Wednesday, July 31, 2013

July 2013 Film Wrap-Up

Pitch Perfect (Jason Moore, 2012) = 3/5

Let me go on record as saying I would not have watched this film if it weren't for my infatuation with Anna Kendrick. She just makes me swoon...her smile, her perfect skin, her hair, her eyes, her...oh nevermind...back to the movie. It entertained me and most of the musical numbers hit the spot, but there were far too many plot contrivances and the characters KNEW they were in a comedy. It was also too afraid to be earnest. So many potentially poignant moments were sullied by a cheap gag.

The Purple Rose of Cairo (Woody Allen, 1985) = 3.5/5

It's a tribute to the solace that cinema offers. It's often a better option than reality, and even though that element of tangibility is lacking, we can guarantee it won't desert us. The film is well executed without being particularly memorable. The notion of a movie character stepping out of a screen and into the real world had the potential to be gimmicky, but Allen handles it with grace. The director has named this among his favourite films from his own filmography, perhaps even his absolute favourite.

Eden Lake (James Watkins, 2008) = 3/5

There are some genuinely unsettling moments in this film about a couple who are menaced by a group of rambunctious youths while holidaying in the English countryside. It's just a shame that it tapers off into formula and that the pacing is very messy. Its ideological position towards the working class is also a bit too obvious. 

In the Loop (Armando Iannucci, 2009) = 4/5

This spin-off from BBC TV series The Thick of It is a sharp and witty satire of 21st century Anglo-American politics and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Rarely will you see a more quotable film, and that's largely due to the performance of Peter Capaldi. It wasn't very accessible to me since I've never seen an episode of The Thick of It, but it's really hard to fault anything on show here. 

Léon: The Professional (Luc Besson, 1994) = 4/5

The film is often implausible, but the chemistry of Portman and Reno is very compelling. Portman is unbelievably precocious in her debut role—one she auditioned for at the tender age of 11. I think this is a great example of a film that bridges the gap between mainstream and arthouse cinema. I have a reputation for shying away from action films, but Besson understood the importance of crafting original characters, so I really liked this one!  

Night on Earth (Jim Jarmusch, 1991) = 4.5/5

Here's a film I like to call Taxicab Confessions for the Intellectual. It's an anthology of five taxi drivers and their passengers on the same night. Each driver is based in a different city, namely Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Rome and Helsinki. Every segment has its moments. My favourite vignette would probably be the Paris one, although the most memorable performances are from Winona Ryder (the punky, talkative LA driver) and Roberto Benigni (the Roman driver who horrifies a priest with tales of his sexual deviance). Ultimately, it is a funny, tender film about the fleeting connections we forge and the wondrous breadth of human experience.

Leaving Las Vegas (Mike Figgis, 1995) = 3.5/5

Some people in this world are truly broken. They have hit bottom so hard that it has opened up to create a new one. Some people in this world will always be lonely. They know that "It gets better" is just a saccharine myth perpetuated by the privileged. This is a film for the fuck-ups in the world. Sometimes we just have to accept people as irreparably damaged. Momentary connections can ease the pang of loneliness, but they ultimately won't count for much. The screenplay is ripe with truisms and the performances from Shue and Cage are excellent. Cage's was excellent enough to snare him an Oscar, so in your FACE, Cage-haters! But hey, it's not all great. Figgis' style of direction didn't sit well with me and often made for some really mawkish scenes. You will rarely see a more depressing film in your life.

Critters (Stephen Herek, 1986) = 3/5

Nothing remarkable, but there are a lot of fun scenes here (although not as fun as Critters 2: The Main Course). It has a unique sense of humour and features some nice special effects. I have a soft spot for the Critters franchise because so many people unfairly dismiss it as a Gremlins ripoff.

Jules and Jim (François Truffaut, 1962) = 4/5

One of the best films ever made about a love triangle. Well-written, although the characters are too neurotic and thus inaccessible at times. I love the ending. 

Wait Until Dark (Terence Young, 1967) = 5/5

This film terrified my uncle when he saw it at the movies as a young boy, and it terrified me when I watched it this month from the comfort of my own home. This is a scary suspense flick that echoes some of the best Hitchcock films. In my opinion, its climax is one of the greatest in the history of cinema...or at least one of the most frightening. Audrey Hepburn is wonderful as a blind woman who is a lot cleverer than people think. Alan Arkin is quietly chilling as a criminal with murderous intent. It's the type of film that makes you wish you could travel back in time to see it in theatres. 

The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980) = 5/5

I had the privilege of seeing this glorious film on the big screen (thank you Dendy Newtown), and this screening confirmed that it remains my second-favourite movie of all time. The Overlook Hotel is like one big playground with a myriad of intricacies and it's just so easy to get lost in this film. And trust me, once you realise how wonderful it is, you won't want to be found. 

Basic Instinct (Paul Verhoeven, 1992) = 3/5

It wants to be a good film, but ultimately cannot escape its trappings as a dated erotic thriller. Stone's performance stands out, and I'm not just saying that because I got to see her crotch.

Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, 2013) = 4/5

There's a scene in Before Midnight where Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) watch the sun set behind the mountains of the Greek Peloponnese peninsula. Celine watches it intently, anticipating its inevitable sinking: "It's still there, it's still's gone." I've seen sunsets in countless films, but this one had an especially poignant resonance, as I realised that it wouldn't be long until one of my all-time favourite trilogies would come to an end, and unlike the sun, it will not rise again. Unless Richard Linklater has a significant epiphany in the future, this is the last we'll see of Jesse and Celine, the couple we first met in 1995's Before Sunrise, and who rekindled their flame nine years later in Before Sunset. In the first film, Jesse wooed Celine on a train, convincing her to alight for a spontaneous Viennese adventure. In the second film, the two meet by chance at a Parisian bookstore during one leg of Jesse's book tour. Despite sharing some intimate moments in both of these films, there was never a sense of commitment between these two souls. It was the transience of their encounters that made the films so special. Fast forward another nine years to Before Midnight, where we learn quite early that Jesse and Celine are now a fully-fledged couple with twin daughters. Personally, I consider it the least enjoyable film in the trilogy, but this is only because it's the one most grounded in reality. You can read my full review here

Come and See (Elem Klimov, 1985) = 4.5/5

Fuck this shit. I mean that as a compliment. This is almost too grim to bear, and that's because it's the most realistic war film I've ever seen. There is no emotional reprieve in the entire thing. Do not watch this if you're having a terrible day. Throw on some shitty circa-2011 Adam Sandler movie or a Care Bears boxset if you have to; just don't watch this. 

The Birthday Party (William Friedkin, 1968) = 3/5

William Friedkin has directed some excellent films in his time, but this adaptation of Harold Pinter's 1957 play is not one of them. It was very hard to assign a star rating to this film. Watching The Birthday Party is the equivalent of asking for a Big Mac at Pizza Hut and refusing to leave when someone tells you you're at the wrong store. Does that analogy make any sense? Probably not, but neither does this film. This is quite simply one of the weirdest films I have ever seen. It bored me. It frustrated me. It even angered my mum who told me rather aggressively to turn the volume down. The Robert Shaw character is essentially trolled by two mysterious men (played by Patrick Magee and Sydney Tafler). I use the word trolled quite purposefully. They employ odd mind games that are designed to elicit a specific emotional response. The performances were just enough to earn the film a passing grade, but this is strictly for Friedkin completists only.  

In Summary - The Must-See Films (4.5 or 5 Stars)
* Night on Earth
* Wait Until Dark
* The Shining
* Come and See

Sunday, July 28, 2013

'Tingly Sensation' - ASMR Documentary

If you enjoyed my recent post, ASMR: What It Is, and How I Experience It, there's a Kickstarter campaign you may be interested in. Kate Mull, a filmmaker from Washington, DC, is working on a documentary about ASMR called Tingly Sensation. She began working on it in March 2013 and has so far conducted interviews with ASMRtists and ASMR enthusiasts on the East Coast of the United States. She has also corresponded with people outside the East Coast via phone and email. Through this campaign, Kate hopes to travel across North America, and perhaps even internationally to parts of Europe and Asia. This will allow her to reach out to more sections of the community. Some funds will also go to procuring production equipment. The current goal is $9,800 and Kate has already raised 79% of that goal with eight days to go. You can nab yourself some great perks by donating, ranging from credit as a supporter of the film to being recognised as a co-producer!

Projects such as this one are just what the ASMR community needs. The stigmas need to be demolished and people's experiences need to be heard. Here is the trailer for Tingly Sensation.

Here is the link to the film's Kickstarter page:

Happy tingling, everyone! 

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Five Phenomenological Films

In a sense the whole of philosophy...consists in
restoring a power to signify, a birth of meaning, or a
wild meaning, an expression of experience by
experience, which in particular clarifies the special
domain of language. And in a sense...language is
everything, since it is the voice of no one, since it is
the voice of the things, the waves, and the forests. 

                                                                   ~ Maurice Merleau-Ponty 

Phenomenology is a philosophical movement that arose in the early 20th century, concerned with the study of subjective experience and consciousness. By critiquing films objectively through a phenomenological lens, we can better understand what it's like for certain characters to exist. I believe there are three things you can do with a film.

1. You can view it. All you have to do is have your eyes open and face the screen on which the film is being projected. You don't have to be interested. You could be thinking about what's for dinner that night for all I care. You just have to look at what's happening on the screen. 

2. You can watch it. The majority of films are watched. You pay attention to what's happening. You either love or hate the characters. If someone asks you about that film one week later, you can recall particular details.

3. You can feel it. These are the special films that I'll be addressing in this post. Some films are made with the specific purpose of eliciting a reaction from you. The director may want you to feel nauseous. You may feel like fainting. You may feel cold and isolated. You may even want to empty your bowels. 

Without further ado, here are five phenomenological films that will make you feel like you're standing within them alongside the characters. And just a word of WARNING: This post contains spoilers. 

1. Hunger (Steve McQueen, 2008) 

Hunger is one of the best films from the past decade, but it is not for the squeamish. The film takes a brutal, uncompromising look at the 1981 Irish hunger strike, with a focus on Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender), who was elected as a Member of Parliament during the strike. The film is often acclaimed for an unbroken 17-minute shot wherein Sands discusses the validity of the strike with a priest, but what I'll remember most is how repulsed I was by the squalid scenes of everyday life in Maze Prison. We see Republican prisoners cooped up in their cells, immune to their grotesque surroundings. The hunger strike was preceded by the "dirty protests", whereby prisoners refused to wash and smeared their excrement all over the cell walls. I had to imagine the brown stuff on the walls was chocolate to avoid puking. In one scene, a prison guard wearing protective gear and a face mask blasts fecal matter off a wall using a pressure washer. I could almost sense the putrid smell of breakfasts-gone-by wafting into my nostrils. In a similar scene, one guard mops a urine-filled corridor.

This scene lasts almost four minutes, yet an act of tedium is somehow made utterly fascinating. The symmetry of the shot creates an enveloping effect, trapping the guard in this cold, miserable setting. The sound is also very important. Not only does it heighten the level of disgust, but the consistent rhythm of the mop strokes lulls us into a trance-like state. The scenes of prison violence are quite harrowing and difficult to watch. They are uncomfortably visceral, and you forget that you are watching actors at work.

You feel like a passive bystander, unable to intervene in any way. There is very little audible dialogue, and the scenes are characterised by the clatter of batons on shields and panicked screams. Quite frankly, it feels like an invasion of personal space. You can only imagine what it feels like to be manhandled by aggressive guards who use the same pair of latex gloves to probe every prisoner's anus and mouth. Actually, no, I can't even imagine it. Another disturbing aspect of the film is following the deterioration of Bobby Sands' body. Fassbender lost 14 kilos for the role, and it's quite unnerving to look at him towards the end of the film. 

The human body is not made to starve, and there's something frightening about a man who abstains from indulging in what keeps him alive. The body is thrown into a state of confusion. When Sands pokes at his very prominent ribs through his skin, you can almost feel them too. When he passes out, he collapses like an accordion. Extreme close-ups capture the pained expressions of a man fighting his human impulses.  

2. 127 Hours (Danny Boyle, 2010)

For the uninitiated, 127 Hours is based on the true story of Aron Ralston, an American canyoneer who went hiking through Utah's Blue John Canyon in 2003. While descending a slot canyon, a boulder dislodged and crushed his right hand, pinning it against the canyon wall. Ralston remained trapped for five days and seven hours. The most depressing aspect in all of this is that he was alone—not only in the sense that he was unaccompanied, but also that no one else was in earshot. This is illustrated when the camera rapidly zooms out from Ralston's (James Franco's) face into an aerial view of the canyon, presenting a vast, barren stretch of rocky land. This is one of those films where you really have to appreciate the breezy preamble because once tragedy strikes, it's pretty dour viewing. If you're claustrophobic, you may want to skip this film altogether. Unsurprisingly, numerous people fainted during screenings of the film. This was mainly due to the arm amputation scene. 

We hear bloodcurdling snaps as Ralston breaks his radius and ulna bones. It is not only the presence of sound that affects my senses, but also the lack thereof. After Aron cuts through a vital nerve in his arm, his mouth gapes open as he lets out a scream, but as an audience, we do not hear this scream. It is a scream so horrific that it cannot be known to anyone but Aron himself. To dramatise it in a motion picture would not do justice to its raw ferocityThe heavy amount of blood and overall graphic nature of the scene makes the experience more real for me. Blood circulates around our body to keep us alive. Thus, I associate it with life; with being alive. To see such a great amount of blood makes the scene come alive for me.

