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The Sky Is Not Falling: Liberating Independent Film And Video From A Prehistoric Value System // submit a post -- nelson@nelsoncarvajal.com

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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Castro: El Comandante, El Comediante -- a VIDEO ESSAY on American mainstream media's depiction of a revolutionary

Fidel Castro passed away over Thanksgiving break. Castro, without question one of the towering figures of the 20th century, was a politician, a revolutionary, a prime minister and the president of Cuba. His story, his influence, his polarizing presence and his impact on history is--as the kids would say--"epic." And yet, when I finally learned of his passing over this past weekend, an unnerving realization hit me: American mainstream media didn't really do him justice.

Normally, when such an impressive person from the political or pop culture stratosphere passes away, I tend to seek out richer writings on the person and in most cases, a thorough film or biopic exploring his or her legacy. Strangely, in Castro's case, outside of some documentaries, the American cinema never bothered making a film solely about Castro; his most memorable silver screen portrayals were in the really awful Che! from 1969 and in the exceptional and stirring Che from 2008. But look at those movie titles; they're about Che Guevara, not Castro. Castro is simply in the periphery in both films.

More bothersome, is how in the last twenty years American television has mostly propped him up as farce; he became a caricature, thrown in with the likes of a lame duck president like George W. Bush. But even Bush was honored with a terrific Oliver Stone film (W.) that would explore and investigate the man himself.

I say all this because I feel that at this very moment, we're at a unnerving crossing point. If Castro's robust legacy (spanning over forty seven years) as a political leader, a Marxist–Leninist and Cuban nationalist is merely summed up in American mainstream media as a loud, machismo TV personality, then what are we to make of President-elect Donald Trump? Trump is a person with zero political experience. He's a loud, bullying, problematic and dangerous Republican puppet who was literally birthed from the television set; a reality TV host and a sensationalist pop culture fixture--forget his constantly scrutinized business and real estate background. Trump is literally an outspoken real-life caricature who is simply here for the spotlight. And yet now he stands on the eve of being the President of the United States of America, after already awakening (if not exposing) the deep rooted racism and sexism in various parts of the country. And his political resume pales compared to Castro's.

American mainstream media perhaps is now more powerful than ever. It scares me to think what will happen next if we don't curate it more efficiently and create more enlightening content.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

VIDEO ESSAY: Superman vs. Man of Steel

In my latest visual essay, concerning Superman II and Man of Steel, I decided to incorporate the text portion into the video itself, to create an assault of sensory processing, between dissolving sentences and foiled panels of the moving image. My hope is that it creates a dynamic reading and viewing experience.

Please watch the video below and then refer to some supplemental photo examples.

Superman II: Our hero separates the destruction from the innocent bystanders

Man of Steel: Our hero destroys Metropolis, killing innocent bystanders

9/11 destruction

Man of Steel destruction

Friday, July 15, 2016

VIDEO ESSAY: GHOSTBUSTERS: Busting the Genre’s Gender Roles

One of my earliest childhood memories was having an uncontrollable and overwhelming love for the Ghostbusters. I don’t know where this love came from; I just know that everything about the Ghostbusters universe, including the spinoff cartoon, felt like it was already part of my life, even at a young age. In fact, my mother said my younger brother and I would have heated fights over which of the Ghostbusters toys we’d have to share. 

And when it comes to the courtship between the moving image and me the viewer, it’s a real case of the cart being put in front of the horse since I was born six months after the original film hit theatres--so it wasn’t like the movie itself was my introduction to the franchise. It was actually the cartoon. I remember by the time I actually watched the first Ghostbusters film on VHS it was already 1989 and I was barely getting ready for Kindergarten; that also began the cycle of me watching the film and its sequel as often as humanly possible. 

