Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Ogre's Feathers

I just watched a brilliant short film called "The Ogre's Feathers", written and directed by Michael Almereyda. I was interested primarily because I'm procrastinating on grading my exams it includes SF writer, critic and all around Man of Marvelous Letters Samuel R. Delany in a small supporting role as the ill king (the first person on the screen is he) who needs an ogre feather to recover. (That's the reason my friend Ron Drummond, who's done editorial work for Delany, linked to it, which is how I saw it.)

The film is based on the story from Italo Calvino's book Italian Folktales called "The Feathered Ogre". (It's only three pages long; you should be able to read it at the link.)

The film is described by its creators as a "silent" film, but that's not quite right: there are sound effects and music. (Actually, both of those are quite well done and are part of the pleasures of the film.) I'm tempted to say "wordless", but that's not quite right either: there are words, put on title cards (white letters on a black screen), as used to be done in silent films. But there are no spoken words in the film.

(Which raises a question for me: why didn't silent films use subtitles? Was it simply that no one ever thought of it, or was there some technical reason (or aesthetic reason) why they wouldn't work? It seems like a far better (subtler, more efficient, less disruptive) way of communicating words on film using text than title cards. Yet I can't recall ever seeing a silent film use them. Does anyone know?)

I will admit that I'm not quite sure the not-really-silent-silent-film aspect really works. It's a bit odd given the sound -- the really quite gorgeously done sound, including, at one point, inaudible voices of children in the background. (Silent movies had music, but this has sound effects -- doors closing, etc -- which make the lack of voices odder.) And it slows down the movie, and makes it artificial... although that last point may be a plus, given that the entirety is a fairytale, but that it is filmed & set in contemporary New York: the oddity may be necessary to make it work. But it's an interesting (and clearly quite deliberate) artistic choice, and doesn't stop me recommending the film.

What I liked best, though, was the cinematography -- the movie is just gorgeously photographed, in incredibly rich black and white, with marvelous settings, frame compositions, and so forth. It really is plain old fabulous to look at. (It's very well acted too; I particularly liked Rachel Chandler as the ogre's wife.)

-- although here, too, I must admit one quibble: the entire film is gorgeous and beautiful... except for two brief scenes which take place on a ferry. Apparently they couldn't get permission to film on the real ferry, so they used rear screen projection for those scenes -- which looks oddly fake and off-putting compared to every other frame of the film.* (And it's odd, because they make it look like an old movie -- one of the movies in which that technique was regularly used -- whereas it otherwise doesn't, for all that it's a (not-really-silent) silent, black-and-white film.) Given that they updated the rest of the visual setting (i.e. talking and acting as if were a fairy tale but filming in NYC), I would have suggested trying the subway, or a bus, and referring to it as a ferry.

But quibbles aside, I really enjoyed it.

So here's the film. It's about 20 minutes long; the youtube is listed as "unlisted", meaning it doesn't show up in search results but is still available for embedding and linking (unlike "private" videos). So hopefully this (or this link) should work:

Finally, now that you've watched the film (come on, those exams can wait...), one small plot quibble which is a SPOILER for the movie (and the short story too):

In the story, the hero is asked by three additional people (apart from the ill king) to bring feathers, but is asked by four additional people for information. Each time the ogre's wife takes a feather she asks a question, so that the monks, the fourth set of information seekers (who requested no feather) go along with the feather for the king (who needed no information). Four feathers, four questions. In the film, however, the monks are cut out, which means that the wife asks only three questions and takes (or we see her take) only three feathers. Which means that I was counting feathers as they redistributed them to those who had asked, sure that the hero would run short. But he didn't: he gave out four feathers. Which is to say, cutting the monks left a plot loophole that I for one wish they had somehow filled (maybe one of the other three questioners could have refrained from asking for a feather?).

* Even the scenes on the ferry are beautiful if you ignore the background and just look at the actors. The background looks lousy, though.

No comments: