Thoughts On


Shorts #106

Today's shorts: The Farewell (2019), Romance of the Western Chamber (1927), The Boatman's Daughter (1935), Street Angel (1937), Lost in Thailand (2012)

A tremendous film, one that finds success in patience, in taking moments to let scenes sink into characters and thus reflect their depth to the audience.

With good portions of comedy and heart, The Farewell presents a touching exploration of what it means to let go and hold in, to let go fear and anticipation and hold in one's own doubts. This is a tension imbued into familial dilemmas and their often existential weight, and we are allowed to carry and release them across this narrative. With nothing bad to say about The Farewell, I can only recommend it.

Though this silent film presents a somewhat fractured narrative, it is given support by some fascinating deployments of robust montage that introduce a counterpoint to the theatrical feel of the cinematic space.

Romance of the Western Chamber tells a tale of anxiety, of grand gestures that fail to hold a light to the individuated, mature person. Romance, then, emerges as a product of personal struggle, not ingenuity: the gaze an affront to action; desire meaningless without devotion. The final scene that encapsulates this ethical turn of the narrative, yet it comes as something slightly too little, quite late. It is this that leaves the narrative feeling fractured; an hour spectacle juxtaposed with a momentary investigation of a character's psyche. That said, Romance of the Western Chamber holds much of intrigue.

A timid romance whose script is maybe more affective than the final cinematic product.

There is an attempt within The Boatman's Daughter to expose the frailty of a woman and an elderly man in a harsh world of capitol. Their dignity and sovereignty hangs in the balance, the vessel keeping them afloat riddled with stopped holes ready to fail. Alas, though this is evident when retrospectively recounting the fabula, the potentially harrowing experience of this narrative is dulled by the awkward dialogue and use of performances.

Street Angel is a very busy film, characatologically loud and vocal with its politics. This tells a story about an eccentric band of downtrodden outcasts who struggle to escape their cacophonous, oppressive urban milieu. The musical component of the film in juxtaposition to the realist elements make for a unique narrative blend; a film grounded in melodrama with a clear drive to present life in the shadows of a city filled with skyscrapers.

A rather insane comedy imbued with too many plot beats, Lost in Thailand doesn't feel like a positively exhausting in-a-few-days crazy adventure. It rather feels like a rollercoaster ride with many forced emotional ups and downs, moments of realisation and re-workings of friendships. Exhausting it remains, but this is not a noteworthy achievement. Some laughs are to be had, but the caricaturing can be painful and often childish.


Shorts #105

Short Thoughts: Escape Plan (2013), Rambo III (1988), Rambo (2008), Days of Being Wild (1990), Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914)

Silly, and yet not that fun. Escape Plan simply lacks character; it functions something like a Sherlock Holmes narrative without stakes. We are left wondering how Sly and Schwarzenegger (and this is unquestionably who appears on screen - acting not required) will be pulled along a half-clever script full of bad dialogue and much nonsense it hopes you look past. The entire background of the world is wholly questionable; whilst it is established that the prison space is 'evil', why are we put on the side of convicts, and why are we to accept all the murder? The lack of logic is very distracting.

Not much more can be said. This is watchable, but not something you find yourself particularly wanting to watch as it unfolds.

Rambo III is a step-down from parts I and II. The series never ceases to take itself somewhat seriously, but there is little of substance in this third part. Whilst nothing about the first two films is particularly ingenious, they balanced theme, character and action better than this. Rambo III is a confusing tribute to Afghan freedom fighters with somewhat cheap melodrama and too much going on in the realm of political commentary without nuance and particular insight. We do get to see a tank crash into a helicopter though - and without one drop of CGI. The writers of modern day action melodramas (like the Fast & Furious films) think they're brash and ludicrous on the page, but Rambo III goes to show that the likes of Hobbs & Shaw is nothing - aesthetically speaking - too new.

It's a Rambo movie, but it's not. More blood, more guts, more violence and decimation and then some CGI. Characterisation (of the titular character alone) is well defined, yet character arcs and their motivation are meandering and ill-justified. Political context also gives way to thematic debate--nothing of great calibre. These are common traits of the Rambo film, but intensified and brought into the late 2000s. What changes most significantly in Rambo is the presentation of the titular character. He is elevated to the level of archetype here: a reluctant, pessimistic hero. In elevating J. Rambo to this status, this narrative contrives a sense of wholeness and completion, but lacks failure and stakes (a key structural beat of the previous film). This leaves Rambo front-end heavy, overflowing with action and melodrama emerging from the interior of an archetype, but rather light in the ass.