Before his epiphany, Aron becomes delirious and sees a mirage of himself playing with a child. His grip on reality has weakened, and phantasmagorical visions cloud his mind. There are other mirages, too, and I'm reminded of a scene from the HBO series Six Feet Under, where David Fisher reflects that he couldn't find any image to hold on to when a mugger forced him to suck on the barrel of a gun. What do you think of when your life flashes before your eyes? Is there any one thing you can truly cherish? Or is it just a scrapheap of emotional detritus? All I know is that, in 127 HoursI felt just as relieved as Aron did to see something other than the inside of a canyon, even if it was only an illusion.

3. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Julian Schnabel, 2007)

On December 8, 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby suffered a massive stroke at the age of 43. It wasn't enough to kill him, but some would argue that it left him in a state far more agonising than death. Waking up 20 days after his stroke, Bauby found that he could not speak. In fact, the only movement he was capable of was blinking his left eyelid. He was the victim of what is known as locked-in syndrome, where the mental faculties remain, but most of the body is paralysed. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a biopic that tells the story of Bauby's quest to write his memoirs using a complex communication system. In a process called partner-assisted scanning, Bauby's speech therapist would recite the alphabet and get Bauby to blink his left eye when she reached the letter he was after.  

The early scenes in the film are shot from the point of view of Bauby, waking up from his coma. The camera shifts in and out of focus as we get an idea of what sight must have been like for Bauby, editor of French fashion magazine ELLE. Vague impressions crystallise and then blur again. It's excellent filmmaking. We hear him speak, but these are just the voices in his head. Of course, these stylistic choices made me feel 'locked-in' myself, and it's why I so strongly identified with Bauby throughout the whole film. The following scene is especially well-executed, as Bauby's right eye is sewn up. You almost feel the stitches penetrating your skin, and the eventual darkness has a crushing finality to it. 

As the film progresses, we are no longer trapped in Bauby's body. We see him from an outsider's perspective, and we see him against picturesque scenes of nature. This not only humanises him, but also contrasts greatly with the scenes where our field of vision is restricted to what Bauby sees. Bauby seems so small compared to his surroundings, and it's a reminder that nature outlives us all. Just as you don't know when a debilitating stroke is around the corner, you don't know what nature can offer up. It is so beautiful, but it can be incredibly cruel with no warning. That is why watching this film is such a sensory experience. There are times where it makes you feel huge, but in the next moment you feel so small.

4. The Seventh Continent (Michael Haneke, 1989)

Almost every Haneke film could lend itself to phenomenological analysis. There are few directors who could rival his ability to make an audience uncomfortable. I love films that lead me down a smooth path before pouring gravel all over it. The Seventh Continent is based on the true story of a middle-class Austrian family that committed suicide. The family consists of a couple—Georg and Anna—and their young daughter, Eva. The film is divided into three parts. The first two parts follow the family in their daily routines. There is so much distance between this family that the film could serve as an advertisement for the merits of marriage counselling. In one scene, Eva feigns blindness at school just so she can receive attention—something that's severely lacking at home. Haneke uses close-ups to excise the family from the real world. They exist in a bubble, and the use of long takes highlights the tedium of life in a materialistic middle-class suburbia. When Anna breaks down in tears going through a car wash, this is the final straw for the family. 

Note the importance of silence in this scene. It says more than words ever could. The family is somewhere where no one else can hear them. It's an ideal place for a private conversation, yet the best that is managed is an emotional breakdown. The last part of the film contains some of the most harrowing images I have ever seen in a film. After finishing a meal, the family decides to destroy all of the possessions in their home. 

These scenes are done with hardly any speaking. The destruction is aggressive, calculated and frightening. It amazes me how we have become desensitised to seeing dramatised murders, yet the destruction of property is so worrisome. We get a variety of sounds in this scene, including ripping, clanging, sawing and smashing. The result is auditory overload, and it makes everything very scary. When Georg breaks the family's fish tank, Eva is distraught, and why wouldn't she be? There is something extremely disquieting about seeing a fish flailing out of water. I think the most disturbing thing is seeing the fish struggle for life, endangered by a man who has lost all the will to keep his own one going. There is a cruelty here that few can rival.  

5. La Grande Bouffe (Marco Ferreri, 1973)

La Grande Bouffe is a repulsive film about the dangers of excess, and it may be the only film that has ever made me physically sick. In a decade that brought us films such as I Spit on Your Grave and Salò, this may be the sickest of them all. It's by no means the scariest or most depraved, but it's right up there in terms of its ability to elicit disgust. The premise for this film sounds like something concocted by a group of teenage boys during a tree house meeting, right after they tried trapping their farts in a jar. Here's the plot: A group of men hire some prostitutes and head to a countryside villa where they strive to eat themselves to death and indulge in gratuitous sex. You may think that food and sex are fantastic, or that the premise sounds like a Utopian ideal—"We all have to go some day, and what better way to end it all?" But I'm telling you that there's nothing titillating about the sex, and there's nothing satisfying about watching others pig out. It's hard to find relevant clips from this film, let alone ones with English subtitles. Here's the trailer to give you a general idea of what you're getting into.

