21/06/2018

The Nights Of Cabiria - Tragedy: Italian Neorealism vs. Aristotle

Thoughts On: Aristotle's Poetics, Tragedy & The Nights of Cabiria (Le Notti di Cabiria, 1957)


For the Italian spot in the series, we will look at an example of Neorealist film and its tragic composition.


The following is a passage from Aristotle's Poetics as translated by Malcolm Heath:

     The construction of the best tragedy should be complex rather than simple; and it should also be an imitation of events that evoke fear and pity, since that is the distinctive feature of this kind of imitation. So it is clear first of all that decent men should not be seen undergoing a change from good fortune to bad fortune - this does not evoke fear or pity, but disgust. Nor should depraved people be seen undergoing a change from bad fortune to good fortune - this is the least tragic of all: it has none of the right effects, since it is neither agreeable, nor does it evoke pity or fear. Nor again should a very wicked person fall from good fortune to bad fortune - that kind of structure would be agreeable, but would not excite pity or fear, since the one has to do with someone who is suffering undeservedly, the other with someone who is like ourselves (I mean, pity has to do with the undeserving sufferer, fear with the person like us); so what happens will evoke pity nor fear.
     We are left, therefore, with the person intermediate between these. This is the sort of person who is not outstanding in moral excellence or justice; on the other hand, the change to bad fortune which he undergoes is not due to any moral defect or depravity, but to an error (hamartia) of some kind.

Poetics is Aristotle's incomplete notes on Greek theatre - or, as he refers to it, poetry. It was never meant to be published, instead it was possibly only meant to be read by his students or colleges. As a result, this work, whilst it has become one of the most central and influential documents of dramatic theory since around the 16th century, remained unknown in the West for centuries after it was written. Poetics' primary goal is to classify and describe the best kinds of plays. It discuses three genres of poetry: epic, tragic and comedic. However, a substantial discussion of comedy is missing from the incomplete documents that have survived. Aristotle then primarily discusses tragedy, attempting to argue for it being superior to epic (historical) poetry as well as describe some of the best kinds of tragedy.

There are two fundamental positions that Aristotle takes in his classification of tragedy and poetry more generally; the first is that poetry is an act of imitation, and secondly, that plot is what matters most in the tragedy. These two deductions are central to every other element of his dramatic theory, and so are the roots of all that is insightful and questionable within Poetics.

To begin questioning Aristotle's theory of imitation, it must first be outlined. For art to be imitative, or rather, mimetic, implies that it must simulate reality; it must reflect life. Aristotle is careful in this assertion with emphasis on the fact that 'the function of the poet is not to say what has happened, but to say the kind of thing that would happen, i.e. what is possible in accordance with probability or necessity'. This means that Aristotle believes that the arts do not just replicate reality, but can replicate a version of reality based on probability. Therefore, art can depict monsters, demons and gods, but should do so in a way that is probable; a story should show what would happen if monsters, demons and gods existed; there should always be a basis in reality.

Whilst I, too, believe that art is mimetic, I perceive Aristotle's definition as particularly lacking. Whilst art may imitate life as it would be, reality is only part of the package of life. Reality is the ground we perceive as beneath our feet as we walk. I do not deny the existence of a reality, but I also do not accept that reality is all the mind perceives. Forces of the unconscious mind are immersed in fantasy and the impossible as linked to, but nonetheless abstract from, reality. In such, reality is like the present. The present is what we are trapped in, but it is fleeting and intangible; reality, too, is what we are trapped in, but it is equally intangible and unknowable. The present as preserved by the past is our understanding of reality; reality is history, as accurate and truthful as history can be. However, there, too, is the future; this is the unknown. If the present is reality, then there is the unreal that is waiting to become real, that is waiting to become the present, in the future. In waiting to become present, in remaining in the future, the reality that is not yet here has more potential that what the true reality of the present would allow. Thus, the future is more than the present; the imagining of possibility more than reality. As a result, whilst there remains a link between reality and unreality that is highly akin to present and future, there is a discriminating line. Therefore, in life, in human perception, we consider there to be more than reality; there is the imagination, faith, belief, the unknown, the unconscious and potential. Art can imitate, not just the present, or a version of the present (which mixes reality and unreality), but can fabricate an unreality. This unreality is connected to reality as this is where it emerges from, but there is a simultaneous disconnect. The disconnect that distinguishes reality from unreality is the concept of the unknowable. We represent the unknowable in solid form through art as the transcendentally truthful, as monsters, demons and gods. In this way, art can imitate, not just reality, nor just a probably reality, but a transcendent reality (which can be termed an unreality, the supra-real or the surreal).

Aristotle makes no account of the transcendent reality in Poetics, therefore, his conception of mimesis is confined to reality and versions of reality, not visions of the supra-real. This, I believe, is embedded in his reasoning for poetry's existence. This reasoning is not at all present in Poetics, but Malcolm Heath makes an argument for the reasoning underlying all of Poetics with reference to Aristotle's Metaphysics: 'All human beings by nature desire knowledge'. Heath, using this quote, posits that Aristotle believes that poetry is mimetic because it is a mechanism through which we can gain knowledge (and such is one of our great pleasures): 'Aristotle's contention, then, is that human beings are by nature prone to engage in the creation of likeness, and to respond to likeness with pleasure, and he [Aristotle] explains this instinct with reference to their innate desire for knowledge'. However, the reduction that Aristotle makes provides an incomplete answer. He presents a theory of mimesis that assumes that the knowledge humans desire is of reality. This, in my belief, is incorrect. We so often seek to gain knowledge of a transcendent reality and truths. The transcendent reasoning and knowledge we always desire is beyond science and is found in the meaning we simultaneously assign to, and find in, our actions. Stories represent the transcendent, always, with their meaning and reasoning; reasoning is not just an element of characterisation, as is suggested in Poetics. Aristotle, at many points, comes to the cusp of discussing the meaning of tragedy, but never does. There is then a great deal missing from Poetics, as everything is reduced to plot and never meaning; what matters most is that a poet constructs a plot, not that he constructs meaning to Aristotle. And whilst there is no strict reason given for Aristotle's reduction, it seems to be connected to 'universiality'.