Days of Being Wild feels like the work of a filmmaker who has yet to come into his own. The technical aspects of the script and montage are mired by a lack of substance in the realm of character. Though this tries to say much about time, its persistence, its solid yet abstract nature, its formlessness that shapes ones personal history to sometimes devastating effect, it lacks affective impression. The structuring is obnoxiously obfuscated - likely in an attempt to conceal the shallow, ill-defined paths characters walk.

Days of Being Wild impresses with its conception of time and abuse - both cyclical and droning ripples through space and time - but does not do too well in other respects.

There is a subtle genius embedded within Chaplin's comedic sensibilities. It emerges most famously via his narrative constructs and gags, but Kid Auto Races at Venice allows him to demonstrate a rare Keaton-esque conception of the cinema screen as a window into a version of reality. Most of Keaton's best jokes - the screen sequence in Sherlock Holmes Jr. being of particular brilliance - were conscious interrogations of the realities a screen can present. This play with the screen as something of a window of diegesis is almost as old as the cinema itself, and Chaplin makes a fine go at not only muddying the line between documentary and narrative, but does so with an acute yet subtle understanding of the frame as the audience's eye - thus the world it shows the only world extant to the audience. How he plays in and perturbs it is first and foremost warmly amusing, but, secondly, a demonstration of a rather nuanced conception of cinema and its relationship with the spectator.


How It's Made - Movie Machine

Thoughts On: How It's Made (2001-19)

A consideration of the value of spectating moving picture machinery.

What is the greatest T.V show of all time? You may have your answers, but there is only one correct response: How It's Made. The show is so good because it not only reveals the manufacturing process of everything from eggs to disc brakes to tequila, but it captures a strange dance of construction; it makes engrossingly explicit the state of something's existence. There are many ways one may define art, and many feel very similar. A definition I have always clung to concerns communication; all other definitions I have found use of complexify, and thus reduce back down to, this basic idea. This is true of the definition of art as a process of making engrossingly explicit the state of something's existence.

Perceived a certain way, How It's Made is a meta-work, one that overtly discusses the being of aspects of nature - or rather, technological artefacts. Yet it operates on a fundamental level much like a movie. Replacing the technological artefact - a can, balloon or spring - in a narrative is the abstract concept of a theme. A theme is that element of nature that a narrative (inherently mimetic) requires to exist; it is that which is dramatised, given mode, logic and style. In respect to this, movies can be considered machines of sorts that not only make explicit, but engrossing, some element of being - a theme. That said, 'explicit' as a descriptive term must be used with caution. In regards to cinema, a theme is no simple entity; difficult to define, maybe impossible to perceive in its truly fundamental form, a theme cannot be explicit like the construction process of a basketball. Or maybe it can? How It's Made reveals how a basketball is contrived, but it does not attempt to explain he game of basketball or even the significance of the ball, culturally, historically or existentially. Furthermore, it does not make explicit the chemical composition of various polymers nor answer and solve questions concerning the relationship between science, reality and human. Why do these elements - science, reality, humanity - in tandem produce the technological artefacts we are so interesting in seeing made?

With consideration, one can suggest that the explicitness of that which engrosses in art is never quite fully lucid. Yet, the documentary has a greater sense of lucidity in regards to its thematic content or item of interest than a cinematic narrative. So, again: themes are never made explicit in that they are bared and understood as a process wholly and fundamentally. Alas, a good narrative is an affective one. Affect demarcates the reception of theme; when one feels touched, it is because they understand; photogénie and lyrosophy cycle; theme is made explicit to the senses, to the unconscious and corporeal intelligence. It is this output that is produced by the movie machine via the process of making a theme engrossingly explicit. That said, it must be mentioned that art forms differentiate in various ways, and one key manner in which one can separate, say, cinema and music, is considering the haptic function of thematic revelation, of affect, explicitness and, indeed, ambiguity. Put simply, theme is received and transmitted along unique systems between art forms. Comparing the book to performance to cinema to music makes this obvious. A book holds its themes in syntax, performance in the language of the body, cinema, in visual communication systems and music along sonic planes and vibration. Each transmission-reception system effectively produces affect, but the character of thematic processing is wildly different. To exemplify: all art forms can produce a feeling of joy. Alas, to perform joy, to narrativise joy in a novel or on a screen, or to make music out of joy, are emphatically different processes. Music, on one hand, will teach one's body and senses joy, but provide little to consciousness. A book, a scientific textbook or even a novel, can make far more tangible a description of joy as a theme, subject or topic.

I find myself writing about this as I have struggled of late to find a reason as to why films should be written and spoken of. Despite the struggle I remain in love with movies as machines. It only makes sense that they be spoken of as machines that make explicit theme via affect. Abruptly, then, I will end, leaving a loose definition of the movie machine among the above lines.


