Roma and Da 5 Bloods: Making a Memory

In a Hollywood Reporter roundtable for the 2018 awards season, Spike Lee asked Alfonso Cuaron how he did “that shot”. He was, of course, referring to Roma’s climactic, one shot sequence where protagonist Cleo saves two of the family’s children from getting caught in a strong current despite not knowing how to swim. The family embraces Cleo and expresses their love for her and her selflessness, before admitting a truth that makes it even sadder and more powerful. All of this is done through a single, uninterrupted take, scored only by the crashing waves and the aching authenticity of the dialogue.

Being notorious for his several feuds with fellow filmmakers, it’s something of an achievement to garner praise from Lee, unafraid to speak his mind whenever he deems necessary. Unsurprisingly, it was Cuaron’s Roma that elicited Lee’s wonder and appreciation of the craft. A semi-autobiographical tale of a housemaid in Mexico City, Roma is one of 2018’s finest gems, bringing life to 1970 Mexico in a way that was uncompromised by cinematic sweetening or rose tinted glasses. Cuaron was set on making a film from the recesses of his memory with as much detail and truth as possible. The end result is a masterwork of sight and sound that shows how cinema can emulate not just emotion, but life itself.

Enter Da 5 Bloods, the new Spike Lee Joint. Following up his Oscar winning effort in BlackKklansman, Spike focuses on 5 black Vietnam War vets who come back to ‘Nam to recover the remains of their fallen comrade as well as a ton of gold they hid away. At 2½ hours, he explores the morality of the war (before and after), how the Vietnamese view Americans, friendship, loyalty, PTSD, and memory.

The first thing that made me draw comparisons to Roma was the use of digital cameras. Despite being in black-and-white and taking place in the 70’s, Cuaron shot in crisp 4K resolution. He made this choice because he believes memories are never viewed with film grain, but the clarity provided by the human eye.

“I wanted it to be a film where you are in 1970, but shot in a more contemporary way,” Cuaron said in an interview. “It was about the moment and it was about trying to portray the intangible, like in life.”

Da 5 Bloods uses several aspect ratios and camera resolutions to distinguish one time period from the other. Scenes taking place during the War are shot in grainy 16mm film, Ultra HD 2.39:1 digital when the group is in the city, and expanding to 16:9 when they reach their journey in the jungle begins. While this differs with Roma’s singular resolution/aspect ratio, they are both deliberate artistic choices to set the mood for the stories. Cuaron shows the tragic beauty of everyday life, and Spike illustrates the horrific impact a single point in time can make.

Da 5 Bloods uses the same actors for all 3 shifts. Without the use of digital de-aging, the Vietnam War scenes show the entire group as they look in the present day, with Chadwick Boseman’s deceased comrade being the youthful standout. It easily plays into the themes of memory and especially PTSD, as if these characters look back at that time and only see their current selves, because that’s all they can see. Even though they have had nearly 5 decades worth of civilian life, there are many who can’t move on from what they experienced, perhaps ready and waiting for the next fight (Delroy Lindo’s Paul is the epitome of this).

Both films’ sound designs are what truly make them shine. Apart from being a visual masterclass, Roma implements Dolby Atmos sound to immerse the viewer towards not only what is seen, but what is being heard. A radio playing in the corner of the room, muffled conversation in the street, the passing of cars move past the screen along with the audio complementing everything that is happening inside and out of the frame. If you have access to a home theater system or some good headphones, the film becomes a haunting peek into Alfonso Cuaron’s memories as he tells his most personal story yet.

It’s not much of a stretch to say that Spike Lee was influenced by Roma’s sound design and how it can make a setting feel lived in and real to the audience. Da 5 Bloods incorporates much of the sound techniques found in Roma: utilizing the entire frame to the auditory experience almost symbiotic with the visuals. If wearing headphones, gunfire can be heard in the corner of a single side, gradually crescendo-ing to the other end as the camera moves that side. Background conversation is heard relative to a given character’s perspective. If Paul is by himself in the bar and overhears his friends in the other side of the room, so do we. Doing this adds towards character investment. The story of Da 5 Bloods is very much a journey, a group of soldiers trekking across the unknown that they’re all too familiar with. To hear what they hear and see what they see makes you feel like you’re there with them, having a front row seat to a life changing odyssey.

With filmographies as rich as these 2 filmmakers are, their respective most recent efforts open reveal an insight never before seen. The beauty of Roma’s look at everyday life is only made possible by Alfonso Cuaron’s handle on filmmaking and ability to paint a picture that can be seen and heard. Spike Lee could have only made Da 5 Bloods at this stage of his career. Being known as a filmmaker who can entertain yet reveal sobering realities that plague our country, he’s been honing his politically charged craft from Do The Right Thing and hasn’t stopped since. He’s had his ear on the streets ever since then, and his latest Joint shows a weariness yet urgency to a struggle that remains prevalent to this day.

Fear, Loathing, Life and Love in a Time of Coronavirus

*the following is a written assignment for a college course*

One week into quarantine, I came across a certain post from a high school friend on Instagram. The photo was of her and her family on her wedding day with the caption expressing her vulnerability and how staying at home for a longer period has taken a toll. This was one week.

More than 3 months have passed, and I can hardly imagine how she’s doing. I wonder if things have worsened despite her famous optimism, or if she managed to gain a mental second wind and managed to conquer those inner demons.

As I said in prior posts, I am an introvert who reluctantly goes out for things that are deemed important: gyms, libraries, coffee shops (to get work done away from home). These places are still either closed or operate under strict social restrictions to financially subsist. The change of routine, big or small, is enough of a monkey wrench to damage one’s sanity. I am currently no exception.

