A Padawan in the Making

Since September of 2011, I have had an internship at Bryn Mawr Film Institute (BMFI), a non-profit art house movie theater located on Bryn Mawr Avenue.

“But Mike, how did you procure such an awesome internship?”

Well, person-entirely-created-by-my-own-imagnination-to-ask-that-question, I’ll tell you!

For a few years running, I had been taking classes at BMFI; the courses ranged from studies on Superhero and Clint Eastwood’s films, to the Language of Cinema. Having a long-standing interest in film, this was a perfect outlet to delve deeper into the medium and look past what is directly shown on screen.

Then, there comes the time in life when the sentence, “I should get a job” becomes less fantasy-based and takes a much firmer step into concrete reality.

However, I felt interning at a film institute would be both more enjoyable and beneficial than a “regular” job.

So I emailed the director of education, Andrew Douglas, who had taught many of the courses I had taken, and told him I was interested in an internship.

He responded asking if I could send in a resume and a sample of my writing. This is when the beauty of previous activities at OC comes in handy; last year, we had worked over the course of a few weeks to craft resumes for mock-job interviews.

Slightly revising the resume and attaching an essay I had written on the themes of the short story, “The Most Dangerous Game”, I punched the “send” button like I was initiating the very first mission to the moon. Andrew responded a few days later asking that I come in for an interview. Bingo.

Cut (if I may use movie terminology) to now. I have been interning every Monday and Wednesday, from 9:30 to 3:30, with a generous lunch break. I plan on cutting down to just Wednesday due to the lack of time I already have to cram school and college work into the rest of my week.

My work ranges from writing blurbs for upcoming films and press releases, to finding pictures for the website, to mailing letters and photocopying, to cataloging DVD’s and books, to uploading future events to other websites, to scanning newspaper after newspaper searching for mention of the institute.

The work can be tedious at times, but thankfully, not only can I listen to my iPod while working, but the staff is both hilarious and extremely kind and helpful.

I take all my assignments from the public relations manager, Devin Wachs. To extremely briefly sum her up, she often refers to me as, “Padawan”; walking into my workspace, she’ll often start the conversation with a sentence such as “How’s my Padawan learner doing?” or “How’s my favorite intern?” (I am, in fact, the only intern at BMFI currently).

Interning at BMFI has been a great opportunity to get both a feel for more independent work, along with a glance at the inner workings of an institution and movie theater . . . not to mention free movies!

A long needed break

In my experience, at some point in all our lives, we need a break. Some time to relax and recover. Thankfully, around the later days of December, even trickling into the first few days of January, many of us get the opportunity to do just that.

I say opportunity rather than implying we are granted a break simply because I think there are ways to botch some time off. Not to say there is a right way to go about your relaxation, just that you can sometimes realize you didn’t make the fullest of your break (as ironic as that may be).

My break was a healthy mixture of film, music, video games, and reading, all amalgamating in a four day trip to Deep Creek Lake, Maryland.

Soon after break began, I took the slightly long yet comfortingly familiar trip to my friend Jamie’s house, where our friend Niko was also staying. There, the hours were whiled away playing music and Supersmash Bros: Brawl. There are few things as exciting and relaxing as really clicking while jamming with friends (as I have previously stated).

This+music? What else could you want?

At one point, while reading The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest and listening to people play Left 4 Dead, I heard the thumping of a drum kit accompanied by an electric guitar from the basement. Dropping what I was doing, I found Niko and Jamie in the middle of their own take on Against Me!’s (AM!) “Violence”; arriving just as the chorus hit, I picked up my red Takamine in time to play the post-chorus riff as Jamie took rhythm. We spent the next hour playing vastly different versions of AM! songs.

The film highlight of my break must be granted to not one, but two viewings (a feat which I was told, made me “insane” due to the graphic and heavy nature of the film) of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, director David Fincher’s latest.

