Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Sinners on Saturday Night Shorts

The fabulous podcast, Saturday Night Shorts, focuses on Sinners as its most recent film of the week. SNS is a podcast devoted to the craft of short filmmaking; led by two very engaged commentators who spend significant time carefully reviewing and dissecting short films.

Their comments on Sinners are appropriate and inspiring.  Both hosts lauded the film's sound-design and compositional choices.  They also highlight key areas of opportunity in relation to unnecessary insert shots and some disagreements with character motivation.  All in all, the conversation is stimulating and insightful.

In fact, the podcast led Derek to revisit the film for the first time in two years.  Looking at what had been the final edit with fresh eyes, a new director's cut has emerged which shaves a full minute off of running time!

See the updated Sinners below.  Check out the Podcast HERE.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Reassessment of Shyamalan's Signs

M. Night Shyamalan's Signs (2002) is possibly the quietest summer blockbuster ever released. Shyamalan is a writer-director who built his reputation on thoughtful, psychological portraits of figures on the fringes of the supernatural but subsequently ruined his canon with a string of increasingly terrible films reverse engineered around sudden gotcha plot twists. Signs initially debuted to mixed reviews and hasn't seemed to grow in stature the way other misunderstood gems are sometimes rediscovered later by new generations.  That is not to equate Signs with the likes Citizen Kane, Vertigo, or Singin' in the Rain all of which underwent analytical re-assessment with film criticism to join the pantheon of greatness. It's true that at times Signs can be a clunky film; overly stylized and rigid with dialogue that borders on stilted. Yet still, within its 102 minute running time lies a quiet but thrilling drama masquerading in the genre of a Sci-Fi alien invasion film featuring sequences so richly cinematic that Hitchcock himself would have been jealous. Shyamalan understands visual storytelling and in that respect Signs is kind of a masterwork.

Signs begins silently, the Touchstone logo gives ways to a black screen.  Finally, the shrill dissonance of a lone violin cues the fade-in of a single, directional light source.  The orb of light contrasts stark black credits on a background that foreshadows the flashlight imagery which will occur throughout the film.  There is nothing incredibly complex about the design of the title sequence.  Still, the elegiac violin resonates in time, rhythmically, with the light source which glows momentarily bright before dimming as a dying flashlight would.  This sequence is a consistent barrage of alternating light and dark.  This interplay of flickering light and shadow is a self-reflexive reminder of the film's own projection mechanisms. 

Signs' main characters will have to open their minds and reconcile the impossible in this suspenseful mystery.  Ultimately, the opening imagery establishes the motif that Signs is a film about light versus dark.  More to the point, the round light source foreshadows the alien visitation by graphically mirroring the shapes in the crop circles.  Light signifies the dawning knowledge and understanding that comes from learning and enlightenment; a well-trod motif reaching as far back as Plato's Allegory of the Cave. As James Newton Howard's score crescendos into a Bernard Herrman-esque symphony, Shyamalan is playing the audience's expectations like Hitchcock and his proverbial piano.

The narrative is absolutely classical in its design.  A wounded antihero must undergo a significant rite of passage in order attain the necessary growth as a character to reclaim his patriarchal power, spiritual leadership, and his sense of identity.  In this case that antihero is Reverend Graham Hess, a man who gave up his belief in God after a terrible accident left his wife dead.  Hess lives with his goofball brother Merrill, a failed professional baseball player, and Graham's two precocious children on acreage of farmland.  When strange crop circles begin appearing in the corn fields, the family struggles to understand what has made them and the larger implications of why they have been chosen.

At the start of the film, Merrill startles awake alone in the darkened bedroom.  He tours the house, completing rounds like a security guard, and Shyamalan’s manipulation of mise-en-scene adds layers to the storytelling through an abundance of impactful visuals.  The opening sequence is wordless - and scoreless - allowing the ambient sound of Graham's wake-up routine to lull the audience into makeshift calm.  The sparse sounds of Hess’ footsteps and breathing emphasize the loneliness.  The walls are worn and gray and there is an overall lack of warm light.  The farmhouse does not strike spectators as being particular inviting from these early scenes.  The most telling shot in the opening sequence is a static that frames the bathroom doorway just left of center.  The frame is devoid of human figures (although the soundtrack features the sound of Graham's urination off-screen).  The emptiness leads the viewer to scan the frame for important information: why is Shyamalan lingering on this seemingly non-narrative moment so soon into the film?  Careful viewers will observe the subtle shape of where a crucifix had once adorned the wall, now removed.  Here is where the notion that Graham Hess has recently given up on God is established.