Notice the contrast between the warm colours used for interior scenes and the icy colours used outdoors. You either feel too intimate or too distant in relation to what's happening, never finding that pleasant balance of familiarity. In one scene, a character goes to the toilet to empty his bowels and causes the sanitary pipes to explode. As a result, the mansion is flooded with fecal matter. One man finds this hysterically funny, and I'm reminded of Gene Kelly savouring the downpour in Singin' in the Rain. The scene triggered my olfactory system, and I began to imagine how vile it would smell in there. 

As I mentioned earlier, this is possibly the only film I've seen that's caused me to feel sick. No, I did not throw up, but I felt as though I needed to. I felt a distinctive ache in my stomach. I had a headache. You could say I was almost nauseous. I've seen people get shot and stabbed countless times in movies. I've also seen all the Final Destination films. Basically, I've seen a vast array of movie deaths. Nothing will compare to seeing someone gorge on food until their body simply gives up. I do not like this film, but I commend it for making me feel terrible. 

I hope you enjoyed reading this list. Something I noticed: four out of the five films are based on true stories. Perhaps knowing certain events happened to real people makes the viewing experience more visceral. 

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Review: Before Midnight (2013)

Director: Richard Linklater

There's a scene in Before Midnight where Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) watch the sun set behind the mountains of the Greek Peloponnese peninsula. Celine watches it intently, anticipating its inevitable sinking: "It's still there, it's still's gone." I've seen sunsets in countless films, but this one had an especially poignant resonance, as I realised that it wouldn't be long until one of my all-time favourite trilogies would come to an end, and unlike the sun, it will not rise again. Unless Richard Linklater has a significant epiphany in the future, this is the last we'll see of Jesse and Celine, the couple we first met in 1995's Before Sunrise, and who rekindled their flame nine years later in Before Sunset. In the first film, Jesse wooed Celine on a train, convincing her to alight for a spontaneous Viennese adventure. In the second film, the two meet by chance at a Parisian bookstore during one leg of Jesse's book tour. Despite sharing some intimate moments in both of these films, there was never a sense of commitment between these two souls. It was the transience of their encounters that made the films so special. Fast forward another nine years to Before Midnight, where we learn quite early that Jesse and Celine are now a fully-fledged couple with twin daughters. Personally, I consider it the least enjoyable film in the trilogy, but this is only because it's the one most grounded in reality.

How does one go about explaining the plot to a film from the Before trilogy? I could just say "Jesse and Celine talk a lot" and be done with it, but that would be a great disservice to the film's depth. As with the previous two films, the plot is secondary to the words that spring forth from Jesse's and Celine's mouths. Alternatively, you could say that the words of Jesse and Celine are the only reason a plot exists in the first place. The film opens with Jesse dropping off his son Hank at the airport. Hank was mentioned in Before Sunset, but this is the first time we've caught a glimpse of him. He lives in Chicago with Jesse's ex-wife. Meanwhile, Celine is contemplating a job in the government. There is some light bickering in the car on the way back to a friend's house, where Jesse and Celine lock horns about Hank's upbringing and Celine's career prospects. Celine remarks, "This is how people start breaking up," and the genius of her delivery is that we don't know if this foreshadows anything or if she's merely being facetious. 

There is a lengthy dinner party scene back at their friend's house, which is imbued with the naturalism that characterised the previous two films. There is a lot of friendly banter, but we also hear a few harsh truths. A widow acknowledges that everyone on the planet is "just passing through." This is followed by a bittersweet toast: "To passing through." The most remarkable thing about this dinner scene is that we are hearing the insights of characters other than Jesse and Celine. In Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, any characters who are not Jesse or Celine appear on the periphery. The inclusion of additional characters in Before Midnight effectively humanises Jesse and Celine. They are not fantastical projections of the viewer's mind. They exist for reasons other than propelling a love story in a motion picture. These two people have an impact on the lives of others.  

