31/12/2016

Cinderella - Refocused

Quick Thoughts: Cendrillon (1899)

The classical narrative we all know; a maid is given the chance to go to a royal ball by her Fairy Godmother.


Out of pure interest, I decided to watch the earliest adaptation of the classic fairy tale, Cinderella, originally published in the late 1600s - the 1950 Disney adaptation being one of my favourite films of all time and so a mark of incentive. This is only a 5 minute short and so a rather meagre projection of a story we’ve grown to know on a greater, deeper scale, however, in this short we see a very interesting point of comparison to the 50s classic. The short opens without any back story, without any characterisation given to Cinderella and no mention of evil step-mothers, sisters, kings or plans for a royal ball. Instantly we’re thrown into the narrative with iconic Méliès filmic magic as The Fairy Godmother appears, transforming rats and a pumpkin into a horse and carriage to whisk Cinderella to the ball. Here, again, no characterisation or particular plot points, Cinderella catches The Prince’s eye and the two dance. But, before the dance is over we get another iconic staple of a Méliès film - a demonic or insidious figure showing up out of nowhere. Just like The Selenites in A Trip To The Moon or the ghosts in The Haunted Castle, Time shows up in the middle of the ball - a man holding a huge clock. This is an interesting cinematic projection of Cinderella’s story, one that somewhat overshadows that seen in the Disney adaptation. In the animated 50s version, Cinderella is just told that when the clock strikes midnight, the magic will be reversed. And when the clock strikes, Cinderella of course starts running, leaving behind a glass slipper. In this short, when Time shows up, he cues The Fairy Godmother again who transforms Cinderella, taking away her dress. The subtext beneath this is much more complex than that provided in the Disney version because The Fairy Godmother’s magical power is directly attached to her. Instead of the magic just wearing away, she has to turn it up and reverse it. This adds a depth and complication to her character with the symbolic figure of Time further providing a Shakespearean sense of tragedy and futility, under the guise of time, to the story. This is something incredibly intriguing - especially with speculation on how this could elevate the Disney classic. However, there’s a further detail given with this segment in the short. When Cinderella is revealed to be little more than a raggedy maid, those attending the royal ball start pushing her around, laughing at her, forcing her out of the palace. Again, another element that would add greater depth to the Disney classic. This is mostly because of the reaction of The Prince. He still pursues the girl. What’s more, the glass slipper is left behind, further complicating The Fairy Godmother.

The next scene is what shines most from this short. Arriving home devastated Cinderella is not left to her sorrows, but bombarded with visions of clocks, giant ones that dance, that seem to mock her as they shift shape to and from young girls as Cinderella watches, distraught. This psychological element of the film serves as a pivotal piece of characterisation for Cinderella and adds quite a bit of depth to this 400 second (aprox.) story. With archetype of Time attached with young girls and the fact that Cinderella is dreaming, we have a much darker projection of Cinderella’s otherwise melancholy opening song, “A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes”.


There isn’t hope and optimism in Cinderella’s dream within the short, there is fear - one that adds great poignancy to a scene that is reactionary to the royal ball sequence. Again, this conceptually overshadows what we see in the Disney adaptation. However, from this high point, the film rushes to an end with Cinderella being woken by her step-sisters before (who I think is) The Prince shows up. He tries the slipper on the sisters, then Cinderella - finding his match in a rather flat manner. Before The Prince can take Cinderella away, however, she makes a call to her Fairy Godmother, who shows up again, bestowing upon her a dress. (I’ll leave the subtext of this to your analysis). After this Cinderella is married, people dance, the end.

The main take away I then got from this film was a surge of questions for the Disney adaptation. Would it not make sense for The Fairy Godmother to be a greater part of this narrative? Could the ball scene have had greater emotional depth and stakes? Could this have been a more directly psychological or surrealist film?

These are questions I’ll leave you to ponder and maybe discuss below. If not, why not check out the short here...


Or, better still, check out my posts covering the 50s Disney classic here...





Previous post:

Why Sci-Fi

Next post:

Danse Serpentine/American Beauty - Beauty, Light & Movement

More from me:

amazon.com/author/danielslack

30/12/2016

Why Sci-Fi

Thoughts On: Sci-Fi

General thoughts not on a specific film, but on my conceptually favourite genre of all, science fiction.


      

In a recent post, we talked about Bridget Jones’s Diary with a focus on genre. In such, we explored how to utilise both romance and comedy, in turn, how to express character through the intimacy and emotion these genres facilitate. In writing the essay, I was itching to add a caveat to the idea that the foundations of storytelling are comedy, romance, action and horror. In fact, I did add something of a caveat by exploring wider classifications, of fiction, non-fiction and drama. And because we didn’t explore non-fiction and fiction previously, we’ll take a moment to do this. Both non-fiction and fiction are little more than an exposition of intent for a storyteller. If you wanted to zoom in on the semantics of a concept of documentary this becomes an all the more pivotal concept. Whist documentaries primarily mean to just observe, to document events, there is an inherent contrivance in filming anything. Anyone who has pulled out a camera at a birthday party or social event knows this. The second cameras come out everyone changes, everyone reacts. Some get excited, they jump at a chance to get into frame, do something silly and show off in what is hopefully a harmless, bearable manner. Others go quiet, dip into purses and bags, fix make-up and get ready for a moment of silent glory. And then, of course, there’s people like me who object, who try to escape, who don’t want to get caught in the mess that is this contrived atmosphere. People like me are sensitive to the fact that cameras change people and sometimes aren’t willing to embrace that - hence my dislike of reality TV and my disinterest of many documentaries. But, whilst documentaries aren’t photos at a party or family gathering, there is a camera and there will be an inevitable performance in them. Moreover, the performances captured in documentaries are further corrupted by cinematic language and editing. The documentary is thus an artistic expression of truth at best - it can never be a truly unbiased documentation. The same may be said of actual personal experiences--but then in comes themes of an existential disconnect, solipsism and all that other fun stuff, so, we’ll leave it at that. Suffice to say; fiction and non-fiction are loose classifications expressive of little more than a director’s intent in showing us a story - one in which there is a heavier leaning towards informing than there is entertaining.

Moving to another troubled classification of the stories we tell, we come upon drama. We explored this to adequate depth in the Bridget Jones essay, so we’ll simply say that drama is synonymous with conflict. To define films by drama is then pointless as all films have it. The implication of drama is simply that there is a lack of other themes - our only weak excuse for keeping the term about. However, on the same plane as drama as a classification of stories is fantasy (something I wish we could have delved into previously). This genre or concept, as you’ll be able to put together, is heavily linked to all we’ve discussed in relation to non-fiction and fiction. Fantasy, again, defines the intentions of an artist. Their focus is on the contrivance inherent to anything filmed, their intention is to expose and explore this. Furthermore, this contrivance expands beyond cinema as the camera is merely symbolic of an observer effect. Other symbols that can also represent an observer effect in art are the pen, the typewriter, paintbrush, microphone and canvas. Any tool of recording and projecting a story implies to any subject being captured or dealt with that their current actions are much more than just movement to be lost in time. The actions of a person subject to an artist wanting to tell their story are perceived as significant (because they’re being preserved) and so the person demonstrates, through their reaction, that they intrinsically understand a concept of Sculpting In Fantasy. This is a term of course inspired by Tarkovsky’s concept of Sculpting In Time. This defines his approach to cinema and acts a a philosophy for the artist working in it that will allow you to distinguish the form as completely different to any other. But, whilst those in cinema sculpt in time, every artist sculpts in fantasy. Like I implied with the fact that a director takes reality, films it, edits it and thus transforms it, any artist running reality through themselves, through their art, alters it. This is exactly why tools such as a pen and paintbrush are symbols of an observer effect; they indicate that reality is being taken in and processes, being absorbed and changed ambiguously.

