Newtonian Opticks

In Mel Brooks’s film High Anxiety (1977), a slapdash pastiche/parody of all things Hitchcockian, a central narrative point is that a photographer has unwittingly taken a snapshot of a shooting from a great distance. The characters know that important evidence lurks within the photograph, but it’s too tiny to see clearly. Since this is a Mel Brooks film, the characters enlarge the photograph to an outlandish size, and still have to pore over it closely to find the necessary details. That’s what’s going on in the image below, a still from the film.

Though my childhood fondness for Mel Brooks’s films has cooled considerably as I’ve gotten older (I will always have a soft spot for History of the World, Part 1, however), I appreciate the way he uses comedy to highlight issues of photographic and cinematic scale. It’s a good sight gag; moreover, Brooks uses this comic exploration of scale to stress a crucial narrative point. Style, story, and comedy are very well integrated in the gag from High Anxiety.

Scale is the theme of the fourth and most recent issue of Media Fields Journal, the excellent online journal produced and edited by graduate students and faculty at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The issue includes a dozen essays on the notion of scale in media, and those dozen authors all present different takes on that multi-meaninged word. Mary Nucci takes up issues of IMAX; David Bobbitt takes “scale” in the sense of Facebook being used “on a wide scale” and investigates electronic currency via the theories of Marshall McLuhan; and, in what I think is the cleverest take on the word “scale,” Kate Fortmueller investigates the extras of the Screen Actors Guild, who work “for scale.” Turns out that “scale” is one of those words with a whole lot of interesting definitions. (As far as I know, by the way, it is the word “set” that has the most definitions in the English language, with “run” fairly close behind.)

A room full of dummy movie extras, waiting for their big moment. Is this where newscasters come from?

I also have an essay in that issue of Media Fields Journal, in which I analyze gargantuan, a terrifically witty one-minute film by British director John Smith. gargantuan (knowingly lowercased) is, like High Anxiety though cleverer by far than it, a film that investigates issues of scale in a comic framework, with the result that we see things differently. I strongly encourage you to spend sixty seconds of your day watching this film, which you can do on the same webpage where you’ll find my essay. (Scroll down a bit to watch the video.) You can read my essay and see gargantuan here.

If you enjoyed the film, please read on. If you enjoyed my essay and want to send a copy to your uncle, you can download a PDF of it here. Media Fields Journal is thoughtful enough to make its essays available for free and legal download. Alas, however, even with advances in “e-ink,” you will still be unable to watch gargantuan on the printout of that document. Our top scientists are working around the clock, though.

I was introduced to John Smith’s films about seven or eight years ago, in graduate school, when a visiting scholar (whose name, alas, I have forgotten) gave a presentation in which he showed perhaps four film, including gargantuan (1992), The Black Tower (1985-1987), and The Girl Chewing Gum (1976), all of which were witty and terrific. (They are also, it seems, fairly difficult to locate on decent-quality video.) I kept gargantuan in my head as a film I’d like to show to my students someday. And, now, that is exactly what I do. In my Intro to Film class, I like to devote a week to avant-garde/experimental/non-narrative (call it what you will) cinema, because I think it’s important to expose students to types of films that they would not seek out on their own. I realize, though, that avant-garde films are not for all tastes, and, after a class or two discussing such brilliant but admittedly somewhat humorless films as Mothlight and Meshes of the Afternoon, I like to “reward” them with a screening of gargantuan. They unfailingly love it; as I mention in my essay on the film, one of my former students happily deemed it her “favorite film ever.” gargantuan is indeed a non-narrative film, and it shows that not all non-narrative films are without levity, as perhaps their reputation suggests.

What I love about gargantuan — besides its marvelous triple-pun on the word “minute” — is precisely what I admire about that sight gag from High Anxiety: that it uses humor to raise important questions about how we see, what we see, and how, because of issues having to do with scale, our visual experience will always be fundamentally different from those of every other viewer. This is what my Media Fields Journal essay is about; I won’t add anything here about that subject that I don’t already address in some detail in the essay. It does impress me how much meaning Smith is able to pack into those sixty seconds. Many self-important filmmakers could learn a great deal from gargantuan.

“John Smith and His Gargantuan Newt” was most definitely the most enjoyable essay that I’ve written. The film itself encourages — nay, demands — that one approach it in a humorous context, and I tried to do that in the essay, which, frankly, I’m pretty proud of. For as scholarly as Media Fields Journal is, one thing I do like about this online-publishing thing is that there seems to be a bit more leeway in accepting somewhat unconventional styles of writing. I would certainly not be the first to suggest that academic writing, taken as a whole, would do well with a good shot in the arm.

The research for the essay was enjoyable, too: not only did I get to enlist a mathematician friend to extrapolate the size of a newt based on a full-screen close-up of its eyeball, but I got to read up on newt morphology, and revisit and write about films from the dawn of cinema, such as Grandma’s Reading Glass (1900).

By far, though, the most enjoyable and informative piece of supporting material that I used in writing “John Smith and His Gargantuan Newt” is this utterly delightful essay on the changing size and scale of everyone’s favorite Tokyo-destroying undersea saurian, Gojira (aka Godzilla). Written from the point of view of a model-maker who is trying to get the scale of Gojira correct, author Robert Biondi takes a lighthearted but intelligent look (indeed, his tone is very much like that of Smith in gargantuan) at how Gojira’s absolute size is a matter of some uncertainty. The scalar relativism that is Biondi’s subject is essentially the same subject that is taken up in both gargantuan and in my essay about that great film. Just like they said in the tagline of the remake: size matters.

With a purposeful grimace and a terrible sound / He pulls the spitting high-tension wires down

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Posted on February 23, 2012, in Film and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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