Allow me to return to the relationship between Jesse and Celine. This film is easily the most mature in the trilogy, as it dares to demolish the myth of eternal bliss attained through devotion to another person. While Jesse and Celine were not teenagers when they first met on that train in 1995, there was undeniably an element of adolescent infatuation between them. We saw their relationship reach another dimension in Before Sunset. You could tell they wanted more than just a casual fling. Still, this didn't prepare me for the emotional intensity or realism of Before Midnight. Conflict had to arise at some point, didn't it? After all, you can't have a narrative without complication. The thing that impressed me the most about this film was the nature of the conflict. There is nothing melodramatic about it. We are presented with two adults who have realised their biological clocks are unsympathetic towards their problems. It is possible that they would live better lives without each other, but their relationship has been built on mythologies and nights under starry skies, and it's difficult to discount sentiment in trying times.

The reason for such strong interplay between these two characters is that Delpy and Hawke contributed to the film's screenplay, just as they did with Before Sunset. Celine and Jesse are more than "roles" for this gifted pair. They are alternative personas. Delpy and Hawke first inhabited these characters in 1995, and they seem just as real 18 years later. It's almost a bit disappointing to know they have never been an off-screen couple.

As for the trilogy itself, it thoroughly deserves to go down in history as one of the greatest ever made. Some would argue that the film titles sound cheesy. I know I certainly did before I watched Before Sunrise. That was the day I learned to never judge a book by its cover (or more to the point: a film by its title). It's difficult to even conceive of these three works as "films". They feel like gatherings where Linklater whips out a camera and instructs his leads to play it by ear. I've got to hand it to Richard Linklater. He's one of Hollywood's quiet achievers, although I doubt he'd identify with the contemporary Hollywood ethos. I have seen seven of his films (I need to catch up on some), and with the exception of Fast Food Nation (which I need to rewatch), I have loved them all. In fact, his obscure adaptation of Eric Bogosian's play SubUrbia was once my third-favourite film of all time. It's somehow dropped out of my top 20 altogether, but I still think very highly of it. He cares about his characters more than anything, and empathy—not escapism—is the main reason I go to the movies.       

My final thought about Before Midnight concerns its ending. Some would argue that the narrative of Jesse and Celine's relationship is left hanging in the air, and that this diminishes the film's impact. That's what I initially thought. I have since thought it over, and heck, does anyone truly know what life holds for them in a decade, a year, or even tomorrow?

4/5 stars. 

Saturday, July 13, 2013

ASMR: What It Is, and How I Experience It

Throughout primary and secondary school, I remember feeling incredibly relaxed when a classmate would take out a pencil and a piece of paper and start drawing. My drawing skills were never anything to brag about, but to watch another person draw with careful precision and patience lulled me into an almost euphoric state. I could watch someone draw for hours. I never thought much of this. I thought it was just another little idiosyncrasy of mine. Late last year, thanks to the glorious Internet, I discovered that the pleasure I felt while watching people draw may actually have a name. That name is Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, or ASMR for short. I also discovered there is a growing community on YouTube for people who experience this sensation.
So, what exactly is ASMR? It’s a pleasurable tingling that typically begins in the head and scalp, and often moves down the spine and through the limbs, induced by stimuli that are usually visual or auditory.
Common triggers include:
  • Whispering
  • Tapping
  • Crinkling
  • Slow, meticulous processes (like my drawing trigger)
  • Accents and speech patterns
  • Close, personal attention (e.g. scalp massages)
  • Role-plays (examples include suit-fitting, haircut, dentist, cranial nerve examination)
  • Watching people receive massages (think of it as second-hand pleasure, where you ‘feel’ what you imagine the recipient is feeling)

Just type “ASMR” into YouTube and you’ll be greeted by a horde of videos that will not make sense to you unless you are already immersed in the community. Perhaps the largest misconception about ASMR is that it is a sexual thing. When I get scalp tingles, they are not accompanied by an erection. The main purpose of ASMR videos is to relax. Female ASMRtists (ASMR artists) are especially annoyed by the barrage of lewd comments they receive below their videos. Sure, whispering may sound inherently seductive, but if you actually listen to what these people are saying, you’ll find they only want to calm you down and provide a retreat from your stressful day. This misconception isn’t exactly remedied by the fact that ASMR is often referred to as a “brain orgasm”.
It is important to note that not everyone experiences ASMR. If you’ve reached this far in the article and your main reaction has been “WTF?”, chances are you are not one of the lucky ones. But hey, don’t feel too left out. Scientists and academics are yet to conclude that it is even a thing. A distinction should be made between ASMR and frisson, which is the “cold shiver” you feel when you listen to an inspiring piece of music (you know: goose bumps, your arm hairs standing on end). ASMR has essentially been “discovered” by the Internet. Consider it a series of universal “OH MY GOD; ME TOO!” moments. I think the phenomenon needed a scientific neologism to boost its credence. “Head tingles” would be too vague. It needed to be called “Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response” to stand any chance of being taken seriously. If one ASMR video doesn’t trigger you, that doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t experience this sensation. Just as we have our favourite pizza toppings, people in the community have their favourite triggers. Personally, I LOVE scalp massage role-plays, mouth sounds (e.g. tongue-clicking), and any rhythmic tapping or scratching. Conversely, it does absolutely nothing for me to see a towel-folding tutorial and I’m not the biggest fan of cranial nerve examinations.
I would say I am addicted to watching ASMR videos. I must get my fix every night before bed. Some people use them as sleeping aids, but I just use them to unwind. Because I watch a lot of the videos, I often get what is known as “ASMR immunity,” whereby certain videos no longer trigger me as strongly as they did on the first viewing. This happens because there are no surprises. The anticipation of a tingly part in the video distracts from the calming ability it has. I know I’ve focused a lot on the videos made by the community, but the truth is that many people don’t get their tingles from any of the videos. For some, the strongest responses come from situations in daily life where another person has no idea they are triggering ASMR. That is, they prefer to receive a haircut than watch a video of a haircut role-play. They may find themselves drifting off into a pleasurable trance because of the soothing, calculated cadence of a lecturer. In hindsight, they can still have fun with the videos, as many of them provide unintentional ASMR. One of the most popular videos in the community is this suit-fitting demonstration:
In this video, the pleasure is derived from the close, personal attention the fitter gives to the volunteer, as well as the expertise of the fitter. Hearing people talk about a subject they are very knowledgeable about has always been a trigger for me. The fitter’s accent and the occasional close-ups may also provide tingles.
Here’s another video that works wonders for me despite the uploader not intending to trigger ASMR (and probably not even knowing what it is). This triggers me in the same way watching people draw does. I admire the subtle art of calligraphy and marvel at how a human being is capable of producing such beautiful strokes of a pen. It’s the meticulous process of watching someone do what they’re good at that makes me shake with tingles. The scratching sounds also help. I once found a GIF taken from this video on Tumblr, captioned with “This is like porn to me.” It had several thousand notes, so it seems I’m not alone in finding this video incredibly relaxing.
Now let’s talk about Bob Ross. Bob Ross is a deity to the ASMR community. If you ask people what their first ASMR experiences were attributed to, they’ll often reply that they were caused by watching Ross’ show, The Joy of Painting. Growing up in Australia, I never got to see this show, but I have since checked out some clips of Ross doing his thing on YouTube. Ross is praised for his warm, soothing voice, his comforting aphorisms, and his attention-to-detail with his painting. Also, check out those fantastic scraping sounds he makes on his palette! Although I didn’t grow up with Bob Ross, I did once watch a painting show on TVS called Masterclass in Oils with Ken Harris (I believe it’s still on air for any Australians reading!). I would always feel incredibly relaxed while watching this show. I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen, and I did feel a bit tingly at the back of my scalp. This was long before I had heard of ASMR, and that’s what fascinates me the most. I love how I’ve always felt this feeling without knowing people experience it from the same triggers.
So, we know that zero published studies have been done on ASMR, but some people out there have suggested their own theories about what’s going on here. One theory is that ASMR is a residual response from early childhood. We remember the soothing effect of our parents’ voices and the close, personal attention we received when we were infants. Below is another theory that received a lot of upvotes when posted to Reddit (the ASMR subreddit has over 47,000 subscribers):
I’ve listed six types of ASMRtists below as a guide for those of you wishing to better understand the community. I can think of some more, but I’ll leave it at six for purposes of brevity. Take note of the recommended ASMRtists.
Whisperers induce ASMR by whispering slowly into a microphone. The best results are usually produced by whispering ear-to-ear at a consistent pace. Ideally, whispering should be incorporated into all ASMR videos, but some ASMRtists devote individual videos to nothing but whispering. Good whisperers include GentleWhispering and TheWaterwhispers.

Role-players recreate everyday scenarios to make viewers feel included and “special”. Most will not mention that they are performing a role-play. That is, they often don’t preface their videos with “In this video I will…”. They just jump straight into the role-play, e.g. “So I believe you’re booked in for a scalp massage?” This creates the illusion that the ASMRtist is actually a masseuse, for example, rather than a person pretending to be a qualified masseuse. Situations that would usually be unpleasant in the real world (e.g. a dentist visit) are transformed into relaxing situations. Good role-players include pigsbum53 and EphemeralRift.

Sound Experimenters
This group generally uses everyday objects as triggers. Tapping a book, rubbing a piece of cardboard and crinkling a piece of plastic are examples of such triggers. This is generally the most spontaneous group of ASMRtists, with some not having a set agenda, instead inventing triggers as the camera rolls. Trigger assortment videos can often be longer than an hour, depending on the number of items used as triggers. Good sound experimenters include MassageASMR and Heather Feather.

