Sleeping Beauty Never Grows Up

“Briar Rose
was an insomniac...
She could not nap
or lie in sleep
without the court chemist
mixing her some knock-out drops
and never in the prince's presence.”

So wrote Anne Sexton in her powerful collection of poetry, Transformations, which reimagines and personalizes every familiar fairytale. Released in 1971, these poems present a take on fairytales that’s even more brutal than the version in Andrew Lang’s once-controversial “color” fairytale books.

French director Catherine Breillat calls to mind Sexton’s poems in her recent film The Sleeping Beauty. A life-long lover of dark versions of fairytales, I had very mixed feelings as I watched the film at the San Francisco International Film Festival this week.

The Sleeping Beauty starts out with some intensely beautiful images, moments in the movie that evoke the elemental, enchanted, and highly-associative nature of how many imaginative children see the world. It deviates considerably from the Charles Perrault fairytale (and from the folktales on which the Perrault version is based, Aarne Thompson folktale type 401), but that is part of its charm.

The little actress who plays Sleeping Beauty is strangely appealing, too. While her dialogue, as well as other characters’ dialogue, is disjointed, that only adds to the dreamlike quality of the film. As you watch, the movie builds on that disjointed quality by creating incredible suspense. Breillat guides the viewer through all sorts of “pricking” scenes that could be the one fated prick that puts Sleeping Beauty to sleep (hanging from a branch, a scene with bees and the stabbing of a hand during a play). By using a sequence, rather than the conventional scene, Breillat forces the viewer to pay close attention in order to see the pivotal prick.

The boundary between wakefulness and dreaming is blurred, if not wholly rubbed-out, throughout the film. Only after Sleeping Beauty winds up at a semi-modern house, adopted by a boy and his mother does it become apparent that the movie is wholly focused on her dream, rather than the things that happen while she’s sleeping.

Once the little girl meets a Lynchian midget, the movie spirals out of control. Cleverly disregarding logic and its own title (like a dream), the film transforms into a retelling of the Snow Queen fairytale. In that less-known story, a little girl travels to rescue her brother from the Snow Queen and takes up with a robber girl.

Formally, the movie adopts an interesting internal logic. In the last twenty minutes of early sexuality, however, the movie deviates from a semi-organic narrative into an outright 1970s/1980s feminist diatribe. It’s almost as if Breillat, a professor as well as an auteur, never outgrew or moved past academic women studies discussions from that time period.

Where the child was incredibly appealing in her precociousness, her awakened teenage self is, at best, annoying, smug and stoned. Perhaps that captures something true about adorably precocious children (that they are much less cute when they are teenagers). However, there was a lot of conceptual potential in this film to say something new about the relationships between the dream life of girls and boys and their differing sexualities. Relying solely on dreamy beauty instead of deep, original thought, the film squanders its potential in favor of a conventional grimness.


Mysteries of Lisbon: If you can make it complicated…

…why make it simple? Director Raúl Ruiz’s films adhere to his unorthodox motto. I first saw one of Ruiz’s films in college (an adaptation of Time Regained by Marcel Proust) and despite loving both Proust and complicated movies, for 160 minutes could barely keep track of the complicated storyline or determine which characters were “real” and which were from Proust’s novel.

Finishing in 4 hrs and 45 minutes, Mysteries of Lisbon, which played at the San Francisco International Film Festival on April 23, is even more complicated. Mysteries is an adaptation of a homonymous historical novel written by Camilo Castelo Branco.

Part I of the film unfolds by following the path of a picked-upon, orphaned teenager with seizures, known only as Joao, as he gradually learns the story of his origins from the priest who cares for him. Joao discovers that he was born out of wedlock to a countess who was cheating on her husband. The rest of his origins story seems to be lifted from a Dickens novel. 

In the first half, the director frames many of the opening scenes within Joao’s cardboard theater. Moments after the scene begins, the cardboard cutouts dissolve into real people. From this first half, I was expecting something similarly metaphoric and introspective in the second half.

