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What a Gorgeous Music Video Reveals About Movie-Making

Note to readers:  This essay is about a music video, and it probably won't make much sense unless you see the video.  You may prefer to read it here on Tumblr, where you can see the video as well as the text.

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Back in some other lifetime I was employed as a professional film reviewer. I’ve searched for a way to share what I learned without giving a pedantic lecture or presenting a long series of film clips.  As soon as I saw this lovely 2004 music video, I realized that I had everything I need.  All the important elements of film are contained within.  

This beautiful broad-brush piece of art is probably the best and most universal music video I have seen.  Surprisingly, I couldn’t find it on any of the “Best Music Videos” compilations I checked.  It should have received a lot more attention than it did.

The lyrics (below) form a sort internal dialog, describing the narrator’s thoughts and feelings at six different ages ranging from 15 to 99.  But this is clearly a universal, not a personal, voyage.

The words describe a progression similar to Shakespeare’s seven stages of man: first love, marriage, parenting, a middle-age crisis, old age, and death (symbolized by the empty piano stool in the last shot).  

The face, gender, and ethnicity of the characters change constantly. One person (narrator and singer-songwriter John Ondrasik) seems to be playing everyman, containing all the other characters within him.

You may notice that, although this film was shot in color, the palette is very muted and controlled.  It’s composed mostly of soft blues and browns— “earth tones” or “natural” colors.  When color is muted like this it takes a back seat, allowing other cinematic elements to assume center stage.

The setting here is pure earth, sun and sky.  The video declares early on, by coloring everything similarly (including the characters) that it will have a universal message.  All the world is a stage.

Even the sun plays its part in the background, appearing low in the sky (a morning sun) at the beginning, but nearly to its zenith at the film’s climax, which happens around 3:00 minutes in. It flashes obligingly over the narrator’s shoulder when he yearns for “just another moment.”

This video is packed full of triangular images, which form its main visual motif (theme). The setting includes mountains, the angles of the branches attached to the tree, and the framing of the players as seen through the piano. The triangle motif (along with the fact that one of the characters climbs the tree) make it clear that this is a song about progression and ascension.

The depiction of the middle-age crisis is sublime.  As the narrator realizes he is no longer young, the character representing his younger self falls out of the tree with a silent crash, and the camera slowly trails over storm-broken branches littering the ground. According to the lyrics, wisdom and “moving on” follow soon after.

I find this video’s’s message particularly touching.  We are not really separate, but share a collective human consciousness and life story.  We inhabit this worldly stage together.  And when we recall the highlights of our life or have a near-death experience, all of our lifetime is contracted to fit  within a few moments.  The time and space separating us is an illusion.

The earth-toned setting, progressive lighting, brief plot, dialog (song lyrics), images of climbing, and citizen-of-the world characters come together beautifully to deliver a universal message.  Although our lifespans today are the longest humans have ever known, it still seems we have too little time to live and too much to experience and learn.  

Footnote: Sometimes comparison is the best way to see the quality of a film. The story here is rendered largely in symbolic terms, giving it a universal message. Another professional video of this song has been produced, but the interpretation is literal rather than symbolic. You can see it here.  Notice how a literal interpretation narrows the video to a particular place, time, and culture.

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Copyright 2013 by Ann Marcaida

100 Years lyrics:

I‘m 15 for a moment
Caught in between 10 and 20
And I’m just dreaming
Counting the ways to where you are

I’m 22 for a moment
And she feels better than ever
And we’re on fire
Making our way back from Mars

15 there’s still time for you
Time to buy and time to lose
15, there’s never a wish better than this
When you only got a hundred years to live

I’m 33 for a moment
Still the man, but you see I’m a “they”
A kid on the way, babe.
A family on my mind

I’m 45 for a moment
The sea is high
And I’m heading into a crisis
Chasing the years of my life

15 there’s still time for you
Time to buy and time to lose yourself
Within a morning star

15 I’m all right with you
15, there’s never a wish better than this
When you only got a hundred years to live

Half time goes by
Suddenly you’re wise
Another blink of an eye
67 is gone
The sun is getting high
We’re moving on…

I’m 99 for a moment
And time for just another moment
And I’m just dreaming
Counting the ways to where you are

15 there’s still time for you
22 I feel her too
33 you’re on your way
Every day’s a new day…

15 there’s still time for you
Time to buy and time to choose
Hey 15, there’s never a wish better than this
When you only got a hundred years to live   (100 Years written and performed by Five for Fighting).

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BOOK LIST: Bohemians, Beats, Hippies, and Punks

The mainstream comes to you, but you have to go to the underground.
     --Frank Zappa

So every generation has got to tear down the old and rebel with the new--creative destruction to borrow a term from the economists.  Here's a short list of some books on the life of the cultural underground.


1.  Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell (1933).  Before his success as a writer, Orwell lived in near-poverty working as dishwasher and other menial jobs.  This Mostly autobiographical, part novel, Orwell's life among the bottom rung of Bohemians in the early 1930s.  Bought new.



