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Detail of a mural at the Pyongyang Art Studios. John Pavelka via Wikimedia // CC BY 2.0
Detail of a mural at the Pyongyang Art Studios. John Pavelka via Wikimedia // CC BY 2.0

10 Filmmaking Lessons from Kim Jong-Il

Detail of a mural at the Pyongyang Art Studios. John Pavelka via Wikimedia // CC BY 2.0
Detail of a mural at the Pyongyang Art Studios. John Pavelka via Wikimedia // CC BY 2.0

North Korea is a country shrouded in mystery, somehow as intriguing as it is tragic. Reports of famine wiping out a significant portion of the country’s population in the ‘90s, a seeming disregard for anyone outside the elite in the capital city of Pyongyang, and the total suppression of information from outside sources make it a difficult place to get to know, not to mention live in. Yet the country seems enraptured by its leaders: When Kim Jong-Il died in 2011 citizens lined the streets, many weeping uncontrollably.

The Kims have a lot of tools at their disposal to help deify them, but none have harnessed it better than Kim Jong-Il. Kim was a film obsessive, the proud owner of one of the largest private film collections in the world, with reportedly over 20,000 movies—almost all of them bootlegs, since it was illegal to import western media into North Korea. He experienced the power of cinema first-hand, and knew he could exploit it for the benefit of his and his father’s regime.

Infamously, he kidnapped South Korean director Shin Sang-ok and his ex-wife actress Choi Eun-hui in 1978, forcing them to make North Korean propaganda films for years before their daring escape in 1986. But even before that, in 1973, Kim Jong-Il published his propaganda manifesto On the Art of the Cinema, a 300-page, quasi-impenetrable opus filled with musings about what it takes to make a great film. The book was instantly a must-read among North Korea’s filmmaking studios—meaning they were literally forced to read it, not that it was a hit—and shaped North Korean cinema for many years. It also offered some (occasionally quite obvious) lessons to filmmakers around the globe, including these:

1. “THE SEED IS THE CORE OF A LITERARY WORK.”

Cover page of the On the Art of the Cinema's English edition. Image credit: Finnusertop via Wikimedia // Public Domain

 
It might seem that talking about literature would be a bit of a sidestep for a book on filmmaking, but Kim Jong-Il dedicates the first 100 pages of his book to “Life and Literature.” He discusses literature as a source material for great cinema—combined, of course, with the great struggle and life experience of the North Korean people. In subchapters laced with clumsy metaphors, Kim likens a written work to a living thing and tells us that “in order to build the organic structure of a literary piece, it is necessary to have a clear vision of the fundamental principle which permeates all the elements of an artistic image and welds them into an integral whole.” Which, plainly speaking, means that story is everything. Without a compelling story with a clear goal (or “seed”), a film falls flat at the first hurdle.

2. “THE MOOD MUST BE EXPRESSED WELL.”

This lesson boils down to one thing: make us look good. Is the film set in the “exploitative society” of the West where “the majority of the population live in low spirits, plagued by worries and anxiety because they are poor and have no rights”? Well, make sure the mood of the scene reflects that. Irony aside, a real lesson for filmmakers here is to develop their craft, because “mood can only be correctly expressed by artists who have attained a high level of creative skill.”

3. “EACH SCENE MUST BE DRAMATIC.”

Posters for movies participating at the 12th Pyongyang International Film Festival in Pyongyang. Image credit: Getty Images

 
A rookie mistake for filmmakers and screenwriters is forgetting that their scenes serve to propel the narrative forward, or to reveal more information about a character. “A film has to compress a considerable amount of narrative into a small space,” Kim points out, and meandering through a scene without any clear conflict (relating back to the “seed” from lesson one) could mean that “the film as a whole [would] have no dramatic structure, and dramatic description [would] be impossible.” (Other filmmakers might note that’s not a hard-and-fast rule—Quentin Tarantino famously plays with this idea in Pulp Fiction’s “Royale with Cheese” scene.)

4. “BEGIN ON A SMALL SCALE AND END GRANDLY.”

