16/02/2018

Arrietty - The Family Spirits

Thoughts On: Arrietty (借りぐらしのアリエッティ, 2010)


A family of tiny gatherers come under threat when they are seen by a young boy.


Arrietty is a meticulously beautiful Ghibli film and was a much-needed turn around for the studio after Tales of Earthsea and Ponyo. Taking Ghibli back to a time of quiet and peace that they captured in the late 80s/early 90s with Grave Of The Fireflies, My Neighbour Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service and Only Yesterday, Yonebayashi steers Ghibli away from the scale and chaos of the previous two films quite literally. And so, whilst there has been a rather intense focus on action and huge, sweeping animation ever since Spirited Away, Arrietty's attention is all on the minutia of character animation, still life and sound design.

For anyone who hasn't seen Arrietty, to fully appropriate the film, you must listen in a way that no other Ghibli film has ever really demanded. The world of this narrative is completely encompassed in subtle sonic waves that have you feel the weight and size of everything in relation to one another - and without being too obvious. It is then to be expected from any film that deals with a small world interacting with a big world that huge thumping footsteps and loud voices will contrast and conflict with tiny footsteps and squeaky voices. Arrietty smartly subverts this trope completely, giving the small figures the same voicing as the humans and refraining from the depiction of humans as big, slow, dumb giants, which is an integral decision clearly made to humanise the Borrowers and show that they aren't feeble, novel creatures. What's more, this film doesn't exploit the world of and use its novelty as an excuse to just play a game. This is what you see in the British-American adaptation of the book Ghibli also loosely transcribed onto film:


As you can tell from the trailer, this is not a film about calm and quite, about a serious and troubling - though reservedly small-scale - conflict between two worlds. I haven't seen this movie since I was a young kid, however, and so I won't say anything more than I'm pretty sure it's not as good as Arrietty.

What strikes me most about Arrietty beyond its incredibly technical direction is the allegory it builds into. Before we delve into this, I think it's appropriate to talk a little about Mary Norton's original series of books. We hit a bit of a wall here, again, as I haven't read any of the books. However, it seems to fit into a very specific time in the world: the 1950s . Emerging from the 50s were a selection of sci-fi fantasy books and movies about people being or seeming very small. Three of the most iconic films that come to my mind are Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, The Incredible Shrinking Man and The Day the Earth Stood Still.

    

1950s American sci-fi is incredibly interesting as so many films and books of the genre and time are really direct reflections of the fact that the world was emerging from a post-war era and (for America) were transitioning into a highly prosperous period that was overshadowed by the Cold War and huge social change. Whilst films such as The Invasion Of The Body Snatchers are then quite obviously about a fear of Communism, the films we have listed are a little more subtle. Attack of the 50 Foot Woman seemingly deals with emasculation, The Incredible Shrinking Man, the scale of the new, nuclear world, and The Day The Earth Stood Still, the precariousness and frailty of a technologically developed and dependent society. We can think of these films as existentialist reactions to change in American 1950s society. This change, however, was not confined to America as the 50s and 60s saw huge social change spread across most of the world. This may explain why some of these films were and are so globally iconic, and also why a book such as The Borrowers would emerge from this time, 1952, in the UK.

Very much so like The Incredibly Shrinking Man, and most other stories that deal with small worlds interacting with big worlds, The Borrowers owes much to the stories of the homunculus, or anthroparion, archetype. The homunculus/anthroparion is a small little being often created by alchemists, inventors, scientists or wizards, and it is often used to question humanity.

In a way, the homunculus is humans recognising that they can be the Gods that give birth to a new species, and thus these small creatures (and others alike) have been integrated into theories of the inner man. Jung, for example, suggested just this; that the homunculus/anthroparion symbolised the inner being. However, other cognitive scientists use the homunculus for an allegorical argument describing the way in which the brain perceives the world; they argue that it is as if there is a little man/woman inside our heads who processes things. Cognitive scientists, of course, don't mean this literally, but seemingly want to suggest that there is a divide between our brain and body; that our brain is maybe slightly autonomous or free from our consciousness and so operates with a set of rules we cannot control. All of these associations to the homunculus and the world of the small person suggest that there is something deeply embedded into the character, something that is suppose to say quite a lot about who we are. Added to this, as 50s sci-fi/fantasy makes clear, the reflection that the smaller world, or even the bigger world, of low fantasy has upon humanity has much to do with changes in the real world.

Taking this set of ideas into Arrietty, we should be quite open to a lot of subtext. And so, as you may expect, Ghibli uses the homunculus, the Borrower, to possibly comment on changing times in Japan and the family who owns the home that this narrative is centred on. Like the quieter Ghibli films that we mentioned earlier (Grave Of The Fireflies, My Neighbour Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service and Only Yesterday), Arrietty is concerned with family, most specifically, however, its possible dissolution - which leaves Arrietty more akin to Grave Of The Fireflies and My Neighbour Totoro than Kiki's Delivery Service and Only Yesterday. Possibly reflecting the crumbling of the nuclear family through divorce - a world wide trend, and national trend in Japan, since the 50s - Arrietty's fundamental use of the Borrowers is to contrast a broken family with a solid family.

What is most telling in this respect is that the Borrowers have lived in the human household for 4 generations. This may sound like a random number, but, looking back 4 generations we come to the war and post-war generations that were born in the the 40s, 50s and 60s. With this allusion to a generational conflict that has lasted since the 40s inside a film that is very clearly about family seems to provide strong evidence for the idea that the subtextual drive of this narrative is divorce and the more general dissolution of families that has been up-trending since this era.

With that noted, we can begin to look for greater specificity by asking why the homunculus figures are called Borrowers. What is the significance of their relationship as not-thieves with humans? This is a difficult question to answer as the small people aren't borrowing anything; they're stealing. The best answer I can conjure would involve thinking of the family in your own household. They take food and resources, but you wouldn't call them thieves - especially since those resources are probably meant for them. However, what if the family members in your house were estranged, but were still taking food. Because everyone is family, and they may not be taking more than what they deserve as family, you wouldn't want to call them thieves. Maybe the correct euphemism to describe the strange dynamic would be 'borrowers'?

This seems to be the best way to at least describe the homunculus family. They're stealing, but, we assume that their place is in the house - that they are almost like house spirits - so their title of thieves is euphemistically reduced to just 'borrowers' to relinquish negative connotations. And with that said, we can again return to this question: What is the significance of their relationship as not-thieves with humans?

As estranged family, or house spirits of sorts, the borrowers relationship with the humans is defined by friction. They have a place in the household, one that implicitly questions the ethics of the family within. Let's do a minor thought experiment. Imagine the borrowers are living in your house. How would your family react? Maybe some people would be freaked out, annoyed or disgusted, and want them gone. Maybe others wouldn't mind sharing the space and supporting the little family. But, what does it say about your family if there are some people who want the small creatures destroyed?

The tone of Arrietty, and other similar films that deal with small worlds interacting with big ones, suggests that aggression directed towards the small world is an indication that the bigger world is corrupt or damaged in some way. Think of films such as Ratatouille, An American Tail or Pom Poko. Ratatouille deals with the suppression of dreams; the big world is the suppressor. An American Tail deals with immigration; the big world is the breaker of harsh realities. Pom Poko deals with pollution and deforestation; forces of the big world. Arrietty as a film about family features a small, closely knit world that is striving to strengthen, whilst the bigger world - the household of a deteriorating family who have essentially abandoned their dying son with a maid - threatens to tear it apart.

With it now pretty clear that the Borrowers test the ethics of the human family by essentially holding up a mirror to them, we should ask what it is that they borrow. With every sugar cube that the Borrowers take also comes family values. We get a sense of this because, if the small world and the big world were aligned, then the Borrowers wouldn't have to borrow; they would simply be house spirits quite like the zashiki-warashi (a.k.a zashiki bokko).