Once home, I spent the rest of my Christmas break playing L.A. Noire, watching numerous films, and reading. The ultimate teenage relaxation. After Christmas, Niko and Jamie came over, and, after loading up the car, we left with the rest of my family for Deep Creek Lake, Maryland.

With an entire ground floor to ourselves, there was far from a shortage to do: A pool table, a stereo-system with iPod compatibility, a refrigerator freshly stocked with soda and Chai tea, a flat-screen TV accompanied by a CD case full of movies, and yes, even a hot tub. It was truly lounging paradise.

Problems seemed miles away; a concern not something to fret about, only brought up when being discussed casually and rationally in front of the fireplace or during a game of pool. Though most time was spent relaxing, we had a day of inspiration.

Subsequent to a discussion about a film we have had in the works off-and-on since the summer, a prologue synopsis was suddenly written by Jamie. We had an unexpected burst of energy. The next day was devoted to finding locations and filming. Ideas were changed, shots were taken again and again, land was covered, and hands were cold. Finally, after settling into the hot tub late in the day, we realized that all we had needed was the time off to let our minds get into the right place. A break.

In sum, it was beautifully put by Niko, “you know life is good when all you have to worry about is getting into the hot tub on time.”

Cheers to the new year!

Longwood Gardens

Ever since I was a wee baby, I have been going to be a magical and wonderful place called Longwood Gardens. In fact, it was the destination of my very first outing in the world (not including the ride home from the hospital, obviously).

Regardless of the time of year, there are always beautiful sights to take in atLongwood Gardens 

Hosting 1,077 acres of breath-taking scenery, it is one of the premier botanical gardens in the US. On top of the endless naturalistic allure while strolling the gardens, there are also an assortment of themed events such as a firework show or multi-colored water fountain display set to music and concerts.

The second I step into the visitor’s center, partially under a hill that borders a section of the massive property, there’s always a feeling of excitement in my gut. I have gone to Longwood Gardens once a year at the very least for all eighteen years of my life, yet the experience never tires.

Walking wrapped in scarf and coat on the beautifully snow-covered ground, the magnificently lit trees gleaming in the cold winter months before taking refuge in the grand (and heated) conservatory is just as magical as it was when I was six.

During the summer, fountains are alive all over the grounds while a beautiful waterfall rushes past a chimes tower by a ledge of rocks. The Eye of Water flows freely, accepting all penny donations, and the Catfish glide happily in their pond, waiting to ripple the waters as their heads pop up to take food from kneeling visitors.

Longwood Gardens is one of the few places I have been on Earth that I can describe with full confidence as magical. With every visit, I am swept back into the feeling of childhood wonderment and excitement mingled with a bittersweet happiness as I think about the years going by . . . not to be sentimental.

So, if you’re in Pennsylvania and want to take a step into the enchanting, you have to look no further.

2-D or Not 2-D

3D and IMAX 3D has made its widespread and (some would say) obnoxious presence well known in cinema over the past few years.

I mean, when you're getting outdone in a technological field of cinema by some guys who get launched into the air inside a porta-potty's filled with . . .

This sub-medium of film has been both celebrated and scorned by movie-goers nationwide: cynics scoff at the idea of any film with the large “IN 3D!” text bundled with advertisements, while others (scarcer to find, in my experience) look forward to what they believe is a more immersive theatrical experience.

I sit smack in the middle of these two points of view. No, I don’t jump in line for my pair of giant black glasses for every single flick claiming to be a true 3D experience, nor do I instantly disregard a film that uses some form of the technology.

Because, yes, for those unaware, there are different types of 3D used in the movie industry. Or rather there is one real, pure type of 3D tainted by a poor and pathetic excuse to rake as much profit as possible from your truthfully 2D film.

Here’s how it works. Some films, such as Avatar (2009), Sanctum (2011), and yes, even Jackass 3D (2010) were filmed using specific cameras built for 3D. Then, you have a slew of a sadly much greater number of films that utilize what is known as post-conversion. Can’t be that much different . . . right?

