theo's inner life as he braves through his ordeal?
Add that the meaning of the surname Twombley is unknown and that the meaning of Theo relates to God or deities, as in "theology." And we see how Theo Twombley's name reflects his incapacity to successfully traverse the labyrinth of marriage. A Man For Whom Women Are "Deities Unknown." Because marriage is a mysterious religious experience, requiring the relational intelligence of deities for Him to get it right with Her.
*Credit Christopher Vogler for the concept "one-word theme" ("Memo from the Story Department," by Vogler & McKenna).
© Copyright 2015 by JEF7REY HILDNER
A Most Wanted Man (2014)
A Most Betrayed Man
Every good story coils around a one-word theme.* And you can feel a one-word theme churning the tide of John le Carré's story "A Most Wanted Man," his spy novel adapted by Andrew Bovell for the screen.
The one-word theme?
As a fellow spy warns the film's protagonist, Gunther Bachmann, masterfully played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, "Watch your back."
And then there's the title: "A Most Wanted Man." A good title backs up the one-word theme. Unpack the title, and you ideally find another key to a story's deep structure.
I've been thinking since seeing the movie a second time, maybe there's a deeper meaning of the word "wanted" embedded in John le Carré's story title--another meaning that would shift our ambivalent focus on terrorist sympathizer Abdulla to where we seek rightly to put the focus of the title, squarely on Gunther Bachmann, the tragic hero.
Gunther signals the break from act two to act three when he sits at the piano in his small lonely apartment and knocks out a few clumsy measures of Bach, evoking Gunther's nature and work: his guarded and melancholy German-precision interior wiring and the point-counterpoint contrapuntal complexities of the fugue-like game of high-stakes espionage.
And so throughout the film, as part part of the spy game surely intended by the story's designer, we can't help but wonder: In what way is this complicated Bach man more deeply "A Most Wanted Man"? Beyond the unsatisfying sense of the default meaning of "wanted" that we naturally infer-- the meaning of "wanted" signaled by a mug shot on the wall of a post office: "Wanted, Dead or Alive."
I looked up the word and found this: "(with object) (Chiefly used in expressions of time) be short of or lack (a specified amount or thing): it wanted twenty minutes to midnight" (New Oxford American Dictionary).
Aha! There it is. The meaning I've been fishing around for, trying to put my finger on, so I can decipher more fully the character of our hero, his nefarious friendly-fire circumstances, and the symbolic link between his identity and the deeper meaning of this story, signified so brilliantly, sure enough (I now see), by the title. A meaning that parallels the familiar sense conveyed by the 23rd Psalm, "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want."
Gunther is not only a most wanted man--the most wanted man--in the same sense as and along with suspects Abdullah and Karpov: needed because crucial to the operation by the CIA's Martha Sullivan and German Intelligence's Deter Mohr, the backstabbing agency villains, who enviously act in their own personal, turf-protecting self-interest, cavalierly betraying our safety in favor of their personal power as they give boilerplate lip-service to making the world a safer place. When in fact their sanctioned incompetence, their ego-driven dumb-ass "C student" pattern of F'ing everything up all the time, their brutal betrayal of Gunther's integrity and "A student" service-to-humanity competence, sinks our world further into the abyss of risk and danger.
Gunther himself is also "wanted," as the definition above suggests (fittingly, a more covert meaning of the word), in a different sense that has nothing to do with outside forces that want to betray him: Gunther wants.
Our hero Gunther finds himself and his mission "most wanted" of what it takes to succeed. Gunther lacks what it takes to prevail against villainy: time. Gunther lacks (finds himself wanting, deprived of) the three hours to turn Abdulla that he and we the audience expect him to get after succeeding in trapping Abdulla. Gunther's mission wanted three hours before midnight--fell short three hours before its appointed date with destiny.
And though brilliant, despite his keen emotional intelligence, uncanny intuition, and warranted distrust of rival agencies, Gunther falls short of summoning the necessary personal qualities crucial for victory, including cunning that flows from airtight foresight.
Unable to measure up to the ideal that he expects of himself so as to keep the forces of darkness at bay, Gunther finds himself wanting--in a sense, self-betrayed.
And now the title and the story click into place. The hero, Gunther, is truly A Most Wanted Man. And so we too are most wanted men and women. Because without Gunther at the helm of operations, we want for our own security. We find ourselves betrayed--wanted a few hours short of greater safety.
*NOTE: For more about the one-word theme of stories and other insights into the architecture of storytelling in movies, see "Memo From the Story Department" by Christopher Vogler and David McKenna.
