20/04/2018

Werckmeister Harmonies - The Voice & Image Of Spectacle

Quick Thoughts: Werckmeister Harmonies (Werckmeister Harmóniák, 2000)


Made by Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky, this is the Hungarian film of the series.


Werckmeister Harmonies is a very difficult film - both to watch and to read. This is my first contact with, not just this film, but also Béla Tarr, and so I certainly don't think I have a good grip of much. Alas, my initial response to Werckmeister Harmonies is neutral. Tarr seemingly falls into a realist tradition centred on the long take - a form that I think is fair to say Tarkovsky mastered. In turn, you can feel Tarkovsky in this film via the Soviet backdrop and the expansion of time. However, Tarkovsy's image, in my view, has a draw to, and poetry embedded within, it that Tarr's simply doesn't. In comparison to Tarkovsky I would even find Tarr to be slightly melodramatic; his mise en scène and structuring far more emphatic than Tarkovsky's. For his lack of subtlety, I can't say that Tarr enhances a transcendent quality in his cinema outside of a few select scenes; one example being the opening performances of the sun and earth in space. What's more, whilst Tarkovsky is difficult to read, I don't find him as difficult to watch as Tarr. In watching Werckmeister Harmonies, however, you quickly see Tarkovsky and then have to look past what you may be familiar with as it seems to produce little fruit. That is to say that their cinemas are only bound together by a few aesthetic and conceptual techniques at a surface level. And, interestingly, Tarr has commented on Tarkovsky's and his own cinema with the following:

Tarkovsky is religious and we are not… he always had hope; he believed in God. He’s much more innocent than us – than me. No, we have seen too many things to make his kind of film… he is much softer, much nicer. Rain in his films purifies people. In mine it just makes mud.

Looking past Tarkovsky, within Werckmeister Harmonies I find a film trying to voice something about spectacle. Often seen as an allegory about the state of post-WWII East Europe, this is centred on a small town entrenched in infrastructural and political issues that are never clarified. A travelling circus that bring with them a huge stuffed whale and a speaker called The Prince enter the town and, seemingly because of the social unrest, incite riots and chaos. We watch this play out following a quiet man, János, who runs newspaper rounds and errands for his elder family members and is fascinated by the poetic, the musical, the astronomical and the philosophical. János is then drawn to the whale that the circus bring and is dumbfounded by its size and the fact that God would create such a gigantic creature.

Embedded in this narrative seems to be a dichotomy between voice and image, between the unseen but heard Prince and the seen, never heard, whale. The whale is visual spectacle and the speaker audio spectacle; the whale disgusts some, not János, the speaker causes chaos among most, not János. It is János who interprets the visual spectacle as a positive and it is he who, among with other innocent people, falls victim to the ideas The Prince spreads.

As a political commentary, Werckmeister Harmonies seems to be interacting with the rift between image and ideology. For the Soviet Bloc, which includes Hungary, there would have been an image that emerged after both WWI and WWII of Communism as a new and better future (for some). Along with the ambiguous image of Communism that was/is more a mirror into one's own desires and less a window into anything, came the voices of Communism, most notably via Stalin. The voice corrupts the image. Or, rather, the voice reveals the image to be corrupt; the circus a sham that harbours a tyrant and a rotting corpse.

Taking a step back, not wanting to dive into analysis too specific after this first watch, Werckmeister Harmonies seems to detail and explore the dangers of spectacle, and the relationship that it can develop with bodies of people. The aesthetic and directorial techniques force the viewer to ponder upon this dichotomy and sometimes strike out with theme. Without a definitive feeling for the film, however, I'll leave things with you. Have you seen Werckmeister Harmonies? What are your thoughts?

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19/04/2018

There Will Be Blood - The Fickle Family Man

Thoughts On: There Will Be Blood (2007)


An self-made oil man comes upon a small settlement headed by a hysterical cleric.