The zashiki-warashi (translation: guest-room child) as a Japanese house spirit that indicates family prosperity and good fortune test the family they live with with simple mischief. The zashiki-warashi, much like other house spirits such as the Domovoi, seem to represent the essence of family. Family is difficult, and it takes patience and sacrifice to maintain. This seems to be why house spirits are often depicted as mischievous and should be left gifts. The Borrowers are a reincarnation of the house spirit and, as said, are bound to the homunculus. And such encapsulates all we have so far been discussing. The Borrowers as tragic house spirits who are forced to take minor gifts are a reflection of the inner being of dissolving families. When the family becomes aggressive, the Borrowers are forced to leave. And when a family becomes aggressive to the spirit of familial being, it is liable to fall apart itself.

Arrietty is a film about exactly this. There is no mother and father to speak of; the house is destabilised (and may have been this way for many generations). With the family falling apart, the maid becomes like an evil step mother. The evil step mother herself often symbolises chaos entering a once-perfect family that was struck by tragedy. We need only think of classical Disney films here. The maid, Haru, doesn't seem to care too much for the family she serves, she just does her job. It then makes sense that her character would not care for Borrowers like the Great Aunt does. The Great Aunt understands that the spirit of their family lies in the embrace of the Borrowers; it shows that they understand that family itself is sacrifice and care. However, Haru is motivated only by her job, and, in a way, the fact that the family is broken. After all, if the family was fully functional, she wouldn't have a place. This then says much about her wanting to capturing and hold hostage the Borrowers. But, the fact that Shō, the sick boy, understands and cares for the Borrowers despite Haru implies that there is hope for the future.

Shō is willing to sacrifice small things, such as sugar (symbolic of sweetness; empathy even), to maintain the small family. This act of sacrifice is a clear virtue. He also understands, however, that the right thing to do is more than turn a blind eye to the borrowing. The physical offering of the doll house is then incredibly key as it shows an attempt to not just accept the Borrowers, but integrate them into the family, turning them into house spirits of sorts that would welcome good fortune as they, themselves, would signify that the family understands the ethics of familial being.

The fact that the Borrowers do not live in the doll house is an expressive one; the Borrowers know they are not fully welcome - which may just be a consequence of the family being unstable, of there being no collective attempt to welcome them. The homunculus have remained Borrowers for so long, taking instead of receiving, which indicates that family values are evaporating. If they are forced to leave, we can then assume that this may signify that all family values have been completely lost.

What you would then expect from Arrietty is a reconciliation between worlds, for the Borrower family to move into the doll house and Shō's family to sort itself out. This, however, is not what we get. Arrietty ends with the Borrowers leaving and with a set of difficult questions. Will the Borrowers survive out in the wild, and how for long? Will their species die out, and does this indicate something tragic about the state of familial being in Japan? With the Borrowers leaving, is it accepted that Shō's family is inevitably going to fall apart? Is he going to die soon, alone with just Haru at his surgery, and will this be the cause of the family's dissolution?

Because of the tone of the film, I find it hard to foresee such a dark future. Instead, I think that Shō, as he suggests, has been given the courage to live on, and new Borrowers will move into his home. Just as different families came and went for previous generations in the house hold (which may further suggest that there is a long history of divorce and dissolution for Shō's family), new Borrowers may come as he becomes head of the household. Will Shō then welcome the new Borrowers and teach his children to care for them too? Will his family be functional, will they understand the spirit of familial being, and will they be as strong as the little Borrowers who hold up a mirror to them are?

For these beautifully constructed questions, I have to say that Arrietty is up there with the best of Studio Ghibli's films. But, there is more to be said about this film. So, what are your thoughts on Arrietty and all we've talked about today?

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Justice League - Smart-Stupid

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15/02/2018

Justice League - Smart-Stupid

Thoughts On: Justice League (2017)

Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash and more team up to fend off an apocalypse.


Justice League isn't horrific. But, it's still a DC-Snyder shit show. Starting with the good, I could point to a handful of sequences in which all the elements of cinema aren't grinding against one another and actually start to flow in the same direction. These moments of minor harmony are few and far between, but, at least they're there. Moving swiftly on, the best part of Justice League, unsurprisingly, is Wonder Woman. She is the only character who has been given a semi-respectable stand-alone film (the first act is horrific, but it's forgettable). The warmth and personality that was built in the final half of Wonder Woman carries over to Justice League, despite the writer's constant attempts to bastardise her back story. With that said... I think that's it for the positives. Some of the more competently designed action sequences are immersive and the story itself is somewhat respectable, but these elements are undermined by the sometimes terrible, other times ok, post-production and the brain dead writing.

It's the writing and the aesthetics of Justice League that signify the major faults of the film. Starting with style, I think that it is simply distasteful. Whilst you can try to analyse Snyder's direction and critique its 'style over substance', I think you'd be working in vain. To talk about how poorly Snyder captures the subtext of scenes would be pointless as you'd have to assume that he has other elements of direction (i.e, colour, framing, movement, composition, etc.) dialed in. Justice League is an ugly movie. If it looked good, maybe we could start talking about its other, more complex, flaws, but it just doesn't. Let's just take a second to look at the big bad guy of the film, Steppenwolf:


The job done on the post-production of this figure, especially work with texture, is about as bodged and full of air as the job done in the script. The fact that superhero movies don't know how to construct bad guys seems to be intensifying. And there's little to be said about this.

The more I think of the multitude of faults in Justice League and how prevalent they are in superhero movies, DC films especially, the more tired I get. I then can't help but ask myself: Is there anything worth criticising in Justice League?

My answer seems to be no. Almost. There core fault of Justice League is that it seems that nobody is really trying to create anything of true worth. This is far from new, and it's not at all surprising that huge blockbusters have their minds on many other things beyond the creation of substantial - it seems so stupid to say this in such a context - art. Justice League is a mere symptom of a flue that cinema has always had. Movies are a great invention with so much potential; they can say and do so much. But, they also make a lot of money. Movies themselves don't just generate money, however. Ask this to the millions of failed movies of film history, and ask this to the thousands of independent films available to watch across the world right now that won't be seen by more than a few hundred people if they're lucky. Successful movies aren't just made for money; you can't just follow a formula someone wrote in a book and print money. Successful movies always have some substance or value in them. There have been thousands of huge, successful movies, however, and the bar for substance isn't too high. This is why there are an endless stream of movies that make money, but are pretty crap. Justice League is another one for the mountainous pile.

Justice League has value in it. If I didn't care so much about film, I probably wouldn't be able to see what makes it so terrible. I may sense that it's not the best movie I've ever seen, but that's about it (my younger brother seemed to like it, so that says something). This indicates that Justice League has value in it, and I think most of this is found in the fact that movies like Justice League simply don't come around every day. Hundreds of hours of hard work and a million times more dollars went into creating this. That's what draws me to big cinema; it has so much potential behind it, and you just hope that it can be fulfilled. Even if big cinema doesn't live up to its potential, the mere fact that you can feel its potential (the money, time and resources) pulsating from the screen provides the 'big cinema buzz', and such is not only true with Justice League, but the big cinema buzz is pretty much all it has going for it.

It is because big cinema is a value unto itself, albeit, not a very substantial value, that Justice League's script could have been shat out and put to screen as shamelessly as it is. Big cinema knows that some work needs to go into the heart of cinema, the art embedded into the writing, direction, editing, etc. However, it has a tendency to do the least work possible. Big cinema is smart - in a very stupid way. It simply has very little respect for itself.