The Hobbyists
Hobbyists enjoy sharing their passions with viewers. Some people enjoy hearing others speak at length about a particular topic (remember: the aspect of expertise is crucial). Examples include an ASMRtist showing off their DVD collection while whispering, unboxing a video game console, or showing the various items they purchased on a shopping trip. Think of this as “show and tell”. A good hobbyist is VisualSounds1.
The Faceless
As you can tell by their label, these people upload videos without showing their faces or revealing much about their identities. These ASMRtists may be shy or may lack advanced video equipment. Generally, this type of ASMRtist will upload a single image (usually a nature scene) to accompany the sounds they make. Sometimes the sound is accompanied by nothing but a black screen. Despite the lack of visual stimuli, these ASMRtists can be just as triggering as those who present themselves in their work. I actually find faceless uploaders very effective because there’s less to be distracted by. The sounds become so intense. Good faceless ASMRtists include superchillumASMR and KiwiWhispers.

The Game-Changers and the Downright Bizarre
I think they deserve their own category because the effort they put into making videos is phenomenal. This group often overlaps with the role-players. They usually approach the subject of ASMR in a playful, reflexive way. Examples include EphemeralRift (once again) and ASMRrequests (especially this video:

Well, I hope I’ve demystified the phenomenon of ASMR for you. I’ll leave you with my personal top five ASMR videos. These are my go-tos. These are the ones I can visit time and time again and never be disappointed. Before I do that, I’ll tell you the best environment for experiencing ASMR through videos. I find that the best results come when you are alonelying down and wearing headphones. I advise that you watch as well as listen to the videos, but sometimes you can just listen as you browse on other tabs. So, without further ado, I present to you my top five favourite ASMR videos:

5. Your ASMR Guide (Head Massage/Close Up Whispering/Face Brushing/Gum Chewing)

Fred is very popular with the ladies and gay men, but let’s not sexualise this. He knows how to make good ASMR. I like his whispering and his smile helps me build rapport with him. The highlight of this video is his close-up whispering between 14:20 and 15:14. It gives me a giant wave of tingles every time. You might think this is creepy on the surface, but as you delve deeper into the community, you’ll realise that all these people want to do is relax you.

4. …i♥u…Close up Video…i♥u… for Lilium

Maria is arguably the most popular ASMRtist of them all. If I’m not mistaken, she was the first person to have an ASMR video eclipse one million views on YouTube. This is my favourite of her videos. It feels like an old friend is talking to you. She creates an intimate atmosphere so effortlessly. Her scalp massages are fantastic and I get crazy tingles from the part where she “removes an eyelash” from my eye (06:04 to 06:47).

3. Scalp Massage Role play/ASMR (scratching sounds)

Nicole is one of the nicest ASMRtists out there. The reason she is so good at scalp massage role-plays is that they are often the videos that trigger her. I have no idea what prop she used for the scalp massage that starts at 07:16, but it has a wonderful effect on me. The best part of this video is undoubtedly when she moves closer and scratches behind the ears at 09:37.

2. [ASMR] – Tinglestorm – ]- Intense Brain Massage -[ -

SuperchillumASMR is one of the most humble and underrated ASMRtists you will find on YouTube. His mouth sounds are incomparable to anyone else’s I have heard. I remember the first time I heard this video. It was late one night and I was in bed. I actually had to stop the video a few minutes in because the triggers were too intense. I was shaking. An ASMR video had never made me feel that way before.

1. ASMR with Dmitri – Touch Tapping 2 – Length 40mins in full HD 1080p

Dmitri is my favourite ASMRtist. He expertly selects the objects he uses to trigger ASMR and is always experimenting with new sounds. He is knowledgeable about audiovisual equipment and uploads quite prolifically. He also has one of the most soothing voices on YouTube. Most importantly, he understands the importance of rhythm and repetition. This video runs for 40 minutes and I must have tingled throughout every single one. I especially enjoy when he taps or scratches an object near one ear, and whispers in the other. A lot of people have said it’s triggering to see Dmitri “listen in” on the sounds as he’s making them, and I agree. It makes me feel as though I’m going on a process of discovery with him. Dmitri is the subject of an upcoming story for SBS 2′s The Feed. Stay tuned for that!
Well, now you know all about the wonderful world of ASMR! I’ve always felt as though I have to keep my ASMR a secret, but now I’m happy to let people know about it. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. The community is rapidly growing, and it’s attracting more and more media attention. Happy tingling, everyone! And please let me know if you were an ASMR sceptic before reading this article and have since changed your mind!