Plot, to Aristotle, is the means of creating the universal and 'the universal is the kind of speech or action which is constant with a person of a given kind in accordance with probability or necessity; this is what poetry aims at'. Such a definition implies that the universal is the universal truth as perceivable in reality, or at least in connection to it. Alas, as we have discussed, truth is not only found in reality, but also in the supra-real. Because Aristotle shows no representation of meaning outside of reality, we cannot assume that his conception of the universal is logical. Because the universe is all that can be known, it intrinsically is all that we do not know but may assume - the same is true of the universal. Thus, the universal truth is not a truth of reality, but a truth that exists above reality. Universal truths are presented by mythology and stories of various forms. These stories do not just show what is real, but assume that the intangible is real. The most fundamental assumption that stories so often make (or instead test) is that there is reason and meaning. Reason and meaning are not provided by reality, we assume they are given by what transcends reality and looks over it - we so often call this entity a god. A god, in such a sense, speaks in universals and of universal truth; for this, a god is transcendent, not real. We must therefore emphasise that meaning is not strictly real, it is supra-real. And plot, ultimately, does not embody the universal; it is a pattern of events and thus is indicative of the universal that underlies a pattern, but this is as close as it comes. Instead, theme embodies the universal as theme is a net of meaning; it is what dictates a universal pattern - or rather, the plot.

The blunder Aristotle makes in centralising plot above all is that, what is central to art should give reason for its existence; plot gives no reason for creating art - theme, narrative message, symbolism and semiosis more generally do. The logic I follow is simple: everything we do is connected to reason and imbued with meaning. Art is a manifestation of this reason and meaning, and it also represents it through mimetic content. This reason and meaning might not be conscious in the mind of a person or artist, but it can always be found. This reason and meaning may also reveal itself to be petty and in turn imply that maybe we should change the way we act, but, again, it can always be found. To construct an example, pleasure can be meaningful, but, in many cases, it is far from the most meaningful thing we should be seeking with our actions; whilst there is meaning in eating junk food and staying on social media for hours on end (it feels good) feeling good rarely provides the most meaning, hence, junk food and social media aren't seen to be unfathomably meaningful. If there is not proper reason to do something in life, or if we fail to find enough meaning, we will not do it. The only way to do something meaningless is to construct a lie that provides reason to cling to, or to be a fool. And to be a fool is not a comment on intelligence, rather, a note to meaning. A pure fool does not hold any reason at all, and in turn welcomes much suffering, but may provide a pathway towards meaning - either for themselves or others.

Because plot cannot be central to art, creation or poetry for the fact that it does not provide meaning to the process of creating it, theme and a more abstract conception of meaning must be recognised as central. In being central, meaning or semiosis is not always the focus of a story or storyteller, but it will always be encapsulative. That is to say that, even if one does not try to say something of meaning with their art, they will most likely reveal something of meaning (sometimes by embodying the fool). The depth and value of this meaning is always varying, which is why there is good art and bad art, better art and worse art, but meaning always remains.

With both mimesis and plot discussed, we can return to tragedy and characters. Let us then again look at the passage we opened with:

     The construction of the best tragedy should be complex rather than simple; and it should also be an imitation of events that evoke fear and pity, since that is the distinctive feature of this kind of imitation. So it is clear first of all that decent men should not be seen undergoing a change from good fortune to bad fortune - this does not evoke fear or pity, but disgust. Nor should depraved people be seen undergoing a change from bad fortune to good fortune - this is the least tragic of all: it has none of the right effects, since it is neither agreeable, nor does it evoke pity or fear. Nor again should a very wicked person fall from good fortune to bad fortune - that kind of structure would be agreeable, but would not excite pity or fear, since the one has to do with someone who is suffering undeservedly, the other with someone who is like ourselves (I mean, pity has to do with the undeserving sufferer, fear with the person like us); so what happens will evoke pity nor fear.
     We are left, therefore, with the person intermediate between these. This is the sort of person who is not outstanding in moral excellence or justice; on the other hand, the change to bad fortune which he undergoes is not due to any moral defect or depravity, but to an error (hamartia) of some kind.

In this passage, Aristotle makes two major points; one is tied to emotion and the other to character. These two points converge to suggest that tragedy should engage pity and fear, therefore, tragic characters should facilitate the expression and feeling of pity and fear. Aristotle describes this ideal character as not completely good and not entirely bad, but someone intermediate. It is not clear that he means that this character should be equal parts good and bad, however. Rather, it seems most evident that the tragic character should be good; their only flaw is their hamartia.