Watching Justice League, you can feel this smart-stupid dichotomy emanating from every frame. In such, if you have read a few screenwriting books, you will be able to see all the lessons and tips that the writer's have collected in the general logic of the film. It is then obvious that the writers are very familiar with their story beats, their characters and all the ways in which 'screenwriting gurus' tell you you write a film. The writers do a competent job; they put all the sockets and screws in the correct places. But, they didn't add any finish to the story. Justice League simply appears to be the notes you would write about a film: what the character motivations are, what their interior dialogues are, what the theme of the film is, what the story's questions and conflicts are, etc. The writers are somewhat smart; they have a good grip of characters; they know what they're trying to say about good, evil and justice; and they know how structure functions. However, they're stupid for thinking that this is all that it takes to write a film.

To make anything of substance, you have to sacrifice to it your heart, personality, self, being, soul--something. This something, I do not know what the word for it could be, belongs to you and it is hard to get out and put it in something. However, great art is the product of someone, or a huge group of people, taking a part of them - a part that is worth sharing, that has been honed, polished and worked on - and successfully putting it into the mechanisms of trade. The trade of screenwriting, and filmmaking more generally, involves structure, conflict, theme, character design, etc. The art of filmmaking goes far beyond this; it's easy to recognise and talk about, but you can't spell it out without it already being there. Watch Justice League and you will see a brilliant example of a film whose trade workers did an ok job to create a barren land almost completely devoid of any real art or substance.

With little else to say about this film, I'll leave things with you. Have you seen Justice League? What are your thoughts on all we've covered today?






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Ixcanul - The Serpent Of Birth & Death

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Arrietty - The Family Spirits

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14/02/2018

Ixcanul - The Serpent Of Birth & Death

Quick Thoughts: Ixcanul (Volcano, 2015)


Made by Jayro Bustamante, this is the Guatemalan film of the series.


**CONTAINS SPOILERS**

Ixcanul, or Volcano, is a poignantly ingenious film. Opening with a very slow and contemplative pace, this feels somewhat like a documentation of life in rural Guatemala. And in such, we get to see a family work their land and try to confront a snake infestation. Pushing through the beautiful cinematography, however, eventually comes a story - one of a coming of age. For much of Volcano, we then see a young girl want to escape her island with a rather useless young man - one who eventually impregnates and then abandons her. Returning to the familial drama, this then again becomes a film about rural Guatemalan culture, marriage and family. And from here, rifts between generations and rifts between religion and science emerge and complexify the narrative. The young girl, our protagonist, who must confront the divisions and complications in and around her life by carrying her baby and becoming a mother then becomes a focal point. But, whilst this is where you may expect the film to end, it doesn't.

With two final beats, Volcano becomes a tragedy, then a complex social commentary and then a rather poetically abstract rumination on the value of life. With a miscarriage caused by a snake bite, tragedy emerges from this story. This tragedy has embedded into it cultural references to the Mayan concept of the spiritual snake. Keeping in mind that Volcano is the first film to be produced in Kaqchikel (the Mayan language of Guatemala), this uses the Mayan symbol of the serpent to allude to concepts of life and death. This symbol emphasises the fact that, in one sense, the baby was never wanted; the family wanted it aborted so their lives could go on. When an abortion was lost as an option, however, the baby was embraced by the family, and we got a sense that the mother was, herself, to be reborn anew with the coming of the baby. With a snake, a symbol of death and life, killing the baby after witnessing its conception and foreshadowing its birth, we have both a reference to what we may perceive to be a Mayan conception of destiny. However, we could simultaneously see the tragedy as a commentary on the obsolescence of religion with the snake bite being a result of a questioned ritual.

This element of tragedy solidifies a rather powerful, yet equally ambiguous, coming of age tale - one that is distinctly Guatemalan and that holds many questions for and about Guatemalan culture. However, this is subverted and manipulated somewhat when we realise that the baby was not killed by the snake. Instead, it was illegally put into an adoption system in the hospital where the snake-bitten girl is taken. This event alludes to the controversies around illegal adoption and child trafficking in Guatemala. And so there is a socio-political edge to Volcano, one that comments on the structure of families and the divide - which is so often defined through language - between rural and urban Guatemala, and even the United States beyond.

Taking a step back and seeing this film as a form of documentary, a coming of age tale, an allegory tied to Mayan mythology and a socio-political commentary on illegal adoption, we can begin to ponder exactly what it is that Volcano is trying to say. Because it is clearly working on numerous levels, I can't say that there is one goal of this narrative. Rather, this appears as an open exploration of Guatemala and its relationship with life as well as its perception of the value of being. As complex as a society itself may be, this narrative then has no definite opinion or statement to make. Instead, it presents a set of ideas and conflicting predicaments under the thematic umbrella of life and value, and ultimately asks who, where and what is the manifestation of the Mayan serpent? And in recognising the scope of this film's intentions, it is hard to deny that it is anything but pretty stunning.

I then end with a firm recommendation. But, if you have seen this film, what are your thoughts on everything we have touched on?

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The Transformer Series - Bastard Cinema: An Introduction

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13/02/2018

The Transformer Series - Bastard Cinema: An Introduction

Thoughts On: Michael Bay's Transformer Films (2007-2017)


An introduction to a new series that will explore the Bay's Transformer series.

    

Both the name 'Michael Bay' and the allusion to 'Transformers' often have clear connotations tantamount to a scoff and a joke. Characterised as gratuitously over-the-top and ridiculous, the cinema of Bay, best represented by the on-going Transformer series, is, I think it is fair to say, never taken seriously - not at all. Whilst many look down upon the Transformer films, a significant portion of people suggest that the best films of the series are tremendous fun. However, though the vast majority of people who have seen these films clearly find worth in them as entertainment, almost all commentary on Bay and the series in general is lukewarm to seethingly negative.

The common appraisal Bay and the Transformer films receive is, of course, technical; these are spectacles to marvel at and monolithic, CG projects captured brilliantly by Bay as a director. With these appraisals voiced, or just put to the side, commentary becomes highly critical. And though most audiences clearly are enjoying these films - how else could we be 5 films into the series over 10 years after the first release - it is easy to just dismiss them as nonsense. I, myself, have dismissed Michael Bay's movies as nonsense blockbuster extravaganzas. However, I never thought a movie in the series was particularly bad, and, after seeing The Last Knight, came to embrace Bay's cinema as something significant.

What I aim to do today with an introduction, but also over a series of post that explore each and every Transformer film, is build an argument in favour of Michael Bay and all of the Transformer films. I haven't seen a few of them too recently, and so cannot foresee if I will contradict myself later on by disliking a Bay film when I am suggesting now that I like and support all of them. Nonetheless, the argument I hope to build has its foundations in the realisation that Michael Bay's films and cinema aren't just a product of the Hollywood machine. If we look to the majority of Marvel films as an example of films of mass-production and the Hollywood machine, we will see that there is no directorial stamp on many of them. Recent examples such as Thor: Ragnarok, however, seem to suggest that the company is allowing directors to speak for themselves instead of being pawns that will churn out a distinctly Marvel product. That aside, whilst Marvel movies can represent the works of a machine, the Transformer series clearly isn't.

The Transformer movies belong to Bay and are the cinema of an auteur. Bay is not a true auteur if we consider the term as one that references directors who also serve as writers, producers and more. However, each and every single Transformer film is so clearly a Bay production. And with this as a fact, we come to a question of: How are we supposed to interact with the cinema of an auteur?

One of my core filmic beliefs that most will share is that you, the audience, do not get to decide, alone, what cinema is. As a result, though you may like a certain kind of film, if you are to take film more generally seriously, then you would be making a severe blunder in thinking that all films should be what you want/like. He or she who takes cinema seriously then bears a responsibility to try to understand a film on its own terms. And this takes the recognition of convention. All genres and distinct modes of cinematic storytelling have their own set of conventions, and thus you can only really appreciate or understand the films that are categorised within them through an understanding of such a system; we learn this simply by watching the films. This means that you cannot only watch action movies and then, one day, decide to watch your first romance, and be mad when the movie ends and there has been no giant car chase.