What all this talk of reality, contrivance and observers implies is a question of cinema we’ve certainly asked before. And this question is a simple why? Why is this inevitably contrived form of projecting reality such a heavy focus of every humans life - that is, every human that has ever existed, any human that has had conversations, discussions, exchanged stories, both the mundane and everyday type as well as the more traditionally professional; those in the form of poems, books, paintings, dances, films? The answer seems to be so clear; the essence of storytelling is not the story, is not the subject, the event in reality, but the telling. It is the contrivance, the observer effect, we seek when we want to hear stories. This is all because art’s fundamental basis is communication. Storytelling in any artistic form translates reality, the inert nature of the world, into comprehensible, formalised symbols of communication. These symbols are words, they are images. Without the word (auditory; visual) or images (actions) we, me and you, would have no way of communicating, of using our senses as tools of interpreting the world around us and then relaying it to other conscious bodies - you would not be able to read this essay. Our dire need of these symbols of communication then speaks best to our need of each other. Without people around you, what are you? Without anyone around to recognise your existence, is there much of a point in saying you exist? These are fundamental existential questions that can be overwhelming and begin to explain why people are so interested in aliens, but, people have figured out a way to distract themselves from it. It’s with communication that we don’t have to fixate on the truth that you don’t know who others are; that you cannot see into their mind and you do not know if they’re just a simulation, a robot or machine - thus, you truly have no way of proving others exist as you do. However, the fact that the sacks of meat you talk at talk back is very satisfying. In such is the essence of the human need for an emotional reading of reality. We need to see reality in relation to ourselves to be happy. This spirals into a much wider philosophy of self-centricity we’ve touched on before, but, in relation to storytelling, this need to comprehend the world in human terms, in relation to our own existential predicament, all points to a justification of our contrived stories. It’s the observer effect inherent to the fact that we know someone created stories, books, plays, films, that draws us to them as they imply someone else exists in the world.

This is the crucial element to all films. There is a contrivance, there is a fantasy, because it’s through imagination that humans connect and communicate. Thus, with any story we sculpt in fantasy, we chisel our humanity, our consciousness, our minds into the imaginations of others. The stories we tell thus reflect who we are; we tell the stories that explain ourselves to others, that say what we like, what entertains us, what we idealise and uphold - and such is the existential epitome of art. However, stories, beyond the exposition of personage, begin to explore our perceptual periphery. That is to say that the heart of all art is the artist trying to communicate their existential essence. Veiled around this is a more distant implication of nature itself. It’s through art that we are seeing a tainted reality, one we are inevitably kept from because of an observer effect, but one we nonetheless can get a sense of. Again, it must be said that we can only get a sense of nature through an observer effect, ourselves or other’s, so this is something that cannot be reversed. Nonetheless, there is some sense of truth and reality that is meant to be captured by stories. This reality is attempted to be expressed, through stories and with utmost articulation, in science textbooks. Science non-fiction, otherwise known as just science, is the essence of modern humanity. Everything that represents the 21st century is technological, is scientific; the development of medicine, telecommunications, infrastructure and a myriad of others things that have been made possible by science in its many forms. Because of this we are living in the Man-Made Age, the age where humans have truly began to construct their own nature that isn’t reliant on the whims of the unconscious world around us. I believe this is certainly something that will be profoundly accelerate in our future; a disconnection from reality and a movement into a man-made universe - but, alas, a subject for another time.

What our inquiry into science, our growing focus on deciphering reality on our terms (not just creating them out of nothing) says about storytelling is the most pivotal and interesting aspect of the concept to me. I tell stories, write screenplays, write these essays, because I have an incessant obsession with breaking down and translating the nature of the world to people. I, in short, want to show you the world in a new light. (Such is a higher goal I won’t claim to be achieving, but it is a motivation nonetheless). As implied, I think this translation is what all people are obsessed with - we communicate to give any and everyone our perspective, to shed new light. We do this under the existential motivation of proving we exist - and such explains why I love to explain things; I want to be of some significant by being a perceptual cog between the world and whoever cares to listen to me. My outlet of doing this is film, both on a macrocosmic scale with these essays, but also a more focused one with the genre of sci-fi and my screenplays.

Sci-fi, to me, is the most important, most expressive, most interesting genre of storytelling. This is because it cannot really be defined like non-fiction and fiction can be, like drama and fantasy may be, like romance, action, horror and comedy are. This is because sci-fi transcends each layer of storytelling taxonomics. That is to say that sci-fi isn’t just non-fiction because it is so often heavily reliant on the reality of the world being skewed, on science non-fiction being exposed as science fiction. That is to imply that science non-fiction (just science), whilst our best form of exploring and explaining reality, is a form of storytelling, is a self-centric and observer biased questioning of reality. Whilst there are rigorous efforts put into place to quash observer bias, when we approach the boundaries of scientific knowledge and then peek a few leagues into the void, we are left with a suspending existential unknowing. That is to say that, whilst we know of the big bang and of our universe, we can’t explain what is beyond it both upwards, downwards, inwards and outwards (yet). There is just speculation and a huge philosophical haze. And in this haze, there may be lurking something that completely changes everything we currently think we know about reality, the things we can test to be true, but are ultimately defined in human terms that are unbeknownst to the hidden realities of the universe and all that’s possibly beyond.

The entirety of what we’ve just discussed is the essence of science’s existence in my opinion. I do not mean that it’s an exploration of truth, but that all I raised are unfathomably interesting subjects. Science exists because it’s fun, because it’s philosophy with a shade of reality. This is what links sci-fi, the embellishment of this concept, to more acute classifications of stories; genres - romance, action, horror and comedy. These genres define the emotional reaction and incentive of an audience drawn to genre films. Sci-fi can encompass these emotions because of its ability to push so deep into profound universal topics that basic feelings of horror, awe and levity inevitably will be brought forthwith from ourselves. My ultimate reasoning for liking sci-fi so much then comes down to this...


In the clip you hopefully clicked on and watched is an example of some of the best storytelling you will ever see. I joke not when I say that this digression of Tyson’s is on the same level of storytelling as films by Kubrick, Bergman, Scorsese; books by Tolstoy, King, Hemingway; plays by Ibsen, Shakespeare, Miller; poems by Elliot, Frost, Milton. Where else can you hear/see something with such great depth, scope, atmosphere, imagination and philosophy? What other stories are as intellectually stimulating and meaningful as this narrative?

This video is the indirect essence of why I write sci-fi.

Science fiction is the entertaining relaying of and pondering upon the most fantastical aspects of our universe when it is at its best. The best sci-fi takes all that captivated the entire audience before Tyson and puts it in a cinema - a place where even talking dogs and fighting robots can encapsulate millions. In such, sci-fi, when done well has the potential to be the best cinema can offer. This is all because it digs into the core of what the genre represents. Sci-fi is not just about facilitating certain emotions that comedies, romances, action and horror films usually do. Neither is it just about the classification of cinematic forms under their structure (drama; conflict) or nature (fantasy; non-fiction; fiction). Science fiction as a defining term encompasses all of these classifying concepts, hence proving the versatility of the genre. Moreover, sci-fi takes a unique approach to the projection of stories. As touched on, sci-fi stories don’t just mean to expose the hidden essence of an artist or audience member, but also the essence of reality. The commentary is on both ourselves and our universe. This is the purpose, this is the impact, this is the significance and poignancy in the potential of science fiction.

So, whilst all sci-fi films don’t live up to this potential, do you think it’s there? Do you see sci-fi in the same respect that I do? If so, what are you going to do about it?