You could never accuse Kim of being a fan of subtlety and nuance (this, after all, is a man who claimed his birth was heralded by a double rainbow and whose favorite movies were said to be Friday the 13th and Rambo), and his musings on story arcs reflect this. “First impressions are important in a film,” the Dear Leader says, before elaborating: “if the beginning is too complicated, it will be difficult to follow the development of the story.” Solid advice: ease your audience into the narrative adventure you’re about to take them on.

What about the grand ending? Well, make sure it has meaning. Kim talks at length of grounding the story in a relatable human struggle rather than anything fantastical, and claims that “introducing some stunning occurrence or the total impact of something completely strange and unheard-of, in the hope of evoking meaningless exclamations of wonder, is a vulgarity which is incompatible with art created for the people.” That’s big talk for somebody who would go on to produce an absurd Godzilla rip-off that gained so-bad-it’s-good cult infamy.

5. “LIFE IS STRUGGLE AND STRUGGLE IS LIFE.”

Pyongyang, North Korea 
“Art presupposes life,” Kim says. “Without life there could be no artistic creation. An artistic work which does not mirror life honestly is useless.” (We’re guessing he’s not a big sci-fi guy.)

The end goal of North Korean cinema was, and is, to instill an exaggerated sense of national pride in the audience, and watching characters struggle—plus, crucially, overcome their struggles—on the big screen is one big way to create that pride. Of course, stories about overcoming struggles aren’t limited to North Korea alone (as Kurt Vonnegut demonstrates in this clip). Identifying with a lead protagonist’s struggle helps keep the audience rooting for them.

6. “IN CREATIVE WORK ONE MUST AIM HIGH.”

When Kim says “aim high” here, he’s referring more to creative standards than commercial success (ignoring the fact that state-produced films are always a commercial success in North Korea because viewing is often mandatory). According to Kim, “even if certain individual scenes are quite impressive, an able director will be concerned if the work as a whole appears vague and unconvincing” and ultimately a sincere belief in the work you’re making will help, as “the force of the passion he experiences when nurturing an excellent seed fuels his activity.”

7. "THE SECRET OF DIRECTING LIES IN EDITING."

Pyongyang, North Korea 
Again, Kim isn’t breaking any ground here—the Russian filmmakers of the early 20th century were among the first to harness the power of editing. Look no further than the Kuleshov Effect (an editing technique based on the idea than an audience will derive more meaning from two shots in a sequence than one shot shown in isolation) to see the kind of impact their work is still having on cinema today.

“Throughout the whole course of making the film, the director must constantly consider the work from the point of view of editing,” Kim says. He has a point: Considering how a scene is going to be stitched together in the edit is vital, but can easily be forgotten about on set. Kim goes on to say that the director “must always seek, by exploring new possibilities, to enhance the role played by editing.”

8. “FILMING SHOULD BE REALISTIC.”

Kim’s ideas of realism are tailored toward the camera as witness to the honorable workers’ struggle. He says that “there is nothing in society and nature, in human life or the physical world, which cannot be captured on camera,” and in doing so one can create “a rhythmical flow of imagery which will evoke a tapestry of emotions.” However, his understanding of cinematography and composition is clearly limited, with statements littered throughout the chapter such as “the camerawork of a film should portray everything clearly and concisely” and “the cameraman should portray life in a natural and realistic way”—none of which are elaborated upon.

He does, however, acknowledge that movement plays a vital role in the visual makeup of a film, explaining that shooting “should create cinematic movement by combining the movement of an object with that of the camera.” In other words, don’t just leave your camera sitting motionless on a tripod unless there’s a very good reason for it. Life, after all, rarely stands still.

9. “BEFORE ACTING [THE ACTOR] SHOULD UNDERSTAND LIFE.”

A movie poster in North Korea. Image credit: BRJ INC. via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

 
When he kidnapped the director Shin Sang-Ok, one of Kim’s major complaints about North Korean film was the melodrama. He bemoaned that actors were constantly crying in the movies—and I mean really crying. Which is why he emphasizes the importance of a non-theatrical realism: “The actor should not ‘act’ before the camera but behave as he would in real life,” Kim instructs, before launching into a lengthy diatribe about how the actor and character should become one and the same. (One wonders if he’d appreciate Jared Leto’s method acting.)

10. “MUSIC SHOULD BE APPROPRIATE TO THE SCENES."

This is another lesson that seems so painfully obvious it’s hard to believe Kim managed to spin it out to seven pages, but here we are. Using the wrong music is still a mistake you see today—filmmaker and YouTuber Darious Britt touches on recent examples of it in this 2015 video. One key mistake: You can’t just throw a piece of dramatic music over your scenes to add drama if there’s none there already. “Only when film music both conforms with the spirit of the times and suits the specific situation depicted can it pluck at the people’s heartstrings,” Kim says.

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13 Great Facts About Bad Lieutenant
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Lionsgate Home Entertainment

Bad Lieutenant can be accused of many things, but one charge you can't level against it is false advertising. Harvey Keitel's title character, whose name is never given, is indeed a bad, bad lieutenant: corrupt, sleazy, drug-addled, irresponsible, and lascivious, all while he's on the job. (Imagine what his weekends must be like!)

Abel Ferrara's nightmarish character study was controversial when it was released 25 years ago today, and rated NC-17 for its graphic nudity (including a famous glimpse at Lil’ Harvey), unsettling sexual violence, and frank depiction of drug use. The film packs a wallop, no doubt. Here's some behind-the-scenes info to help you cope with it.

1. THE PLACID WOMAN WHO HELPS THE LIEUTENANT FREEBASE HEROIN WROTE THE MOVIE.

That's Zoë Tamerlis Lund, who starred in Abel Ferrara's revenge-exploitation thriller Ms. 45 (1981) more than a decade earlier, when she was 17 years old. She and Ferrara are credited together for writing Bad Lieutenant, though she always insisted that wasn't the case. "I wrote this alone," she said. "Abel is a wonderful director, but he's not a screenwriter. She said elsewhere that she "wrote every word of that screenplay," though everyone agrees the finished movie included a lot of improvisation. Lund was a fascinating, tragic character herself—a musical prodigy who became an enthusiastic and unapologetic user of heroin before switching to cocaine in the mid-1990s. She died of heart failure in 1999 at age 37.

2. CHRISTOPHER WALKEN WAS SUPPOSED TO STAR IN IT.

Christopher Walken had starred in Ferrara's previous film, King of New York (1990), and was set to play the lead in Bad Lieutenant before pulling out at almost the last minute. Ferrara was shocked. "[Walken] says, 'You know, I don't think I'm right for it.' Which is, you know, a fine thing to say, unless it's three weeks from when you're supposed to start shooting," Ferrara said. "It definitely caught me by surprise. It put me in terminal shock, actually." Harvey Keitel replaced him (though not without difficulty; see below), and the film's editor, Anthony Redman, thought Keitel was a better choice anyway. "Chris is too elegant for the part," he said. "Harvey is not elegant." 

3. HARVEY KEITEL'S INITIAL REACTION TO THE SCRIPT WAS NOT PROMISING.

"When we gave [Keitel] the script the first time, he read about five pages and threw it in the garbage," Ferrara said. Keitel's recollection was a little more diplomatic. As he told Roger Ebert, "I read a certain amount of pages and I put it down. I said, 'There's no way I'm gonna make this movie.' And then I asked myself, 'How often am I a lead in a movie? Read it, maybe I can salvage something from it …' When I read the part about the nun, I understood why Abel wanted to make it."

4. IT WAS ORIGINALLY SUPPOSED TO BE FUNNY.


Lionsgate Home Entertainment

"It was always, in my mind, a comedy," Ferrara said. He cited the scene where the Lieutenant pulls the teenage girls over as a specific example of how Christopher Walken would have played it, and how Harvey Keitel changed it. "The lieutenant was going to end up dancing in the streets with the girls as the sun came up. They'd be wearing his gun belt and hat, and they'd have the radio on, you know what I mean? But oh my God, Harvey, he turned it into this whole other thing." Boy, did he. 

5. THAT SCENE WITH THE TEENAGE GIRLS HAD A REAL-LIFE ELEMENT THAT MADE IT EVEN CREEPIER.

One of the young women was Keitel's nanny. Ferrara: "I said, 'You sure you want to do this with your babysitter?' He says, 'Yeah, I want to try something.'"

6. MUCH OF IT WAS FILMED GUERRILLA-STYLE.

Like many indie-minded directors of low-budget films, Ferrara didn't bother with permits most of the time. "We weren't permitted on any of this stuff," editor Anthony Redman admitted. "We just walked on and started shooting." For the scene where a strung-out Lieutenant walks through a bumpin' nightclub, they sent Keitel through an actual, functioning club during peak operating hours.

7. A GREAT DEAL OF THE DIALOGUE AND ACTION WERE MADE UP ON THE FLY.

The script was only about 65 pages at first, which would have made for about a 65-minute movie. "It left a lot of room for improvisation," producer Randy Sabusawa said, "but the ideas were pretty distilled. They were there."

Script supervisor Karen Kelsall said supervising the script was a challenge. "Abel didn't stick to a script," she said. "Abel used a script as a way to get the money to make a movie, and then the script was kind of—we called it the daily news. It changed every day. It changed in the middle of scenes." Ferrara was unapologetic about the script's brevity. "The idea of wanting 90 pages ... is ridiculous."

8. AND THERE WERE EVEN MORE IDEAS THAT THEY DIDN'T USE.

Ferrara said a scene that epitomized the movie for him—even though he never got around to filming it—was one where the Lieutenant robs an electronics store, leaves, then gets a call about a robbery at the electronics store. He responds in an official capacity (they don't recognize him), takes a statement, walks out, and throws the statement in the garbage. "And that to me is the Bad Lieutenant, you know?" Ferrara said. 

9. THE BASEBALL PLAYOFF SERIES IS FICTIONAL.

The Mets have battled the Dodgers for the National League championship once, in 1988. (The Dodgers beat 'em and went on to win the World Series.) For the narrative Ferrara wanted—the Mets coming back from a 3-0 deficit to win the pennant—he had to make it up. He used footage from real Mets-Dodgers games (including Darryl Strawberry's three-run homer from a game in July 1991) and added fictional play-by-play. But the statistics were accurate: no team had ever been down by three in a best-of-seven series and then come back to win. (It's happened once since then, when the 2004 Red Sox did it.)

10. THEY HAD HELP FROM THE COP WHO SOLVED A SIMILAR CASE.

The disgusting crime at the center of the film (we won't dwell on it) was inspired by a real-life incident from 1981, which mayor Ed Koch called "the most heinous crime in the history of New York City." The street cop who solved it, Bo Dietl, advised Ferrara on the film and had an on-screen role as one of the detectives in our Lieutenant's circle of friends.

11. THEY DESECRATED THE CHURCH AS RESPECTFULLY AS THEY COULD.

Production designer Charles Lagola had his team cover the church’s altar and other surfaces with plastic wrap, then painted the graffiti and other defacements on the plastic.

12. IT WAS RATED NC-17 IN THEATERS, WITH AN R-RATED VERSION FOR HOME VIDEO.

Blockbuster and some of the other retail chains wouldn't carry NC-17 or unrated films, so sometimes studios would produce edited versions. (See also: Requiem for a Dream.) The tamer version of Bad Lieutenant was five minutes and 19 seconds shorter, with parts of the rape scene, the drug-injecting scene, and much of the car interrogation scene excised.

13. THE "SEQUEL" HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH IT, NOR DID FERRARA APPROVE OF IT.


First Look International

Movie buffs were baffled in 2009, when Werner Herzog directed Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, starring Nicolas Cage. It sounds like a sequel (or a remake), but in fact had no connection at all to the earlier film except that both were produced by Edward R. Pressman. Herzog said he'd never seen Ferrara's movie and wanted to change the title (Pressman wouldn't let him); Ferrara, outspoken as always, initially wished fiery death on everyone involved. Ferrara and Herzog finally met at the 2013 Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland, where Herzog initiated a conversation about the whole affair and Ferrara expressed his frustration cordially. 

Additional sources:
DVD interviews with Abel Ferrara, Anthony Redman, Randy Sabusawa, and Karen Kelsall.

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12 Pieces of 100-Year-Old Advice for Dealing With Your In-Laws
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Hulton Archive // Getty Images

The familial friction between in-laws has been a subject for family counselors, folklorists, comedians, and greeting card writers for generations—and getting along with in-laws isn't getting any easier. Here are some pieces of "old tyme" advice—some solid, some dubious, some just plain ridiculous—about making nice with your new family.

1. ALWAYS VOTE THE SAME WAY AS YOUR FATHER-IN-LAW (EVEN IF YOU DISAGREE).

It's never too soon to start sowing the seeds for harmony with potential in-laws. An 1896 issue of one Alabama newspaper offered some advice to men who were courting, and alongside tips like “Don’t tell her you’re wealthy. She may wonder why you are not more liberal,” it gave some advice for dealing with prospective in-laws: “Always vote the same ticket her father does,” the paper advised, and “Don’t give your prospective father-in-law any advice unless he asks for it.”

2. MAKE AN EFFORT TO BE ATTRACTIVE TO YOUR MOTHER-IN-LAW.

According to an 1886 issue of Switchmen’s Journal, “A greybeard once remarked that it would save half the family squabbles of a generation if young wives would bestow a modicum of the pains they once took to please their lovers in trying to be attractive to their mothers-in-law.”

3. KEEP YOUR OPINIONS TO YOURSELF.

In 1901, a Wisconsin newspaper published an article criticizing the 19th century trend of criticizing mothers-in-law (a "trend" which continues through to today):

“There has been a foolish fashion in vogue in the century just closed which shuts out all sympathy for mothers-in-law. The world is never weary of listening to the praises of mothers ... Can it be that a person who is capable of so much heroic unselfishness will do nothing worthy of gratitude for those who are dearest and nearest to her own children?”

Still, the piece closed with some advice for the women it was defending: “The wise mother-in-law gives advice sparingly and tries to help without seeming to help. She leaves the daughter to settle her own problems. She is the ever-blessed grandmother of the German fairy tales, ready to knit in the corner and tell folk stories to the grandchildren.”

4. IF RECEIVING ADVICE, JUST LISTEN AND SMILE. EVEN IF IT PAINS YOU.

Have an in-law who can't stop advising you on what to do? According to an 1859 issue of The American Freemason, you'll just have to grin and bear it: “If the daughter-in-law has any right feeling, she will always listen patiently, and be grateful and yielding to the utmost of her power.”

Advice columnist Dorothy Dix seemed to believe that it would be wise to heed an in-law's advice at least some of the time. Near the end of World War II, Dix received a letter from a mother-in-law asking what to do with her daughter-in-law, who had constantly shunned her advice and now wanted to move in with her. Dix wrote back, “Many a daughter-in-law who has ignored her husband’s mother is sending out an SOS call for help in these servantless days,” and advised the mother-in-law against agreeing to the arrangement.

5. STAY OUT OF THE KITCHEN. AND CLOSETS. AND CUPBOARDS.

An 1881 article titled "Concerning the Interference of the Father-in-Law and Mother-in-Law in Domestic Affairs," which appeared in the Rural New Yorker, had a great deal of advice for the father-in-law:

“He will please to keep out of the kitchen just as much as he possibly can. He will not poke his nose into closets or cupboards, parley with the domestics, investigate the condition of the swill barrel, the ash barrel, the coal bin, worry himself about the kerosene or gas bills, or make purchases of provisions for the family under the pretence that he can buy more cheaply than the mistress of the house; let him do none of these things unless especially commissioned so to do by the mistress of the house.”

The article further advises that if a father-in-law "thinks that the daughter-in-law or son-in-law is wasteful, improvident or a bad manager, the best thing for him to do, decidedly, is to keep his thought to himself, for in all probability things are better managed and better taken care of by the second generation than they were by the first. And even if they are not, it is far better to pass the matter over in silence than to comment upon the same, and thereby engender bad feelings.”

6. NEVER COHABITATE.

While there is frequent discussion about how to achieve happiness with the in-laws in advice columns and magazines, rarely does this advice come from a judge. In 1914, after a young couple was married, they quickly ran into issues. “The wife said she was driven from the house by her mother-in-law,” a newspaper reported, “and the husband said he was afraid to live with his wife’s people because of the threatening attitude of her father on the day of the wedding.” It got so bad that the husband was brought up on charges of desertion. But Judge Strauss gave the couple some advice:

“[Your parents] must exercise no influence over you now except a peaceful influence. You must establish a home of your own. Even two rooms will be a start and lay up a store of happiness for you.”

According to the paper, they agreed to go off and rent a few rooms.

Dix agreed that living with in-laws was asking for trouble. In 1919, she wrote that, “In all good truth there is no other danger to a home greater than having a mother-in-law in it.”

7. COURT YOUR MOTHER-IN-LAW.

The year 1914 wasn’t the first time a judge handed down advice regarding a mother-in-law from the bench. According to The New York Times, in 1899 Magistrate Olmsted suggested to a husband that “you should have courted your mother-in-law and then you would not have any trouble ... I courted my mother-in-law and my home life is very, very happy.”

8. THINK OF YOUR IN-LAWS AS YOUR "IN LOVES."

Don't think of your in-laws as in-laws; think of them as your family. In 1894, an article in The Ladies’ Home Journal proclaimed, “I will not call her your mother-in-law. I like to think that she is your mother in love. She is your husband’s mother, and therefore yours, for his people have become your people.”

Helen Marshall North, writing in The Home-Maker: An Illustrated Monthly Magazine four years earlier, agreed: “No man, young or old, who smartly and in public, jests about his mother-in-law, can lay the slightest claim to good breeding. In the first place, if he has proper affection for his wife, that affection includes, to some extent at least, the mother who gave her birth ... the man of fine thought and gentle breeding sees his own mother in the new mother, and treats her with the same deference, and, if necessary, with the same forbearance which he gladly yields his own.”

9. BE THANKFUL YOU HAVE A MOTHER-IN-LAW ... OR DON'T.

Historical advice columns had two very different views on this: A 1901 Raleigh newspaper proclaimed, “Adam’s [of Adam and Eve] troubles may have been due to the fact that he had no mother-in-law to give advice,” while an earlier Yuma paper declared, “Our own Washington had no mother-in-law, hence America is a free nation.”

10. DON'T BE PICKY WHEN IT COMES TO CHOOSING A WIFE; CHOOSE A MOTHER-IN-LAW INSTEAD.

By today's standards, the advice from an 1868 article in The Round Table is incredibly sexist and offensive. Claiming that "one wife is, after all, pretty much the same as another," and that "the majority of women are married at an age when their characters are still mobile and plastic, and can be shaped in the mould of their husband's will," the magazine advised, “Don’t waste any time in the selection of the particular victim who is to be shackled to you in your desolate march from the pleasant places of bachelorhood into the hopeless Siberia of matrimony ... In other words ... never mind about choosing a wife; the main thing is to choose a proper mother-in-law,” because "who ever dreamt of moulding a mother-in-law? That terrible, mysterious power behind the throne, the domestic Sphynx, the Gorgon of the household, the awful presence which every husband shudders when he names?"

11. KEEP THINGS IN PERSPECTIVE.

As an 1894 Good Housekeeping article reminded readers:

“Young man! your wife’s mother, your redoubtable mother-in-law, is as good as your wife is and as good as your mother is; and who is your precious wife's mother-in-law? And you, venerable mother-in-law, may perhaps profitably bear in mind that the husband your daughter has chosen with your sanction is not a worse man naturally than your husband who used to dislike your mother as much as your daughter’s husband dislikes you, or as much as you once disliked your husband’s mother.”

12. IF ALL ELSE FAILS, MARRY AN ORPHAN.

If all else fails, The Round Table noted that “there is one rule which will be found in all cases absolutely certain and satisfactory, and that is to marry an orphan; though even then a grandmother-in-law might turn up sufficiently vigorous to make a formidable substitute.”

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