Category Archives: Media Arts and New Media

Disruptive Cinema

“Subversive” is defined as “seeking or intended to subvert an established system or institution; disruptive; inflammatory.” Films may be considered aesthetically or culturally subversive, or both. Subversive cinema has been with us since the silent era; early examples include Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (though it wasn’t considered subversive at the time), Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Benjamin Christensen’s Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages, and Luis Buñuel’s notorious L’Age d’Or, one of the first films to be widely banned (and still banned today in several countries).

Many films deemed as disruptive go on to achieve cult status and garner a fervent following. The topic of subversive or transgressive cinema has also received serious consideration by scholars, most notably in Amos Vogel’s seminal study “Film as a Subversive Art,” which catalogues over 600 films that fit the definition, and the more recent “Cult Films” by UC San Diego Professor Allan Havis.

Just in time to present an alternative option for streaming, UC Santa Barbara’s Carsey-Wolf Center (CWC) is presenting its “Subversives” discussion series, featuring five films spanning 70 years and three countries. The slate ranges from Chaplin’s much-maligned The Great Dictator to Parasite, the 2019 winner of the Best Picture Academy Award. The series begins with Sorry to Bother You, a provocative satire of American capitalism and white corporate culture, and also includes television’s groundbreaking Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. By including Pee-Wee Herman’s show, series curator and host Miguel Penabella, a PhD candidate in Film & Media Studies at UCSB, explains that he “wanted to imagine a broader, expansive idea of ‘Subversives’ as well, including films that may be aesthetically or commercially subversive or works that may have generated a cult following,” noting that the Playhouse fits the bill.

Post-screening discussions include conversations with filmmakers, critics, and film scholars, followed by lively Q&A sessions. Films examined include:

Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You (2018)
Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite (2019)
Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1942)
Pee-Wee Herman’s Pee-Wee’s Playhouse (1986-1990)
Jeff Barnaby’s Blood Quantum (2019)

Browse all programs in Subversives.

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Genre-bending is Not for the Faint of Heart

Blending movie genres can be a tricky business, one often as not doomed to failure. Combining horror and comedy is especially fraught, since the two genres would seem to be mutually exclusive if not diametrically opposed in tone & subject matter. A few brave filmmakers have forged ahead regardless, including Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, the screenwriters behind the sleeper hit Zombieland (2009).

Successful genre-bending is not something that can be tackled haphazardly. In conversation with UC Santa Barbara Pollock Theater Director Matt Ryan the duo discuss the many considerations that go into fashioning such a script, including finding the right horror/comedy balance while honoring the audience’s unavoidable genre expectations. As with any screenplay it’s a matter of making good decisions along the way; for example, Reese and Wernick determined at the outset that their zombies would be the fast-moving kind, a la 28 Days Later, and not the shambling variety popularized by Night of the Living Dead. They also elected to begin their tale with the zombie apocalypse well under way and almost taken for granted by our intrepid heroes. Subsequently there’s very little exposition about cause and scope to slow the pacing. As the writers note, it’s really not relevant to their story.

Reese and Wernick stress that having the right cast is absolutely vital to any film’s success, since if the actors are right for their roles they can boost the script to another level (and if not, it’s a train wreck). Fortunately the Zombieland cast includes such stalwarts as Emma Stone, Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Abigail Breslin, and the near-legendary Bill Murray, all experienced and adept at playing comedy and drama with equal aplomb. (And in case you were wondering, yes, Bill Murray is very much the same personality off-screen as on.) The scripters were able to do some re-writing as needed to suit the actors’ personas, which in their view made the director’s job a little easier and enhanced the final result.

Track down Zombieland, and then tune into this installment of Script to Screen. You’ll be entertained and hopefully better prepared for World War Z, if and when…

Watch Script to Screen: Zombieland.

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The Trees are the Instruments

“I’m profoundly influenced by the natural world and a strong sense of place…I hope to explore the territory of sonic geography–that region between place and culture…between environment and imagination.”
– John Luther Adams

John Luther Adams has been hailed by the New Yorker as “one of the most original musical thinkers of the new century.” After studying at the California Institute of the Arts, Adams embarked on a prolific career encompassing a variety of genres and media, including television, film, children’s theater, voice, acoustic instruments, orchestra, and electronics. His Pulitzer Prize and Grammy Award-winning orchestral composition, Become Ocean, has become one of the most popular concert pieces in the modern repertoire.

Much of John Luther Adams’ work as a composer and, increasingly, a conceptual artist is rooted in his love of nature combined with what he calls the “resonances” of a particular environment. For the Wind Garden, his installation commissioned by the Stuart Collection at UC San Diego, that environment is a eucalyptus grove located in the campus Theater District. Based on a carefully determined site plot, 32 accelerometers were attached to the highest branches, measuring the movements of the trees in the wind. As the velocity of the wind changes so, too, does the amplitude of the sound. Tonal variations and harmonic colors are provided by two virtual “choirs,” a Day Choir tuned to the natural harmonic series, and a Night Choir tuned to the sub-harmonic series. The results are broadcast by 32 small loudspeakers hidden among the trees. Both volume and pitch change in real time throughout the day and with the sun’s movement over the course of the seasons.

Because the composition is driven entirely by wind and the sun’s light, it never repeats itself. The listener is surrounded by sounds that vaguely recall bells, voices, strings, and other acoustic instruments, but it’s impossible to describe them in just those familiar terms or to know their exact source. Like some of Adams’ other recent pieces, the Wind Garden has been described as “indeterminate,” but the composer argues that it’s more accurate to call it “self-determining,” not reliant on musicians or conventional instruments. Rather, Adams notes that “the trees are the instruments” while acknowledging the sophisticated technology employed to “give voice” to the trees.

Adams hopes that each unique encounter with the Wind Garden and its rich, ever-shifting harmonic palette will encourage both “deep listening” and an enhanced appreciation of the natural environment.

Watch The Wind Garden by John Luther Adams – Stuart Collection at UC San Diego

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