Previous post:

Rogue One - Character; Past & Present

Next post:

Cinderella - Refocused

More from me:

amazon.com/author/danielslack

29/12/2016

Rogue One - Character; Past & Present

Thoughts On: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

The daughter of the engineer leading the construction of the Death Star must steal the original plans.


** SPOILERS THROUGHOUT **

This is an astonishingly bland film. Watching this film I was completely dumbstruck with how pointless and mediocre it was. However, you can’t say that this is a bad film. I know some people will like it, but... I don’t see how. For me there was only two particularly good things about this movie. The first was getting to see Darth Vader destroy a few motherfuckers - something we had to wait a long while to see, but a great scene that will have me see the next movie; one that implies the sheer potential power these films can, if done well, possess. The second great thing about seeing this film came when hearing Imperial alerts and sirens blaring. It’s on the cue of this noise...


... that the bored-out-of-her-mind, little girl behind me perked up and shouted at her Dad: “Elephants are coming!”.

Surely one of the funniest and heart warming things I’ve ever heard in the cinema.

The other positives of this film are obvious. It looks quite good, there’s a light-saber or two and a few good battles. These are the things that keep this film from being completely boring and so just about all right. But, this film has two major issues that I didn’t really expect.

The first issue is made clear in the opening seconds of the film. We see...


... and are expecting the crawl text, the iconic theme tune, the tingles you can’t help but feel.... but, no. We don’t get that. This isn’t something bad though, it was something I was eager to embrace as this is a film that clearly means to set itself apart from the others in the franchise; the lack of classical Star Wars scores and tropes being indicative of this. However, Rogue One sets itself apart by abandoning the clichéd, but irrefutably brilliant parts of the rest of the series: score and tone. Whilst the score is a slightly trivial detail, the highly anti-climactic few seconds of this film foreshadow the greatest fault in the direction, acting and editing. This film has no emotional weight. The scenes carry no arc of emotions and you are never immersed into the story nor cinematics - even when there’s flashy lights and big explosions. And on that note; the camera directions aren’t as fluid, dynamic or long as we saw in Abrams’ Force Awakens. As a result, there is so much scope lost in this film - something in dire need of if we’re to feel that we’re in space, that we’re in a battle. Moreover, the toned down, zoomed in scope of this film isn't executed well and doesn’t have a positive effect either. This film is not Saving Private Ryan in any way shape or form, we’re not pushed into battle, we’re certainly not made to feel a speck in an implied ocean of calamity. This is all because Edwards (director) has to control of the scope of this picture. It is neither confined or sprawling, and so we’re left at a weird middle-ground where the choppy editing of action is both distracting and boring as we never see what is implied to be happening in the set pieces with poignant cinematic language. This points to Edward’s inability to be truly expressive with his camera and direction. This immediately hurts the editing of sequences and leaves the film tonally bland. What doesn’t help this tone is also the unconvincing and entirely forgettable performances provided by every single actor.

The last point on character, however, isn’t one solely down to actors. What we see with Rogue One is a poorly written script projected onto screen: the second major fault of this film. We see this in two respects. The first is the plotting. Rogue One, as seems to be the case with way too many blockbusters, is an overly plot-centric movie. This is the source of all that makes it so mediocre as all we are experiencing with this film is a movement from plot point to plot point to plot point. There is no emotional poignancy in any of these transitions, nor is there a tonal change or something that grabs you and sucks you into the narrative. As mentioned, the only saving grace in this film is the fact that it’s in a galaxy far, far away. But, without the Star Wars setting around it, this film would be nothing. The worst thing about this plot-centric narrative, however, is the lack of focus on character.

Each and every character in this film is flat and disinteresting. There’s points at which Donnie Yen’s character, the blind guy, shines. There’s also a few moments with the robot, K-S02, that are quite amusing. However, all these characters do is embellish what is wrong with the rest of character work seen throughout the film. In short, the characters are words on a page that serve a plot - little more. We see this in the necessary, but banal dialogue and the fact that everyone in this movie dies by the end--and that that does nothing to the audience. With this film being about a final stand, a tragic and bitter-sweet sacrifice, you expect character to be the most important thing; the singular element of the script that the screenwriter would obsess over. However, the screenwriter clearly had his mind on the plot and really didn’t give a shit about the characters nor the tone they give a film.

To understand all that’s wrong with the characters in this film, you merely need to look to the opening. The film starts with Mads Mikkelson’s character being taken away to work on the Death Star and his wife being killed. This leaves behind his daughter, Jyn, our main character. This scene is the crucial point of character work for her and... what an idiot you’d have to be to leave this as such. Characters are their pasts, yes, this is true - people are, in large part, an amalgamation of experiences. However, showing someone’s past isn’t characterisation. This is why we never really give a shit about her. We see what shapes her, but, as Cassian, the rebel, says: we’ve all been through something terrible. That’s not a quote, just a loose paraphrasing. Nonetheless, there’s a point in this film where Jyn is told that people have been through harder shit than she. We as audience members in a cinema can understand this criticism. We’ve seen a thousand films with tragic openings - a great many more tragic and more poignant than this one. What this says about Jyn’s ‘character work’ provided by the opening is: what makes this special? (I think that’s what Cassian says in fact; ‘you’re nothing special’ - I could be wrong though). The reason why back stories aren’t good enough as a crucial piece characterisation is that films are often concentrated on the present - Rogue One being a good example of this. This isn’t a film focused on how the past effects the present, which leaves Jyn’s childhood as a necessary side note, but also a weak attempt at characterisation that merely seems like a bit of plot. What we should have gotten after the opening scene was just a few minutes in prison with Jyn. This scene needn’t do much, it only needs to facilitate time in which Jyn can just exist and we can observe her. With this observation comes characterisation as we would see how Jyn behaves. By seeing her interact with a few people or just get on in her day, we’d begin to know who she is and what she’s like. We’re not given this time, merely told that she’s sad and in prison before the plot continues to hurtle forward.

This is why plot-centricity is so damaging; it doesn’t give characters time to just be. When we look to Donnie Yen’s character, we see a stronger process of characterisation. We like him because we get to learn about him; learn his behaviours to the point of being able to predict them as an individual’s choices. In such, we know Donnie Yen’s character as the blind guy who’s deep into the force, who repeats himself in a religious way. Not only is there some comedy in this, but we’re brought closer to him, made to see him as something like a unique person. The same may be said for the robot. Despite it being clichéd, this is a robot that’s starkly honest. Here we again have humour, but this isn’t all - we get to know this robot to the point of predictability. If you look to C-3PO, R2-DT and even BB8, you see stronger characters though. This is because, once we get into their narratives, these robots don’t really need to do or say anything for us to start giggling, knowing what they’re about to do. This doesn’t happen with any character to such a degree in this film. And this isn’t to say that all characters should make us laugh - certainly not. I only mean to suggest that we need to know these characters as to empathise with them, as to actually care. It’s undeniable that we don’t get to do this in Rouge One. We get a bit of back story, but nothing of true characterisation.

Whilst there’s a few more faults and points of discussion to be had on this film, this is all I feel is worth saying. Rogue One isn’t a bad film. It’s not a particularly good one either. This all because of characterisation and the fact that this film has no entertaining substance to it; no emotional weight; nothing to be sunken into. Whilst this film holds an interesting narrative tantamount to visual Star Wars trivia, it really is little more than a mediocre movie. Nonetheless, what did you think of the film? Tell me down below...





Previous post:

Bridget Jones's Diary - Unashamed Intimacy

Next post:

Why Sci-Fi

More from:

amazon.com/author/danielslack

Bridget Jones's Diary - Unashamed Intimacy

Thoughts On: Bridget Jones's Diary

A thirty-two year old single woman decides to turn over a new leaf.