Hamartia, much like catharsis, is a term in Aristotle's Poetics that is subject to much debate. The general definition of hamartia suggests that it is a character's 'fatal flaw'. Many have argued, however, and Malcolm Heath is one example of a contrarian, that hamartia does not mean fatal flaw, but just an error. The point of argument that is debated concerns blame. If hamartia leads to tragedy, does tragedy come from within a character or is it pressed upon them? This is always a question that good tragedies pose; is fate or is an individual to be blamed. 'Fatal flaw' implies that an individual is to be blamed. Error is a slightly more dexterous term. An error can be your fault, but it can also be accidental - not necessarily a product of personal defect. Because the term 'hamartia' attempts to define why all tragedies happen, attempts to describe the cause of all tragedy, it will always be debated; the reason for a tragedy is never universal and common to all stories.

With that said, we must take a step back and see that it is this error of sorts, the hamartia, that Aristotle perceives to be the only significant mark on a tragic protagonist's character. Heath provides similar analysis with:

Tragedy...is essentially concerned with people who are of high status and of good moral character; there will be peripheral figures (slaves and so forth) of lower status, but they cannot be at the centre of tragedy's interest and should at least be good of their kind; high-status characters in tragedy can be morally bad, but not if they are meant to be a focus for our pity, and only if and to the extent that the plot requires this.

The deduction that Aristotle makes in Poetics concerning character leads to this - what I would consider to be pretty nonsensical. This is folly because the reductions that came before it, those concerning plot and imitation, are themselves faulted. And this is proved folly with modern storytelling.

If we were to turn to cinema, we will find that most modern tragedies are not descendent of Poetics' often ill-logic. The most expressive example of this can be found in Italian Neorealist films of the 40s and 50s. This is a body of cinema that is mimetic in an easily Aristotelian sense - that is to say that it concerns itself with realism and, in turn, reality. However, its characters are never of high status, and whilst they have their virtues, they are often defined by their struggle before their morality or goodness. In fact, the moral make-up of Neorealist characters is almost always ambiguous or secondary to their reactions to tragedy. That is to say that their reasoning is not embedded in their consciousness - these characters very rarely find themselves able to decide, they're so often just trying to survive. Instead, decision comes after action, and so, too often too late. Morality is acted out unconsciously, if one can even describe unconscious action as particularly concerned with morality. And such is the aim of Neorealist narratives; they use tragedy to push characters into a predicament in which they cannot decide, in which their morality is not first and foremost questioned. As a result, Neorealist characters rarely resemble classical Greek characters such as Oedipus or Prometheus. Rather, Neorealist characters, unsurprisingly considering their emergence from Italy, are Christ-like; they suffer for the sake of meaning - in search of it, or in spite of it.

In describing Euripides as similar to Thomas Hardy, Philip Vellacott says the following:

They [Euripides and Hardy] posses the same heroic perception, which they exemplify in simple and modest characters, that man's - and still more woman's - highest genius lies in suffering rather than in action; and that the beauty of pain nobly borne outweighs the deformity of a soulless world.

What Vellacott emphasises here is tragedians' common focus on a world that is possibly soulless, that is without meaning and reason, but nonetheless makes us suffer. He supposes here that tragedians, for example, Euripides and Hardy, use modest characters who suffer to find meaning themselves and to question meaning's place in the world. Hardy, for example, uses Tess in Tess of the D'Urbevilles to see a woman suffer at the whims of the men around her and fate above her before reacting in search of blood and then quickly being killed herself. With his novel, Hardy asks why Tess has to suffer, and has his audience question if she deserved to be killed; he seeks to know why and where reason is. (I am obliged to note, however, that I do not think that Hardy's questioning is particularly meaningful or complex). Euripides constructs a similar story to Hardy in Iphigenia in Aulis, a story that sees a daughter have to suffer for her father's, the king's, mistakes. Both stories are brought into resonance because they want to know why; they want to find the beauty, an expression of meaning, in the process of a person experiencing tragedy - in the process of suffering. This is a highly Judeo-Christian concern, it is also the concern of ascetic philosophy as it manifests in Hinduism and Buddhism. One may be even see this in older sets of mythology. For the Greeks, suffering was constant; the gods capricious, malicious and vain. Alas, there was meaning - Prometheus stole the fire from Olympus and has his liver eaten every day with reason. For the Norse, too, the gods were arrogant, but over them hung Ragnarok, and thus they always suffered. The Norse gods found meaning in fending off the inevitable, attempting to act properly as to keep Ragnarok at bay, but they were always pained by fear of fault.

The Neorealists come from this tradition that embodies a philosophy of meaningful suffering. One finds a prime example in Fellini's The Nights of Cabiria. This is a narrative that depicts a prostitute that essentially plays a fools' fool, always the butt of a joke and a parody of herself. The tragedy in the narrative is that she cannot be someone she wants to be; this is her hamartia, and the narrative's question asks if it is her fault that she cannot transform, or if it is the oppression of others. For example, the key motif of the film is the prostitute, who names herself Cabiria, falling in love before being robbed. Cabiria's only yearning is to fall in love, thus, she envisions herself as a princess who has been stolen away from her fortune and loving home - very much so like the Cabiria of Giovanni Pastrone's 1914 epic. Her real name, however, is Maria, which is a likely allusion to the Madonna (Mary, Mother of God), who is also featured in the film. What we see juxtaposed in our central prostitute are two females who suffer. The prostitute identifies with she who suffers unduly and is returned to prosperity, Cabiria, as opposed to she who is known for her grace in face of tragedy, Mary; she who embodies the universal nature, she who encompasses god, yet sees his words come into conflict and his body come to harm within her embrace (see Michelangelo's Pieta:)


In identifying with Cabiria, the prostitute shows that her hamartia is embedded in her naivety; her hope for fortune, to be returned to a throne, to be young again, to find love. Her hamartia, therefore, is her inability to imitate the Madonna. Alas, whilst this is her greatest internal conflict, her fatal flaw is a conflation of her naivety and her environment; the fact that, because she is innocent, she becomes a target.