 

2.  Down and In: Life in the Underground, Ronald Sukenick (1987).   Sukenick tells the history of Greenwich Village and how this small part of Manhattan became the center of artistic life for Hipsters, Beatniks, Hippies  and Punks.   Maps with landmarks and black and white pictures.  Bought new on a remainder rack.



3.  Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties, Robert Stone (2007).   Before novelist Robert Stone gained success as the author of Hall of Mirrors, Dog Soldiers and later books, he lived the life of a gypsy in the 1960s.  Stone was friends with Ken Kesey and witness to his rise and fall with the merry pranksters.  Good stories and no shortage of drugs.  Bought new.





4.  Burning Book: A Visual History of Burning Man, Jessica Bruder (2007).  Burning man is an extravaganza of creative, independent revelry set in the middle of Nevada's Black Rock Desert.  Bruder's book is full of color pictures on every page giving an account of how Burning Man started and illustrating what it had become.  Christmas gift from a cousin in lieu of our commitment to leave our families and attend the actual event.  


 

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TIPS FOR COMMENTING ON LITERATURE

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I joined an online writing site five years ago with almost no knowledge of literature, and I made some inane comments on creative writing during my first year. 

However, with the coaching of online writers, my skills have slowly improved.  I’m writing this article to share what I have learned with anyone interested in commenting on literature.  It seems to me that creative writers deserve more that just a few (or a few hundred) presses of the “like” button.  We need to give then real feedback as to what their words make us think and feel.

1. ESSAYS

According to Wikipedia, An essay is often written from an author’s personal point of view.  Essays can consist of a number of elements, including… political manifestos, learned arguments, observations of daily life, recollections, and reflections of the author.”

The key here is that the author is talking about real events and offering his or her opinions and reflections. When I think about essays, I think about the work of Mike Firesmith,* John Philipp, and Greg Schiller, among others. (I also consider myself an essay writer).

Essays are easy to comment on.  Because the author has expressed his or her opinion on one or more topics, you can agree or disagree with their opinions and give your reasons for doing so.

Or, if you prefer, you can simply state that the author has argued their thesis well, and tell them why you find their statements convincing.  For instance, although Mike Firesmith and I disagree on many issues, his essays are so compelling that I often find myself nearly persuaded to his point of view as I read.  This is the sign of a good essay-writer.

In addition, humor is often a large part of essays, so picking up on a strand of humor and continuing the joking (check out John Philipp’s or Greg Schiller’s comment threads) is a great way to give feedback.

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2. FICTIONAL PROSE

Fictional prose (short stories, novel chapters, or writing exercises) can be complex, made of elements such as plot, character development, settings, theme, and underlying message. This makes commenting difficult, so I find it best to remark on what strikes me most about the writing. For instance:

a. Does the piece have a strong sense of mood? How is this created? By a detailed description of the setting or the internal state of the characters?  Any author that sets a strong opening mood is off to a good start, and this is worth commenting on.  One online author who does this very well is A. F. Stewart.

b. Is the plot brisk and easy to follow, even in the case of an installment piece?  Instead of spending a lot of time describing characters and settings, many authors rely on a compelling plot to keep their readers’ interest.  If the plot drew you in and was, above all, unpredictable, this is a good thing to comment on.  One of my favorite online plot writers is Magi, who is able to maintain a brisk and entertaining plot in long stories that include many installments and complex characters.

c. How real are the characters?  Some authors focus mainly on the people. For them, the creation of “real” characters and depiction of their inner growth is paramount. This is accomplished by describing their mental states and/or actions in detail.

When I of someone who creates excellent characters, the writing of Sandy Knauer comes to mind. Any character Sandy writes is likely to be so realistic that they jump off the page.

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3. POETRY

Poetry is probably the hardest form of literature to comment on, but I find it to be the most fun.  And there’s a secret to commenting on poetry: You need not understand the entire poem and all its nuances in order to write a good comment. (More on this in a minute).

Some accomplished poets write very straightforward, easy-to-understand poetry (John Beck and Stephen Berwaldt, for instance), while others pack their work with metaphor and point-of-view changes, making a puzzle to be deciphered (See the work of Atticus or Smaragdus) .

If the poet is writing about their personal life, with themself as the narrator, they are writing confessional poetry. However, you should never assume that poetry is confessional unless the author explicitly says so. Poets write in many different voices, and it is customary to refer simply to the “narrator” of a poem without assuming this to be identical to the author.

So— what’s the best way to comment on a challenging poem? Below are some options I find helpful:

1. Copy and paste your favorite lines into the comment box (be sure to put them in quotes or italics), and explain why you like them.

For instance, do you like with the message they present?  Did the mood strike you in a certain way?  Do you admire the wording, or did you learn a new word?

2. Many poets paint pictures with words. Comment on the “pictures.”

Any poet who works hard on the imagery in their poems will appreciate you describing in your own words the mental pictures they conjure up, or what they remind you of.  They have no other way of knowing the exact effects of their words on the minds of their readers.