A ridiculously good film, Bridget Jones’s Diary feels like it should be a guilty pleasure, but I can’t admit to feeling any shame in saying this is one of the best rom-coms ever made - one I’d watch any day. However, romantic comedies seem to be the easiest dismissed kind of film. This is a somewhat deserved attribution though. Romantic comedies, as Bridget Jones’s Diary proves, can be great movies deserving of a million re-watches. But, rom-coms can so easily be complete dog shit. This is a phenomena best explained by delving into the four most versatile genres; action, horror, romance and comedies. These four genres are the main foundations of story telling, the only classifications that are more broad than these would be drama, fiction and non-fiction. However, these are mere classifications. Fiction and non-fiction are very clearly not genres, and so I won’t delve deeper into them. But, it must be said: drama is certainly not a genre - not at all. Drama simply means conflict, and as any writer can tell you, all stories are made up of conflict. To define a group of stories by this fact is utterly redundant - giving little reason as to why drama is such a prevalent term. Its only saving grace is our association of seriousness, confines and realism to this concept of drama. This means that when we hear ‘drama’, we simply assume that there is a lack of action, romance, horror and comedy. Nonetheless, drama is a redundant term in my books. That aside, the four major pillars of story telling are action, horror, comedy and romance. This means that we’re all very well versed in each genre as we’ve been exposed to them so much. This exposure affects genres heavily. With the four major ones, this isn’t so serious as they are so ambiguous and open to variation; a horror merely needs to elicit something along the spectrum of fear and discomfort; comedy needs to be humorous to some degree; romances need to trigger our ingrained capacity for togetherness; action movies need to trigger emotions of self-sovereignty, of being able to protects oneself and handle situations. When we start combining genres these classifications become much more volatile. That is to say that the clear intention of genres is to describe the emotions a kind of story produces in an audience. When you start combining the emotions a story must conjure, you are evidently trying to get a greater, more complex, reaction. With this comes specificity and so greater stakes - all because an audience expects more. When you walk into a rom-com you then expect to both be swept off your feet and made to roll on the floor.

You can imagine the creation of the rom-com as something coming out of a marketer’s mouth - not really a storyteller’s. A storyteller would ‘sell’ his/her story to you by describing the depths of their efforts and intentions: ‘this is a story exploring the woes of love, the downfalls it brings, yet the highs it promises, and how love often leaves you the fool to be laughed at - sometimes laughed with’. Whilst this is a somewhat accurate description of a rom-com on a thematic level, this doesn’t sell the film as a genre, as something you can see replicated. But, it’s much easier to sell the rom-com genre as a marketer: ‘you will laugh with these characters and then you will fall in love with them’. And such seems to be the crux of why the rom-com is so popular and almost such a niche genre. There is a simplistic approach to this combining of two complex genres that defines the term ‘rom-com’. We do not think of the genre on a wide plane of emotions, nor do we think of it as a meaningful combination of storytelling techniques. The rom-com just seems to be the selling of two of the giddiest feelings we can hold, a promise that the film will make you feel love, but also make you laugh. This isn’t a bad thing, but it does begin to explain why the rom-com is considered such an iffy sub-genre. In short, it seems to want to sell a formula and so feels tantamount to a film written just because someone came up with a good title. And this rings true. Most rom-coms are money grabs; empty movies you see once that never stick with you. However, when a good rom-com comes along, it is an undeniable force. Bridget Jones’s Diary is one of these rare waves of sheer force. It packs such a punch because rom-coms should pack a punch - as said, they’re a combination of two powerful genres meant to elicit two of the most poignant emotions in an audience. When a film manages to do this well, when it doesn't follow a weak formula, it makes utter sense that it be considered great. And this is exactly what I want to talk about in respect to Bridget Jones’s Diary: how to make a great rom-com.

I’ll make it simple and say it up front: to make a good rom-com, you just have to make a personal and intimate film. The comedy in romance--and this is the way it should be, comedy should come out of romance - not romance from comedy--the comedy in romance is derived from discomfort. This is exactly why cringe humour sprouts so effortlessly from the rom-com. When Bridget exclaims “No! No!” after hearing Darcy is engaged and moving to America, we are seeing a woman in a social situation we’d hate to be in. We’ve been warmed up to understand that Bridget wants Darcy in a romantic sense, but that there are boundaries in the way of this (Darcy’s business partner turned fiancée). We all want her to overcome this drama, this conflict, but know that she hasn’t the power stood before so many people at a party. Whilst we can root for Rocky to step up to Drago because there is that small chance that the underdog comes through the victor, Bridget’s conflict is so much more confined. She can’t explode and let fists fly as her conflict is social not physical; this is a romance, not an action film. In such, we sense the overwhelming pressure of this scene, of Bridget stood, unable to anything about her conflict, and can only writhe until the laughs release the pressure from our chests.

This paradigm of romantic comedy isn’t just true of the cringey moments, but can be seen in almost every single funny scene. Bridget is given romantic stakes that act like a pump pushing air into a sealed container. The more romantic stakes are built up, the more desperate Bridget becomes, the closer she gets to finding a match and keeping him, the closer the lid on our proverbial sealed container becomes. The comedy comes when Bridget fails, when the lid pops of, our laughter metaphorically surging forthwith.

The question then raised in respect to this paradigm is, how do you set it up? The answer lies in intimacy and character. To start building romantic pressure to be burst with a  bubble of laughter, you have to get us close to the vessel of exchanging conflicts; Bridget, our main character. We only need to look to the opening scene to see a master class in this set-up. We start with a start; a new year, a new diary. This is such an important aspect of films with great characters. The plot has to be intrinsically linked to them and it is one they must walk us through. For Bridget to present herself to us with a fresh page and a fresh year, we’re immediately put on her side - we know we’re going to walk the narrative together. All we then need to know about Bridget’s narrative before it starts is given to us in her first diary entry about her mother’s annual turkey-curry buffet. Here all the main characters and their traits are established - aunts, uncles, parents and of course... Mark Darcy. In seeing his Christmas jumper and then Bridget’s ‘carpet’, the goal end of the film becomes clear - these two must fall in love. And make no mistake, great character films that don’t have a focus on plot are supposed to be predictable. In being predictable conflict can oscillate - as we’ll see throughout the film. In other words, because we’re told (not so much on the sly) in the opening 2 minutes that Bridget and Darcy will be together by the end, the screenwriters have a game to play over the next 100 minutes. The game is to bring us towards and away from that climax, to bring us close to complete success, then right near devastating tragedy - only to bring us back up again. We only withstand this, under the guise of romance and comedy, because we know there’s an end in sight. After all, lighter films aren’t ones we’re going to give ourselves to as willingly as we would a Bergman or Kubrick picture. These directors produce films requiring a great amount of patience and attention from their audience as to fully work - and they’re justified in requiring this because the artistic pay-off is so great; because the films have such powerful undertones and nuance to be found. However, lighter films are never really as profound as the likes of 2001 or Cries & Whispers. This means that if the film wants to play a game by teasing us with peaking and valleying conflict, we better have some security in knowing the end. In such, we see the pivotal nature of the opening; you must subtextually sell the ending of the film to draw us closer to character.

There is still a more important lesson taught by the opening of Bridget Jones and it comes with her overhearing Mark describe her as ‘some verbally incontinent spinster who smokes like a chimney and drinks like a fish and dresses like her mother’. This, of course, cues this...