Let’s take a closer look at two films. One (Avatar) filmed with 3D cameras and with 3D technology and the other (Clash of the Titans) post-converted.

In 2009, James Cameron decided he would release another film essentially as big as planet Earth itself (760.5 million domestically, guys). I refer, of course, to Avatar. I will not go into my opinion on the contents of the film, nor the man behind it, but instead the actual 3D IMAX experience.

Sitting in front of the looming forty-foot screen, I waited patiently with my pair of 3D glasses.  Having never seen a film in IMAX, let alone IMAX 3D, I had no idea what to expect.

Real 3D

Retrospectively, if I could sum the

experience up in a single word, it would have to be “immersive.” The world of Avatar truly looked three-dimensional, grabbing the viewer and surrounding them with its sweeping alien landscapes and creatures.  At times, it felt more like a rollercoaster than a film, giving me a visceral experience and allowing me to forget I was a safe spectator.

IMAX adds that much-needed extra touch to the 3D, allowing for breathtaking sound and scope. During a sequence in the film where a gigantic tree falls to the ground below, my pant legs literally shook from the power of the stereo.

Clash of the Titans, another large action film starring Sam Worthington, gave me a slightly different experience. Before my knowledge of post-conversion, I wandered happily into the theater for a viewing of Clash in what I expected to be full-blown 3D. Oh, to be young and naïve.

Fake 3D

What word comes to mind this time? “Bloated,” “nauseating,” “disorienting,” any of those shall do. Instead of bringing me closer to the world portrayed on screen, the glasses just felt like they brought me closer to the screen itself.

The post-converted 3D gave me a massive headache, completely disorienting me the second any type of sudden movement was made on screen; I could barely navigate a scene without squinting.

Far from looking three-dimensional, both landscape and character in every frame looked smudgy and otherwise completely 2D throughout the film. Therefore, it not only fails on all promises of 3D fare, but detracts from even a standard viewing experience (not to mention the four extra dollars you paid).

In conclusion, 3D merits your time and money when the technology and film is in the right hands. Do I think 3D should be the future of all films when tackled correctly? Certainly not. Though offering a different type of absorption into a movie (when done right), I believe any good film has enough power on its own to capture and spellbind an audience. That being said, it’s a great way to spend an evening with a popcorn, soda, and group of friends at your side.

So, before throwing on those glasses and shelling out four extra dollars, do a little research. Because, hey, knowledge never gave anybody a fifteen dollar headache.

Welcome at the OC

When I mention the letters “OC” to most people (generally meaning non-homeschoolers), I am usually greeted with responses such as, “When were you in Ocean City?” or “Oh, that show on MTV?” Regretfully, I am referring to neither. I am, in fact, speaking of a place which has had a much greater impact on my life than a beach getaway or (poor) excuse to sit on the couch for a few hours (seriously, the “OC”? The Housewives of New Jersey is much better!)

Open Connections(OC) is a homeschooling resource center located in Newtown Square, PA. The beautiful property hosts two buildings (which have been outfitted for all OC needs) called the Farm House and the Barn atop running hills and green grass.  And thus, within this wonderful space, OC thrives.

The Open Connection grounds

OC consists of multiple programs throughout each day of the week, encompassing a range of ages. Since 2008, I have been attending a Thursday program deemed “Shaping Your Life.”

Shaping Your Life is made up of about twenty teen programmers and two facilitators. The morning starts off at 9:15 with “check-in,” in which everyone goes around and shares some highlights of their week (a thirty-second time limit has actually been placed on this, due to the length of check-in often running much longer than it should, something that is frequently joked about).

After check-in, we usually do a mental warm-up exercise to stimulate ourselves before the full day ahead of us. These usually consist of brain-teasers and/or games that test and sharpen our minds.

Then it’s on to group activities for the rest of the morning that range from working on the garden we planted last year on the grounds to studying poverty or foreign newspaper headlines to group discussions or challenges. For example, a few weeks ago, we examined and discussed the many types of rhetoric and fallacies used in media, writing, etc. Then, we broke into two groups and went about two different ways of studying excerpts from books, politics, news, and fictional scenarios, trying to deduce which type was being used.