As ludicrous and simple as this explanation of film may sound, certain directors, or auteurs, build a cinema of their own with specific conventions - which is something that is easily overlooked. As a result, if you're going to watch a Tarantino film and appreciate or 'get it', you have to acknowledge that it is a Tarantino movie. The same goes for other auteurs such as Hitchcock, Scorsese, Anderson, Tarkovsky, Bresson, Ozu, Buñuel, etc. Many people who watch Bay's movies know them as 'Bay movies'. Nonetheless, most of the criticism that Bay receives comes from people comparing his films to classical modes of filmmaking as opposed to trying to understand what Bay is doing to create his own genre of film. To some degree, I then think much of the criticism that Bay receives is tantamount to derogatorily asking why all of Hitchcock's films seem to be centered around suspense, why Ozu is always shooting in wides close to the ground and why Bresson's actors aren't acting. This is not to suggest that we can't criticise the conventions that auteurs construct. We should, however, try to understand and debate conventions before we dismiss them and we should also be able to do more than just recognise Bay's conventions as a form of criticism. After all, most people will say that the cinema of Bay is just a lot of explosions, beautiful women, slow-motion, American flags, product placements, low, circulating shots, military-men, fast conversations, a thousand characters and 10 times more sub-plots, etc, and leave it as such - as if outlining the conventions of his cinema is valid criticism in itself.

The cinema of Michael Bay is, indeed, commercial. And so I understand and agree with the recognition of, for example, product placement as critique. However, there is more to Bay's cinema than commerciality. After all, isn't commercial draw, in a way, just a form of popularity that is implied to have meaning and substance by merely attracting so much attention all in itself? Maybe this isn't a entirely true idea, but, I think even the likes of 50 Shades of Grey has more to it than what we suggest. That aside, however, I also find that there is something deeper in other spottings of conventions, which are supposedly self-validating criticisms, that people draw upon; most particularly, the role of women in Bay's films. We will get into this more later on, but I think the feminist critique of especially this first Transformers - which is almost iconic as a modern example of a film that gratifies the male gaze - is incredibly disingenuous.

Beyond these numerous and more minor tropics, one of the key criticisms of Bay's cinema that I want to challenge is the idea that his films are meaningless and dumb. A key mantra of this blog, which any regular readers would have heard about much before, is 'if it affects you, it means something'. And it's this philosophy that has encouraged me to explore Bay's films after seeing The Last Knight and not just liking it, but almost loving it. In short, The Last Knight really struck me, and so I had a tremendous time with it. However, whilst the action sequences amped me up, as do all of Bay's action sequences, when I began thinking of why, I was again struck by how deeply core archetypes are ingrained into Bay's films. Most will spot the archetypal elements of Bay's cinema and see them as commercially exploitative, cliches or tropes, but, I think this speaks down upon general audiences more than anything else. If we are to take what affects us seriously, I think it is important to ask what the affecting materials mean and then try to judge how that meaning is manipulated, presented and voiced - and so this is a key element of what we shall be doing in exploring Bay's films.

As we move forward, we shall discover that there is subtle meaning in the Transformer films if you understand what it is that Bay employs to tell his stories. And thus, we can explore their subtext and find a lot of worth. However, hand-in-hand with the assumption that Bay's narratives have meaning, we also have to take into account his style and its purpose. In short, I think that Bay is something of a genius because he presents a somewhat meaningful form of cinema in a manner that is reactionary to the idea of a blockbuster and modern art itself. In fact, we can grow to think of Bay's cinema as, to a degree, a narrative equivalent to the pop art movement of the 50s and 60s.


In some respects, pop art was a movement that opposed fine art by appropriating popular media and suggesting that it could be art itself. Bay's cinema is similar to pop art because it takes popular and traditional forms of narrative storytelling and blows them up into a spectacle that we are supposed to consume as we would every other blockbuster. Bay is not pop art, however, for the fact that his work is not as satirical as that of the original pop art movement. In such, Bay's cinema is not about irony and rebellion, rather, it has attempts within it to be genuine - as we will find out through exploring its meaning. There are traits of satire deeply embedded into Bay's cinema in the form of, for example, his comedy. However, whilst Bay uses satire, his cinema does not oppose classical cinema like pop art opposed fine art.

The general style of Michael Bay is one which we shall see to be of a 'Bastard Cinema'. The essence of Michael Bay's films then lies in the question of: How are we to tell stories that we've all heard before? This question manifests on numerous levels in Bay's Transformer series. Not only do the Transformers already have their own stories and worlds as action figures, comic books and T.V shows that are to be retold, but the stories that Bay wants to tell operate with paradigms that are thousands of years old. And the latter is actually a difficult predicament for all art to rise to. If one has even a basic knowledge of the history of storytelling and art, of mythology and folklore in particular, you will discover that the stories we have been telling for thousands of years are all retelling something that has been told before countless times. It is easy to discover this and, in despair, fail to see the point in art and storytelling now that we have amassed so much of it. This despair isn't necessary, however.

In discussing the idea of a narrative singularity, we suggested that, though all stories are made of a collection of repeated tropes and archetypes, the core truths embedded in these recurrent features are complex enough to grant a constant re-articulation in the hopes that something new, something even more true, will come of it. This is then what all art does when it tries to tell the same old story yet again, or even tries to disguise the fact that it is doing just that. Michael Bay's cinema, just like any form of storytelling that bears its own conventions, is a distinct attempt to both tell the same old stories in a new way and disguise this fundamental goal. Bastard Cinema is one of the few modern mainstream modes of storytelling that is doing this in a radically and uniquely stylised manner. Whilst great stories are told brilliantly by mainstream cinema - The Planet Of The Apes and the Harry Potter series are perfect examples of this - Bay is one of the few mainstream directors who is actually playing with classical modes of storytelling in a highly distinct and successful manner.

What is it that Bay's Bastard Cinema then does? The answer is in the name. Bay's cinema perceives the act of storytelling by mainstream cinema as an illegitimate event. Whilst Bay himself has not said this, we can see it in the way in which his cinema tries to exhaust archetypes and tropes of classical cinema by blowing them up to their greatest, kitschiest extreme. Bay's films are then often the bastard children of great narratives about sacrifice, love, great kings, honour and integrity. And this cinema is for what I believe to be a bastard generation and society of people.

Having come so far removed from mythology, spirituality and theology as literal truths over the last few centuries, many modern societies are functioning upon narratives that they believe are lies; we have disavowed from our dreams. Our societies all know of grand mythological tales, rituals and practices, but we do not often abide by them. As many a 'wise' observer has suggested, instead of worshiping at a temple, we then worship technology, and instead of following prophets and heeding their words, we watch T.V and pay attention to the social media feeds of celebrities. I am not of the belief that the transformation of societies towards this is inherently bad. However, in bastardising ourselves, seeing ourselves, or even that which that has come before us, as illegitimate - and so ultimately older mythological/spiritual ideas as only a shade of truth in comparison to material, objective truths - we have forgotten, to some degree, the meaning that they held.

It is the loss of meaning - which may well be the result of the bastardisation of modern narratives and the disavowal of their meaning - that many see to be the flaw of societies that are highly advanced, but nonetheless plagued with obesity, addiction, anxiety, depression, loneliness and so much more. Bay is no prophet of a new age and a provider of grand solutions, and neither am I, but I believe his cinema represents our times, which seem to be quite troubled in regards to meaning and a connection with transcendent truths, by contrasting bastardised imagery, characters, tropes and story-lines with the inherent meaning that they carry.