Ignoring the all important narration above this scene for a moment, what lies at the heart of Bridget Jones is the incite we’re given into her character. Almost immediately, we see her at one of her worst moments and so are put at an undeniably intimate proximity to her. It’s the heavy verisimilitude of Bridget’s drunken croaning of ‘All by myself!’ that a great truth resonates through from the screen, one that has us believe that she is a real person with genuine emotions. The crux of this projection is in how un-pretty this scene is. It’s not the beautiful blonde crumpling naked in the shower, sobbing silently in slow motion as a piano is pricked and strings whine. This is an unashamed shit-storm of isolated emotion; Bridget letting everything out like no one is watching - something we believe despite knowing that she’s merely an actress pretending in a room full of cameras and crew. This is the crucial intimacy needed in a rom-com, the cringe-worthy truth all exposed by romantic notions. In such, we see that rom-coms need an aspect of truth in them. Characters must behave in a raw and believable way for them to truly resonate with us. It’s this truth expressed by Bridget drinking away her sorrows that doubles as the comedy in the scene. We build to this with her narration. It’s hearing Bridget’s inner thoughts that we’re again, put at an intimate proximity to her. With her opening narration, just as with the visuals, we’re given exposition. It’s the V.O that in fact sets up all romantic tension as we hear about Bridget wanting to find the right guy. This builds as we meet Darcy and explodes with his harsh words resulting in the comedic explosion that is the credit sequence.

So, without seeing past the opening of Bridget Jones, you can get an incredibly strong sense of exactly why this is such a good film. It understands how to bring you close to Bridget as a character as well as expose truth through conflict in a comedic manner. As said, this is a paradigm we see played through time and time again throughout the film as the screenwriters take us on an emotional roller coaster. We see variation in this paradigm, but the essence of it is the exposure of personal moments for Bridget. Whilst there is this variation, the film remains steady throughout as it refuses to over step marks. For example, the cringe humour never becomes gross-out humour...


Whilst Bridesmaids is a great film and similar to Bridget Jones in some respects, it’s definitely more a comedy than a romance. This is why the gross-out humour is so hilarious in this film; it suits the tone. However, it wouldn’t suite the tone of Bridget Jones, which is why a lack of vulgarity is key to our empathising with Bridet. Whilst we’re constantly seeing Bridget’s ass and terrible underwear, these are visuals linked with sympathy and understanding. For example, when Bridget forgets her skirt, we laugh, but also feel sorry for her. The same can be said as she slides down the fireman’s pole, turns up to the party dressed up as a bunny and runs after Darcy in the end. When the group in Bridesmaids shit themselves and puke everywhere, we laugh, but without the same levels of empathy for characters. This is what distinguishes Bridget Jones as a romantic comedy: boundaries that fit the tone, that facilitate empathy.

Another thing that makes this film so personal has to be the fact that it was a book. Whilst I’ve never read the book, through the narration and expressive, yet subdued, reactionary shots of Bridget, you can see the tonal touch of a book in this film. Novels are of course much less objective and observer-like than films. You are put into a characters head - something films have trouble in projecting. However, this is handled perfectly with Bridget Jones. Whilst narration is an obvious example of how we’re brought into Bridget’s head, a really important technique in projecting her inner emotions is the sound track. From the opening to the end, you feel that the songs selling this movie are playing in Bridget’s head, are driving her as a character. What’s so expressive about this is the fact that these are songs that Bridget must like, but that I wouldn’t really have any interest in listening to. Nonetheless, these songs are really poignant and impactful put alongside this narrative. This speaks to a wider thematic structure of films. Whilst I am a guy, whilst I’ve never got drunk and cry-sang depressing songs, I completely understand Bridget and empathise with her on a personal level. There is then a symbiotic vicarious understanding and experiencing occurring when I, when we all, watch films. Whether it’s through events we’ve never experienced ourselves, or songs we don’t ever listen to, movies have a way of having us understand characters who are sometimes the polar opposite of ourselves. This can occur because we’re made to understand a character, because we’re put into their head, made to think and feel as they do. This is what books can do seemingly effortlessly when we read the thoughts of a main character. This is also what Bridget Jones’s Diary does with theme, music and great character work.

Whilst there are formal, structural and technical aspects of Bridget Jones’s Diary that we can all learn from, I think the most important part of this film is its narrative arc. Bridget Jones has to be one of the best rom-coms ever made because its narrative truly understands this idea of making the film personal and bringing us as close to a character as possible. This is evident in the title alone, Bridget Jones’s Diary. This is a film all about the hidden aspects of people we’re rarely, maybe never, allowed to see. Moreover, this is a film about the truth that lies in those hidden aspects. And it’s this truth that ultimately allows us to find happiness in life.

In short, Bridget finds love, falls for Darcy through a series of events in which the two are made transparent to one another. Whether it’s terrible Christmas outfits, awful parents, stupid relationship choices or a generally haphazard approach to life, Bridget and Darcy are made to see all that’s wrong in each other as what binds them, what makes them compatible. It’s exactly this that has Darcy able to read Bridget’s Diary in the end and still accept her as a growing, changing, genuine person. This subtext to the narrative isn’t just romantically aphoristic, but commentary on the rom-com itself and all we’ve talked about so far. To understand this, you merely need to look to the characters you don’t like in this film...


Most notably, it’s Cleaver that is vapid and veiled in lies. This the main reason why we don’t like him; he has no proverbial diary to be read. Having no diary, no genuine side to be exposed makes him our antagonist, our bad guy. Exposing the truth in Darcy on the other hand is what turns him to the knight in dull woollen armour. In such, all narrative movement in the film is towards personal exposure, is towards a secured sense of intimacy where we can empathise for characters without thinking they may betray us. I think this is what truly reinforces the romantic aspects of this movie and goes to show that comedy serves romance in a rom-com. Romances, like action films, are all about security, about carving out a personal and safe hole we own in this world. In being factory farming hunter-gathers, it’s inevitable that there develops a gender rift in the distribution of action and romance films despite the two being so similar. Women evolutionary mean to secure house, home and family - a tight inner circle. Men on the other hand must secure the wider circle that protects the inner. This is why men stereotypically like action films about saving a building full of people or country through war whereas women like stories of connecting with the person next door or a few cubicles over - it’s all about the perimeter of our circles. However, the fact that there is such a strong connection between films such as Die Hard and Bridget Jones’s Diary in this sense makes it clear why many men and women enjoy the best films of either genre. As people driven by common urges of security, homes, families and such, these films, when good, can strike chords deep within us.

What this says about rom-coms, about our sometimes universal draw to them, is that they're about a greater human truth in us all - a truth embodied by Bridget Jones’s Diary. Just as Bridget’s goal is of finding the truth in people, in sharing intimate moments, so is ours. We go to this film to connect with a character and experience romantic, yet comedic, moments of intimacy. In such, we see the exposure of a wider truth in all of ourselves as movie-goers and people. Many of our experiences are in search this rom-com-esque feeling of security and completeness; a search best braved with the capacity to laugh at yourself and be laughed at.





Previous post:

The Mirror - Artistic Sensibilities

Next post:

Rogue One - Character; Past & Present

More from me:

amazon.com/author/danielslack

27/12/2016

The Mirror - Artistic Sensibilities

Thoughts On: The Mirror (1975)

Projected memory merges with the present reminiscence of a dying man.