Almost anyone can tell you this, but There Will Be Blood is truly one of the greatest films to have come out of America in the past decade or two. Each and every time I watch this film, I can't help but be reminded of this fact. The first time you see it, the performances reach out of the screen and throttle you. With a re-watch or two, however, the themes start to resonate all the better, the incredible pacing rings out, the absolutely fantastic direction, as patient as it is subtle, gleams, the film crystallises, and it continues to crystallise further with each and every watch after. Having seen this more than half a dozen times since it has come out, I don't hesitate at all in saying that this is a masterpiece.

As you come to terms with There Will Be Blood, its ideas around capitalism and religion come to the fore. However, I personally think that these themes are white noise that form the context of the story and give it a spine, but are subservient to Anderson's character study, which is far too deep, far too intricate and far too complex to be mapped onto broad ideas of the world. And this is really what Anderson does so well: he creates insular places that are populated by characters alone. There are grand themes and topics hanging over his PTA's characters' heads - in The Master, there is Scientology, Boogie Nights, the porn industry, Magnolia, show-business, etc. - however, like Bergman does, Anderson focuses his lens on faces and, behind the eyes of his tremendous actors, you see theme, you see meaning. Whilst many films have us see the world through the eyes of a character, see them project grand themes, Anderson has us peer into his characters to find theme - and you're not going to pull them out too easily. It is because Anderson is so precise and efficient with this technique of centring his characters that he is arguably one of the greatest filmmakers ever to get us to think as characters do, to ask what is going on their head.

There is a silence about There Will Be Blood that so often facilitates just this. And as I look into Daniel Plainview I can't help but see, somewhat ironically, sensitivity. As much as Daniel hates and lashes out at those around him, he has very soft insides. When characters break his armour and know where to poke him, so much is then exposed. The key moments in which Daniel is exposed are all focused on his child and his future. There is then his business competitors who tells him to quit the oil business and look after his son and Eli who has him admit that he has abandoned his boy. He reacts to both of these men with an anger and disgust so pure and genuine that it is almost child-like. And such is his soft inside.

Plainview, on one level, is a man of simple principals who ultimately only wants a nice house and a family. The sight of this house, the house he dreamed of as a child, however, would make him sick as a man - or so he says. This dichotomy between dream and sickness, this disavowal, reveals the heart of Daniel. Watching him closely over the course of this film, you will see a man who worked for everything he got, who crawls for miles across a desert to cash a small fortune, who adopts an orphan of a man who worked for him, who tries to uplift a small town. When you watch him go through these ordeals, in his silent moments, you see genuine care - and I don't believe this is an illusion. When he first feeds the orphan he adopts, when he enters the town of seemingly good people, there is always the defence that he is just making money at hand; he can tell his son that he was just an orphan, he can take all his money and leave, if he feels threatened. And such seems to be Daniel's complex. It is not that he is a selfish, evil pig, rather, he is scared to not have that persona at hand. There is then always a question mark over every good deed he does; he has to be making money to support others, he has to be spiting one person so he can help another. Daniel can do nothing if he does not have his finger on either an escape button or deep in one of your wounds. And this, it seems, is because he, himself, is so fickle and soft inside.

What There Will Be Blood then transforms into, in my view, is really a film about family. It seems that Daniel makes his money with his dream house and a family in mind. In making the money, however, he transforms. From good intentions emerge, above all else, aggression; Daniel is an angry man. This drives him forward whilst simultaneously steering him away from his initial goal. And thus, it seems, Daniel splits into two. There is his one half who just wants to look after an orphan boy - out of guilt, out of the goodness in himself. However, to look after this boy, he will have to make more money. And so then there opens up another persona; the boy becomes his partner: he is going to give him his company and the skills to have all that he never did - or maybe just duty and burden. Difficulties pull the loving persona and the exploitative Daniel apart. When his boy grows estranged, when he is injured and deafened and Daniel makes a mistake in sending him off - which may have been the better option, but who knows? - his future plans deteriorate. He becomes more fickle. This paradigm plays out with the small town, too. He just wants to help the people and help himself, but, he has to fight for control. And unable to concede to Eli and to a set of ideals (religion) that aren't necessarily his, he stops wanting to help and starts using the excuse of exploitation before only exploiting. In the end, sat in his empty dream house, Daniel has all he wanted apart from a friend, a partner, someone who is not there for money. It is here that his son throws all that was given to him at his father to start off on his own business ventures. However respectfully this is done, the fickle man cannot accept it. He does, however, get his revenge on Eli. He has abandoned his boy, but has no one around to poke at his wounds now.