Taking cinema seriously, I believe, could be one cure among many for lives lacking meaning. By finding the meaning in what affects us, we start to take ourselves, and our lives, seriously. We become real, thinking, autonomous human beings by doing this. Bay's cinema screams out to be taken seriously - both in the way it is constructed and the way in which it is received. This series will answer the Bastard Cinema's call and thus we will legitimise Bay's cinema as art as a way of legitimising the modern blockbuster and the bastard audiences that consume it.

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11/02/2018

Every Year In Film #34 - Romeo e Giulietta

Thoughts On: Romeo e Giulietta (1912) and Epic Italian Silent Cinema


An exploration of the silent Italian historical film and its impact on cinema.


Today in the Every Year Series we are going to be discussing early Italian cinema and the emergence of the epic film. This post is going to be quite an intriguing one, one that is going to see the Every Year Series move into realms that it hasn't yet. This is because Italian silent cinema represents one of the earliest explosions of the narrative film into something simultaneously new, exiting and quite recognisable to us in the modern day. So, though we have been discussing the emergence of the feature film for quite some time now and have seen examples of them from Australia in 1906, through to Denmark around 1909 and have even seen the traditional feature-length film transcended by Feuillade and his serials, all of these forms of cinema that we have so far touched on feel quite distant from classical silent and narrative films. Many mark 1915's The Birth Of A Nation as a point at which a new kind of modern cinema was born. However, today we will see that American-centric film history is not really reflective of actual history. In my opinion, it was through Danish cinema that cinema transition into this modern period. It is with Italian epic cinema, however, that this movement becomes undeniable, leaving epic American cinema, the cinema of Griffith, as a huge, important - but not singular and not the first - beat of this transition that notably trails behind the efforts made by European filmmakers.

In addition to this, through early Italian cinema we also see a focal point of one of the first film movements markered and a form of cinema that begins to reflect real world history and culture in a way that film hadn't really managed yet. We will get into this first point in greater detail as we move on, but Italian cinema continued and brought to new heights the Film D'Art movement that emerged in France around 1908. Today we could then come to the understanding that Film D'Art was one of the very first movements in cinema, one that is quite separate from the movements of the 20s, such as Surrealism, Dada and Expressionism, that all emerged from other art forms; Film D'Art came from cinema and was all (almost all) about cinema. Beyond this, Italian cinema was a little more than a representative of an art movement; it, in my view, is one of the very first kinds of cinema that appears to be a voice of a country and culture in a very specific time.

So far in the Every Year Series, we haven't put much focus on considering film as a product of history. This was partly a conscious decision on my behalf, but also a seeming reflection of reality. Whilst the birth of cinema as a technology says an awful lot about how the world was changing as it moved out of the 19th century, cinema is one entity among a plethora of inventions that marked the movement into a new industrial age. Coming out of the 1800s was the evolved printing press and typewriters, electric lights, looms, bicycles, trains, cars, advanced machinery that mechanised factory productions, microphones, sewing machines, calculators, revolvers, machine guns, telegraphs, telephones, phonographs, photographs, the moving pictures and so much more. The 1800s witnessed an Industrial Revolution that cinema was a product of, but not necessarily the face of. As we have then explored, cinema was born as a novelty of this age and so it took a while for its impact to be felt. After all, if we compare early cinema to the train, electrical/gas lighting, production machinery or revolvers, its initial impact seems quite minimal.

So, though cinema initially was a huge revelation in the hands of, for example, Muybridge, its marvels were pretty self-contained. And though cinema gained huge popularity during the first 15 years, it isn't until this period that we are now in, the 1910s, that the stories it was beginning to tell said and represented something seemingly bigger than cinema itself. If we look back, for example, to cinema's role during the Spanish-American war around the turn of the 20th century, we see it having little impact. Whilst there were numerous allusions to this event in recreated newsreels, these shorts don't seem to be profoundly impactful materials equal to news and/or propaganda as it appears in cinematic form at later points in history (WWII for example). In fact, it seems that the Spanish-American War did more for cinema than cinema did for the war as it briefly brought large audiences into theatres, allowing films to provide a visual spectacle that would probably be subservient to real news from newspapers and word of mouth. Moreover, if we consider the cinematic aesthetic as a product of its time, we can see elements of art nouveau in the cinema of Segundo de Chomón and Méliès to some degree. However, we wouldn't consider their films to be apart of that art movement as cinema wasn't really treated or seen as an art by Chomón and Méliès. Thus, we can't really grant their trick films passage into that realm; film simply didn't have much of a serious cultural impact outside of novelty.

More broadly, street scenes pre-1905 and narrative shorts post-1905 all reflect times and places; Lumière shorts put us in 1895 Paris and the shorts of Guy Blaché or Zecca seem to be a product of a particular society. These forms of cinema, however, do not say much, or reflect upon, their times and place to a degree that really grants a true analysis. This is why you will most likely not find a book on the cinema of 1900-1909 and the politics of, say, America or France. This book could be written, especially when we consider, for example, Edison shorts that deal with humans in a questionably racialised light...


... and used animals as sources of dark spectacle...


However, though there is something to be said about these films' context, I'm not sure how substantial a book about this would be. After all, how substantial and important was film at this time?

It is post-1910 than cinema starts to become more important and so its impact more significant. And it is within Italian cinema in particular that we can see traits that seemingly reflect, in a substantial light, the state of Italy as a country at the time. And books have been written about just this; about Italian cinema, its audiences and the rise of fascism. So, before we start to discuss Italian cinema, it seems important to note a few details about Italy around the early 20th century.

From around 1829 to 1871, Italy transformed from a cluster of rather individual states, many of which had their own languages and cultures, into a unified Kingdom of Italy independent of Austria, France and Prussia (Germany) through conflicts with said countries. Unification, which was a phenomena that spread throughout much of Europe in the early modern period, saw the rise of a new kind of nationalism, one tied to another developing, evolving installation: government and democracy. It is nationalism that came along with the industrial age because the world was essentially getting bigger; major cities were industrially and technologically developing and connecting to one another. Nationalism would have played a role in unifying societies that were not too long ago seen as separate states. But, as we would all know, nationalism lead to a lot of problems in the 20th century in the form of two World Wars and a plethora of other conflicts and issues.

Because I'm not a historian, I won't try to give too many more details. However, with this basic knowledge of the state of nations around the early 20th century, we can see that the cinema of the mid nineteen-teens starts to reflect this. It is then not difficult to see nationalism in something such as The Birth of a Nation. However, this is just as true for an epic Italian cinema that predates Griffith's 1915 picture.

Early 20th century Italy was under the influence of a strengthening socialist party. Whilst the country, just as Mussolini did, would transition away from socialism and towards fascism after seeing socialism as a failure and the nation ally with the German Empire for WWI, Italy's colonial aspirations remained quite consistent. Italy was not a colonial power like Britain or France were, but they certainly, just like Germany, wanted to be. An undercurrent of Italy's colonialism was their past and, of course, the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire was looked back upon, romanticised, and, especially when Mussolini rose to power in the 20s, was used as a signifier of where Italy was headed; the fascist powers wanted to essentially 'make Italy great again'.