For me, Tarkovsky’s The Mirror is a profound filmic experience that I just don’t fully understand. Having seen the film 4 times, my respect and fascination with the narrative has only strengthened, but my comprehension of the film on a thematic and directly communicative level has remained loose. Whilst I understand the fluid movement through time that means to transform all objective senses of the temporal into a subjective perspective for character and audience, I fail to grasp it as I watch the film. It’s clear that this philosophy of time that Tarkovsky is famous for is meant to reduce all concepts of past and present to banalities, but, this constructs a predominantly more emotional cinema - as opposed to a mechanical or pragmatic one - which is the root of both why I find it so hard to grasp this film and why I’m so enamoured with it. In fact, this is, in large part, true of all of Tarkovsky’s films. We’ve touched on these two approaches to cinema, programmatic/mechanical and emotional, before, but never has it been a more pertinent subject. Tarkovsky’s cinema is one enveloped in memory and feeling, and so the crux of experiencing his films lies in a silent, almost unspeakable, empathy. This means that the essence of watching a film such as The Mirror lies in how it makes us feel. However, this is arguably true for all films; we watch them to feel a certain way--and such is the crux of our viewing experience. There is, however, under the guise of emotional and mechanical cinema, a difference in the way the emotions of a film and the way it makes us feel are translated to us. One of the greatest architects of pragmatic cinema has to be Hitchcock. This is evident in his mechanistic approach to cinema. Before continuing, I must clarify that ‘mechanistic’ isn’t a bad thing; I do not mean to connote this kind of imagery...


... much rather, this...



Perfectly constructed and functioning machinery can be beautiful, it can be mesmerising, even awe-inspiring - just as nature, a landscape or environment, may be. Whilst we don’t find the beauty in nature to be a concise and rigid conception, much rather a free-formed and quaintly anarchic one, we do find the beauty in human construction to be in its contrivance, in the meticulous attempt to construct something perfect. This speaks articulately of the difference between mechanistic and emotional cinema. Whilst the last word is of beauty, all that proceeds can either be poetic or informative. In such, Hitchcock is informative, Tarkovsky is poetic. Hitchcock builds his cinema, his suspense, crime and mystery pictures, with focus on plot, on the intellectual juxtaposition of images as to create a pragmatic narrative montage. His films are thus utterly reliant on us following simple sentences; his direct instruction spoken in expository images. The example I always use to demonstrate this is the scene in Psycho where Marion decides she is going to leave...



Hitchcock doesn’t provide V.O that has Marion say "I must get out. I must get to a new town where me and Sam may start again, away from wives and alimony. The $40,000 won’t be missed, but, with luck, it can be put to good use; a small shop in a little town, a small home for a little family". Instead of grating at the audience with this terrible exposition of her inner thoughts, he just shows us action: her bags packed, her getting changed, the money on the bed. The pragmatic construction in this scene is something seen throughout Psycho, in fact, all of Hitchcock’s films. He has the audience work in an almost mathematical way to understand his plots; something derivative of the silent Soviet cinema of the 20s.

  

Just as Eistenstein or Vertov would use the montage as a way of telling stories - the juxtaposition of imagery needing the audience association as to mean anything - Hitchcock uses a mechanistic plot, one that needs the juxtaposition of actions and events to be decoded through the audience’s associations. This is pragmatic/intellectual/mechanistic cinema in essence. It can produce a vast slew of films that conjure any amount of responses they want from their audience, and so conform to a definition of art as communication, but they do so in a thoroughly constructed manner - one that is evident in how we conceive the film. Poetic cinema exists in a different compartment of the art form.

      

Tarkovsky’s poetic cinema uses all the filmic devices that Hitchcock’s does, for example, the juxtaposition of images, but does so in a much more subdued and subjective way - one that cannot be reduced to a handful of images as to be explained. Tarkovsky’s approach to something such as ‘the juxtaposition of images’ is something convoluted by his philosophy of cinematic time. He uses Aleksei as a narrative body, and so we see his memories, his past and resent, but never him in his entirety. In such, the juxtaposition of his childhood and present is the crux of the film. However, we don’t merely see a montage of images depicting how distant he and his mother were contrasted with a montage of the isolation he feels at present. In such, there is no movement through a field where there is a literal distance put between he and his mother proceeding a shot of him, a grown man, lying in an empty room. This is the mechanistic or Hitchcockian approach to cinema. We attribute the pragmatically derived meaning of the first image - a distance between a young boy and a mother - to define that of the second: Aleksei alone, isolated as a result of a cold childhood. The poetic approach Tarkovsky takes is to do away with ‘past’ an ‘present’ by representing Aleksei’s mother and ex-wife as the same person as well as Aleksei himself and his son. So, not only are we forever perplexed by the true identity of the characters played by Margarita Terekhova and Ignat Daniltsev...



... but are intentionally confused by Tarkovsky. He makes this point of convoluting who characters are as to project Aleskei’s perception onto screen; it is because of his perception of himself and son, his ex-wife and mother, that we see them as the same people. And in such, we see Tarkovsky’s  approach to ‘the juxtaposition of images’ come to fruition. It is never simple, always contorted by character and narrative. The poetry of this lies in the convolution; the fact that we don’t always understand the mechanics of Tarkovsky’s cinema as we would Hitchcock’s. Despite the audience not fully understanding his film, Tarkovsky can construct a piece of art that can be considered very similar to the art of Hitchcock. Despite the difference between this poetic and mechanistic approach to cinema, the approaces are cinematic - equally so.

This difference between Tarkovsky and Hitchcock, poetic and mechanistic cinema, is so significant to me as I am constantly trying to break down films and explain them - all to learn something. In seeing how Hitchcock conveys his stories, we are all given the chance to build upon or utilise his style. This is true of all technical and more intangible aspects of Hitchcock’s films. We can look at his camera movement, his editing style, framing, shot-types, colouration, ect, and directly see how it translates to the meaning of a scene. In other words, with Hitchcock’s films we can all look at scenes, see that he does ‘this’ then ‘that’ to achieve ‘that’ and thus learn a lesson. So, when it comes to writing our own scripts, making films, or even watching and assessing movies as an audience member, we have at hand the archetypal lesson of the way Hitchcock tells us Marion is about to steal money...



... and can thus re-contextualise a Hitchcockian sensibility as a form of judging a film. In such, when we hear a character narrating their decision to steal money and run away, or explaining it to another character, in any film, we know that there’s a different way to do this - and, depending on the film, possibly a better way. This is one of the benefits afforded to audiences by mechanistic films; part of their beauty is their transparency, is the mesmerising kaleidoscope of moving parts--and this is something we can easily learn from. However, whilst poetic cinema produces great films, films such as The Mirror, it is hard to learn from them.

So, the question I want to ask is: how do we learn from Tarkovsky?

This is a question anyone who enjoys his films must ask, but, if they’re like me, sometimes despairs in asking. How on Earth do you create stories like those of Tarkovsky? This is not a question of replication, and no one should mean to be Tarkovsky. However, there is something intangible that gives films such as Stalker, Nostalghia and The Mirror some sense of magic. This ‘something’ is what I mean to question, - and in a broad sense - but this is hidden by the poetic form of Tarkovsky’s narrative. Whilst one may replicate his shot types, long, meandering, but always focused on something of narrative importance, there is an essence to these films that cannot be put into words as easily. This is all in reference to the atmosphere and tone of Tarkovsky’s pictures. When his films begin it is as if everything must be silenced and put aside, it is as if what Tarkovsky has to say is of such major importance that it overshadows all other facets of our attention. I have described this phenomena as The Monologue Paradox previously, and what this depicts is a form of cinema so immersive that it almost numbs your senses. A great example of The Monologue Paradox which I’ve picked up on before lies in Texas, Paris’ penultimate scene...


When watching this scene I fall into a zone whereby I’m not focused on the images, just the sound, and am completely encapsulated by the story being projected by the monologues. The same thing happens when I watch The Mirror. Whilst it is not the sound that falls away from my perceptual gaze, it is an attention I am acutely aware of when watching a film like Psycho that floats somewhere distant. In films like Psyco, I have to pay attention to the mechanics of the story to understand what Hitchcock is saying, with The Mirror, I just have to give my attention over to fall into something like a trance. But, just as I can’t precisely explain The Monologue Paradox and explain how to conjure it as I would outline how to depict someone stealing money, I can’t explain how Tarkovsky conjures his atmosphere, his masterful tone inherent to all of his films.