And what the Ghostbusters stood for—for me anyway—was this ideal that no matter how quirky, or non-status-quo you could be in contemporary society, if you were passionate about something and held your convictions to a higher standard, then your work would not be in vain. The icing on top of it all, of course, was that Ray, Egon, Winston and Peter were buddies and were haphazardly smart and were occasional smart-asses. Okay, okay—Peter was a smart-ass ALL the time but who better to do that than Bill Murray?

Which brings me to the point of this video essay: Why the hell are so many people upset that the new Ghostbusters film has an all female cast?

From the moment the first trailer for the 2016 reboot dropped, a Scarlett letter was branded onto the new film. It became the most disliked movie trailer in the history of YouTube. Which is insane, when you consider the caliber and comedic prowess of its four female stars. And it didn’t stop there: hordes of fan boys and haters took it upon themselves to bury the film before it was even released into theatres. 

Myself being a Ghostbuster fanatic, I couldn’t be more thrilled to see what Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon and Melissa McCarthy were going to do with the rich source material. So I took a sort of personal offense to all this backlash—and I haven’t even seen this new movie yet!

So, as any cinephile should do, I stepped back historically to see where the original Ghostbusters stood in the timeline of the moving image. And after some studying, here’s the unfortunate revelation I came across: When it comes to American comedies and ghosts—or just comedic horror for that matter—it’s a man’s world. At least it has been since the days of The Bowery Boys...Abbott and Costello…and Bob Hope

In fact, women in horror cinema are usually limited to being the sexy villainess, the long-haired demonic entity or the slasher-film damsel in distress. Which is pretty shitty. 

In regards to American comedic ghost and horror stories, there hasn’t been anything that’s been both female-driven and culturally successful. Even an attempt like Jennifer’s Body, unfortunately just re-positions the film’s star to rest on her sex appeal alone. 

For lack of a better phrase, it’s all pretty fucked up.

It’s 2016 folks. This is crazy! And now an inspired reboot of one of pop culture’s most apt comedies risks ever having a sure footing with audiences because…well, I don’t even know what? Because of a barbaric, male-sense of ownership over the material? Because of the threat that women might do the job better? 

The Ghostbusters are cornucopia of unapologetic fun and happiness...for viewers anyways. It’s not just for the boys. After my brother and I began grade school, our sister was born. You know what we did when she started to play with toys and watch movies? We introduced her to our beloved Ghostbusters. 

Because girls ain’t afraid of no ghosts either.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

VIDEO ESSAY: Film Fidelity: Beyoncé's "Lemonade"

Beyoncé knocked the wind out of the Internet when she dropped her nearly hour-long visual album Lemonade on HBO this past Saturday night, April 23rd. The inspired film is a remarkable piece to be sure--even for the Queen Bee herself. And while everything from the sound design to the collective creative direction from the team of filmmakers, editors and art department is exceptional, much of the receptive chatter online has instead circled around the implied infidelity that spurs the narrative of Lemonade; the idea that hubby Jay Z did Beyoncé wrong with a certain "Becky with the good hair." Which is too bad; that's the kind of fodder for tabloids and it marginalizes how much great film art is packed into this thing.

So, as a reactionary cinephile, I thought I'd redirect the public's attention to the striking images that Lemonade presents, the ideas behind them and, more pointedly, where these vignettes drew inspiration from. In contrast to the possible off-screen infidelity, I choose to celebrate the fidelity onscreen--that is the relationship between the music, the images of Lemonade and the cinema itself.

The biggest influence present in Lemonade, is that of the great Terrence Malick. Imagery from his films To The Wonder and The Tree of Life (in particular a standout sequence involving a bedroom underwater) definitely inspired a lot of the overall tone of introspection and spiritual reflection that Beyoncé is striving for here. One of Lemonade's directors, Kahlil Joseph, shot B-roll on Malick's To The Wonder, so the impressionistic style of filmmaking has obviously carried over.

