Thursday, April 21, 2011

Closer, please... Closer...

First impressions are very important. They give us cues we file away emotionally, due to their novelty and our unpreparedness, and they are often too strong to be undone by the reasonable conclusions our minds manufacture after the fact.

Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs is certainly well-known now as a classic of suspense and horror. A multi-Oscar winner (Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, Screenplay) that made household words out of Thomas Harris’ characters, and reset standards for its genre(s). So even a new viewer coming to it today knows they’re in for some stress.

But when it was freshly released, an audience would have felt trepidation from the start, and perhaps not have recognized all the techniques that were affecting them. We know when we see muted colors and sharp angles we’re not in Happytown, and when the music suggests danger we know how to process that as well, sophisticated as we are. So, how to cut through our knowledge and experience, and give us the proper dread as an appetizer?

The opening credits do this masterfully.

As a graphic designer, the typography in the opening sequence always struck me as oddly chosen. At the time, with Twin Peaks as my reference point for so much of the other culture I was absorbing, I noted what I thought were similarities, and moreorless left the subject behind, pouring my critical attention into the main body of the film. It was probably only on my sixth or seventh viewing that the genius of the opening revealed itself to me.

The first cards appear against a stark scene, black branches against a grey sky.  The black lettering seems to be hiding within it, difficult to discern compared to the usual approach of making the text highly present and visible. The style itself -- thick black letters with a thin white outline -- is already very different from what we’re used to seeing. All caps; a loud, shouting choice.

When we get our first clear view of Clarice Starling, running through an FBI training path, she is immediately confronted by, and dwarfed by, another credit popping up in front of her. And so we are immediately confronted with the tension of the moment, that she is facing unexpected and formidable danger. (It’s amusing to note that this credit belongs to the actor who plays Buffalo Bill.)

These captions are larger than we’re accustomed to as viewers. A film is designed for a large screen; to make the credits in this size of typeface is not the norm. This becomes especially evident as we follow Clarice -- she runs through the woods, essentially pursued by titles that are now stacked three names high, filling up the screen.

And within themselves, each line of text carries its own tension. The white outlines vary in width a bit, as though an inverse drop shadow accompanies them, but the direction of this thickness changes from time to time.

Then there is the letterspacing, the key indication that none of this is mere intuition or accident on the part of the filmmakers. The letters are spaced in a manner that no professional-in-training would ever submit as their homework – too loose, too irregular. The baselines are not consistently maintained, even within single words. The letters sit at slight angles, not parallel with each other.

For an especially illustrative example, look at “ISAAK” -- even a non-designer can see once it’s pointed out that there’s far too much space between the two A’s. Things aren't right here. Our usual comfort is subverted. The movie has just started, and it's already fucking with us.

So, we have a title typeface that is absolutely not to be trusted.

Imagine you’re walking alone, you turn a corner, and there’s an unexpected stranger in front of you. Maybe not that unusual in itself. But this stranger is different. He is large, and somewhat obscured by the dark. His manner of dress is off somehow. His posture is forced and uncomfortable. He is making no attempt to restrain his presence, no reaction to your sudden appearance, he is just standing there, looking at you. Everything about him is a little bit wrong. And he’s standing much too close, with no hint of intention to back away or let you pass.

Maybe there’s nothing really wrong, maybe there’s no danger, but that’s not how you’re going to feel in that moment.

We hear about frighteningly unbalanced people in the news every day, and there aren’t many of us who can say they’ve never been in uncomfortable proximity to a stranger who just gave off that aura of wrongness, who we couldn’t wait to be far away from. We have to make those kinds of judgements about people often, and we ask ourselves afterward if we were just nervously overreacting. Our social programming, our politeness -- our adherence to the expected rules of engagement with others -- are what usually keep us from fleeing these people on first sight, from crossing the street when we see them approaching. We repress our danger instinct.

But what should we do when we’re faced with a person who will not follow those rules in return?

Of course, this happens all the time. And it turns out fine in the end.

Except for those rare occasions when it doesn’t turn out fine at all.

That fear -- someday, I may turn the corner and be faced with the person who won’t step aside, who has been waiting for someone, and I am that someone -- that is the fear that is perfectly captured and distilled and secretly fed back to us within the first five minutes every time we watch The Silence of the Lambs.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Insomnia is a hell of a drug.

There are plenty of good reasons for being up at 6:30 in the morning. For instance, you could be a schoolteacher, or a garbage collector, or a serial killer.

But in all honesty, I can't recommend it if the reason is that you've been trying, but failing, to be unconscious.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

My thoughts are misguided
and a little naïve.

Often when you start a blog, if you're superficial enough, you want to see properly what it will look like sooner than you have something worthwhile to say.

Beginnings are unfairly burdened by their nature, perhaps better to just accept a start instead, and move on.

(EDIT: This may seem to be an odd place to discuss beginnings. It's not, once you know that the previous entries were all grandfathered in from another weblog. But how would you know? Hence my edit. Nothing to see here. Go about your business.)

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Keep Calm and Carry On

End of the year.  What a lovely time to look back at all the things I'm grateful for.  Especially since Thanksgiving has been taken over by the Freemasons, who sow continental disorder by conspiring to have Canada and America celebrate it on totally different days.

I blame Obama.

And, as mentioned, the Freemasons.

So, right, a list of things I'm exceptionally grateful for from this past year...

My Friends
Could I possibly be any more lame?  No, don't.  Just don't.

My Friends With Couches
Okay, really I just mean my friend with couch.  Who'd have thought a six-foot person could spend a month sleeping so comfortably on a five-foot piece of furniture?