The tragedy of The Nights Of Cabiria is the same tragedy seen in Tess of the D'Urbervilles; it is the tragedy of the innocent and naive not only suffering, but being a target for tragedy. This kind of tragedy has Jungian and mythological roots. We see this tragedy played out in the Rape of Persephone, which is possible the archetypal representation of this story.


As we have discussed previously in more detail, the Rape of Persephone is a story of purity without a shadow. As Jung has implied when discussing the 'Psychological Aspects of the Mother Archetype', Persephone disavowed her shadow and identified with her mother, overdeveloping her Eros. In short, she refused to develop a personality beyond the perfect image of her superwoman mother. Without any recognition of a shadow or self, Persephone chooses to remain vulnerable and innocent under the pretence that such are virtues. To a degree, the prostitute of Fellini's narrative is Persephone. Though she has no mother and is familiar with a shadow existence as a prostitute, she clings to innocence and purity, and therefore calls Hades (who is also called Pluto) to snatch her away.

Fellini deviates from a classical telling of the Persephonic tragedy by not having his character killed (as Hardy does) or entirely consumed by shadow in any other manner. There is instead an implication that Cabiria accepts her shadow and becomes a fool. This would conflate the ending of both 8 1/2 and La Strada. In 8 1/2, foolhardiness is shown to be a virtue, and life a party. In the end of La Strada, foolhardiness wears away and gives out to death. In The Nights of Cabiria, there is a mediation between death and life; between our character breaking down and having a party. There is a sense of hope, however, and so The Nights of Cabiria leans towards Fellini's more optimistic, 8 1/2 side. Alas, the meaning of the film is found in a moment of beauty, a glimmer of resolve we catch in Cabiria's eyes as she looks at us, walking away from a fool's tragedy. Cabiria becomes Mary in this moment, she becomes the Madonna, embracing tragedy, nature, arms full of the struggling words of God.

And so let us step away and ask: What does Aristotle have to say for this? The truth is, he says very little. He does not describe the character of Cabiria very well at all, she is not of particularly good moral standing and she is not of a high status, nor the tragedy of her narrative, it is not at all plot-centric, rather, thematically rooted, bound to the idea of the Madonna. One would, I believe, find it quite difficult to convincingly apply Aristotle's Poetics any Neorealist film. Aristotle identifies the emotions that motivate Neorealist narratives like that of The Nights of Cabiria, but he does not do well to provide a justification for emotions such as pity and fear. In truth, pity and fear are emotional manifestations of a pull and push present in all narratives. All narratives push or pull us with their mimetic likeness; they show us something familiar, and in doing so, see us alienated from or identifying with the narrative. Pity, in tragedy, is a pull as we recognise ourselves in main characters. Fear is a push because we also find familiar their downfall and so not wish it for ourselves. Alas, through these emotions comes not just the knowledge of how one may fall to their hamartia; rather, what comes through the emotion is the meaning encased in beauty.

This meaning is more than knowledge, it is motivation for the soul one could say. Knowledge without meaning has no such motivation. We see meaning in The Nights of Cabiria in watching Cabiria imitate the Madonna, become Maria, learn, through tragedy and pain, how to do so. Fellini ultimately provides to us, not the knowledge of how to do this ourselves, but the meaning of why someone would do this at all. Fellini then proves Aristotle wrong in so many ways. One can only mourn the fact that Aristotle never knew of Fellini. But, in face of this, it proves necessary to re-think what Aristotle says in Poetics with narratives that he did not have access to.

To bring things towards a close, I feel there is much more discussion to be had on the topic of tragedy, Italian Neorealism and Aristotle's Poetics. What I mean to emphasise first and foremost here is the crucial lack of a focus on meaning in Poetics, and how this is centralised by the Neorealist film. The Neorealist film, in my view, is not made atypically tragic for this. Rather, it is just one manifestation of the tragedy that indicates the ways in which Aristotle's description of tragedy has always been lacking. Alas, I will leave this topic open for discussion. What are your thoughts on Neorealist film, tragedies and Poetics?

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Hereditary - Psycho-Symbolic Horror

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20/06/2018

Hereditary - Psycho-Symbolic Horror

Quick Thoughts: Hereditary (2018)

Tragedy and death haunt a family collapsing under the shadow of their own torment.


I was somewhat worried when gong into this film because of its acclaim and the manner in which it has so far been acclaimed. Reading things such as "This Generations' The Exorcist" triggered alarms in my head that horror movie reviewers usually trigger; as pretentious as this alarm is, it rings "these people don't know what they're talking about". And, not to pat myself on the back, but... I was right.

Hereditary is nothing like The Exorcist; it isn't even trying to scare you in the same way and has no real thematic or technical links. With only a little body horror, this relies mostly on tragedy and elements of supernatural horror to create symbolic and psychological terror. As a result, one of the most accurate comparisons that can be made would be between Hereditary and The Babadook, as this falls into the genre of psychological-but-not horror (which is typified in my eyes by Polanski's masterpiece, Repulsion). The psychological-but-not horror terrifies by going into the mind of its characters and by pulling terror out of the audience's mind; it uses psychological expressionism and surrealism to access the petrifying depths of characters' minds alongside symbolism and archetypes that release our own unconscious demons and have them dance before us.