Though Italy isn't a fascist state in the 1900s or 1910s, we will see Italian cinema grow to embody a romanticisation of its history that would begin to have implications of the fascist regime to come. But, before we actually begin to look at these films as evidence for this, it must be noted that we are, of course, looking back on a time that does not know of its future. In 1905, how many people in Italy could have guessed that they were 10 years away from a World War, 20 years away from fascism and 30 years away from another World War? As a result, though there is a clear nationalist sentiment in many of the films we are about to explore, it wouldn't be sensible to label these sentiments as distinctly malevolent forces. After all, though nationalism has its very ugly sides, it is, of course, not pure evil. And this is something we will have to concede quite a bit as we move on in the Every Year Series and look at German, American, British, French and Russian cinema. All of these countries - and more - were hubs for political doctrines that lead to a lot of destruction and problems in the 20th century, but I don't believe that everything is political and that all film is propaganda or a product of politics. Thus, though it is important to recognise the context of cinema as we talk today and move on in the series, it will always be important to recognise where art splits from politics and where the line between collective and individual projections lie. That said, let us open up with the birth of Italian cinema:


It seems that not much is known or written about the first Italian films; most of which seem to be lost. Italy is, however, a neighbour to France, so, like Spain, Britain, Germany, Switzerland and Belgium, it was one of the first places that the Lumières would go to showcase their invention. Photographer Italo Pacchioni was at one of their early screenings and, like a plethora of other filmmakers who were at the first Lumière screenings, would want to buy a cinématographe. Pacchioni, like almost everyone else, was turned down and had to create his own machine based on what he saw. This is Pacchioni's camera...


... and it is with this that he likely shot the short you just saw; a staged street scene drama, The Fake Cripple, which sees a man pretend to be crippled and beg for money before being found out. Though this is somewhat interesting as a product from 1896 for the fact that it is already exploring genre - crime, drama, comedy maybe - because there are so few Italian films available from the 1800s and early 1900s, we are left to assume that this period of filmmaking was a relatively quiet one.

It wasn't until the emergence of Itala Film, Ambrosio Film and Cines in the mid 1900s that Italian film history begins to speak out to us. These companies were all founded between 1906 and 1907, but the first Italian production company is thought to be Alberini & Santoni, a precursor to Cines. It was this company that produced one of the first significant narrative films in Italy during 1905, The Taking of Rome:


Most of this film is lost with only 4 out of the original 10 minutes surviving today. Nonetheless, this is often considered to be one of the earliest prototypes of the silent Italian epic as you can certainly recognise with its allusion to history bolstered by action and explosions. More specifically, this short  recreates the 1870 Capture of Rome, which was one of the final battles between the Papal (the Pope's) States and the King's unification forces. So, embedded into what came to be a foundational film for the Italian epic blockbuster is an overt nationalist statement that celebrates the building of a united Italian kingdom.

There are other nationalist markers from this early period that indicate what was to come from the big Italian studios. Let us then take a moment to consider Alberini & Santoni's transformation into Cines...


Those who know Roman mythology may recognise the image embedded into their logo above.


This famous statue, The Capitoline Wolf, alludes to the Roman legend of Romulus and Remus, the twin brothers of noble Greek and Latin descent who founded Rome after being ordered to death as babies, to be abandoned at a river, by a king who saw them as a threat to his reign. The babies survived, however, saved by a river God and, at one point, were cared for by the she-wolf above who suckled them. The she-wolf caring for the children has long been considered a symbol for Rome and Roman people, and so to see this on Cines' logo...


... says much about the kind of films they would make. And as we watch some more films later, keep an eye out and I'm sure you'll see this symbol again.

Before we go on, it is important to add a caveat to all we are about to discuss. The historical epics that came out of Italy between 1909 and 1914 were, by and large, the face of Italian cinema as it was perceived world wide as these were the most popular and successful pictures produced by the nation. However, Italy, just like every other major film-producing country at this time, were producing all kind of films; comedies, romances, chase films, etc. So, though we are going to be discussing this movement of epics, or colossal cinema, this is not all that Italian cinema was. That said, let us jump into one of the early epics to come out of 1909...


In 1909, the Film D'Art movement and studios that were established in France the year previous extended into Italy with the founding of Film D'Arte Italiana. Film D'Arte Italiana, or the Società Anonima Italiana per Film d'Arte (the Italian Society for Art Film), was a studio founded on behalf of Pathé - who had their own Société Cinématographique des Auteurs et des Gens de Lettres (Film Society of Auteurs and of Men of Letters) - and Le Film d'Art. As a result, we could imagine their ideas of cinema evolving through better sets, costumes and scripts migrating over to Italy.

As we have explored recently, the Film D'Art movement was essentially saying that cinema was equal to other arts, such as painting and writing. And so let it not be overlooked that one of the earliest film theorist was the Italian writer, Ricciotto Canudo, who, in 1911, argued that cinema was the Sixth Art. Italian Film D'Art was then not a minor phenomena; it was ingrained into the Italian films, the culture around Italian cinema, and it spread across the world as the popular Film D'Art Italian epics did.

Unfortunately, it doesn't seem like any of Film D'Arte Italiana's early films are available online. Nonetheless, when looking at Nero, or The Fall Of Rome, it seems clear that we're seeing the products of a movement that existed outside of the one studio. Ambrosio's The Fall Of Rome is very clearly Film D'Art for the quality of its sets and costumes and the ambitious scope of its story and destruction. So, this again echoes the idea that Film D'Art was deeply embedded into epic Italian cinema, which leaves the peplum (costume drama; historical epic; sword-and-sandal film) synonymous with the 1910 conception of art film.

Before pushing deeper into the peplum as an art film, we should also take a moment to recognise that Italian cinema was incredibly popular within the nation before, during and after certain epics were met with much international success. In what we may refer to as Italy's first Golden Age (most critics consider the Neorealist period to be Italian cinema's Golden Age, but their epic cinema period is arguably just as critical and historically significant) thousands of cinemas were spread around Italy with it being estimated that, at the height of this era around 1913, over a million people were going to the pictures every day. Cinema was then a huge part of Italy's economy and is often considered to have been integrated into an Italian identity of the times for the manner in which it played with nationalism and Italy's history. Notably, a similar thing could be said of French cinema at this time - it was deeply embedded into the culture and has remained so ever since. Hollywood hasn't yet come to be, but in America, too, film was becoming a cultural force.

As Italian cinema became more popular, it did have to evolve. This is then where we see Italian filmmakers push the Film D'Art movement. With three examples of the Italian peplum, we can then trace the form's evolution between 1911 and 1912 in regards to story, aesthetics, cinematic language and special effects. To do this, we start with our 1912 subject for today, Romeo e Giulietta:


Romeo e Giulietta is a film from Film D'Arte Italiana, one that brilliantly projects the movement's idea of film art through tremendous work with costumes and sets that is, in this restored print, supported incredibly well with tinting and precise mise en scène.


What strikes you about this movement is its ties to theatre, novels and painting - which leaves epic Italian cinema a few steps out and away from American cinema. Italian cinema of this period at its finest never told its own stories; everything was an adaptation of a novel, play or book recounting history. With Romeo e Giulietta, we are seeing an adaptation of one story with many sources. As most will recognise immediately, this is the story of Romeo and Juliet. However, Shakespeare adapted this story from translations of the original Italian tale by Matteo Bandello. With this short, Film D'Arte Italiana are seemingly re-appropriating the English play and re-situating it in a distinctly Italian context; the act of reclamation may have bid well in times of growing nationalism, helping to bolster the Italian identity by letting Italian audiences feel ownership over the classical story. If such a sentiment didn't resonate, Film D'Arte Italiana were at the least bringing a great work to cinema, which is a practice that is over a decade old by now (figures such as Méliès would be adapting tales such as Cinderella before even 1900), at scales that few have so far achieved.

There is a debate that could be had over the importance of adaptations and original stories in this time. Looking back to Italian epics, especially Romeo e Giulietta, which is a story we would have seen many times before, I find myself far less engaged in the story than I would with original Griffith stories such as The Lonedale Operator. This is, of course, because Griffith's original narratives were new for the times, and so new for anyone who looks back on them for the first time now. However, if we try to imagine the audience's mentality at the times, we may suggest that they saw the adaptations to be just as new as the original films. After all, though they probably knew the story of, for example, Romeo e Giulietta, they would have never seen it on film before. It is then difficult to know how much the adapted story helped cinema in the 1910s. It certainly brought in an awful lot of money world wide, but it also set a president in many countries of the adaptation being more important than the original work - which I'm sure we all have our personal opinions on - and this idea would exist for decades with its weight still on modern cinema.

