The actor Peter Falk died last Thursday at his home in Beverly Hills, California. Although Falk was most known for his starring role as a disheveled, lovable detective in the television show Columbo, his death prompted me to remember his incredible, very different performance in John Cassavetes’ 1974 film A Woman Under the Influence

Falk plays a construction worker whose fragile wife (played by Cassavetes’ wife Gena Rowlands) has an emotional breakdown and spends 6 months in a psychiatric hospital. As the movie progresses, we start to see that Falk’s outgoing, tough character, is off-kilter, too — whether as a result of his wife or his own controlling tendencies. (He pulls his kids out of school to go to the beach and then barks at his children to run up and down and have fun.)

The movie is brilliant, harrowing, and brutal; it is also noteworthy for Cassavetes’ determination to make and distribute it. Its crew was largely made up of unpaid students from the American Film Institute. Cassavetes stole electricity and repeatedly mortgaged his home — it’s been reported that Falk put in $500,000. In a then-innovative practice that has become common for independent filmmakers, Cassavetes, Falk and Rowlands promoted and booked the movie with theaters directly. Cassavetes’ movie only made it to a larger audience because his friend Martin Scorsese threatened to withdraw his film Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore from the New York Film Festival if the organizers didn’t show Cassavetes’ film. It was later nominated for two Academy Awards.

Considered by some the father of the independent film, Cassavetes’ influence can be seen in one of the most engaging films I’ve seen over the last year, Blue Valentine, also a raw depiction of a troubled marriage. The raw emotion in both movies is partially captured by the use of a hand-held camera, but more than the fragile realism imparted by that technique, both depend on deeply imagined scenes played by actors pushed to their limits. 

The practice of using a hand-held camera has become a signature in American independent filmmaking; in fact, it seems like independent filmmakers sometimes try to purchase emotion with shots like the ones in A Woman Under the Influence (and less so, Blue Valentine.) But there is no camera work that can improve an emotionally thin film.

Although he wasn’t considered as much of a legend as a star like Elizabeth Taylor, the passing of Peter Falk feels like the end of an era. As cameras themselves get cheaper (and the more expensive ones get cooler) and get into the hands of more and more photographers/filmmakers, we’re deluged with images — far more, I suspect, than at any other time in history. And with the Internet, distribution of these images is easier for photographers/filmmakers, too. 

More choices among images can be a good thing from the perspective of choice and social democracy.  Ironically, the ease of making and distributing images today (the result of risks taken by Cassavetes and many others), makes it just as tough, if not more so, to locate filmmakers who are doing work that is groundbreaking, not just technically, but artistically, too. It’s a bit of a Where’s Waldo mission: where is today’s maverick, today’s Cassavetes — and would we recognize him?


The Medium is the Massage, Part V

When I first read about Baz Luhrmann’s (Romeo and Juliet, Australia) plan to make The Great Gatsby in 3D, I was puzzled. The movie is expected to be released in 2012 with Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan and Tobey Maguire as three of its stars. But why 3D, I thought? It’s trendy right now — even art-house directors (Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog) are experimenting with it­­ — but is it right for every project?    

I wasn’t the only one asking this question upon hearing the news. One blogger wrote at, “A period piece set in 1915 hardly has any staggering visual elements that scream to be seen in 3D.” Also, despite the specifically New York milieu in which the story takes place, it will be filmed in New South Wales in Australia. That setting might offer more staggering visual elements, but will it be true enough to the book? As a number of blogs have noted, filming in 3D may very well exemplify the height of the excess criticized in Fitzgerald’s novel.

But maybe that makes a 3D movie by the director of decadence, Baz Luhrmann, the ultimate retelling of The Great Gatsby. [1] It’s the perfect way to translate The Great Gatsby to our modern times. A lot of paper has been devoted to story “types” — to the idea that all books and novels can be traced back to a finite set of storylines like “small town boy moves to the big city”. While it may or may not be true that there’s nothing new to say, it’s the retelling that keeps a story alive in some form. Why not use the form that’s not only appropriate to the subject matter, but also the most rich with unexplored artistic possibility? 

When you watch a 3D movie, your brain is tricked into believing that you are looking at a real scene because two viewpoints are rendered and simultaneously projected; the brain receives a different vantage from each eye. For a more technical explanation on making a 3D movie, read this:

Understanding the brain is key to understanding from where the strengths and weakness of the 3D approach derive. In one study, described in Jonah Lehrer’s blog at, researchers Uri Hasson and Rafael Malac showed subjects The Good, The Bad and the Ugly and scanned what happened to each subject’s cortex. When exposed to the same visual field in the movie, the subjects’ brains synchronized. However, engagement in sensorimotor processing inhibited the prefrontal cortex, which controls logic and analysis., was inhibited when engaged in sensorimotor processing. As Lehrer suggests, what requires more excessive sensorimotor processing than 3D? There’s no room for analysis, and that’s part of what makes 3D a different type of immersive experience than traditional 2D movies. 

In an exciting piece of related news, PAIFF sponsor Technicolor has agreed to donate its well-received 3D Certification course “Certifi3D” to PAIFF 2011. Technicolor is committed to giving consumers “quality and comfortable 3D experiences.”  Thank you, Technicolor!

[1] Some readers have pointed out that there is a typo in the title of this blog series. In case you were one of the readers that noticed, the title grew out of Marshall McLuhan’s book of the same title. The typesetter accidentally turned the “e” of “message” to an “a”. McLuhan thought the typo apt (the book speaks to the effects of media on all of the senses) and kept it. This series was inspired by McLuhan’s ideas.

PAIFF Launches at a Castle Cocktail Party

On Saturday, June 4, we launched PAIFF 2011 with a lively, sophisticated cocktail party held at the beautiful Stonebrook Court (“the Castle”) ballroom owned by our sponsor Kelly Porter of Woodside Capital Partners.  Guests enjoyed an evening of appetizers and drinks below an authentic 16th Century gilded Venetian ceiling inlaid with paintings.  The 16th century was a time of unprecedented changes in every aspect of European life.  Since PAIFF celebrates the modern day renaissance in art and technology, the setting was ideal.

Filmmakers and speakers like Molly Davis, John Gaeta, and John Knoll mingled with sponsors, PAIFF Advisory Board members and other creative and innovative thinkers from around the Bay Area.  Among our wonderful sponsors in attendance were City of Palo Alto, Filemaker, Technicolor, Meshin, Coupa Café, Randy Stearns Engineered Environments, Making Of, Cameron Hughes, and Hint.  Beverages were donated by Gordon Biersch (beer), Cameron Hughes Wine, and Hint, Inc. (water). 


Twilight strolls among the roses of the English Garden were a cinematic way to conclude our launch night.  Many thanks to all of the great people who came to the Castle despite the possibility of hail to inaugurate PAIFF with us!