In the end, There Will Be Blood becomes a tragedy about a man who cannot open himself up to people or risk anything; it shows strength poison a man against himself and a perfect storm around him tear at his personas. Daniel is then much like Day-Lewis' character from The Phantom Thread, incredibly particular and ultimately in search of someone who may destroy him. However, there is a subtlety and a sense of hope and strength embedded into There Will Be Blood that slowly deteriorates. It leaves the picture quietly after never really being there, but, once it is recognised as missing, There Will Be Blood only seems to ask questions: Where does a fickle man find salvation? Is it even possible? Does he deserve it?


That's another one for the Kaleidoscope series, and it sees us move past the halfway mark. If you're interested in finding out why I've written about this film, please check out The Red Kaleidoscope Rainbow.

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A Quiet Place - Tension > Drama

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17/04/2018

A Quiet Place - Tension > Drama

Quick Thoughts: A Quiet Place (2018)

A family live in silent terror in a world full of monsters who kill anything that makes a sound.


A Quiet Place presents a pretty much perfect premise for a horror film: if you make a noise, there are creatures that will come and kill you. This is the scene from every horror movie in which a young girl hides in a closet with her hand over her mouth as the killer stalks outside stretched over about 90 minutes - and it works brilliantly. For how simple and full of potential this premise is, you're left wondering why we haven't seen a tonne of movies exactly like this before. When you watch this film, however, all becomes clear: to stretch the premise into a film requires a lot of well-contrived conflict.

In no way is A Quiet Place a bad movie; the performances are excellent, the direction is strong and the writing goes beyond what you think it would. Nonetheless, I have to say that the Hollywood-isms of this movie do restrict it quite a bit. In such, the script is just a bit too tight, focusing on structure, on plants, pay offs and visual exposition, to a degree that is sometimes unnecessary and in a manner that takes us away from the drama between characters. What's more, a good handful of jump scares could and should have been omitted. This is then one of the rare films which you wouldn't just like to be 10 or 20 minutes longer, but can easily argue a reason for it needing more meat. The reason in my view is simple: drama.

What the script does so well here is provide a set of defined characters in a very difficult situation that you immediately understand the dangers of and the complications in. To delve into light spoilers, A Quiet Place's core subtextual drama is based upon the loss of the youngest family member in the opening of the film. The young boy's deaf older sister blames herself, as does the mother and as does the father. There emerges a strong divide between the girl and her father because of this; she feels she is hated (when she is not). Alas, the bulk of the film is situated in a time later on when the mother is again carrying a baby, and is far into her pregnancy. This raises many dramatic conflicts under one key question: Is this a world worth bringing a child into?

I would hate to see this question brought to the forefront of the film, but it certainly doesn't play a big enough role; this is too much about atmospheric tension and not subtextual drama. And, in turn, the writers lose sight of their themes and fail to relate it to character arcs all that well. It would be by spending less time making this a Hollywood genre film and by spending more time on character and theme - working more on internal conflict as opposed to physical conflicts - that A Quiet Place would become much more than the solid horror film it is. As is there is a strong initial build of characters within the family and a controlled release of conflict between them that, in the end, gives way to a cack-handed 'girls can kick ass' statement that could have been far more mature and complex with better focus. So, having seen a lot of potential lying within A Quiet Place, I have to say the film let me down just a little bit. Nonetheless, this is respectable entertainment. Worth the watch.






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End Of The Week Shorts #53

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15/04/2018

End Of The Week Shorts #53



Today's shorts: Dogtooth (2009), You Were Never Really Here (2017), Alps (2011), Undisputed (2002), Undisputed II: Last Man Standing (2006), Undisputed III: Redemption (2010), Boyka: Undisputed (2016), The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie (1972), Slave Girls From Beyond Infinity (1987)



Ridiculously brilliant, Dogtooth is, in many respects, a film about childhood and naivety being used against children so that they remain who their parents want them to be. What we then see across this narrative is a selection of games and lessons used to contrive a fake reality - one where the ground outside a home can't be touched, where a zombie is a flower, where your canine falls out and grows back for a second time, an indicator that you are ready to leave your parents. These games become vicious competitions between children whose parents are forced to dehumanise and treat like animals because of the fact that their the plan to raise their children is so ill-conceived and inhuman. 
The final image we are left with is one that asks if these rules can ever be broken after they have been bent; if a child can become an individual after an abuse childhood. A must-see masterpiece that is far from just weird, gross or absurd.