The Babadook's psychological horror is found in the fact that it is about a mother and son dealing with the loss of their husband/father. Terrifying imagery then manifests on the screen and motivates all drama because of its psychological basis - which is to say that everything which occurs has a direct link to the impact that the husband/father's death has on the mother and son. The horror of the Babadook embodies the psychology of character and reaches out to the audience with symbolism. The most direct and central symbol of the film is the Babadook itself - which is an embodiment of the monster that the father has become in the minds of the family he left behind. The Babadook is itself an onomatopoeia that signifies the car crash that killed the father: the BA-BA-DOOK of the car flipping over, yet also the BA-BA-DOOK of the tragedy knocking on the door of the bereaved family's home. It is because we unconsciously recognise this manifest shadow of the mother and son's unconscious mind that we are terrified by it. And thus our psychology is linked to the characters', and what we can call psycho-symbolic (rather than psychological-but-not) horror arises.

I use the example of The Babadook to imply the way in which Hereditary should be approached. This is not a body horror, rather, a psycho-symbolic horror. To come to grips with the film, one must then pay attention to the drama that the psychology of characters is constructing, and how this is symbolised on screen in terms of horror and monsters.

My closing notes are only going to be a firm recommendation to see this film. It is a brilliant horror movie - the class of my favourite kind - that I was so pleased to see take many risks and secure an ending as open and expressive as it did. I will certainly be re-watching and talking more about this in the future. For now, I will say no more.







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Modern Times/Playtime - Chaos In Modernity

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The Nights Of Cabiria - Tragedy: Italian Neorealism vs. Aristotle

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18/06/2018

Modern Times/Playtime - Chaos In Modernity

Thoughts On: Modern Times (1936) & Playtime (1967)

A look at two comedies that deal with the modern world and its new order as chaotic for the lost individual.


If anyone watches Jacques Tati's 1967 masterclass in world building, Playtime, for the first 45 minutes, they will be feeling lost in a Kafkaesque world of bureaucracy, of stifling modernity, suffocating consumerism and dehumanising capitalism. Tati's use of humour and the blundering fool archetype is then likely to veer a viewer towards thoughts of Charlie Chaplin and Modern Times all too easily. However, there is fault in this, for there is a very simple, but incredibly significant difference between how Chaplin and Tati close their narratives which entirely transforms their initial commentary on their modern worlds.

The initial commentary of both Modern Times and Playtime is captured by each film's respectively iconic shot:


From Modern Times, we have the Tramp caught in the cogs of the machinery, having gone deranged. The metaphor here is all too literal; the Tramp has been integrating into a mechanised system to the point that he lost his personal sense of morality, ethic and sensibility, taken over by conditioned impulse, in a system that does not understand his humanity - nor does it care to. This image emerges from the Great Depression era in the U.S, after the initial shock of modernity and industrialisation had pretty much entirely settled in society. This image and scene more generally takes a step into what would have been the norm, literal falling into the belly of the beast that is the industrialised world in crisis, to see an average man fall prey to a system that he cannot come to grips with, which is consistently taking him on a perilous ride through tragedy and luck that he cannot control.

Tati's iconic image has its similarities, but also its differences:


Here again we see order presenting itself as chaos with a lost man unable to come to grips with the machine that he is in. Far more modern than Chaplin's film in respect to us in the present day, order is presented here as faceless and purposeless. Whilst a cog has no face to speak of, one could argue that it has some character. And whilst a cog is just a small part of a larger system, its purpose is obvious; it spins so that the cogs connected to it can spin respectively. In Tati's world, there are no cogs, there are no faces, no character, and there is no explicit purpose. Looking down at the cubicles here, we do not know what is happening. In Modern Times, we never get to know what the machines that the Tramp falls into produces, but at least we see it making something. In Playtime, we don't even see production - we see order without purpose - and so there is nothing that our character can fall into. When he descends, he is lost in a world of reflections and glass; we never get to know why he even entered this building - we knew why Chaplin was at work. So, the concept of consumerism, work and capitol isn't as present in Tati's Playtime. Rather, this is about navigation in a system, about trying to find a good time and, quite possibly, reason and purpose itself in a foreign land. This, it seems to me, is why the above image is the most expressive, is the iconic shot. It shows a man trying to come to terms with the modern world, to see it from above with intentions of descending into it with purpose, direction and reason. Modern man is then shown to have learnt something since 1936. His power to act in the world, however, isn't shown to have developed much.

With just this basic analysis, one can tell that Playtime is a more complicated and layered film than Chaplin's Modern Times. Modern Times has more character, however. It uses to character, in turn romance, to bestow the narrative purpose. It is then through the Tramp falling in love with an orphan that he finds direction, a job and a goal to strive towards. The world is still chaotic, a battalion of archers still slinging luck and tragedy at him from a distant fog, but reason manifests from within thanks to romance. Thus we come towards the narrative's close: the Tramp and orphan marching into the distance...


The resolution Chaplin provides is entirely based in the characters and romance he develops over the course of the narrative. The world beneath his figures' feet is not shown to have changed, rather it is those walking that have. They have found strength and reason, have fought for it, and so are willing to face whatever the world has to throw at them. And such, I believe, is the most powerful element of Chaplin's film; it believes in a dichotomy of reason (which manifests as romance, commitment, happiness, adventure, friendship and love) and strength being the cure for all modern struggles. In essence: the world sucks, but we have our potential and we have each other.