The morning portion culminates with a brief physical activity, ranging from games such as Wink or Knockout to attempting to find equal balance on an off-kilter platform holding all twenty of us or trying to squeeze fellow teens through a spider web of rope without ringing the bell attached to said rope. Needless to say, that bell went off. Multiple times.

The stroke of noon signals lunch followed by free time, during which we teens essentially have two unstructured hours to schedule as we please. Within OC guidelines, of course.

Then finally, from two to four, we split up into three or four groups and go about our afternoon sessions. These vary greatly in subject matter and last for five consecutive weeks. I am currently three weeks into a “Geography Challenge” session, where we study different aspects of geography while also learning about the function of our brains in relation to memory. Before that? The Assassination of JKF and the conspiracies surrounding the event. Like I said, varied.

What I love the most about OC is actually quite simple: the environment and the vibe which that environment gives off. When I arrive at OC, I instantly feel comfortable and happy. It feels like nothing can touch me.  It’s like being at a close friend’s house, except that friend’s house happens to be a giant community. I’m always up for challenges when I’m there and know that I will be both supported and helped develop in areas if and when I experience roadblocks. OC is like a second home, and the level of comfort I feel within the realm of OC is bested only by that of my own humble abode.

Nolanverse

“I believe whatever doesn’t kill you, simply makes you . . . strangeerrr.” If this quote conjures images of smeared face paint and a twisted smile, you did not live under a rock in the year 2008.

The Dark Knight (TDK) is a thrilling superhero blockbuster from the mind of director/co-writer Christopher Nolan, and though obviously adapted from Batman source material, Nolan was sure to put his signature stamp on the film. TDK sits as a staple of both one of the most successful superhero films of recent years, and one of Nolan’s larger films commercially due to its iconic cape-wearing vigilante, grossing in a whopping 533.3 million domestically in its theatrical run (that’s right, before DVD/Blu-ray sales).
However, I shall not be speaking strictly of this complex crime saga but instead talking of the man behind all the cinematic magic, Mr. Christopher Nolan. Having now seen all seven feature films he has directed (and wrote/co-wrote), along with one of three short films, I feel confident in saying that now is as good as any to try and encompass one of the most imaginative and genius directors my generation has had the privilege of seeing work and evolve.

Where to begin? Have you ever walked out of a movie theater with your head aching, and not from the loud noises and frenetic camera movement of a typical Hollywood action flick, but from the twisting and turning of a story, the vast questions it poses, and the sheer size of the ideas woven into a film? In my experience, almost every Nolan film demands your mind to try and squeeze all that was just presented into coherent sequence and break events down so you don’t virtually implode (the exception being Batman Begins, not because I consider it inferior to the rest of his filmography, but simply because it is the beginnings of a trilogy and thus less vast in its reach as a solitary story and works more as the teasing of a larger picture).

That’s not to say Mr. Nolan presents his films in a manner of incoherence, just that he has a knack for telling complex stories which test and tease your brain and inflict chaos on your senses at every turn. Subsequent to my first viewing of Inception, the sophisticated dream-invasion sci-fi epic, my brain throbbed from the intricate layers, broad ideas and concepts, and profuse questions that filled my head. Even in his feature-length debut Following, with a budget of just $6,000, Nolan wove a labyrinth tale of conspiracy and scheming into a short hour and ten minute run time.

Nolan often employs non-linear narrative, which means the story is told out of chronological sequence. The Prestige’s narrative switches between multiple characters and flashbacks/forwards while telling a story of intrigue and deception in the world of magicians.

In Memento, the film begins at the end, and then plays backwards in fragmented segments interspersed with flashback clips from earlier in the story. This ingenious approach has been called a gimmick by some, but I just can’t see it that way. If a narrative technique can absorb and immerse a viewer in a way they haven’t seen before and lift the film itself to a different level, I say full speed ahead.