Despite making admirable adjustments mentioned in earlier pieces, there is still a ton to be desired. My bedroom has no windows, which might sound appealing to the angsty teenager of years’ past. However, this adult’s morning routine is almost always dampened when the nearest light source is a phone screen. No matter how great a night of sleep I had, being met with blinding sunlight when I step out of the room put in an all-nighter like haze.

That haze inevitably set the tone for the day, a grogginess that made itself routine. Even making eggs queued up a long, restless yawn. As I try to be as productive as possible, I feel a cloud of exhaustion hanging above me despite the perpetual Texas sun.

Oddly enough, such tiredness and mental purgatory can lead to a breakthrough. With my parents now working, I have the house to myself for the day. Alone time, restless or not, is an incredibly underappreciated virtue of life. To be at peace with one’s self, to be calm within the inner recesses of the mind is a victory I hope to achieve.

Amidst the mental insanity one goes through while in pandemic house arrest, one finds comfort in said insanity. Knowing that these times are indeed dour is freeing because you are aware that this is not normal.

Knowing is half the battle, so we just need to play with the hand we’re dealt. There’s strength in calling a spade a spade, not finding comfort in the warmth provided by the world being on fire. I hope my friend knows that.

*featured image from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980)*

Life in a time of Coronavirus: Will life ever return to normal at UNT?

*The following is a written assignment for a college course*

Another day, another session of physical seclusion. It has been almost exactly 3 months since I last stepped it within the hallowed halls of UNT; 3 months of not having a quiet study session in Willis be completely squashed by the sounds of drills and metal clanging. It takes a lot to make this introvert to miss and long for the days of crowded classrooms and looking for an empty chair in the cafeteria, but here we are.

I know that I sound like a broken record when I say the transition to online classes had its bumps and may have been less than ideal. One look at the (unofficial) UNT subreddit easily paints the anxiety ridden portrait that can sum up that time in our lives. Grades suffered, emotions and tensions rose, leading to a pretty tumultuous spring semester.

Though I was able to adjust to those changes pretty well, I would have easily preferred the in class sessions over the makeshift online environments any day. No disrespect towards any of my professors: I understand how overwhelming juggling the ire of students while transposing the curriculum to a different format. In short, not a great time.

My worries over the preceding semesters are admittedly selfish. Taking 1 online class is enough, but to have an entire semester’s (and possibly years’) worth of school work dependent on a computer is a bit deflating. One of the biggest, if not the biggest, appeals of university life is physically being there, an environment that will define a very prime moment of our lives. There is only so much a computer environment can do to try and emulate what was before, but I feel it will never live up to actually being there (this, coming from someone who loathes (loathed?) crowds).

I trust the UNT faculty to make measured and informed decisions regarding the potential livelihoods of its students, so I just wonder about the extents of this pandemic. If the President  had it his way, the economy would have been fully up and running by Easter Sunday. For me, I can only go with the flow, adjust to every restriction/freedom that will be brought about from the pandemic. I am set to have a full time schedule this Fall, so in class sessions will be quite the experience (if they happen).

To those intending a year off, proceed with caution. The romantic in me encourages you to go where the wind blows and explore new things in that landless latitude you may go. The realist sees clouds in the horizon, and since these waters can make for huge, inescapable waves. Whatever you do, I can only say, “Godspeed”.

Featured image provided by the UNT website.

COVID-19: The New Normal in My Life

Note: this is a written assignment for a college course. Featured image provided by Getty Images, photo by Andrea Verdelli

For better or worse, one word can properly encapsulate the insanity of 2020: change. From a global front, the daily rhythm of our everyday lives have been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, colloquially known as the coronavirus. The term “social distancing” has become a lifestyle trait for all of us, wearing protective masks is no longer seen as odd or a sign of paranoia, and perhaps more significantly, curbside pickup has become the new norm for our dietary needs.

Before the pandemic really took full force, I was what you could call a reluctant errand runner. I liked staying at home as much as possible, though I recognized the benefits of going to a gym or going to a library can bring. Going to the movies on a regular basis was also a pastime of mine (my wallet would agree). The moviegoing experience has always been the one part of my weekly routine that my introverted, homebody self would gladly make an exception for. I also enjoyed frequenting the mellow, laid back calm that coffee shops offer, a place where I would get most of my schoolwork done.

The last near three months have been quite the monkey wrench. I would never consider myself to be a gym guru, but the gym environment was always a welcome one, always reinvigorating my often-tired self without fail. Now that my gym has closed indefinitely, I have made home workouts a fill in for the weight room, and my neighborhood jogging trail taking the place of a treadmill. It’s not optimal, but it’s better than nothing, and jogging outside gives me the sunlight and fresh air I didn’t know I deprived myself of.

With the closing of movie theaters and lack of new releases, I have finally gone and cleared my Netflix queue up. Though I miss the theater environment, quarantining has offered me the chance to watch the films that I missed and have been meaning to watch for quite a while. On top of that, reading has become a regular part of my day, having read more books during this time than the entirety of my high school and college experiences. I am currently reading the Song of Ice and Fire series because I want to see how Game of Thrones really ends. So far, so, so good.

The main takeaway I’ve gotten from quarantine is the importance of “alone time”. Our lives are consistently filled with noise and inconsequential pleasures that masquerade as essential. This time of my life has brought out the brutally honest existentialist in me, confronting me with the important self-evaluations that I noisily avoided in favor of hapless pursuits. Now those distractions have either outstayed their welcome or are physically closed, often leaving me to my own devices to self-improve. Silence can be intimidating, terrifying even, but it’s an essential element to be comfortable with one’s self, warts and all.