Colors play a crucial part in Lemonade, and none more bold than the redness found in the opening passage showing Beyoncé alone onstage in an auditorium. It's reminiscent of the red curtains found in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive and Twin Peaks. "No hay bande," speaks the man from the stage in Mulholland Drive. There is no band. It sets up Beyoncé's lone quest to seek reconciliation with the implied betrayal she is faced with. It's also important to acknowledge the layer of surrealism that some of the Lemonade's passages evoke; the Twin Peaks parallel here, adds to that idea.

Pipilotti Rist's video art installation Ever Is Over All is the blueprint for the "Hold Up" song passage in Lemonade. In this passage Beyoncé strolls down a sidewalk on a sunny day only to wreak havoc on the windows of parked cars. Rist's art piece must've struck a chord with Beyoncé and her filmmaking team, as the images of empowerment and destruction gel together nicely with the song's lyrics of suspecting wrongdoing from one's lover: "I smell your secrets. I'm not too perfect--to ever feel this worthless."

Whether or not Cameron Jamie's short dance film Massage The History came up during the conception of Lemonade is moot. The sequence featuring Beyoncé and Serena Williams in an empty mansion grinding around furniture juxtaposes nicely with Jamie's piece that coincidentally shows only young men performing suggestive dances around the furniture in their empty home. During this section of my video essay, watch how the parallel clips seem to dance with each other, woman and man, in a primal ritual of lust and sexual appetite. It's a ripe section, one that suggests finding solace in carnal revenge fucking. "I ain't thinkin' 'bout you!" declares Beyoncé.

In a nakedly personal passage, one that seemingly recreates Beyoncé's old home movies, one can't help but look to the prolific personal found footage filmography of Jonas Mekas. Like Mekas, Beyoncé provides voice-over narration to the fragmented and often fleeting film clips of her family and friends from ages ago, as if trying to make sense of where things ended up. How did we get to this point? It's a question we all ask in times of strife, and the power of Mekas' personal cinema is how he learns to accept the present, in all its crude beauty, by looking to the past and acknowledging that this is what he's been preparing for all along.

Terence Nance--whose feature debut An Oversimplification Of Her Beauty was, ironically enough, executive produced by Jay Z--goes to exciting heights of the "confessional documentary" and exploring Afro-futurism in his musical short Swimming In Your Skin Again. Beyoncé looks to be on the same wavelength as Nance in some of the closing passages of Lemonade. Imagery of powerful church sessions, body painting, the swamp, the southern heat and ritualistic, soul-cleansing dances are all prominent here.

It's an appropriate climaxing of all the raw and unearthed feelings that Lemonade stirs for nearly its 66-minute run. Whether or not the real life scenario of infidelity sticks, one thing is certain: Beyoncé has created an exciting, exposing and elevating work of pop culture art.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

VIDEO ESSAY: Wake Up: Spike Lee's Vital "Chi-Raq"

Normally, I don’t do voiceovers for my video essays. I tend to let the audio samples and images speak for themselves; I suppose this habit traces back to high school English, where I was taught to use the text itself as the primary source for an argument in an essay. So, it made sense for my visual essays to rely solely on the audio-visual assets—a sort of moving image text, if you will. But for this particular video essay, because of my close connection to the city that birthed me, I felt having my narration, as a guiding narrative force, would be acceptable.

Video Essay Transcript:

When I was 22 years old I had a loaded gun pressed against the back of my head. It happened during an armed robbery in downtown Chicago. I was born and raised in Chicago and to be honest gun violence here is nothing new. When I was a child my aunt’s husband was shot several times up on the northwest side of the city. I’ve also had close family friends killed by gun shootings on the streets. However, in the last few years, the narrative of Chicago gun violence has taken the national spotlight, since reports of gun shootings are as commonplace as daily weather updates.

So you can imagine the skeptical feelings many lifelong Chicagoans had when they heard that New York’s own Spike Lee would be making a film about Chicago gun violence. The general feeling was, “Who’s this outsider telling our story?” Then word got out that it was going to be a satire and not a dead serious film, like say, Boyz N The Hood. Flash forward to December 2015: Chi-Raq has a brief stint in theatres before streaming on Amazon Prime. And while Lee’s Chi-Raq has its fair share of admirers, a lion share of moviegoers—especially those from the Second City—were quick to dismiss it and actually continue to bash it.