That’s the beauty of Mr. Nolan; I believe he is truly one of the few American directors striving to reach new, groundbreaking areas of cinema. He is not satisfied with settling for something that has been done a thousand times before, but for what is ahead. For what lies in the expansive space of the unknown and unexplored. Even when dealing with material handled by many before him, Nolan was able to give the Batman series a fresh and innovative approach that felt as original as the rest of his work.

Watching any one of his films, I instantly hand all the problems and woes in my life over to Mr. Nolan in exchange for not only total escapism, but the knowledge that my brain power will be used elsewhere.

Nolan demands your attention from the opening credits to the final curtain, pinning you to your seat throughout. Though never cheating the audience, Nolan does not hold the viewers hand: blink for a moment and you may miss a sign or symbol, message or clue. If you’re prepared for a mind-bending and complex ride that will both test and ultimately satisfy, allow yourself to be swept away in the ever-expanding Nolanverse. Are you watching closely?

Alleviation Through Guitar

Icelandic band lead by front man Jonsi.

When I was young(er), I would see people playing instruments, especially guitar, and be transfixed. Even before touching one myself, I could tell that people playing were, in a way, in their own realm. I would see a couple of musicians making music together and think how spectacular it must feel to synchronize yourself through such a satisfying medium. However, comprehension and experience can be two different things entire. So, roughly two years ago, I picked up my sister’s dusty and neglected Aria classical guitar and decided I wanted to experience this for myself.

The most obvious place to get a footing in the never-ending trail of playing guitar is lessons. So, with my poorly tuned Aria and pre-callused fingers, I started searching for a teacher to introduce me to the world of guitar and take me under their wing like Sgt. Nicholas Angel did for PC Danny Butterman (if you just scratched your head with that last analogy, you have sadly never been graced with the brilliance of the film Hot Fuzz. I will sooth your confusion by stating that it is essentially the same dynamic as Mr. Miyagi to Daniel Laursso. Still scratching? Google is right around the corner). Upon finding a teacher, I began taking hour long lessons every Wednesday during the (home) school year. Like many naïve teenagers before me, the delusive idea of grandeur that accompanied me before actually playing guitar soon faded. No, Mike, you cannot even play the rhythm guitar for Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe” yet, let alone the solo. Hammer-ons? Pull-offs? Just try hitting the high e string there, buddy. As much as we’d all like to be instantly exceptional at some things, you usually quickly realize that you need to spend a little time with something called practice before shredding up arenas with your God-like guitar skills.

Tom Gabel and the boys peforming at 2011's Warped Tour

So I went through the admittedly slow process of getting the beginnings of a grip on guitar. Now, two years later, I won’t even pretend that I have mastered guitar. No, I, like all players, am just standing on a step in the endless staircase that is guitar skill. From my experience, there is a barrier for each player when starting out. It’s the line between frustration that all you seem to be able to play is Yankee-freaking-Doodle for the umpteenth time and realizing you’ve practiced enough to actually play (some of) the songs you like (. . . maybe that barrier was just for me). You know, the reason you started in the first place. Once that line was crossed, guitar moved out of the tedious region and into the limitless territory of joy.

Guitar, over the short span of two years, has become not only a great way to pass the time, but more importantly a way to connect and escape as well. I have the privilege of being in a circle of friends that are predominantly musically gifted; be it guitar, banjo, bass, drums, piano, etc, my friends have it covered. So, I have had endless opportunities to have “jam sessions” in both an assortment of locations and musical set-ups. Whether in a friend’s bedroom or basement, family room or kitchen, or on a stage at Open Connections, playing to no one or a whole crowd, we find a way to make music. The beauty of it is that none of those variables really matter. What does matter is that feeling of connection and harmonization that I have found in no other form of social interaction. Even during the ebb of negative emotions we sometimes go through, I have sat down with a few friends and felt nothing but pure alleviation and joy while playing music. When something you are doing can make you laugh from sheer delight, it’s something worth clinging to.