Although visually composed in a more straightforward fashion, the second half of the film is much weirder than the first. The story explodes in all directions, almost as if it has a will of its own, rather than an author or director at its helm. It weaves together the dramatic and sometimes funny tales of mysterious characters that are just barely connected to Joao. An explanation for the complexity, scope and sometimes-bizarre action in the second half is only given away in the final moments of the film.

The film is a challenging and visually gorgeous game with a soap operatic quality — a belching cutthroat appears later as a nobleman with a parrot, a duchess seeks revenge through seduction, a blind, lunatic seeks his daughter’s mausoleum (which does not exist) and lovers are cruelly thwarted. What’s lovely about this film is that even if you mostly ignored the intricate storyline, the visual shots are perfectly and artistically composed. Watching it is akin to being mesmerized by several, slightly off-kilter, classical paintings in motion.

Describing the making of his film here, Ruiz comments that a mutual contempt exists between the maker of a soap opera and the viewer. While the maker sees the viewer as an idiot to whom he dispenses idiotic stuff, the viewer sees the soap opera maker as idiotic, but watches anyway. While Mysteries of Lisbon contains stock elements of a soap opera, it has the intellectual depth of a puzzle or a short story by Borges. 

By ignoring the conventional barrier between the traditional narrative story and the experimental one, and by ignoring the banal instruction that simple is always better than complex, Ruiz successfully creates a work of art that plays with origin stories while offering a truly original kind of pleasure.


Young Dracula Plays on the Big Screen!

Peek into our programming director Alf Seccombe's imagination at a screening of his short film, Young Dracula, which is being presented by San Francisco International Film Festival on Sunday, April 24th at the Kabuki Theater at 3:15 pm. In the following interview, Alf shares a little bit about his intriguing film with us.

Anita: What is Young Dracula about?

Alf: I think SFIFF put it best — A misunderstood adolescent boy runs away from home and is picked up by a family that makes him feel relatively normal. But, I also think it's a mini-love story, or at the very least, a crush.

Anita: It doesn’t sound like a typical vampire movie. Tell us the story of what inspired it.

Alf: I was living in Romania and had been shooting a promo for a documentary on Dracula tourism. I was trying to find an artistic connection to "vampire culture” because I didn’t relate to it at all. I remembered that when I was a freshman in high school, I ran into a classmate outside of school and when we got to talking, I noticed he had fake fangs. I laughed and asked him why. He replied that he was playing a card game, something like Dungeons and Dragons, and it helped him "be in the game" — it made the experience more realistic. I thought that was ironic because I knew if he had worn those fangs at school (in real life), he would have been beaten up.

At the end of that year, there was a picture of me in the yearbook that almost shocked me. I was wearing what I always wore (tight, high water, tapered jeans and an oversized tee shirt), and I had this spazzy look on my face. For the first time, I saw myself for who I was and I was surprised that I hadn't been beat up. So, with this film, I wanted to look at that point in life: when you first become aware of how other people see you.

Anita: It’s interesting that this isn’t really a story about the Dracula we know from prior movies. It reminded me of the film My Life as a Dog. Which filmmakers and films influenced you?

Alf: That’s funny — I love that film. When I saw My Life as a Dog, I was the same age as the kid in it, so it made a huge impression. I remember actually barking around the house, like he did…Now that I think of it, Lasse Hallström, the director, also made What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, which is another great film and influence. And then, of course, because I was in Romania, my mentor Cătălin Mitulescu, and his films, were a big influence. He helped me develop a similar script to this one, which I ultimately adapted to what is now Young Dracula.


Light Pioneers, Part III: An Interview with Sci-Tech Award Winner Michael Bunnell

In 2010, PAIFF's talented Advisory Board Member Michael Bunnell, won a Sci-Tech Oscar for a global illumination algorithm that was used to create the special effects you've seen in many recent blockbusters. Global illumination is a technique for calculating light from all directions, so that both direct and indirect lighting are taken into account. Bunnell created the algorithm in his free time while working for NVIDIA. His article explaining the algorithm was published in the second volume of GPU Gems.