Tati's ending is very different. In fact, it is so different that it cannot be reduced to an image, or even a few. To attempt a description, Playtime concludes after a disaster of an opening night for a restaurant in which the facilities are not properly constructed and the staff don't know what they're doing. Though the night is full of chaos and things going wrong, the patrons almost all have a great time, getting drunk, meeting people, dancing, singing, playing music, etc. The crowd, which includes our lost fool, eventually spills out onto the streets of Paris. The fool, Mr. Hulot, has found a friend in a tourist who is seemingly trying to find and experience the 'real Paris' (the classic vision of Paris that is entirely divorced from Tati's modern presentation). It is early in the morning, and Paris is coming to life. Mr. Hulot wants to help the tourist get a photo, and he does. This is in fact the only thing he is shown to be semi-successful at during the film: assisting others. We assume, that from this assistance will come romance as in Modern Times, but no such thing occurs. Mr. Hulot attempts to buy the tourist a gift to remember Paris, a more romantic vision of it, just before she leaves on her departing bus. However, he is stopped by bureaucracy for not going the right way to exit the shop. He then has to give the gift to a stranger who passes it on to the oblivious tourist as she boards the bus. As she leaves with her gift at hand, she sees Paris for the second time, during a new day, and she begins to see the beauty in all the chaotic order; all the small details of character and life. These details do not appear absurd as other details spotted throughout the film are (moments like works' movements seeming like a choreographed dance), but have a hint of natural levity to them that has the tourist leave the new Paris that they didn't come to see with a vision that they understand to a degree.

This final scene really pulls out the differences between Modern Times and Playtime. Put simply: Tati's world undergoes a transformation where Chaplin's does not. This transformation in Playtime is connected to character; it shows how a foreigner's eyes can be opened to what is new; they can see humanity, they can see the music of order as opposed to its droning, meaninglessly productive hum. This vision of the world centralises alienation to not necessarily criticise it (though, there is critique given), but to show a simple disconnect between he or she who is foreign to the system and the ominous system itself. Unlike Chaplin's film, there is an implication that coming to terms with the system will not see you lost in a set of cogs, inhuman and deranged, but part of a system's music. So, whilst there is a commentary on the chaos of the modern world that is found in its order, and whilst there is a yearning for beauty that isn't entirely fulfilled, the main statement made by Playtime concerns positive normalisation.

If one looks at the extended restaurant scene in which nothing for the employees goes well, we see that it is because the restaurant is new and has just opened that there is this fault. Nonetheless, the patrons have a good time. This is, in part, thanks to the fact that the restaurant is in uproar, but it is mainly despite this fact; hence, the blundering foreigner - whether is be the foolish Mr. Hulot or the new restaurant on opening night - is shown to manifest chaos in a system themselves instead of having it pressed upon them. It is then in not understanding the system that they make trouble for themselves. We see this with Mr. Hulot in particular. It is because he is so taken aback by the modern building that he enters in the beginning of the film that the whole narrative proceeds as it does. He doesn't wait where he is told to, he doesn't do as the system requires, hence, he is lost and the system can never properly serve him. This is a negative for him, but, with trust in people and in serving them, Mr. Hulot finds his way through to a good day. So, it is not necessarily bad to inject what is foreign into the system. Some chaos may emerge, and whilst this won't make things easier, it might just make the day brighter.

The resolution of Playtime is then a marked movement away from chaos and towards order, though never is there a rest at either polarity. It is in crossing the boundary between chaos and order, in dancing on the line, that beauty, purpose and joy is found, that the system and the individual find harmony and resonance. So, unlike Chaplin's view of the modern world, Tati's is seemingly positive. He believes in people and the system; both have their faults, but they can work together to not just produce, but to produce something of meaning and substance. In the end, I then believe that Tati's narrative is a little more sophisticated because it recognises how both the system and individual can harmonise. Chaplin's narrative assumes that the world may not change, but can still be confronted. These two viewpoints are valid and have their applications. For instance, Modern Times far better suites America in the Great Depression than Playtime would. The Great Depression was a time of great uncertainty and tragedy. To suggest that individuals should attempt to confront the world as an army who bear chaos and luck at arms fits such a context. Arguably, a statement towards embodying a fool, a foreigner, and trusting in oneself and the system doesn't work as well. Playtime's assertions are better suited towards a France that is undergoing a cultural shock. This shock was a new wave of industrialisation that was very much so perceived as American in the late 60s and 70s. And so it was after WWII and through the late 60s that France saw a significant change in its national image as a nation that was trying to build itself up despite political turmoil, the dissolution of their empire and the decline of the Parisian iconography. So, no longer was France really seen to be the cultural centre of world in the late 60s. America was clearly taking over as a cultural power, and it is arguably America that Tati presents with his architecture of modern Paris as a landscape of glass skyscrapers. Alas, it is France that emerges from America, character and humanity that emerges from modernity, true culture that emerges from commerce, over the course of the narrative. And so the harmonisation of the individual and the system indicates that a positive future for France comes from an acceptance of change, of adaptation, yet also a few sprinklings of chaos amongst order, of the old person as the new, as the foreigner, experiencing the new land as the norm.

To conclude, I will only again emphasise that Modern Times and Playtime may seen like very similar films, but are, upon analysis, incredibly different in their aims and social commentary. So, I will now leave things with you. Have you seen both films? What are your thoughts on either of them?







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End Of The Week Shorts #62

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17/06/2018

End Of The Week Shorts #62



Today's shorts: Oasis (2002), Amélie (2001), A Short Film About Killing (1988), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), It (2017), Dumbo (1941), Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel (2009), Dangal (2016)



'Challenging' would be the wrong word to precisely describe Lee Chang-dong's Oasis, but 'challenging' is all I am able to muster.