The Searchers (1956)
I enjoyed "The Searchers," especially some of John Ford's and cinematographer Winton Hoch's stunning shots, beautifully framed, of Monument Valley, but I found the incongruous music, bad acting, and Hollywood sound stage scenes distracting. Confusion between drama and melodrama threads its way through the film, as displayed by various actors, including Jeffrey Hunter (Martin Pawley), Vera Miles (Laurie Jorgensen), and Dorothy Jordan (Martha Edwards). So the film fluctuates between serious art and silly entertainment. Cliché and comedy kick against naturalism and tragedy. But sometimes it works: The offbeat court jester character, Mose Harper, for example, shows how Ford and screenwriter Frank Nugent use an archetype well (the glee Mose Harper displays in the face of battle reminds me of the antic samurai in Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai," made three years before "The Searchers").
But the film's minuses pale in comparison to the film's pluses. I was moved by the grand vision and the grandeur of the film. I felt the sweep of the epic landscape and the epic story. I felt the visual romanticism of the West that Ford and Hoch painted on film. I felt the calculated contrast and fusion of shadow and light, deep and shallow space, human body and rugged terrain. Man and earth. I felt the grace and menace of the film's handling of terror and violence--deftly implied and left to your imagination, stirring in the viewer a sickening comprehension of horror unrivaled by ghoulish displays of blood and gore that you find in less mature works. I felt the subtly of John Wayne's acting and the simmering intensity of his character's (Ethan Edwards's) quest. I felt the power of the story. A classic hero's journey. A loner and outsider on a relentless quest. A quest to find a lost child. A quest for vengeance.
But vengeance motivated by what? More than I thought when viewing the film without benefit of the special features and commentaries on the Blu-ray DVD.
The commentaries educated me about the film's intelligence. I now have a far greater understanding and appreciation for the film's achievement in terms of directing, technique, editing, themes, and story. I understand what Peter Bogdanovich calls the film's intentional "complicated ambiguity" about racism, which oozes through the film's action and dialog. Ethan Edwards is a racist, a character flaw corroborated, I realized, by the exposition at the film's start where we learn about his service on the Confederate side of the Civil War.
I learned that Ford's visual influences include artists roughly contemporary with the film's late 19th-century setting: painters Frederic Remington (1861-1909) and Charles Russel (1864-1926), and filmmaker D.W. Griffith (1875-1948). I learned that Ford didn't storyboard, he simply saw the film in his head, shot swiftly, in one or two takes, didn't shoot from several angles for coverage, never rehearsed action sequences, and assembled the film the way he shot it. Sure and efficient, Ford edited the film before he shot it. Effortless mastery.
But I learned most of all about the story. I suddenly realized during Peter Bogdanovich's commentary that Ethan Edwards's (Wayne's) quest is motivated by more than a relentless search for a lost child. Bogdanovich didn't spell it out, but he told me what I need to know to connect the dots. He told me what I didn't pick up on at all my first viewing--that Ethan Edwards and his brother's wife (Martha Edwards) love each other. Wow. And once you're told this, you watch and see how Ford and Nugent reveal Ethan's and Martha's love clearly at the very beginning of the film. And then you understand--Ethan Edwards wants to avenge the brutal rape and murder of the woman he loved.
Ethan Edwards searches not for just any child, but for his lover's child. He searches for the daughter (at first daughters, Lucy and Debbie) that he could have had if he were more like his brother, a homebody, rather than a "prodigal brother"--a rebel. Martha married the backup man rather than the man she really loved, just as Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles) almost marries the backup man rather than the man she really loves, Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), Ethan's surrogate son and sidekick.
Ford, Nugent, and Hoch tell a tale of unrequited love and love avenged. A classic tale told so inferentially, subtlety, deftly that I didn't even get it at first. Ethan Edwards makes a journey of obsession. He runs on racist-fueled hatred for the Commanche (Scar) who butchered his (Ethan's) lover . Ethan's morally confused vengeance runs so deep that he seeks Martha's lost daughter not to save the daughter but to murder her. But the dark side of his nature loses. The hero side wins. I don't know if we can call it forgiveness. I think we could simply call it love: Ethan's love for Martha trumps the racist vengeance he feels toward Scar. In the end, Ethan saves Debbie, and in so doing he not only saves his love for Debbie's mother, his true love, Martha--he saves himself. "Just as sure as the ... turnin' of the earth."
© copyright 2007 by JEF7REY HILDNER