In case you've just read that and think that "global illumination algorithm" is too technical to be relevant to your movie-going experience, Michael has explained that some of what we admire so much in the CG of today is based on something deceptively simple: light. In the past, if someone animated a person walking in a white dress on a red carpet, and you didn't see the effects of light reflecting from the carpet, it would look like a collage—like the objects didn't belong in the same scene together. Now it's a totally different story…

Anita: What inspired you to create the algorithm?

Michael: I [originally] thought to get really good realistic graphics, you only needed direct lighting and good shadowing, like shadow mapping, and you'd get this good image, but then I learned about ambient occlusion. There was an ambient occlusion technique used to shadow ambient light that was originally used in the movie Pearl Harbor and one of the Jurassic Park movies to make the rendering look more realistic. Somebody from the NVIDIA team said, "Oh, we can put this on our demo." It did look great, but it took 8 hours to compute. So it wasn't really useful for the customers of NVIDIA- video game and movie studios wanted it in real-time. I thought, "This looks awesome but nobody could use it." I said, "I'll look at this problem and even if it's not the greatest thing in the world, anything is better than not doing anything at all."

Anita: How did you find out someone had used it in a movie?

Michael: I only found out about them using it in a movie six months after the movie came out. The movie was Pirates of the Caribbean, Dead Man's Chest. Somebody emailed and asked me what I thought about them using my technique for final render in that movie and I replied, "you must be mistaken, they didn't use my technique." They sent me an email back and replied, "No you're wrong, you're mistaken." The email included a link to an online interview with Christophe Hery. He explained how they got the technique out of GPU Gems and how the rendering had been taking too long and they weren't going to get their shots ready by the summertime. The reason for the delay was that they were rendering characters like Davy Jones- who is completely a CG character as is his whole crew- and they just have tons of geometric detail. The detail was pushed up so high, with so much more data, that the version of RenderMan that they were using just couldn't handle rendering it in a reasonable time using ray-tracing for ambient occlusion. Per Christensen then adapted my point-based technique for use in RenderMan and speeded up the renders considerably. They also used it for adding a bounce of indirect lighting. I found out that Christophe Hery also used my basic technique to improve subsurface scattering, which they use for a lot of skin shaders (for rendering translucent materials). That was a real shock to me. He had already won a Sci-Tech award for his own work in subsurface scattering. For him to use my technique to improve an Academy Award winning technique really blew me away.

Anita: How did your work wind up winning a Sci-Tech Award?

Michael: After I found out they used my technique, I contacted Christophe Hery and he invited me to ILM to speak about further work that I had done with regards to global illumination. A couple of weeks after that, he sent me an email saying that Per Christenson from Pixar, also Rene Limberger of Sony Pictures Imageworks and he (Christophe) were going to submit the point cloud-based lighting to the Academy for a potential Sci-Tech Academy Award, and they wanted to know if I wanted to be included. I said, "Oh yeah, put my name on there" and so they submitted it, but we didn't win. We got a nice letter saying this is really great, but it hadn't been used in enough films to know if it was really important. It can't be a technique used in just one movie to win a Sci Tech Award, it has to be something that really advances the industry. They suggested resubmitting it later. Two years later, Per Christenson at Pixar resubmitted the package. And by that time he could list 3 dozen movies. And all the movies that had won Best Special Effects had used it. And it wasn't just used in visual effects movies. Up used it in about 95% of the shots. They had also used it in Wall-E. This time we won.

Anita: How did you find out that you won?

Michael: They send a letter out in December. I didn't get it until January because it went to Fantasy Lab, the company I work for, and I didn't check that mailbox during the holidays, because there was not much going on then. I told my wife that all I wanted for Christmas was an Academy Award, and it turns out I got my wish. I just didn't know it. Then I got a call from Per Christenson who wanted to talk about us winning. I checked the company post office box and there were two letters from the Academy. The first had arrived before Christmas.