Shorts #104

Short Thoughts: Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012), War For the Planet of the Apes (2017), Dave Chappelle: Sticks & Stones (2019), Bill Burr: Paper Tiger (2019), Parasite (2019)

All at once silently esoteric and boisterously thunderous, Beasts of the Southern Wild uses distance to great effect. We are not allowed too close to characters - there is a silence that prevents this; we can only know so much as we weave between unpredictable happenings. We are also repelled by characters' booming personalities; they make queer a story of survival, of grounding one's feet in the soil and remaining strong. This consistent juxtaposition of the silent and harsh keeps the audience at, at least, an arm's length from character interiority and, in the end, makes rather impactful the final symbolic gestures the narrative makes with its beasts. Successful this film's distance management is then at generating affect. Alas, the clarity of this affect is the problem of this narrative for me. The feelings this generates are cloudy and left a haze despite being strong. This narrative is then easily turned away from. Easily forgotten? I do not know yet.

A crisp end to the prequel trilogy that follows in Dawn's footsteps by falling into the philosophical and ethical mires of civility. It is then this trilogy's greatest strength and complexity that the apes not only become more fundamentally human, but grow to understand their own 'humanity'. Humanity's folly indeed creates them, and humanity indeed destroys itself over the course of this extended narrative. Alas, ape civilisation, too, is broken and continues to break despite its achievements. And maybe that is the element of gold about this part of the trilogy especially. It is not the presence of humanity--which, due to the trans-species, post-human narrative is a quality defined as something near-natural and a product of consciousness and society--it is not that the presence of humanity determines success and is that which should be celebrated, but that the successes of the inherently troubled humanity must be celebrated - because who knows when it will fail next. Dark, but warm.

Not a masterpiece, but it secures some sense of peace within itself. Funny, yet not clever, but seemingly - and maybe entirely so - honest. Unassuming, even humble, despite its opinionated and rather sharp facade, Chappelle's comedy exists in a closed bubble. What is said is done with; jokes like moods and judgements come and go, eventually dissipating in amused chorus and witty loops. As implied: peaceful, or at least, at peace, in a weird way.

Oh no...

A dud from one of my favourite comedians. Forget funny for a moment, what about originality? Burr spends a seriously significant proportion of the hour either rehashing uninspired rants that were in circulation between 2013 and 15, reworking old points and reviving already used up premises. I found myself scratching my head, asking myself, haven't we heard a better version of the First Lady segment? He even throws out a story he was once filmed unable to tell without breaking down whilst telling. This is a strange throw-away special that I can't see being anything but weird to anyone who has seen a lot of his work. That said, the material that felt fresh (all 15 minutes of it) was a joy to hear... and... this was pretty painful to write.

Bong Joon-ho has created a stupendous work of intelligence and deep drama. Though previous works of his such as The Host, Memories of Murder, Okja and Snowpiercer are good (Okja less so than any other), Parasite reveals a complexity and sophistication of a much higher level in the character department. The thematic concerns across these films have in common a rather overt socio-political critique, but it is Parasite that uses these themes as a place of departure. It explores more than caste: the terror of flirting between the social classes and the perturbances of character that this excites.

Deeply engrossing, subtly and brilliantly impressionistic, smooth, humorous and grounding, Parasite is a truly fantastic film; a world cinema staple in the making.


Crawl - Mid-Level Monster Movie

Quick Thoughts: Crawl (2019)

An estranged father and daughter are trapped in a gator-infested homed during a flood.

Crawl is an effective mid level monster movie and thriller. There's much to enjoy and a little to scratch your head about. The set up and general logical construction of the narrative is not egregious in any way, which is to say, this is in the most basic of ways, quite believable. This matters because this film centralises a game of logic, of trying to figure ones way out of a situation; if the characters act stupid, why should the audience forgive them. And whilst characters are drawn out as rather clichéd and simply written, the representation of a father daughter team trying to survive is grounding and engaging.

Onto what the film lacks. Firstly, thematic weight; Crawl isn't trying to build a narrative of incredible substance despite some efforts to capture a sense of pride and persistence - which holds some affect. Next, the monsters, or rather, alligators. The gators look like huge Nile crocodiles, they move far too slow and are too clearly a device in a narrative. Though some of the kills are enjoyably silly, the unrealistic rendering of the alligators is something that audiences will inevitably find too obvious. Second to this, though lead characters are put in danger and are even maimed across the narrative, they appear rather invincible in all of the scenes in which they aren't being chewed on. That is to say, the damage sustained by characters has no real lasting dramatic weight as a bite may give a character a limp in one scene, but won't stop them fighting or swimming in another.

In total, Crawl lacks a needed impressionism. We do not feel characters pain and the severity of their circumstances enough. This is not a lifeless film, but, it rather desperately needed better storyboarding and more time put into the visual-linguistic construction of scenes and maybe less put into CGI. That said, I enjoyed this quite a bit.