Keeping in mind the role of epic Italian cinema in the founding of this trend in cinema, we can move on to one of the early huge blockbuster successes of the times, The Fall of Troy:


This is an important film for a few reasons, but, the main two are its impact on the studio Itala Film and the career of Giovanni Pastrone. With The Fall of Troy as a huge success that was seen across the world, Itala Film would have become an even bigger power in the industry. Thus, successes such as The Fall Of Troy would keep the industry churning and evolving. What's more, it would force filmmakers to try and top themselves. And so, with The Fall of Troy as Giovanni Pastrone's biggest work of the time, it would have seen him given the chance to make Cabiria. Cabiria, as we explore later, came out in 1914 and followed other blockbuster successes such as Quo Vadis? that, themselves, were topping what The Fall Of Troy managed in 1911. Cabiria is, arguably, one of the first truly great works of feature film production thanks to the reputation and stature that was built with the likes of The Fall of Troy.

If we take a minute to analyse this film, we will find that it is functioning on a higher technical level than anything we have so far seen. In such, just look at the pure magnitude of shots such as this:


Not only is this sequence indicative of the huge scale that this film assumes, but it also shows the development of film language through depth of field. In recognising and utilising the cinematic space as a 3-dimensional one, Pastrone opens up the possibilities of mise en scène. In the above shot, he uses a deep depth of field to construct a powerful shot with the Trojan horse far in the distance. However, there are more minor moments where the depth of field is used to tell a story...


It is very difficult to make out because of the quality of the image, but, behind the fountain and under the statue is a spy who plays a significant part in the plot of the film...


This piece of film language is also present in Romeo e Giulietta and other films of the time as, not only were sets being emphasised through a greater depth of field, but it improved mise en scène and was making cinema as dynamic as, if not, more so than, high quality theatre or opera. However, distinguishing cinema from the play or opera, we also have special effects playing a part in the telling of this story:


We will see special effects play an even bigger role in the next film we touch on, but, scenes like this are quite the revelation as special effects rarely found their way into bigger productions of the time. If you look to Danish, French or American dramas around 1910, you will then be tasked to find special effects like those dazzling the screens in Italy. Following in the footsteps of earlier biblical films, Italian epics then told stories through special effects, they didn't just put on a show like all the trick filmmakers were. And this is a profoundly important detail to realise as, without special effects and technical trickery, cinema wouldn't be too far from theatre at all.

Before jumping into the final film for today, we will look at one more pre-Cabiria film. This is the first known Italian feature film and one of the earliest surviving feature films we have with us today, Dante's Inferno.


Though Cines, Itala Film and Ambrossio Film were the three big Italian studios in 1907/8, a fourth studio emerged in 1908 and shook up the market in 1911: Milano film. Going a step further than any studio had yet, Milano film were the first Italian studio to make a film that lasted almost 70 minutes. This picture was more ambitious than almost every single Italian silent film ever made as it was going adapt what is, and was, considered one of the greatest Italian literary works of all time: the Inferno canticle (song/hymn) from Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy. Moreover, this was to be aesthetically inspired by an incredibly popular artist of the time: Gustave Doré. Doré's most famous works are illustrations of scenes from various books written by Milton, Balzac, Lord Byron, tales such as Red Riding Hood and even sequences from the Bible. Doré, in the late 1800s, also created illustrations for Dante's Divine Comedy.

  

Using these as an aesthetic blueprint, the directors (of which there were three; Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan and Giuseppe De Liguoro) would create a series of cinematic tableau vivants that essentially hop from space to space, through the circles of Hell, allowing title cards to visually exposit the series of poetically judicial punishments that Dante originally constructed in his extended poem. There is a question we could lean into concerning this subject: How successful is Inferno in regards to Doré's work?

  

  

  

I think it is quite fair to say that Inferno finds varying degrees of success in taking Doré's illustrations as inspiration. Never are the drawings surpassed in quality, and whilst some comparisons reveal the technical limitations of film at the time, cinema seems to hold its own with the boat shot in particular. And it's in mentioning that sequence that it must be noted that Inferno is often seen as the first silent film to showcase nudity. Whilst we could reference pre-filmic 'filmmakers' such as Marey and Muybridge, this idea seems to hold strong. Interestingly, however, some of the first nudity put to screen is not pornographic. Rather, taking traditions from classical painting and fine art, the naked form is used as an expression of shape, world and tone; the nude bodies of the dammed emphasise their position as almost tortured animals. This, which can be seen quite directly as an expression of Film D'Art, is yet another powerful revelation for cinema in this period, but, and some may say unfortunately, this perspective of the naked body is not as historically significant for cinema as work with special effects and classical works from other art forms was and came to be. In such, though European cinema has often embraced nudity and sexuality, film has never really been known to represent sex and the human body like painting and sculpture historically has.

With all the films we have so far discussed being building blocks of Italian epic cinema - they signify its cultural importance, its link with nationalism and Italian history, the development of film language, genre conventions and aesthetic traditions - we can essentially see them as steps towards Cabiria.


Cabiria is the quintessential Italian epic of the silent era, and one of the most iconic silent films ever made. This then takes the Film D'Art movement and blows it up to absurd scales, sitting at the pinnacle of a mountain; its foundations are The Taking Of Rome (1905), above that is the likes of The Fall Of Rome (1909), above that Inferno (1911) and above that Quo Vadis? (1913), and at the very top is Cabiria (1914). Epic Italian cinema did not stop in 1914; it struggled on as WWI raged and transformed through the 20s, dying down, and even pushed on into Italy's sound era, which is characterised by revivification and the Fascist government-run Cinecittà studios. The peplum during this time was never as popular or as significant as it was in pre-war times, though, it did rise to prominence again in the 50s and 60s where it was more popular than ever with countless serials and films about Hercules, Maciste, gladiators, sandals and swords being produced for film and T.V before the genre gave way to Spaghetti Westerns and spy films. After Conan The Barbarian in the 80s, there was another short spark of popularity given to the peplum, though it wasn't too significant for Italian cinema. Nonetheless, whilst Italian film history and epic cinema did not disappear after 1914, Cabiria is often seen as the height of this genre and phenomena.

Cabiria's impact would be felt across the world, but, of course, most resonantly in America. The film played widely, reaching New York and was even reviewed by the New York Times - a rarity for any picture in those days. Cabiria also became the first film to have been played on the grounds of the White House for President Wilson.

Griffith, who would be aware of Italian epic cinema, would be pushing, from the 1910s onwards, to rival European silent film with a bigger, better American cinema. He began to get this around 1913 with The Battle at Elderbush Gulch, but would have to leave Biograph if he was to continue to experiment with epic cinema in the form of The Birth Of A Nation. Now, if you were to compare The Birth Of A Nation with Cabiria, you will see two slightly similar films with different strengths, and so it is hard to suggest which is better - in my view, Cabiria has greater spectacle and The Birth Of A Nation, stronger drama. Both films are bound, however, by a good dose of controversy due to their rather distasteful politics - which we will return to momentarily. If we were to still compare The Birth Of A Nation to Cabiria, I think the most telling fact of the topic is that Griffith would be inspired to make Intolerance, which I believe easily overshadows The Birth Of A Nation as a cinematic achievement, after seeing Pastrone's film.