3. Did the poem resonate with you in an emotional way?

Many (perhaps most) poets seek to tug the heartstrings of their readers, and will be interested in hearing your emotional reaction to their work.

For instance, did something in the poem trigger an emotional memory for you? If so, the poet will probably be interested in hearing about this (briefly). Or do you sense a predominate emotion to the poem? If so, you may be close to understanding the entire poem, so write about your reaction!

4. Comment on the Pace of the Poem

There’s no need to understand rhyme and meter to discern when a poem slows down or speeds up.  Reading it aloud should prove sufficient. Does the pacing of the poem fit with its content, its highs and lows? If so, comment on this.

As an example, consider Craig Lawson’s gorgeous poem Skiing Alone.  If you read it aloud, you’ll hear that Craig has written in forced pauses at a few spots in an otherwise smoothly-flowing poem.  (For instance, the beginnings of lines 6 and 11, if I am reading correctly).  These may represent changes in the direction of the skier’s path.

5. If you read the poet’s work on a regular basis, compare it to their other work.

Poets appreciate it if you remember their work. For instance, if you are reading one of your favorite of their works, say so, and explain why.  If it reminds you of another of their poems, point out the similarities, or compare and contrast the two.

For more information on the elements of poetry, click here.

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SYMBOLS IN LITERATURE

Most literature includes symbolism, that is, word(s) which have a meaning beyond what they literally represent. It is not necessary to fully understand the symbolism to comment on a piece of literature.

However, the study of symbolism is fascinating, and the symbols in literature are more universal than you might think.  If you are interested in literary symbolism, I have included some references below.

Scribd list of literary symbols

Wiki answers list of literary symbols

Ask Jeeves reference on symbols in literature

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Try To Make Your Comments Unique

If you are going to comment, you should make your comments unique. The problem with standardized comments (such as “nice” or “I love this”) is not that the author doesn’t appreciate the fact that you have commented.  The problem lies in the fact that they can’t tell whether you have read their work.  And ask any serious author on the site— they are here to be heard!

What have I omitted?

PLEASE JOIN ME BY OFFERING YOUR COMMENTING SUGGESTIONS IN THE COMMENT BOXES BELOW!

* (Note that the authors I mention are members of the online site Gather.com and/or Inkstained)

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Copyright 2013 by Ann Marcaida

Image credits:  1. Erato, Muse of Poetry, by Sir Edward John Poynter 2. professorbaker@wordsmith.com 3. passonapoem.com 4. shutterstock.com 5. Poetry Reading by Charles Bukowski

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People Who Can Fly

It looks ridiculous. Nobody really knows what they’re doing, so they all do these ridiculous little things they think are important. I know one guy who flaps his arms like wings, like an eagle. It’s brilliant. This little guy with arms like saplings, standing high on a hill and swinging them back and forth at the shoulders in these huge, powerful strokes – as if his arms actually caught the air. As if it actually took some effort. Except that’s not really a fair thing to say, because it does take effort. It’s really hard. Not the flapping, that’s easy. But the process of… I don’t know. Getting in the mood. Getting in the right frame of mind to lift yourself off the ground and into the clouds. That’s why this guy flaps like a bird, because it means something to him. It doesn’t do anything to the air or whatever, but it helps him up just the same. Me? I take a run-up. I go about twenty metres back and run, and when I’m nearly there I start jumping really high and bringing my knees up to my chest. It’s fucking stupid. I just jump like that until I don’t touch the ground anymore. It looks so bad. But it helps me, you know? It gets me in the air.

Not that I’m particularly graceful once I’ve taken off. People don’t cut easily through the wind. Too many big, wide surfaces and weird protuberances, so when I’m actually in the air I’m constantly in this awful balancing act. I’m not very good at it. I still tend to flail a lot, and I’ve only just learned not to panic when my balance goes to shit. Because you can’t panic. Once I nearly lost a leg because I panicked. You’d be surprised how easily legs can just snap off, and you don’t even need to fall that far. The doctors thought I was a failed suicide and made me go to a therapist until I was better. He was a nice guy, but he didn’t know what to do with me. He knew I was holding something back. I sure as fuck wasn’t going to tell him what really happened, so eventually he had to let me go. I feel sort of bad about that. I wish we’d stayed in touch. I liked him.

I can’t teach you how to do it. Like I said, everyone has their own way. You’ll want to practice somewhere nobody can see you, because chances are you’ll look just as dumb as me, running and banging my knees into my chest. Maybe you won’t, maybe you’ll just jump into the sky fists-first like a superhero. But I’ve never met a superhero.

Just make sure you practice a lot, where nobody can see you, so that when you do come out and show someone – if you show someone – then at least you’ll look like you know what you’re doing. We’ll still laugh at you. We’ll laugh because you’ll look like a dick, but you’ve got to remember that everyone looks ridiculous, and that’s not what matters. Nobody really laughs at someone who can fly. Not really.