Deeply enthralling and fascinatingly immersive, You Were Never Really Here feels very much so like the silent and slightly soft underbelly of Scorsese's Taxi Driver. Replacing actions with spaces, thoughts with inertia and conflict with abstract imagery, this is a basic thriller at heart. And in such it picks up the theme of protecting the weak and runs with it, which imbues the emotional subtext with hatred; a hatred for those who victimise the weak. Staying along this pathway, You Were Never Really Here wouldn't distinguish itself from the likes of Taxi Driver. However, by inverting its narrative, revealing hatred to, in this case, be a kind of fear that emerges from compassion, there emerges incredible catharsis of a very uncanny breed. 
Who is the true child, the saviour, the oppressed or the oppressor? 
Difficult to put into worlds, but a true pleasure to be lost in, You Were Never Really Here is an absolute must-see for anyone who takes cinema seriously.



Though many compare Alps to Dogtooth, Alps is most like Lanthimos first film, Kinetta. In such, it deals with a universal Lanthimos themes: care giving, privacy and loneliness. In following a group of people who act as surrogate family members and friends for grieving people, Alps contrasts ideas of caring for other people with personal ulterior motives. Like Kinetta, this then sees characters move toward and away from professionalism and intimacy with the gap between the two highlighting the film's central concept of action as humanity. Drama then emerges when characters try to bridge the gap between their professional personal lives; it is when they try to find value in one and integrate it into another, that trouble emerges. And this is all because, when actions are perceived as one's humanity, one can too easily be fooled into thinking playing parts will have you grow and change as a person. The fact is humanity is deeply internal and cannot be simply imitated; a crushing fact for some.



In direct conversation with Mike Tyson's sentencing to prison in the mid-90s, Undisputed is kinda, sorta the original Rocky set in prison. 
What this succeeds in doing is showing a passion for boxing and showcasing a few solid boxing sequences. It also forms an allegory about remaining humble; about confronting life with measure and a strong internal perception of oneself and the world. What's more, this makes a smart decision in not making any conclusions about the main character's (Mike Tyson's) sentencing to prison, but it probably didn't really need to tell a story around this. On the negative end, whilst the editing style is inventive, it is quite clunky and lends to structural weaknesses. Moreover, characterisation is pretty flat and so this fails to do what even the most basic stories of this kind must: have its main character overcome something. Without overcoming anything, Snipe's character arc falls flat. In the end though, somewhat engaging, not particularly good.



Pretty poor. In some ways better than the first, in others, worse. However, the fact that this thinks that it's a sequel is the most ridiculous bullshit I've ever heard of. Many years after an already elderly boxing champion goes to prison and emerges again, he's in Russia - apparently no longer champion (implying he lost or retired). Not only is he in better shape than he ever was, but apparently can rival a kick boxing phenom. Utter nonsense. 
The story of Undisputed II is repetitive and weaker than the first, as is the writing, but the characters are better written and the action, without a care for continuity or sense, is better than that seen in the first. Still stupid nonsense, the quality of the fight scenes doesn't really justify watching this.



These movies, fortunately, get better.  
The story is still lacking. It follows a similar structure, using the same themes and motifs, as the two previous films. In such, this is about the defeated and the humble rising against their own hubris and maybe bringing someone up with them. Whilst the fundamentals remain the same, there are a few very significant changes. There are more fights, better fights, stronger characters and greater thematic harmony, which is to say, this does everything that the previous films do, just better. The most significant triumph is certainly the deeper sense of conflict and struggle; our main character actually has a respectable character arc and much to overcome. So, whilst this isn't brilliant, it is worth seeing for the general package.