My Landlord
Ex-, unfortunately.  But I've had many, many landlords in my life, and he's one of the good ones. A genuinely excellent person with a mildly perverted sense of humor.

My Doctors
The less said the better, but proper care makes a bad time easier.

Mass Effect 2
Aside from being a quality entertainment product, it provided a lot of welcome diversion during difficult days.  (Always alliterate.)  Playing it at the start of the year on console was fun, but playing it again this summer and fall on pc was a gaming experience on par with my eternal touchstone, San Andreas.  Speaking of which...

Red Dead Redemption
No game has ever made me care more about my lead character, no game has ever exploited that caring more effectively and fearlessly, no game has ever killed me so many times with bears.  Those fucking bears.  Some people have been pushing for years now the idea that games are the future of storytelling, but RDR is the first time I actually saw it and believed it.

Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright
It's hard to imagine a creative team whose love of what they're doing is so evident in the final results; the results being so uniformly brilliant is nearly beside the point.  Shaun of the Dead was one of those instances, common to me, of a hyped thing that I avoided at the time, which subsequently proved itself worthy of all the "you have to see this"s I received.  Spaced has reset the bar for me on how high a target a television program can set for itself, and how awesome it is to see it hit, from top to bottom and from beginning to end.  Also, the dvd extras from Hot Fuzz -- and I'm in the minority who liked this film even more than Shaun -- introduced me to one of my new favorite films:

I never got Steve McQueen, and now I get Steve McQueen.  What he does with his conversations in this film, especially with antagonists, was revelatory to me.  Also, brilliant opening sequence.  Also, brilliant writing, and uniformly top-notch acting that makes the best of the cinematic idea that what is happening on-screen is so much more than what the characters are saying (I'm thinking specifically now of the scene in Bullitt's boss's office with Norman Fell, but there are many examples).  Completely changed my view of Robert Vaughn, in ways I won't get into because I'm already overusing "brilliant".  The romance maybe didn't totally work, but I forgive it, because this film is really about Frank Bullitt's relationship with his job, and his ethics, and the world in which he has to work, and the romance is really just another generally well-played riff on that same theme.

Iggy Pop
Discovering The Idiot and Lust For Life shouldn't have taken so long, frankly, but I guess my faith in music had to first weaken enough to be ripe for renewal.  I think I'll pause here for a moment to put my headphones on, actually.

Stephen Fry and Jeremy Brett
For being awesome, reasonably fearless and inspiring dudes.  Which reminds me of...

The reboot.  Brilliant -- sorry -- updating of the characters, the settings, the stories, and with enough obvious love for the original text to keep a Holmes semi-wonk -- what a terrible word I've just invented -- like me satisfied and impatient for season two.  Provided what might be my favorite line of the year:  Sorry, gotta dash, I think I left my riding crop in the mortuary.

The Big Lebowski
Because it will always be on these lists, forever.

8 1/2 on Blu-Ray
I cried at the end again, I always do that.  But what an amazing treat to see the film in such a restored state -- it makes up for dubbing Barbara Steele back into Italian.

The Walking Dead
The graphic novel series, not the tv show I'm not going to watch anymore because who knew the guy who directed Shawshank would be such a dick and fire his entire writing staff after they helped him create the television buzz of the year?  Anyway, the comic is great.

Gravol Ginger
Changed my life, seriously.

The 420 Express
No, that's not a euphemism.

My Laptop
The computer, I mean.  (Not the body region, which frankly hasn't done anything for me lately.)  Almost everything I do now that matters, has no matter -- it's all in the form of data and has no inherent physical form.  Without the Lappy I'd be forced into an even-more-antisocial mode of operation than that which I currently inhabit.  I resisted laptop computers for a long time, so this freedom is new to me, and I like it a lot.

Coke Zero

Unlike this list, I expect my resolutions for next year to be fewer in number.  Last year's was straightforward: start smoking.  Mission accomplished.  I have a cigarette in a jaunty holder sticking out of the corner of my mouth while I type in a crude approximation of Hunter S Thompson in plaid pyjama bottoms at this very moment.

I was considering gambling or perhaps heroin for 2011, but I think I'll be going with something like "reduce frequency of comically bad judgements in regard to significant life decisions".  I'm including "significant" in there to allow myself the wiggle room to keep cutting my own hair.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

That must be exhausting.

I haven't gone back to check, but I'm going to assume that a common thread I keep harping on is the inherent and necessary subjectivity of meaning.  I figured out a couple of days ago, as I navigate my current existential obstacle course, that the philosophy of absurdism is a pretty acceptable way to answer the question of nihilism.

Nihilism itself seems to me to have some pretty heavy built-in problems.  It's kind of like cannibalism -- anyone interested in talking about it probably hasn't done it, because it would come from such a primal and unshaped part of a human being that to discuss it in any terms is academic pretty much automatically.  Nobody but a shallow troublemaker would ever subscribe to it as a way of life if they had a choice not to.

And if they did, there's the problem that it would be a choice.  And active acceptance of the idea that there is no scale, and indeed no weight, to existence is self-oppositional enough to even the most abstrusely philosophical mind that a serious act of will would be required to pierce the veil and cross from the former world into the latter.

Absurdism, on the other hand, matches up so closely with the territory I've been marking out for myself, mirrors with such accuracy the Discordianism I've followed for years, aligns so comfortably with the foundational ideas that have propelled what artistic output I've been able to manage, that it's kind of embarrassing that I don't think I've ever directly encountered the official version before.

So perhaps now I can legitimately connect my worldview to a tradition pre-dating hippies.  Unless the brute force of the Faux-Moralist Revolution drags me to Room 101 and convinces me that Camus was just blowing smoke.