Now as someone who loves the cinema and is actually from Chicago and lives here in the city, I’d like to take this opportunity to show you how significant and seriously vital a film like Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq really is.

So here we go.

The first thing to understand wholly, as Spike mentioned earlier, is that Chi-Raq is working primarily as satire. Now that’s a different thing than a director making a film that pokes fun at or devolves the serious subject matter of gun violence. What satire in this case does is expose the stupidity of the players involved in street violence and exaggerates the profundity of such a societal disease.

For a narrative weapon, Chi-Raq uses the classic Greek play "Lysistrata" to help drive the plot forward. Now you don’t need to be a Greek scholar to understand the concept of "Lysistrata"; basically it’s a story of a woman who decides to end a civil war by rallying the rest of the women to stop having sex with the men from their respective armies. So, in Chi-Raq, it’s the members of the Spartan and the Trojan gangs who stop getting laid.

And Spike Lee, ever the ambassador for cinematic bravado, injects Chi-Raq with plenty of his trademark embellishments. Take for instance, this passage, spoken in rhyming verse by the film’s jester at court and unofficial emcee Dolomedes, played by national treasure Samuel L. Jackson.

Now a lot is happening here. It’s a rousing soliloquy of sorts that disguises itself as standup comedic verse; Lee and his co-writer Kevin Willmott do an extraordinary job of packing tons of information and social critiquing all in what could I’ll describe as “Sam-Jackson-Pentameter.”

But it’s just not that Spike Lee has flair to spare and more style than most directors, it’s that he’s doing all of this out of real passion and concern. This is vital cinema. If you look at his filmography, the most memorable pieces of his cinema stem from a real connection to the primary source; whether it’s the invisible forces that pull us to our destiny or the opening title coda reflecting on a national tragedy, there is a palpable felt force that you cannot ignore in a Spike Lee joint.

And let’s take a moment to look at the wonderful opening title sequence of Chi-Raq. Spike Lee, like many great auteurs, knows when to borrow from cinematic giants; this opening title sequence owes greatly to Jean-Luc Godard.

Chi-Raq is not a perfect film. But when it works, it really soars above most of contemporary cinema. The fact that it was defeated by public opinion long before the final cut was put to print is a civic shame.

Funny, how when certain other iconic filmmakers go the satirical route to address big issues, cinephiles rejoice and treat those like sacred artifacts. Sydney Lumet wasn’t ridiculed for pointing out our zombie-like addiction to television. Stanley Kubrick didn’t lose artistic merit when he treated warfare like a comedy sketch.

Spike Lee detractors owe him a fair shake. The notion that he’s not qualified to make a film on a systemic problem plaguing minority and poverty-stricken communities is preposterous. This is the same filmmaker who takes more artistic chances in his sleep than most other directors. If it's a controversial topic, nobody's going to tackle it like Spike Lee. Look no further than his searing and stirring montage from his film Bamboozled.

The ending to one of Spike Lee’s first feature films School Daze ended with Laurence Fishburne urgently telling the players in his film to “Wake Up.” In an appropriate full circle move, the ending of Chi-Raq has Samuel L. Jackson telling the residents of Chicago to wake up. In a sense, that’s what happened in the movie-going world too. With the negative response to Chi-Raq, it’s not so much that Spike Lee has lost his touch as a director as it is that moviegoers slept on their responsibility to wake up and face the music. 