A piercing scream cuts through the somber opening.  Graham stamps through the house (again wordlessly).  His brother Merrill is simultaneously awakened from a deep sleep and shoots out of bed like a Chaplin-esque silent comedy star.  The men tear outside and for the first time dialogue is spoken, sparsely.  Merrill asks, "Where are they?"  The loaded question alludes to a lot more than just the missing children.  Still, the single line of dialogue indicates that this will be a story focused primarily on the familial unit.  The Hess children scream for father and Uncle Merrill from deep within the cornfields.  Graham and Hess charge after them through stalks of corn taller than themselves.  It is in this opening sequence that the predominant style and visual motifs of Signs will be established.

(Characters continually stare into off-screen space)

 The emerging visual motif of Signs becomes repeating patterns of obstacles to sight.  Throughout the film there are a number of things that prevent both characters and spectators from fully seeing the "clear picture."  Shyamalan’s visual motif equates seeing to understanding and subsequently to believing (as the old adage states).  To deny Graham Hess and viewers the ability to see is to deny them the knowledge by which to grow.  Also, practically, the denial of visual material to spectators fundamentally enhances the suspense of the film by further delaying the resolution of expectations.  Corn mazes, flashlights, television static, children on a home-video at a birthday party, Graham struggling to see what is on the other side of a pantry door.  All of these moments underpin major sequences throughout the film where vision is impaired and the corresponding knowledge to be gained is withheld, momentarily.

(refusal to make eye-contact)

Graham finds his son staring off into the distance.  There is no point-of-view shot to orient us to the object of his gaze.  They speak to each other without making eye-contact; yet another component of the motif on broken sight-lines.  Many conversations within Signs occur with a significant lack of eye-contact between the conversing parties.  This technique is off-putting, and paces the drama deliberately slow.  The characters speak methodically choosing their words carefully.  Something else in off-screen space is always vying for their attention.   The boy points, his father follows, and slowly Shyamalan’s camera tracks backwards through the stalks until spilling out into a large area of trampled corn.  The entire time Shyamalan resists an establishing shot.  Spectators are subjected to a series of close-ups edited at a glacial rhythm.  Viewers focus on the wandering eyes of Graham Hess as dogs bark ferociously in the background ratcheting up the tension.  Hess’ boots crunch softly on the corn.  Finally the camera backs up to a very long shot that foregrounds two German Shepherds barking at the sky.  Lastly, Shyamalan presents us with a bird's-eye-view of the crop circle.  For the first time the viewer gets a clear sense of space as they see the majesty of the near-perfect circle trampled in the middle of a cornfield.  The family stands in the center, walled-in and helpless, and the journey of exploration begins.

(Framing the family unit)

This opening sequence introduces the film expertly.   It conveys the sense of fear and mystery that will drive the central narrative.  It introduces the themes of family, coincidence, and faith in evocative visual ways.  The lack of dialogue is a powerful choice for a film labeled Signs.  It is intelligent writing to drive the film along on important visual cues rather than allowing dialogue to push storytelling forward.  Along the way, Signs will have moments of perfection (the climax in the darkened basement as the boy suffers a debilitating asthma attack) and moments that border on laughable ("Swing Away, Merrill.")  Still, when writer/directors are as focused on utilizing the visual elements of film form to generate meaning in their pictures as M. Night Shyamalan, we should consider the work carefully.  Signs is a great movie worth re-evaluation.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Derek Dubois to be Featured in Peer-Reviewed Film Journal

This fall, Derek Dubois will once again appear in print in the peer-reviewed film journal SHORT FILM STUDIES which is published by Intellect LTD.  You can find more information on this wonderful journal at the following link:


Derek's essay, entitled "Cruel Summer: Decoding Subtext through Shot Design in The Beachargues that filmmaker Dorthe Scheffmann's filmic style, specifically shot design via mise-en-scene and cinematography, adds additional layers of meaning to the story of two intimate friends in a startling dramatic conflict. 

Watch for publication this fall.  In the meantime, enjoy an excerpt from Sheffmann's short film which served as the basis for Dubois' analysis.

Derek Dubois - Filmmaker Guest for Rhode Island College's Film Students

On Thursday 03/15/2015, Derek Dubois was invited by frequent collaborator Soren Sorensen to serve as a guest filmmaker for Film 373 - Introduction to Film Production Course.

The class, featuring upper-level film undergraduates, screened three of Derek's films: Fallout (2012), Lucid (2013), and Sinners (2014) before venturing into a lively discussion on a range of topics from low-budget film-making to feminist film theory.

This was an exciting opportunity to highlight the works of this local filmmaker while also allowing for a sharing of advice on DIY methodologies.