23/06/2017

2012: The Curse Of The Xtabai - Skin Deep

Thoughts On: 2012: The Curse Of The Xtabai (2012: Kurse a di Xtabai, 2012)


This is the Belizean film of the series made by Matthiew Klinck.


This is an awful movie, but a very... unique cinematic experience. It is the first major full-length movie that has been '100% made in Belize' and is centred on a curse that suddenly plagues a small town, many people stricken dead for unknown reasons, leaving a group of students to venture into the forest to find a cure.

A Creole-language film, The Curse Of The Xtabai can be understood quite well without subtitles - and this was one of the more amusing elements of this film as it did keep my mind active in the duller moments. Beyond this, the director, Matthiew Klinck, has some degree of competence and shoots some strangely beautiful and weirdly effective sequences, but the quality of this film's direction and cinematography undulate significantly. The acting is consistently bad though - as is the script. Actually, the script is probably the worst aspect of this movie, just about beating out the horrific soundtrack.

What makes this script so terrible isn't really the complete lack of sense, tone, atmosphere, drama, verisimilitude and character. These elements (or the lack of them) actually work with the alien cinematic approach that the director takes as you do get the sense that this is just supposed to be a dumb movie that doesn't take itself too seriously; a Belizean remix of The Blair Witch Project and Predator. What takes the fun out of this is the allusion to the folklore that is completely out of place, making this film seem like a 10-year-old Sam Raimi was once told a Belizean bed time story and then given a camera for the first time.

The underlying tale that this film refers to is of the Xtabay or X'tabai. This is a story that follows two women, one that is promiscuous, a prostitute who sleeps with anyone who asks, and another who is beautiful and austere. Xkeban, the promiscuous one, is, however, an honest, humble and self-sacrificing person that, in the archetypal fashion, serves the poor, sick and homeless. On the other hand, Utz-Colel, the virtuous woman, is cold, full of pride, disgust and disdain.

One day Xkeban is found dead after villagers follow a sweet scent to her home. Here, Utz-Colel proclaims that there shouldn't be anything so sweet coming from such a vile being and that such a perfume should come from a body like hers when she dies. As you could guess, one day, Utz-Colel dies, a virgin whose corpse emanates a disgusting smell. Embodying the Tzacam cactus flower that grows from her grave, Utz-Colel surmises that she met such a foul end because she was unlike Xkeban, whose sins must have came from a place of love. And so, by calling upon evil demons, Utz-Colel moves back into the realm of the living so that she could seduce men, becoming the X'tabai. However, her nature had not really changed; she was still cold and corrupt of compassion. So, when she attracts men, she kills them, disguising herself in tress, even as trees or, some say, as snakes and other animals.

Whilst this isn't the most profound of parables, it conveys an idea of internal worth with clarity and so is a thousand times more intriguing than the incomprehensible narrative that we're given by The Curse Of The Xtabai. There are allusions to themes of selfishness and destruction within this narrative, but the manner in which they're implemented into the script is below an amateur level. With some grip on their story, the screenwriter could have used this folklore and the tropes of horror to produce an interesting commentary on a vast number of things - most directly, promiscuity, envy or charity - as to expand on this legend. However, using a cheap reference to a 'scary story' to give this narrative a Belizean texture that's only really skin-deep (what lies beneath is a lot of influence from dumb-but-fun American movies), The Curse Of The Xtabai really sullies all of its initial elements of cheap fun and dumbness. In such, with just a little bit of effort and thought in the scripting process, this could have been a much more respectable film, but, as is, it's a bit of a let down.

All in all, this is a bad movie that you may be able to have some fun with if you go in completely blind (though, at this point, you can't - sorry), but it ultimately shoots itself in the foot with its cheap attempt at capturing and projecting complexity and depth from its own culture.

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Every Year In Film #13 - Poor Pierrot

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Every Year In Film #13 - Poor Pierrot

Thoughts On: Poor Pierrot (Pauvre Pierrot, 1892)


Two lovers meet. A third man, Pierrot, comes to sing to the woman, but is scared off by her lover.