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

VIDEO ESSAY: Los Ojos de Iñárritu/The Eyes of Iñárritu

Alejandro González Iñárritu made history this past weekend by becoming the first filmmaker to win the DGA Award for Best Director two years in a row, for his work in The Revenant. Last year Iñárritu became only the second Hispanic filmmaker to win the coveted Best Director Oscar for his work in Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), a year after Alfonso Cuarón became the first ever Hispanic Best Director Academy Award winner (for Gravity). I mention these significant cinephile facts because Iñárritu sometimes gets bombarded by certain hater-film-critics who are quick to harp on the calamity found in most of his films and not celebrate how special and nakedly emotional this filmmaker is. Yes, Iñárritu tells stories of fur-trappers who fight bears in the wilderness or sickly men who accidentally poison a room of immigrant sweatshop workers whilst juggling a plethora of other scandals. But these silver screen narratives have all been Oscar nominees and for the most part, critically celebrated and revered.

The reason--or at least a good reason for this can be found in the delicacy and tenderness Iñárritu lends with filming the eyes of his actors. Whereas filmmakers like Spike Lee and Jonathan Demme trail-blazed such stylistic devices as actors breaking the fourth wall to look directly at the audience, Iñárritu takes his time to build up those infrequent direct gazes at the screen; a big strategy of his is how explicit he is with his cinematic influences. His films Biutiful and The Revenant take certain cues from Andrei Tarkovsky and Terrence Malick, lending a poetic and impressionistic visual prose amidst the overly busy plots--mainly of the former film. His earlier work with Amores Perros and Babel cut back and forth between multiple story lines, much in the spirit of the independent Mexican cinema of that time, but those films too were always grounded in the pathos of the eyes of his characters. Iñárritu definitely sees life as a beautiful chaos--at least in the films he makes--and yet the bravery he emotes comes in still trying to find the tenderness, that special, fleeting, grandeur yearning for human connection and purpose in the midst of tragedy.

And the eyes have it.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

VIDEO: Honorable Mentions and the 20 #BestFilmsOf2015

[Scroll to the bottom for the video]

Honorable Mentions (in no particular order): Jurassic World, Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens, The Night Before, Tangerine, Amy, The End of the Tour, The Martian, Bridge of Spies, The Wolfpack, The Visit, Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, Trainwreck, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Time Out of Mind, Danny Collins, El Club, Inside Out, Phoenix, Crimson Peak, Beasts of No Nation, By The Sea, It Follows, Youth, The Walk, The Hateful Eight, The, Nightmare, Ex Machina, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Creep, The Overnight and While We’re Young.

Best Actor: Tom Hardy, Legend
Best Actress: Brie Larson, Room
Best Supporting Actor: Benicio Del Toro, Sicario
Best Supporting Actress: Charlize Theron, Mad Max: Fury Road
Best Cinematography: Roger Deakins, Sicario
Best Original Screenplay: Damián Szifrón, Wild Tales
Best Adapted Screenplay: Kevin Willmott and Spike Lee, Chi-Raq
Best Film Editing: Hank Corwin, The Big Short
Best Original Score: Jóhann Jóhannsson, Sicario   
Best Original Song: "Pray 4 My City," Chi-Raq 
Best Production Design: Jack Fisk, The Revenant

20. Creed, Directed by Ryan Coogler
19. Steve Jobs, Directed by Danny Boyle
18. Straight Outta Compton, Directed by F. Gary Gray
17. Love & Mercy, Directed by Bill Pohlad
16. Black Mass, Directed by Scott Cooper
15. Anomalisa, Directed by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson
14. The Big Short, Directed by Adam McKay
13. Spotlight, Directed by Tom McCarthy
12. Legend, Directed by Brian Helgeland
11. Manglehorn, Directed by David Gordon Green

10. Brooklyn, Directed by John Crowley
9. Wild Tales, Directed by Damián Szifrón
8. Taxi, Directed by Jafar Panahi
7. The Revenant, Directed Alejandro González Iñárritu
6. Carol, Directed by Todd Haynes
5. 45 Years, Directed by Andrew Haigh
4. Room, Directed by Lenny Abrahamson
3. Chi-Raq, Directed by Spike Lee
2. Mad Max: Fury Road, Directed by George Miller
1. Sicario, Directed by Denis Villeneuve