Cabiria was, in some respects, a celebration and product of the Italo-Turkish War fought between 1911 and 1912. The war was essentially a conflict for land - what is now modern day Libya - that had much to do with nationalist aspirations and ancient history. The Turkish, or Ottoman, Empire was the force that essentially ended the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine Empire was what the East Roman empire became after the West empire fell. For Italy to come to conflict with the Turkish over land seems to speak to this historical conflict around the Mediterranean as a symbolic gesture from Italy as pseudo-Rome wanting to rehabilitate a Roman Empire. Cabiria as a reaction to Italy winning the Libyan War turns the subtext of this conflict quite literal as this film essentially sees the Romans come into conflict with the Carthaginians during the Second Punic War. The ancient Carthaginian civilization resides around modern day Tunisia, which is just north of Libya. The Carthaginian are demonised in Cabiria - and quite possibly as a subtextual poke at North Africa under non-Roman rule. This is all whilst the Romans are sold as stoic nobleman, which leaves Cabiria an obvious attempt to build a nationalist identity in opposition to other Mediterranean/Balkan regions - which is where, of course, WWI was sparked a year after Cabiria's release. As a result, Cabiria was received with some controversy - much like Inferno, which features Muhammad...



... and another serious poke at, not just the Ottoman's who were predominantly Islamic, but Muslims in general. Let it be noted that this anti-Islamic sentiment was in Dante's original Divine Comedy also, and is likely there because Dante was a Catholic and so wouldn't want to present a prophet from another religion (that is Abrahamic nonetheless) in divine lights. However, 1911's Inferno stands as one of the very few films that has ever depicted Muhammad, which, as most will know, is prohibited by certain hadiths (supplements to the Quran) and so is a highly controversial act.

The final point that we will make on Cabiria and its politics concerns what we now call the Nazi, or Hitler, Salute. We see this gesture throughout Cabiria:



This gesture had no affiliation at all with Nazis in 1914 as the Nazi party was not born until 1918 and would not be using the salute until 1923. However, the salute, in 1914, was still heavily linked to nationalistic views of the Roman Empire - which, as most will know, were adopted by the Nazis. Interestingly, however, there is no evidence for the Roman Salute being an actual Roman custom as there are no depictions of it in paintings or texts from those times. The earliest depiction of the Roman Salute is thought to have come from the 18th century and the neoclassical 1784 painting, Oath of the Horatii:


This salute would have likely been turned into a nationalist symbol as it was integrated into popular arts of the 19th and 20th century. Cabiria would have then played a significant part of this as the silent film clearly appears as a nationalist document and was written by a prominent ultra-nationalist war hero and artist who was apart of the Italian Nationalist Association from 1910 to 1923, Gabriele D'Annunzio. D'Annunzio's work as political figure is seen as a precursor to Fascism and as inspiration to Mussolini and Hitler despite D'Annunzio disagreeing and coming into ideological conflict with both of these figures. So, among other things that Cabiria is seen to have played a role in pioneering, developing and integrating into cultures, is, in an around about way, the nationalist salute. Though, as we touched on earlier, those making this film obviously weren't working for, nor intentionally designing this gesture for, Hitler, or even Mussolini, and their regimes.

Moving away from politics, let us touch on the film's technical achievements - which, arguably, had the biggest impact on the world. Cabiria pioneered, as they came to be called for many years after 1914, the 'Cabira shot' or 'Cabiria movement': the tracking shot. Now, we know from many posts ago in the Every Year series that camera movement isn't new in 1914 - not at all. Far back in 1896 we saw some of the first camera movement from Lumière operators such as Promio:


With various camera movements pre-dating even the dissolve, it would be a huge blunder to suggest that Cabiria invented the tracking shot. Cabiria rather adapted the kind of camera movement you have just seen. The camera movement displayed in this short is a way for a space to be explored and an impression of perspective to be projected; Promio is showing us what you would see from, and what it would be like to be on, a boat travelling down the Canal Grande in Venice. Other kinds of camera movements that we would see in trick films were just spectacle, but the likes of Zecca would integrate spectacle into film language in a shot you will see at the 3:10 mark:


With the drunk figure climbing up the face of a building and the camera tracking his movement, we are seeing a difficult transition between spaces - a street and a roof - managed in one of the most impressive ways. This is from a 1905 film. And take a minute to look at a shot from a 1912 film by Segundo de Chomón. Jump to 1:10...


In this spectacular shot, we see camera movement used solely as filmic language; it shows that we are moving into a character's imagination. Unfortunately, Cabiria doesn't feature shots that are as sophisticated as this one from Chomón, nor does Cabiria really capture shots as impressive as that from the 1905 film by Zecca, nor, for example, that in the final episode of Fantômas, also made in 1914:







The vast majority of shots in Cabiria either reveal parts of the set, follow characters or simply give the film energy. So, when we say 'Cabiria shot' or 'Cabiria movement', we are often talking about impressive movement that endows a scene with a sense of the colossal and the dynamically cinematic. The camera movement in Cabiria then does do something unique, and that is build a fluid cinematic space across an entire narrative. If we consider all of the examples of camera movement that we have so far seen, we are only seeing small moments in longer films--or short films built around one moving shot. If you watch Cabiria for 3 or 4 minutes you are almost guaranteed to notice camera movement combined with rather brisk editing; it is apart of the film's style, and that is something new.

Other technical achievements of Cabira concern its lighting that illuminates the massive sets, its special effects, models and even a few snippets of surreal or abstract montage. These techniques are all encapsulated by the iconic Moloch sequence that would be referenced by Lang in his 1927 masterpiece, Metropolis.







Little needs to be said about this sequence, but, even with still images, it is clear that there is huge experimentation going on inside of a film of impossible scale and incredibly rich detail. Let it be noted that, whilst the scale of the film remains consistent, the experimentation does not. Nonetheless, this sequence is a spectacular example of Pastrone at his best.

The final topic that we shall touch on in regards to Cabiria is its story and characters. Starting with story, though Cabiria's narrative is a little confusing at times, it is intricately complex and multilayered. Split into 5 episodes, Cabiria interweaves a plethora of character journeys and plots into one huge movement through many years that recounts the disposition of a Roman princess from her home in Sicily and into slavery, from which she is eventually rescued from by a Roman nobleman and his slave, Maciste. And it is in fact Maciste that is, arguably, the most iconic element of Cabiria as he became an archetypal 'strong man' of Italian cinema.


Bartolomeo Pagano, who played Maciste, was discovered in Genoa (North-West coast of Italy). He was a stevedore, a manual labourer at a dock, with an impressive physique that would go on to capture audiences' imagination, become a star over night, assume the name Maciste as his stage identity and continue to play the character for 14 years after Cabiria's release. Maciste thus became an icon of Italian cinema, and some even suggest that his image was one with ties to nationalism as it promoted the Italian man as powerful and superior to other races. Whilst evidence for this can be seen in other Maciste films, in Cabiria, this claim is not so clear as Maciste is depicted as a heroic dark-skinned slave. This, however, raises the problem of black face and in turn racism.

There is so much more that could be said about Cabiria, about its different cuts, its huge budget - a significant portion of which was given to D'Annunzio, who wrote the intertitles, but only played a small role in the production and so was probably paid so much just so his name would go on the poster - the elephants that are put up mountains, its affiliation with Film D'Art, etc. However, I will leave things as such and you with the film itself.


To bring things towards a close, I'd have to say that I hope this rather long post (with many really long videos embedded into it) provides a satisfactory overview of epic Italian cinema. This is a cinema that really pushed the bounds of what cinema could achieve by spearheading, and even transcending, the Film D'Art movement and developing a new mode of narrative expression by integrating developing film language into cinematic spectacle. If you'd like to know more about this period of filmmaking, there are numerous resources online, including a large pool of films from this time. I also found chapters of the books Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present by Bondanella, The History of Italian Cinema by Brunetta and Cinema & Fascism: Italian Film and Society, 1922-1943 by Ricci incredibly helpful, so, if you can, pick those up and give them a read.

We shall likely be returning to Italian cinema soon in the series, so also keep in mind that there is much more from the Italian silent era than what we've covered today. That said, thanks for reading and keep an eye out for the next post in the series.

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