Made by Charles-Émile Reynaud, this is not only the first known movie to operate with perforated film stock, but is also one of the first ever animated and narrative films. Reynaud built toward these innovations, much like many inventors of these days, seemingly from his childhood. In such, he was raised by his father and mother, home-educated in painting by his mother, and mechanics by his father. This lead him into many apprenticeships as a young kid; he would work with optics, industrial design, precision engineering and also photography. However, one of his most significant meetings would come in 1864 when he went on to become the assistant of François-Napoléon-Marie Moigno, otherwise know as Abbé Moigno, a Catholic cleric, an educator, writer and lecturer of science. Working with Moigno, Reynaud had to operate the magic lanterns that would accompany his lectures - and such must have sparked an interest in projection that would come into play later on in Reynaud's life.

However, a year after he started to work for Moigno, Reynaud's father died and so he moved to Puy-en-Velay with his mother. It's here that his late father's cousin educated him in chemistry, engineering and other sciences. This would eventually lead to Reynaud working with Moigno again, however, this period of study was interrupted by the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, which Reynaud served in as a nurse. After a period of retirement in which Reynaud tried to overcome the lasting trauma that his experience in the war had on him, he would be called upon by Moigno where he continued to work with magic lanterns in courses taught to students. After a few years of this, Reynaud would begin to significantly contribute to film history.

It was then in 1976, a year before Muybridge would shoot and project some of the first major moving images, that Reynaud produced his prototype praxinoscope. This is yet another device to add to a lavish list of pre-film inventions with crazy names. The praxinoscope was then an improvement upon devices like the early stroboscope, phenakistoscope, daedaleum and, most directly, the zoetrope. Remembering the early Every Year post on these devices, these were all mechanisms that would feature elements with moving images on that would rotate behind slits of some kind:


There were always three major problems with all of these devices, however, and Reynaud began to solve them all. The first problem with devices like the zoetrope was that they were too simplistic and impractical; they were mere toys. In such, to view the moving images, you'd have to bend down and look through the slits...


It's this fundamental restriction, which was largely a technical one, that deeply impacted film for years to come; for about a decade after the Lumières, films were seen as short spectacles and so, in certain respects, were simply more complicated zoetropes. However, this is a tangential idea that we may come to explore at a later date.

What Reynaud initially did to combat the impracticalities of pre-filmic devices was to invent the praxinoscope.


The similarities between the zoetrope and this device are obvious, yet subtly significant. Instead of using slits that act as a shutter of sorts through which to view fluid moving imagery, Reynaud used mirrors. Because each mirror was angled individually, the difference between one reflection and the next would have, in an around about way, acted as a gap or shutter between them. This is exactly what allowed for the the reflected image to be crisp and fluid - all without the arduous and intricate mechanics of actual shutters and stop-start mechanisms.


This is a significant device because it not only made the zoetrope a more practical idea with easier access, but approached light (reflections) in a more nuanced, yet ingeniously simple manner - which would later become pivotal to Reynaud's innovations.

In 1977, Reynaud patented this device and began to sell it commercially - which was met with much success and acclaim. However, despite being a significant improvement on the zoetrope, the praxinoscope was still, quite clearly, a toy. A major reason as to why the praxinoscope was still a toy comes down to its scale. Understanding this, Reynaud's next endeavour was the praxinoscope theatre.


This initially began as an extension of the original praxinoscope. In such, Reynaud designed a small theatre around his device with backgrounds and a peep hole...


Expanding upon this, however, he wanted to project his moving imagery in a similar manner to which he'd project magic lantern slides for Moigno. And it's here where the use of mirrors became an irreplaceable design choice. With a simple use of lenses and lights, Reynaud would bounce light from the mirrored moving image onto a screen...


This would then allow Reynaud to project his circulating, gif-like sequences with a background setting provided by a painted magic lantern-esque slide - all for dozens of people to watch at a time. You can see each of these elements by studying the above image, paying attention to the two projectors, one for the background and other for the praxinoscope image (whose own background was black so that it could be superimposed onto a setting). As is clear, with this, Reynaud solved the second major problem with pre-film devices whilst eradicating the first problem. In such, he made the device practical and accessible to numerous people at a time, increasing the scale of his spectacle.

It's this increase in scale that gives arts greater complexity and in turn leads to forms being respected as significant mediums of storytelling. But, as one of the most forward-thinking filmmakers of this entire era, Reynaud recognised that a looped sequence of movement wasn't a viable form of storytelling.