To come to terms with this narrative - one that follows a mentally disabled man and a woman with cerebral palsy who fall in love - I found it best to think in terms of time and time alone, for it is time that is extended almost exhaustively over the 130+ minute run-time, and time that impresisonistically gives us a sense of what it means to be in the various given situations; to watch without the ability to effect, to feel without being able to speak, to see without clarity and to perceive without understanding. It is through the almost unbearable extension of time that Chang-dong shows what is real without subjective certainty ever being allowed to be asserted - either by himself or the audience. What, then, is the moral of this tale? My only answer: to wait.



Amélie has been a true personal favourite and has sat closest to my core for about 4 years now. Throughout each of my re-watches over the past year or so, I've been trying to figure out why, and today, whilst I feel that the narrative isn't as close as it once was, I'm growing more confident in my reasoning for why I like this movie.

I won't put down a personal biography, but, suffice to say that Amélie is a movie about having developed a sphere around oneself that acts as a protective seal, yet is beginning to suffocate. In recognition of the fact that what has been cultivated through the strengthening of character has shut too many people out, kept them at a distance too far, Amélie tasks herself by opening up her personal sphere and introducing into it someone like herself. Whilst this is then a very simple story of opening up, through my eyes it is an encapsulation of far more than can be uttered.



A Short Film About Killing sees Kieślowski focus on his cornerstone technique of abstract narrative juxtaposition. In such, he contrasts birth with death, a start with an end, law and murder and innocence and evil. Unfortunately, however, I just didn't feel anything of much note emerge from his somewhat stale and simplistic juxtapositions. As a result, nothing jumped out and grabbed, nor drew me into this narrative. The characters weren't intriguing, the thematic choices don't produce particularly riveting drama, and so this is left a rather procedural set of events with hints of contemplation splattered along.

Having only seen this once, I don't want to judge it too harshly, but, unlike Kieślowski's other works, films such as Three Colours: Red, this just hasn't spoken to me.



I suppose the highest praise one can put on upon this film is also the deepest cut one can slice into it. That is then to point at the exuberant and unending Englishness that drives this film and makes it so famous. To critique The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, one is pretty much criticising England and its upper class limb in the army as it was between the late 19th century and the mid 20th century; whilst it has a facade of decorum, of elegance, of honour and that particularly English mix of charm and pigheadedness, this facade entirely masks far less honourable and elegant realities of war and imperialism. And, in being English to its core, this is what The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is; it is sentimental and romantic to a fault, using satire to loosely allude to the darker side of the world wars, the battles in the empire and the people who pervaded over them, but says and does nothing of substance in face of this. As a result, there is entertainment to be found here and novelty--maybe depth--in the encapsulation of Englishness, but nonetheless an unambiguous lack of self-reflection.



Intensely brilliant. I still believe that It is one of the very best modern horror films.

Too ambiguous to pin down precisely, It is about the nature of secrets. The clown archetype embodies all that this film is about; the clown has a facade of joy and happiness, but all too easily is this seen through. What is horrifying about the clown is not the make-up, nor is it the man underneath it, it is the illusion that resides between the make-up and the man, the lie and the truth; the failing secret. Such characterises a break from childhood: suddenly our eyes start to see what adults have hidden from us, and it can be terrifying.

There is more to this story, but suffice to say that it is masterfully told, making this far more than a horror movie. This might just be a personal favourite.



I've seen it a trillion times, but it gets no worse. On each re-watch, I'm still taken aback by the profound charm and moral fibre of this narrative, its ability to use music and emotion, less complex animation, to reach out and take hold of its viewer. Whilst you could put this down to this being a relatively cheap production for Disney that would follow the box-office bomb that was Fantasia, I believe Dumbo's greatest asset is its simplicity: the brevity of the tale, the focus on one character in one moment who is isolated by all (narratively and aesthetically). One only needs to look at the backgrounds and minor characters to realise how a lack of detail focuses the story's eye onto the main character. But, even within such a simple tale, Disney were still willing to take a huge risk with the drunk dream sequence - one of the best sequences Disney has ever created.

In the end, watching this makes me even more downhearted that Disney is going to add this to the list of their live-action remakes. Some may say the live-action film is cute or whatever, but I doubt it will have the simplicity, poignancy or true moral purity of the original.



... some films make me question why I like cinema so much.

I was trapped in a room with this on loop for around 4 hours. Luckily, I couldn't see the screen and was busy, but, I could hear the movie pretty well, and it didn't make my day much better. I instantly recognised this trash as I am unfortunately incredibly familiar with it because of younger siblings. It can be hard to talk down on this for the pure fact that it is aiming to be childish nonsense. And so whilst I see no real virtue in a movie trying to be for kids and turning out... like this, I find it hard to get angry. Suffice to say though that the embarrassment that the filmmakers creating and editing this should have been feeling was transposed onto me in the narratives most cliched, loud and ludicrous moments. So, I suppose all I can is: thanks.



A re-watch today confirms that this is a brilliant movie and colossal force of entertainment.

The meaning of the narrative is not subtle; it is pretty much on the poster. However, despite its arguably predictable nature, this hits every single one of its beats brilliantly with almost every action sequence flowing smoothly into the narrative, never calling attention to itself as faked nonsense. With this crucial aspect of the movie nailed, one can be immersed in character within a somewhat unique incarnation of the classical Bollywood narrative; trial and sacrifice characterises the parent-child relationship, the child rebels before realising the reasoning of the parent.