Whilst this is may be the best - the most ambitious with story and character - Undisputed film, it is not miles beyond the rest and still exists in pretty much the same realm as all the others - that is to say, these appear to be 90s movies that have somehow smuggled themselves all the way through the 00s and into the 10s. 
The selling point of these movies should be the action sequences. And, I have to say, I don't think Adkins' type of action is utilised, in the script, by the director or choreographers, to its full potential. The structure of the fight scenes and all that builds into them is never satisfactory; there is no swell of emotion and no real triumph. This reduces the spectacle of Adkins' spinning and flying shit (official terminology) quite drastically. It is then all too easy to see Adkins performing some incredible stunts and not be dazzled - all because he hasn't got the right support from the filmmakers around him. He needs to watch more Jackie Chan movies and then get a bunch of other guys to watch Jackie Chan movies and then maybe we'll get something special out of him. For what it is, this is cool and sometimes fun - but that's about it.



A meandering journey through the anxieties, desires and fears of a group of upper-class friends who just can't seem to sit down and eat together. 
Most reminiscent of The Exterminating Angel, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie deals with the formalities of the upper-classes by essentially invading spaces and exploiting rules of engagement. Awkwardness and out-of-placeness is then a key element of this film with the tone-deaf drama emerging from a conflict between the stiffness of social settings and the chaos of imagination and emotion that resides with the people who inhabit it. In a strange way, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie ultimately makes efforts to humanise its ridiculous set of characters, utilising far less satire and critique than The Exterminating Angel - at least, this is what you sense. 
Not as striking as Buñuel earlier works, this is absurd before it is surreal, and so my response is pretty neutral as of now. I wonder what a re-watch would bring, however...



Whilst the title is nonsense, the poster makes promises that aren't broken. 
Slave Girls From Beyond Infinity is a movie about surviving, balanced between life and death, caught in cross-hairs, forced to destroy and save others and retain one's humanity. This is also soft-core pornography. 
Reminiscent of, though distinctly cheaper than, the likes of Barbarella, this is a 60s movie that somehow made it to the late-80s, bringing along with it a Russ Meyer complex (strong female characters, always at least half naked though) and a barrel of cliched lines. Made watchable by all that's obvious, this is what you think it'd be, and you can't hate it for delivering what you came for. Complete trash - though not in a bad way.







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14/04/2018

Blog News


Yesterday we finished off the Ghibli Series having covered 23 films and a handful of truly immense pictures. Echoing what was said at the end of the post, I'd just like to say thanks to anyone who read it through. The series are often bigger projects that see the blog and myself in one place when they're started and quite a different place by the time they're done. And having coming to the end of the Ghibli series--having worked on a few different projects where larger bodies of works are analysed--I feel that I'm in a better position to provide stronger posts for you. The downside of this is a yearning to redo the series completely as, retrospectively, I, of course, think it could have been much better. The upside of this, however, is that I will channel much of what I learnt into other series as well as posts in the future that will serve as additional content for the Ghibli series.

The series that I'll be focusing on next will be the one exploring Michael Bay's Transformer films. This, much like all of the series, has been on a slight break recently because I have a heavy work load outside of the blog as of now that should be lifted in the next 3 weeks or so. However, as the series continues, I hope to provide a subtly new and better type of post for you. Something to look out for.

After getting through a selection of other films for the Kaleidoscope series, I shall be putting all my efforts into the Bay and Every Year Series in particular. (The World Cinema Series, as it aimed to be, was more an exploration and a challenge to seek out and watch films, not always analyse them in depth, and so this will remain a casual series). After the Bay series, however, I am thinking of opening up new series in the same vein of the Vigo, Bay, Disney and Ghibli series. I am then interested in exploring all the films of directors such as Kubrick, Kurosawa, Tarkovsky, Bergman, Buñuel and more. So, this is something to look forward to in the future.

But, top priority for now is the Kaleidoscope series. I have four more posts planned and am pushing to get the next Every Year post out as soon as possible, but it is proving difficult to get done as of now. Don't despair, however, it will be here soon. And with all of that said, I'll leave things as such.

Thanks for reading.