This is something so incredibly significant because, by this time, the only forms of 'film' were scientific and spectacle. In such, around the 1880s and 90s you had figures such as Marey, Muybridge and Demenÿ working on the study of motion itself. Added to this, you also had Friese-Greene, Le Prince and Edison rushing to produce the first viable form of spectacle cinema (Edison would win this race with W.K.L Dickson and the kinetoscope). What all of these endeavours lacked, however, was a narrative. Figures such as Muybridge and Marey were only interested in a few seconds of movement, never any form of storytelling, and the same can be said about Greene as well as Edison and Dickson; these figures were clearly more preoccupied with technological innovation rather than innovation in storytelling during the late 1800s. In such, you do not need complex moving imagery lasting at least an hour to put across the points that these figures were trying to make, as well as satisfy their intentions - which is not really cinema as we know it today.

Reynaud then distinguished himself from all of these figures because his innovation was clearly focused on bettering the content of devices such as the zoetrope as well as improving the manner in which audiences interacted with them. It's exactly this that we can see as the guiding force of his simplistic, yet substantial decision to project his praxinoscope strips and later out-do himself yet again.

It is in 1888, after quite a few years of producing and modifying praxinoscopes, praxinoscope strips as well as praxinoscope theatres, that Reynaud decided to confront his realisation that these short, cyclic images were not sufficient ways of telling stories. He did this with a patent of his Théâtre Optique. Reynaud's Optical Theatres' main intention was to extend the dozen-or-so frame cycles of praxinoscopes into something much longer through which a story could be told. So, as many people were at this point, Reynaud decided to approach film as opposed to solid static plates. However, he was not going to dive into the huge technological mess of photographing the real world with photographic film. Instead, Reynaud mimicked the form of film strips with his own flexible gelatin plates that he painted on and then fixed into cardboard and fabric, creating a reel of his own 'film'. These would then need to be perforated so that they could be spun on an outer frame.


The perforations on this film would be on the segments between each frame and would simply serve as holes that the sprockets on the outer frame (look to the largest upper circle of the diagram) would use to move the film. However, these original designs were modified with outer spools so that Reynaud could both move the film around the mechanism better, but also inject in his light system. You can see this here:


In the simplest terms, light would then be reflected through the film strips made up of up to 700 frames as it spun around the system. This light would be bounced off of mirrors and onto a translucent screen that simultaneously has a background slide projected onto it. To have a better practical understanding of this image, check out this brilliant visualisation:


What isn't visualised here is Reynaud's later use of sound. He would often animate his films to scores that would be played live, as well as inject synchronised sound effects, such as buzzers and drums, into his narrative through electronics (these effects and sounds have been injected into modern 'prints' of his films).

So, what we are seeing here is the establishment of sound in cinema - which, spoilers, did not just pop out of nowhere in 1927 - as well as Reynaud solving the 3 major problems with pre-filmic devices. He firstly made the devices practical, then took them out of the home, giving them a greater scale through projection and various attributes such as backgrounds and, finally, Reynaud found a way of telling actual stories through images; extended narratives in shows that would last up to 15 minutes. This, as anyone could recognise, was a huge jump in cinematic sensibilities, which is of course represented through our subject for today: Poor Pierrot, or, Pauvre Pierrot.

Made in 1892, Poor Pierrot was one of Reynaud's initial works to be publicly and commercially screened in Paris - which of course pre-dates the first Lumière screenings. However, on the note of the Lumières, with the rise of Cinématographe in 1895 came overwhelming competition from both the Lumières and their imitators. So, despite new films, modifications with colour and sound design as well as experimentation with mirrors, Reynaud's Optical Theatre was doomed to fail, and performed its last show in 1900 - a point at which over half a million people would have seen Reynaud's work.

The reason for this decline was quite simple. Though Reynaud had solved the 3 major problem with pre-filmic devices, his solution wasn't practical enough and the scale wasn't great enough to compete with the advancing complex motion picture photography and projection (which had of course caught up with him in the 3 years after he began the Optical Theatre). With Reynaud's decline, longer form narrative cinema was lost for a few years, but cinema nonetheless evolved past Reynaud's ingenious invention that was unfortunately too perfect as is; it simply couldn't evolve any further.