To analyse the nature of this as a biopic of the real Phogat family, one can easily criticise the selectivity and favouritism put on display. But, as is, this is plainly tremendous. I'll recommend this again.






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Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem - Possessed By Law

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14/06/2018

Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem - Possessed By Law

Thoughts On: Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (גט - המשפט של ויויאן אמסלם‎, 2014)


Made by Ronit Elkabetz, this is the Israeli film of the series.


A serious relationship is marked by 4 words: "I belong to you". These 4 words are uttered twice, each partner suggesting that they, in essence, will give part of their soul, their self, to the other as to form a unified whole that will sustain them both. Reflexively, one completes the phrase "I belong to you" with "and you belong to me". However, as higher wisdom, I believe, suggests, this is a blunder; in fact the notion of "I belong to you and you belong to me" is a potentially dangerous one, highly akin to a syllogism. That is to suggest that, to some degree, the illogical reduction of "all cats have four legs; my dog has four legs; therefore, my dog is a cat" is tantamount to "I belong to you; therefore you belong to me".

The issue in "I belong to you; therefore you belong to me" is causality, but whilst this is a semantic problem, its effects do not just manifest at the linguistic level. To suggest that, because you are willing to give yourself to someone, that they therefore inherently belong to you is then what I am suggesting is fundamentally wrong with this phrase. It is important to highlight that "I belong to you and you belong to me" does not necessarily suggest causality and danger like "I belong to you; therefore you belong to me". However, there is nonetheless chance of harmful reduction in the phrase. Alas, it should be again emphasised that this is a semantic issue, one easily perceived as trivial. At least, this is true in text. In reality, this is not a semantic issue, but an ethical, psychological and symbolic issue. If one then contextualises these words and puts them in the mouth of a human who may utter "I belong to you", one can easily sense that the reflexive "and you belong to me", is indicative of hope turned to fact. What one means when they say "I belong to you and you belong to me", when it is said in good faith, is so often translatable to "I belong to you and I hope you belong to me" or "I belong to you and I have faith in you belonging to me". Issue arises when one becomes possessed and irrational to the point that they force a reduction tantamount to "I belong to you; therefore you belong to me". Such a reduction manifests as "I belong to you and so you better belong to me". Such words are not at all markers of a good relationship for they are malicious and without faith. "I belong to you" is a signifier of a strong relationship as it bears faith in the hope that the partner is willing to return the words, hence they will say "I belong to you" before such words are put in their mouth with "and you belong to me".

It is unfortunate--deplorable, to assume a stronger tone--that, though concepts of the divine and sacred individual have a central place in Abrahamic religions, "I belong to you" is made by religious doctrine and philosophy into poisonous syllogism. Historically, by Christian, Jewish and Islamic law, divorce has signified that, because a man chooses that he belongs to a woman, she inherently belongs to him. Thus divorce has, at times, betrayed the free will and sanctity of the individual and their choice, especially if that individual is a female - and it continues to do this where there has not been proper reform that sees just civil law take a place above corrupt religious law.

In the modern day, we see cinema make its attempts at interacting with this ethical issue; some films including Divorce Iranian Style and Sisters In Law, that highlight the injustices and difficulties of divorce under religious law. Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem is a film cut from the same cloth; a masterpiece courtroom drama, character study and ethical investigation. It focuses on Jewish gett, or get, laws in Israel, emphasising the power which men are allowed to wield as those who essentially possess their wife and, in turn, are the only ones able to free her with divorce. Encapsulating our opening discussion of "I belong to you", this narrative reverses the tables on the premise that a man owns his wife by depicting how a man who refuses to free his wife is ultimately possessed by his image her. And this is meant in the Jungian respect. Gett, in turn, divorce in Israel, requires one simple, yet essential statement to be made by the man: "You are hereby permitted to all men". This is the ultimate conflict of The Trial of Viviane Amsalem; the man refuses to give his wife a divorce because he doesn't want her to be had by another man. And religious tradition and the culture it pervades over legitimises and supports his possession with the woman being subject to dishonour as an adulteress if she is not permitted divorce and tries to be with another man - despite not being in a true relationship with her husband.

Such a crippling sense of injustice makes for a narrative tragedy on two planes. The initial tragedy, the surface level tragedy clear to the eye, is that one's will can be suppressed by divorce laws; whilst divorce laws should seek to ensure that a contract made under law is not broken for little to no reason, they should never obligate any individual to stay bound to another when they truly do not want to - especially in a context where adultery, a breach of a monogamous contract, introduces some kind of punishment (in Israel, for example, whilst adultery is not illegal, you cannot marry someone who you have committed adultery with). The deeper tragedy depicted by The Trial of Viviane Amsalem is found in the character study that is staged via the courtroom drama. What the conflict between the married couple then reveals is the man's capricious nature, which is hinged entirely upon the fact that he not only bears, but is supported by law to bear, an image of his wife that is his and his alone, that he has chained himself to, and along with it the real individual, his wife, which it is unjustly bound to. Because the man will not see this pure servant image be free because he believes it is his to wield as he wants, the woman then suffers - and it remains unclear if her suffering will ever cease; a tragic fact that permeates through her photogénic stare.

As this narrative closes, one can only then ponder upon the nature of the image that captures the wife, Viviane. The success of the film, if we see humanity in her image, is that it is aesthetically and symbolically freeing, that it relinquishes the person from the canvas, her given persona from her true self. There nonetheless remains tragedy for the fact that, beyond the eventually liberating image, is still a trapped woman who, in the eyes of other characters, remains a painting on the inner walls of others' minds.

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