Anita: So you did get your wish! You told me that when you were younger, you used to paint. When and why did you formally decide to study engineering?

Michael: Actually, I don't know when I decided to study it. I was really interested in programming. When the first calculators that were programmable came out, I would program them just for fun. My father brought home a microprocessor evaluation kit for the Motorola 6800 from work. They were done with it, and were going to throw it away. It had a video chip in it, too, so you could hook it to a TV. I programmed simple video games on it in machine language.

Anita: I also heard that you sculpt on the weekends. Does that affect your technical work now or is that more of a release?

Michael: I don't do hand-sculpting. I did a little bit of Claymation in high school. Ten years ago,I started doing 3D modeling on the computer for fun and that actually has become really usefulnow when I have to communicate with the artist. At Fantasy Lab, we're making video gamesand have an artist do all the real modeling, but since I have experience with Maya and Zbrush, I don't have to say, "Oh this guy's nose is too wide or his neck is too thin" I just go in and modify it myself and send it back to them to show them the changes I want.

Anita: Do you think art and technology influence each other on a larger scale?

Michael: I know John Lasseter said that and there's no way I am going to argue with John Lasseter from Pixar. I don't know if I could give as good examples as he does, but I certainly have seen art challenge technology. It's easy for the artist to come up with a challenge like, "I want this character to have long hair." And then you have to come up with a way to simulate the long hair. I think on the other side, if you give artists a restriction, it can actually help them creatively. In the early days of Pixar, all they could render was hard surfaces so they picked toys as the subjects of their first major motion picture: Toy Story. It did not stop them from making a great movie.

Anita: You now own the company Fantasy Lab. What does that company do?

Michael: Fantasy Lab is first and foremost a video game developer. However, the games we are making are very movie-like. I've played many video games where I killed 1000 monsters, but I was not emotionally as involved as I was when I was watching the movie Alien, which only has one monster. So the question was: how could you make a movie with one monster that was more exciting than a video game where you have hundreds of monsters? What makes a movie so
immersive and exciting and is there a way to make a video game that way?

Anita: How does Fantasy Lab answer that question?

Michael: A video game is interactive and that gets you engaged in the game, but you just don't get the same emotional feeling. Especially in the third person game, you're looking from a far distance. If it's a first person game, you're closer to the action, but the camera work is annoying and a lot of people can't stand to watch you play. And a lot of people can't even play first person games because they get nauseous. People don't get nauseous when they go to the movies, but they do get immersed. So we did a lot of studying of film techniques and tried to incorporate that as much as possible in the video game itself. We're trying to expand the audience. There are a lot of people who go to see films who never play a video game.

Anita: I wanted to end on the note of what movie first influenced you.

Michael: There was no movie theater in the town I grew up in. It was really small, so by the time I was 11 or 12, I'd only seen two films: Winnie the Pooh and Mary Poppins. I guess the first movie that influenced me was Star Wars. I really liked how they had this super-advanced technology and it was just part of the society that they were in- with the robots, light sabers, spaceships. That's probably why I decided to study computer science and electrical engineering. I thought, well, maybe some day I could design something like that. Of course, I like all types of movies. I like mystery movies, like The Thin Man and it might not be politically correct, but I still love Charlie Chan. I also like old movies starring Humphrey Bogart, William Powell, Myrna Loy, Clark Gable, of course. They don't have special effects, but they're great.


T3 Talks: Recap of Secrets to a Funnier You


Palo Alto Patch staff and PAI staff waited expectantly for the event to begin.



Dinner got off to a great start with drinks donated by Thomas Fogarty Vineyards and Gordon Biersch. The variety of options offered by our sponsor Whole Foods gave everyone a chance to make the perfect small plates before sitting down to enjoy the show.



One of the founders of Palo Alto Institute, Dr. Joon Yun, mingled with guests who were new to the T3 Talks.