In the following decade, Reynaud moved on from his Optical Theatre to work on a stereo-cinema, but this never amounted to much. So, in 1910, depressed, financially ruined and almost entirely forgotten, Reynaud discarded almost all of his work, including his precious films and equipment, into the river Seine. He would then go on to die in a hospice during 1918 at age 73.

All but two of Reynaud's films were thrown into the Seine, Autour d’une Cabine and Pauvre Pierrot. It is through these films that Reynaud is then remembered as the founder of animated film and narrative cinematic storytelling who significantly contributed to cinematic technology as well as its publicly perceived image. Without much more to be said, I'll leave the importance of Reynaud to be articulated by one of his surviving films...


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Au Hasard Balthazar - Cinema As A Religion

Thoughts On: Religion, via Au Hasard Balthazar (Balthazar, At Random, 1966)

This is a post that very lightly touches on Bresson's film. For some quick thoughts on this film, click here.


The following, the title of this essay, is an idea I've been thinking about for quite a while, but have been refraining from writing about. Firstly, this is because it sounds like a frivolous and rather silly idea that would take some careful articulation to do justice. But, secondly, I had not yet seen Au Hasard Balthazar. This is a movie I've been wanting to watch for years, but have only just managed to find, sit down and watch. In doing so, it has become an immediate personal favourite and one that has really lit a fire under me to pursue this idea.

So, as the title suggests, I've been contemplating cinema's textures and qualities as a kind of religious body. By this I do not mean to suggest that there is a God, certainly not one of cinema, that needs to be prayed to - nor are there rules, doctrines or particular hierarchies and divinities (beyond maybe personal conceptualisation). The parallels I mean to draw between a religion and cinema as a holistic body of art is a simple one predicated on the nature of stories as a medium for the sharing of ideas and values.

We all, arguably and in a certain sense, have some kind of religion. This is a common idea that is often used cynically to suggests that T.V, material objects or certain celebrities have become a form of pop religion. Whilst I understand that this can be a valid form of critique as many 'pop deities' are useless, vapid and, frankly, stupid, there is an impulse or sensibility in all people that clearly has them drawn to 'religion'. It must be said, however, that I use this term very loosely. In saying 'religion', I do not really refer to an idea of God or even an entity of superhuman power - as most definitions will outline religion to be. I instead mean to imply that most people are bound to some form of hierarchy, an ambiguous one that often transcends realistic, tangible comprehension, that provides reason or purpose to an individual. As suggested with the allusion to 'pop deities', these figures, their provisional reasons and purposes, may be ridiculous and harmful - just as many sects and interpretations of actual religions have the capacity to be. However, the paradigm stands as a poignant, self-evident and strong one nonetheless.

With that established, we only need to recognise that all forms of religion come with some body of narratives and stories to begin to see my point of 'cinema as a religion'. In such, all established religions have texts; the Bible, Qur'an, Guru Granth Sahib, etc. Mirroring this, all other forms of 'religion' have texts too. If T.V is your religion, then your texts are the T.V guide (if those things are commonly used anymore), more specifically, the T.V shows you watch. If the internet is your religion, then the sites you use that provide you information and entertainment are your religious texts. If science is your religion, then the texts are the lectures, papers and text books. If a sport, say for instance, football (soccer), is your religion, then your texts are the statistics, matches and written histories. We could go on establishing hundreds, if not thousands, of alternative religions, but what all of them have in common are individually voiced, yet archetypal, narratives that each teach fundamental lessons and philosophies about the human condition.

This is something that, in my view, has been overlooked throughout the world and history. Religion, philosophy and thinking have seemingly always been bound to entities that govern us all - if not, huge sects of populations. This often occurs through education, religion and government. All of these entities are perceived as established and true mediums through which people may unite under common ideas, beliefs and practices. By suggesting a more ambiguous definition of 'religion', I am then essentially asking the following: Why are there so few recognised structures that act as uniting concepts of philosophy and action?

The reason for this seems to be an obvious one: my distinction of religion is far too arbitrary. Religion, education and government are institutions that are often protected and managed by a collective idea of a country. In such, these are often state-run entities or are sympathised with greatly by states. You only have to consider the function of taxes and law in respect to the mentioned entities to realise how they are managed and sympathised with as significant pillars of human dedication. It is for this very reason that all arts and entertainment can't, and won't (and probably shouldn't), be recognised as traditional religions. After all, we cannot all claim that T.V is our religion and expect to have national holidays and for our industry to be tax exempt (among other things) - the effect on the world would, after all, be catastrophic.