The reason why I can’t break down poetic cinema is that it is so subjective to a narrative and the product of a myriad of unseen moving parts. By this, we can understand that it is Tarkovsky’s manipulation of sound and visuals, sometimes his use of silence or slow motion, that draws us in, but we can’t explain the narrative through this, nor can we grasp the intricacies of the story. This leaves these films incredibly slippery, almost impossible to grip, but immersive nonetheless. When faced with a question of how to capture this ourselves, I must then suggest that you try not to understand this film for what it is, but for what it isn’t, to not understand this film by the plethora of artistic choices Tarkovsky makes, but through Tarkovsky’s artistic prowess. In such, I mean to introduce a form of cinematic assessment encapsulated by an idea of ‘artistic sensibilities’.

To explain this concept, it is best to use one of the most important interviews a filmmaker can ever see. This is a notorious interview between Peter Bogdanovich and John Ford:

Man: Take one. (Claps board)
Ford: Take one? Won’t be more than one take, will there? Shoot. 
Bogdanovich: Mr. Ford, you made a picture called Three Bad Men which is a large scale western - you had quite an elaborate land rush in it...
Ford: Mm-hm.
Bogdanovich: ... how did you shoot that?
Ford: With a camera. 
Bogdanovich: Isn’t The Sun Shines Bright kind of a little picture that you made for yourself - would that--
Ford: Yeah.
Bogdanovich: --fall under the same--
Ford: Uh-huh. 
Bogdanvich: Mr. Ford, I’ve noticed that the, uh... that your view of The West has become increasingly... sad... and melancholy over the years... Uh, I’m comparing, for instance, Wagon Master to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Have you been aware of that--
Ford: No.
Bogdanovich: --change in mood?
Ford: No.

The interview goes on for half a minute more. To see it in its entirety click here. But, what’s clear about this conversation is that Ford is either/both grumpy and/or a man not willing to explain his work and self. David Lynch is very much the same - just not as grumpy. Ford’s dismissive attitude, however, speaks in volumes about the questions inspired filmmakers want to ask. They want to expose and mechanise what is often a very intuitive and personal process as a form of learning. But, to poke at a director’s art is to poke at them, moreover, audiences sometimes bring to the film something a director hadn’t pre-conceived. Bogdanovich’s last question of the change in Ford’s westerns is highly indicative of both of these ideas. Instead of embracing the fact that his films can speak of himself as a person or embracing some audience members that look too deep into his films (people like me writing this and you reading it), he dismisses them. Lynch also dismissed questions of what his films mean, but does so in a much more sly and evasive manner; he embraces the fact that people bring something of their own to his movies, that they will take something away that he didn’t intend. This is surely one of the most difficult aspects of art to manage; a writer/director wants to say one thing to an audience, but something else is heard. Such is rather crushing disconnect articulated, but, this disconnect isn’t a futile one. An audience getting something rather than nothing is surely a positive.

However, what lies at the core of this disconnect is a person trying to say something. For Ford, maybe he just wanted to make an entertaining piece of cinema - maybe he’s just bored or tired of trying to put that across to people. Nonetheless, herein lies the epitome of artistic sensibilities. Ford knows what his films mean, just like Lynch may (eventually) do, just like Tarkovsky may do. Their intuitive projection of this understanding is facilitated by their sensibilities as an artist. Because of this, I sometimes I hear just as much from interviews with Tarkovsky or from his book Sculpting in Time, as I do from this interview with John Ford. That is not to say that Tarkovsky is inarticulate, just that he is a man that seems to know his art on such an individual and subjective level that it is difficult to re-contextualise. When he tries to explain this, when he tries to convey just what his films mean through his philosophy of cinema, we can easily be lost. This describes, again, what poetic cinema is. It’s not just opposed to a mechanical approach to cinema as so subdued and ambiguous, but personal; steeped in the hidden depths of a person. The Mirror serves an example of this that cannot be bettered. This is a film that is, in large part, autobiographical for Tarkovsky. It’s his and Aleksandr Misharin’s (screenwriter) childhoods that are being projected through Aleksei; a mere vessel of character. What we are then seeing in The Mirror are the core emotions of Tarkovsky himself - those that he may not be able to articulate in a mechanistic way. What this picks up on is another struggle of anyone trying to tell another something. One of the hardest questions anyone can ever ask you is ‘Who are you?’. On a side note, this is a concept probably best explored through Hugh’s Breakfast Club...


Back on track, to answer a question such as Who are you? you can almost never say anything better than your name. Just as I am Daniel Slack and Tarkovsky is Andrei Tarkovsky you are ............... . In saying our names, we trigger in ourselves a vast network of experiences accumulated throughout our lives that define ourselves to us alone. We do not see these events as individual mechanistic lessons, rather a conglomerate of emotions, a singular feeling symbolised by our name. Such is the crux of our disconnect and inarticulable personage as people; we can’t just tell other who we are as we’re not that simple. Nonetheless, we all make this attempt in telling stories, for some, in making films. Tarkovsky means to answer this unfathomable question of who he is through poetry, through poetic cinema. In such, we are seeing him turning his film into a symbol tantamount to that of his name. However, the film is so much more because it has detail, it makes an attempt to explain with some depth who Tarkosvky is. In such, we see the best means of answering this incredibly complex question of Who are you?; your approach has to be open, ambiguous, needing interpretation, so that it has the dexterity to be understood by so many on such a profound level. This kind of understanding when translated through film, however, retains ambiguity - which is exactly why The Mirror is such a profound experience I cannot explain. The ambiguous poetry of this film is thus the only way Tarkovsky can approach the kind of communication he pursues.

However, we’re still left with the question of how to assess and learn from Tarkovsky. The answer lies in the simple idea of artistic sensibilities. This is a complex codex of an artist’s intentions intertwined, at times lost, in a narrative. To comprehend an artists’ sensibilities you just have to absorb their films. In such, you aren’t just learning about them as a person (as Bogdanovich must have with Ford’s films), but learning their style. In knowing a person’s style you aren’t able to see their films as mechanistic entities, like you may Hitchcock’s, though. This is frustrating, but you can nonetheless learn from an artist like Tarkovsky. By watching his films you can slowly figure out what he is doing in terms of what he is not doing. An example would be the way Tarkovsky doesn’t use traditional plots. He jumps throughout time and into characters in a very fluid and dexterous way that can’t be plotted on a beat sheet - that always stems from a character. Without a beat sheet and by watching and re-watching Tarkovsky’s films we can learn a myriad of details that make up his take on cinema. These details are much easier picked up than expressed in an essay - this is why its so important to watch his films, this is why poetic cinema is such an significant kind to consume. Whilst films such as The Mirror aren’t as coherent as Psycho, they are not only great filmic experiences (if you have the patience and attention for them) but lessons in how to approach cinema. What Tarkovsky’s artistic sensibilities then teach in the most profound sense is that all artists have their intentions. And whilst I may proclaim that we can break Hitchcock’s style and sensibilities down, this is only true a certain extent. To get the most from Hitchcock you must also consider him as a poet in the same respect you would Tarkovsky. This will allow you to absorb even more from his films - something that you can’t put on the page, but will learn from.

So, the crux of what The Mirror really teaches is as a test, it is a trial in our ability to absorb art as the craft of a handicapped person; the artist; he who means to express the inexpressible, he who means to face the impossible question of Who am I? in all of its forms. Absorb Tarkovsky, absorb great films, and you will find yourself the most crucial and stifling lessons about telling stories through the medium of film. The key to this absorption, however, is recognising the futility expressed in the John Ford interview, is recognising the hardship implied by this concept of artistic sensibilities.