Some of the members of Palo Alto Investors joined us for the evening with their significant others. Palo Alto Investers in large part funds the PAI.



Emcee and speaker Chris Sams, Director of BATS Theater-On-The-Go asked audience members to come up with a rousing welcome for Kevin Kallaugher ("KAL"). What better way to welcome him than tossing flowers?



World renowned for his caricatures in The Economist, KAL shared his secrets to drawing Obama!



During the second intermission, guests ate dessert and talked about the first pair of speakers, caricaturist KAL and Director of the Humor Lab, Dr. Peter McGraw.



Members of the zany Stanford Band chatted with our emcee and speaker, Chris Sams (Directors of BATS Theater-on-the-Go), about the world of pranks and improvisation.



Some of our audience members were as witty as our speakers! One of our guests gets a laugh out of Dr. Peter McGraw, Director of the Humor Research Lab.




Fun was had by all.



Dave Dennisen of the highly-entertaining improv group "Awkward Dinner Party" called up random audience members and ran an improv session. Who knew that helicopters could be so hilarious?





John Morreall took us on a time-traveling expedition through the history of humor to funny moments in modern-day America.



Funny and intellectual at the same time, Emily Levine performed one of her stand-up routines on being a woman, physics and cancer. Stay tuned for her upcoming movie!



Our wonderful speakers, Chris Sams, Dr. Peter McGraw, KAL, Emily Levine and John Morreall, are just about to take a bow as the night draws to a close.


Under Milk Wood

Happy National Poetry Month! I went to the Palo Alto Main Library last weekend and was pleased to see that they had put out a selection of poetry anthologies.

I was pleased because a Palo Alto librarian told me last year: “I wish I could say that poetry is in great demand, unfortunately poetry — even by nationally and internationally renowned poets and published by major publishers or by the top poetry publishers — generates very little demand in our community.”

Why isn’t there more of a demand for poetry in our community? Poetry is one of the oldest art forms — it predates literacy. Poems predate novels by many thousands of years and more importantly, unlike many other ancient art forms, these works have stood the test of time: the poetry of Sappho and Rumi, The Song of Solomon. Yet, only a few people I know in our well-educated Palo Alto community read poetry seriously and regularly.

So, it’s heartening to me that local theaters have recently decided to take on the challenging sell (poetry). To me, that means that maybe poetry is making a bit of a comeback. Last month, Betsy Franco’s poem-play Metamorphosis played at The Children’s Theater. Upcoming on April 21 - 23rd, Stanford Summer Theater will present Under Milk Wood, a radio play by poet Dylan Thomas that chronicles the lives of villagers in the Welsh village Llareggubb (“bugger all” backward).

I saw Under Milk Wood in 1996 when Palo Alto Theater Works presented it. Less of a narrative than a long poem, the poem is populated by quirky, but deeply human, villagers. Among them is a pair of passionate lovers who only communicate by letters and in their dreams. Then there’s the postman and his wife who steam open the letters of the lovers (and others’) in the morning and spread them around the town. There’s the owner of a guesthouse who can’t have anyone actually stay in her guesthouse because she can’t abide untidiness. And any more.

What’s even more astonishing about Under Milk Wood is its poetry. Thomas was obsessed with words, their multiple meanings, and their sounds. You should go to this play, not for the story (although there are many interesting characters with colorful dream lives, just as there are in Palo Alto), but to experience the beauty and strangeness of the sound.

People often stereotype poets as solitary creatures. And often we are. But, go see Under Milk Wood! The greatest poets read their poems aloud, whether alone or in front of other people, because they are essentially songs, just like “E.T.” (Katy Perry) or “Just Can’t Get Enough” (Black Eyed Peas). Only better.

Under Milk Wood will play at the Pigott Theater, 551 Serra Mall, Stanford, CA 94305 on
April 21 - April 23, 2011 at 8 pm. Tickets are free (reservations recommended).