However, there is another answer to be given to our question, Why are there so few recognised structures that act as uniting concepts of philosophy and action? The second answer is actually a contradiction. The fact is that alternative entities, arts especially, have almost always been considered significant elements of society through which education, thought, politics and philosophy have ran through. After all, why would any art form, whether it be painting, writing, dancing, songwriting or filmmaking, ever confront censorship if they weren't universally recognised to be, under our current interpretation, 'religions'; pillars of education, philosophy, morality and ideas?

There are then only a few entities that are protected and governed by states that serve as archetypes of thought, morality and action because people need to have as few distinct categorisations as possible so that these institutions can all be best managed. However, I nonetheless question this notion. I don't so much question why there can't be a plethora of religions recognised by states - T.V, sports and cinema being amongst them. Instead, I question why any religion (not so much government and education) is supported in the manner it is.

Whilst I respect religion as a medium through which people find structure, reason and purpose, whilst I can respect elements of its humanly fundamental content that teach stories and ideas, I don't respect the form that religions assume. In such, I think that dogma, especially when it concerns ambiguity, is reprehensible. When people do not have definite answers, they should be truthful and suggest their ideas, their personally sourced answers, as exactly what they are - no disguises. For there to be a 'word of God', one that is often translated through parables, metaphors and content that must be interpreted, is a huge fault of thinking and propagating ideas. Not only are we suggesting that ideas are inherently true on only belief and with no evidence by doing this, but we are providing 'answers' through constructed stories with no direct clarity - only a plethora of mines and catch 22s that tie indoctrinated subjects into a web. In such, religion often associates authority with ambiguity, and that is the biggest problem, in my view, with the whole phenomena.

If ambiguity is a device or tool that humanity is to wield responsibly, it must be done so with clarity. In such, though religious texts have profound answers and guidance within them, to mask these with authoritative references to a benevolent god is to treat people, religious followers, like complete fools who cannot handle the truth - that truth being that, though humans have a lot of great ideas, we're not sure if this is what 'God' said, designed or wants.

This is a significant reason as to why I'm suggesting that cinema can or should be seen a 'religion'. Not only does cinema have countless narratives that can contain profound, life-changing messages within, but cinema, especially in the modern age, is a somewhat democratic and an entirely transparent entity. In such, everyone knows that cinema is a constructed entity once they hit about age 6 and realise that people don't actually die for real in films. This means that the use of ambiguity and answers by cinema is a relatively ethical one (relative to religion - there are of course ethical conundrums concerning cinema). No matter how full of verisimilitude and seeming reality a film is, we all know that 'cinema' is made by people and industries. All other religions have their human touches, their prophets and founders, but always refer to something intangible, a god, to deceitfully appeal to an inescapable authority that cannot be rationally argued against due to its basis outside of reality. What's more, cinema can be contributed to by any and everyone. Whether it is with your phone's camera or through your free blog on the internet, everyone has a potential voice when it concerns cinema. And this is so important as it fully embraces the idea that human ideas come from people - not some constructed deity. However, whilst it is certainly true that the market place for film is heavily weighted toward big-budget American cinema, anyone can quite easily find a plethora of directions towards a more diverse cinema that isn't entirely weighted down by Hollywood's influence if this is what you seek and are concerned about. Moreover, anyone can make films and change the landscape (even to a minute degree) of cinema, inserting into the vast, ever-evolving body of text their own chapters.

What I am then imploring with an idea that cinema can be your religion is nothing at all radical. You do not need to change your birth certificate, drop other religions, start or join a film society or go pray at your local cinema - and I think that is a major advantage of cinema as a religion; there is no real form or structure if you do not want it. With an idea such as 'cinema as a religion', all you are recognising is the cultural influence of stories, moreover, the powerful ability for cinema to articulate them. This is the crux of all religions; it is the substance of the stories they tell - a lot of everything that surrounds that is just bullshit. Recognising that cinema may be one of your 'religions' is simply a way of grappling and taking control of this entity and what it provides to you. In other words, seeing cinema as a 'religion' is simply a means of recognising it as important to all of humanity as well as personally significant to you.

A note I then have to touch on before concluding is the film that spurred me to write this: Au Hasard Balthazar. Whilst this is a subtextually religious film, one that you may say entirely corrupts my idea that cinema is a purer or better religion than others as it differentiates itself from the traditional archetypes, it can be interpreted and understood without this given subtext. What this film then does is, in my view, transcend dogma, using its intertextual nature to refer to age-old ideas instead of allowing them to engulf it. Another film that manages this in a different light for me was The Seashell And The Clergyman. This is a seen to be a feminist film, but I simply don't view it as such. What this suggests is that cinema can also act as an ideology - and maybe that is a part two to this initial claim. Nonetheless, what lies at the very heart of all we've discussed is this ethical use of ambiguity to tell stories and impart knowledge, philosophy, morals and ideas.

In conclusion, if you choose to consider cinema as a religion, what you are recognising is its capacity to provide meaning and purpose to people through stories. An extension of this may - this probably will not directly apply to all people - an extension of this may be that you appreciate more, or have better hopes for, the structure of the world-wide cinematic industry than any other religion; you believe that these stories are provided and voiced in a manner that is overwhelmingly more accessible and pliable (in that it can evolve and change as cultures do) than any traditional and established religion.

So, to end, I simply leave you with a question I always do: what are your thoughts on this subject?






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Au Hasard Balthazar - The Silent, Voidal Archetype

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Au Hasard Balthazar - The Silent, Voidal Archetype

Quick Thoughts: Au Hasard Balthazar (Balthazar, At Random, 1966)

The troubled lives of people from a small town are seen from the perspective of a continually abused and exploited donkey.


Profound and emotionally charged to an almost torturous degree (in the best way possible), Au Hasard Balthazar is a masterpiece above masterpieces. There is so much that could be said about this film, but, in my view, there are only a handful of things that really need to be articulated - the rest of the film speaks for itself better than most would be able to speak for it. In such, all that has to be noted is the incredibly poetic and intricate manner in which Bresson brings to his screen life's simplicity through a donkey. He juxtaposes this archetype with the complexity of humanity - often its worsts shades - to reveal its absurdity and utter unawareness to a degree that is entirely flawing. His commentary on humanity is then one that comes from ourselves; the audience being made to look at themselves and humanity with sudden clarity - whether it be subconsciously felt or consciously perceived - all thanks to the looming presence of a personified void. Balthazar is then much like all suffering, silent archetypes - one of the most symbolic and recognisable being Jesus - as he acts as a dark mirror and an ambiguous, shadowed reflection that demands humanity to question itself. However, it is because he lacks a voice and because he can never articulate what he 'means' to reflect that he exudes such deep profundity.

Au Hasard Balthazar is then not only one of the most tremendous examples of a pure cinema, but is, certainly in my view, one of the greatest stories humanity has ever told; one that has, of course, been told time and time again over centuries, but never with such articulation.

UPDATE: For more on this film, follow through to the next post.





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Bullhead - Coincidence & Reason

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21/06/2017

Bullhead - Coincidence & Reason

Thoughts On: Bullhead (Rundskop, 2011)


This is the Belgian film of the series, made by Michaël R. Roskam.


When talking about Belgian cinema, you are, in a certain sense, discussing two different national cinemas under one name. This is the result of a lingual and political divide that separates the 3 major regions of Belgium, those being the Flemish region (or Flanders), the Walloon region and the capital region centred around Brussels. This is quite evident in Bullhead as, though it can be considered a Flemish film, it features characters and settings from the French-speaking Walloon region as well as the Dutch-speaking Flemish region.

With that said, Bullhead is a devastatingly impactful film. In fact, this is one of the most affecting movies I've ever seen. When I saw this for the first time I had to stop the film mid-way through and just sit in silence for a while as, frankly, this movie really fucked me up. This all comes down to the powerful application of its themes as well as the incredible performances, great direction and articulate cinematic language. The only real downfall of this movie is that the drama and the emotion hit their peak around the 45 minute mark which leaves the following half an hour a little bit of a haze - especially on a first watch; I was still a quite zombified. This means that the latter half of the second act is a little sparse of emotional depth, yet too dense with plot details, but gives way to a stronger third act. So, what the film subtextually struggles in managing is its two meeting genres; those being crime and drama.

In fact, there is quite the divide between these two elements of the narrative that aren't very well linked by the overall subtext. Starting with the crime elements, Bullhead is a partially political film that depicts aspects of the 'hormone mafia'. This is a colloquial term for the organised crime industry that (in Belgium especially) deal with livestock growth hormones. As with drugs, the mafia exploit the legal ban on these substances which, by EU law, cannot be used by farmers all across Europe. Because the use of growth hormones will increase livestock sale profits exponentially (it is reported to be by anywhere between 10 and 100%), this is a significant underground industry that is run and managed by, to put it lightly, not the most legitimate of people. When, in 1995, a government livestock inspector named Karel Van Noppen began probing this industry and group of people, he was assassinated - and this is the basis of this movie.

However, though there is this political tie-in embedded within Bullhead's narrative, this isn't really a significant element of its narrative - at least, not in my view. Because there are no real subtextual ties between the crime elements of this film and the dramatic aspects, this reference to contemporary Belgian history and culture is seemingly a way in which the writer and director, Michaël R. Roskam, gives this film a Belgian identity. And this is an interesting element of Bullhead as Belgium has a long cinematic history that stretches as far back to the pre-film era of the 19th century through figures such as Joseph Plateau, who invented the phenakistoscope (a figure and subject we've touched on before). Following this, a few significant figures came out of the 20s and 30s such as Charles Dekeukeleire and Henri Storck - look to a film such as Combat De Boxe by Dekeukeleire for example. It was in the late 80s and 90s, however, that the Belgium film industry really picked up after a few significant features, such as Man Bites Dog, put the industry into the international spotlight. Bullhead is then a contemporary example of a strong cinematic industry that has continued to expand with links to France, Germany, the U.S, UK and more.

      

Moving beyond the background and crime elements of Bullhead, however, we'll move into spoilers to discuss further the subtext of this narrative. So, if you've not seen this film and don't want to have it spoiled I can't refrain from recommending it with the only caveat being that you may want to go in prepared. That said...

**SPOILERS**

Somewhat masked by its hardened facade, Bullhead is an incredibly intimate movie that delves deeply into themes of alienation and existential momentum. In such, through our main character, Jacky, this narrative ultimately asks a question of coincidence and reason. Was it some meaningful decision of fate that has the one girl Jacky would fall for as a young boy be one with a psychotic older brother who would go on to utterly destroy his life? Or, was this simply a tragic coincidence?

Whilst this initial question is one that is seemingly simply answered, Bullhead's narrative bookends Jack's life with the same failed romance, implying that maybe it was more than coincidence that had lightning strike tragedy twice. And even if we are not now left struggling with this question of coincidence and reason, we can certainly understand that this is what Jacky struggled with his whole life. A significant portion of his humanity was taken away from him when he was mutilated; not only can he not have a family, but he feels directly alienated from women and even some men. Added to this, Jacky can't even experience genuine human emotions as, without natural testosterone, he feels that his emotional masculine attributes are as synthetic and distant from himself as the drugs he takes are.

This has uncanny ties to the fact that he is a farmer that uses growth hormones on his livestock; he, as he suggests, becomes like the animals he raises. It's this ambiguous and unnerving fatal phenomena that pervades Jacky's life that make this narrative so affecting. He, in many senses, becomes a direct product of arbitrary chaos; the alien nature of the universe, time and causation seeps into his body and tells him to somehow walk in this new skin. This internal corruption is an archetypal idea in storytelling and is usually captivated by an exploration of good vs evil (the good of the universe vs the evil of the universe). However, there is an incredibly unique approach that Bullhead's narrative takes as it transcends a direct exploration of good, evil and morality by encasing this in a mind-and-body-morphing tragedy.

The conclusive paradigm that Bullhead then so perfectly explores is one based on the incomprehensible disorder of the universe anthropomorphising itself through a helpless figure. In such, it takes to the extreme an idea of people being determined and controlled by factors out of their reach and leaves its protagonists with only an inkling of control that he nihilistically, yet understandably, uses to end his life. Such is the shock and trauma that can only really be observed through this narrative as, after all, what more is there to say after all is said and done?

Despite the final line, I'll end by asking, have you seen Bullhead? What are your thoughts on all we've talked about today?

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