Previous post:


More from me:

24/12/2016

The Last House On The Left - Exploitation Is Intimacy

Thoughts On: The Last House On The Left (1972)

Two girls on their way to a concert are kidnapped, raped, tortured and then killed.



As promised, a disgusting, violent and stupid film to follow up a string of Disney mush. The Last House On The Left is an incredibly mediocre, sometimes terrible, film. It doesn't really need to be said, but the acting throughout is completely awful. There are a few believable moments, and a handful that are covered up by Wes Craven’s direction, but the acting is fundamentally terrible. However, it’s here where we find the strongest part of the film: the direction. Wes Craven is of course a staple-name in the world of horror with films such as A Nightmare On Elm Street, Scream and The Hills Have Eyes. Despite not being a fan of these films, it is undeniable that Craven captures ridiculous stories poignantly. The Last House On The Left is a great example of this. Despite the dog-shit dialogue and terrible acting plodding along this weak story, Craven, through direction and editing, makes this a watchable film. It’s this that elevates the film from terrible to mediocre. However, under the guise of exploitation, this film takes another jump. Whilst The Last House On The Left isn’t The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Night Of The Living Dead, Cannibal Holocaust, Foxy Brown, Pink Flamingos or A Serbian Film, it is a significant feature in this class of cinema and a particularly good exploitation film. Before we can get into this though, we have to ask what an exploitation film is. The key definition of ‘exploitation film’ is one linked to pop culture or current events. These kinds of films will capitalise on trends; take a concept to an extreme and bring in a very niche audience. This means exploitation films are, in large part, rather vapid thrill-ride money-grabs. However, I don’t think this definition of the exploitation feature is the most clear and expressive explanation of this kind of cinema. Firstly, the link to current trends isn’t always a strong one. If we take Night Of The Living Dead as an example of this, we see a film some say is linked to capitalist critique, and others the projection of a diseased-based fear. In other words, the zombies can be considered semi-conscious, selfish, flesh-seeking, consumers who want nothing more than more. Moreover, the zombies may be seen as diseased people, our fear of them being a mere fear of infection and so on. However, as we all know, zombie films never stopped with Night Of The Living Dead...

      

Whilst this is largely because of the money this film and genre of horror can amass, we have to look to audience to see why they want this content. The answer seems to be in the fact that the subtextual themes picked up on in Night Of The Living Dead are still current trends; they still have emotive power behind them. This cites the longevity of many exploitation films. Most pick up on themes of murder, violence, torture, sexuality and so pick up on universal human fears - not just trends zipping through the zeitgeist. This leaves our initial definition of the exploitation feature rather unsatisfying. Because of this I think we can find better definitions. In fact, I believe there are three major tenants of the exploitation picture that aren't represented by this definition - all of which we’ll pick up on today with The Last House On The Left as our focus.

The first definition I can offer has to be in the design of the exploitation picture. These films first and foremost exploit one concept or theme. As touched on, this is often something violent and/or sexual. With The Last House On The Left, we see a transparent example of this. To an almost ridiculous extent, this film strives to show us intensifying sexual barbarity; from molestation to rape to biting dicks off, this is clearly a film obsessed with driving deep into our most reflexive fears. And such is the purpose of the exploitation film in this respect. They mean to push cinema to places no one has dared to before. The catch 22 of the exploitation under this pushing of bounds is, unfortunately, popularity and attention. The more money these films make, the more will be made. And to stay relevant, each exploitation feature must escalate, must push bounds further, otherwise it’ll be a mere let down. This is exactly why there was a huge decline of these films as we moved out of the 80s and an almost completely loss of them by the 90s. Filmmakers seemed to have ran out of creative resources and audiences turned to something else. A key hallmark of the exploitation period has to be...


... Cannibal Holocaust. This is probably one of the most vulgar film of the class and pretty much bookended it as one of the last popular releases. It’s in the early 80s and with this film that the exploitation picture hit its peak in terms of pushing bounds. You only have to see 20 minutes of Cannibal Holocaust to get what I mean. I myself haven’t got more than 30 minutes in because the film really does go too far with the murder and torture of live animals. But, in my saying that, I’ve probably livened the interest of a few who will, if they haven’t already, try and watch this film. And in such, we see the purpose of pushing boundaries, of taking a concept such as violence to such an extreme. Nonetheless, Cannibal Holocaust is one of the last classic exploitation films and so the last breath of a tired approach to filmmaking.

However, in Wes Craven, we see an interesting character to study in respect to the exploitation genre. The Last House On The Left came somewhat early in this period and was Craven’s first film; the one that popularised him and led onto The Hills Have Eyes. It’s with The Hills Have Eyes, however, that we see Craven moving somewhat away from the exploitation picture. Whilst this film has the all-important elements of gore and sexual violence, it also incorporated heavier action elements and utilised a larger budget. And it’s because of this that The Hills is much more a genre film than The Last House On The Left. Craven’s most popular film, A Nightmare On Elm Street, makes this point over again. A Nightmare On Elm Street is undeniably a horror film - a psychological slasher. It is not thought of as an exploitation film, and neither is The Hills Have Eyes for the most part, because they lack the stark simplicity of The Last House On The Left. That is to say that they have too many cinematic elements to them. The Last House On The Left is a succinctly focused film, one that zeroes in on sexual violence in an almost plotless narrative. A key part of this concentration is of course absurdity - a staple of all exploration films. They are all incredibly absurd, almost laughable at points; this is what we get when Fred’s dick is bitten off. However, the Hills Have Eyes doesn’t really have this absurdity as the design of the film is there to imply some sense of verisimilitude. That is to say that we’re made to believe that a town of insane deformed people may live out in a dessert and prey upon stranded people. But, coming back to the scene where Fred’s dick is bitten off, what we’re seeing here is a huge jump in the narrative. The film is almost a just very gory thriller up until the point where the gang returns to the parent’s house. This is only made all the more clearer when the parents decide deal with the criminals on their own. This makes absolutely no sense for the characters to do - however, this is something we’ll pick up on in  a moment. To round off the first defining element to exploitation films, we see that there is a succinct focus in the narratives, one that means to exploit a singular theme or concept, in turn, and audience’s reflexive reaction to this. In such, we see an extremism in the design of exploitation pictures, one that will inevitable destroy all ideas of verisimilitude.

Ok, the second rule or defining aspect of exploitation pictures is their approach to character. To me, this is the essence of the exploitation film and what you really must understand to be able to write/make them. There are no characters in exploitation pictures. At most, you have caricatures, but, you will almost always be dealing with pawns. This speaks to, us, the audience. The exploitation picture only works because there is an inherent contrivance to them; one that leaves them predictable. Filmmakers know this and so step up to the task of not only meeting expectations of extremism when they make their films, but surpassing expectations, giving the audience more than they expected. This is the playful game that belies the exploitation picture, one played between filmmaker and audience. In going to a film of this kind, an audience member is both stepping up to a dare, but also laying down a bet. They’re risking being horrified and offended, possibly scarred for life, secretly hoping that they aren’t - but kind of are. Knowing this, both filmmaker and audience have certain expectations of character. They don’t really want to root for anyone, they don’t really want to empathise, nor do they want to understand. The characters are there as a weak vessel for the audience, one they slightly empathise with, but also one they’re willing to see be put through torture - usually, quite literally. In such, characters as mere pawns is an inevitable element of the exploitation picture. The filmmaker uses them as a mere object subjected to their stature as a creative God or sense of fate.

Pushing deeper into this idea of fate or ultimate power, both audience and filmmaker use exploitation films as an extreme form of voyeurism. This is the crux of the dare and game they play. It’s an almost sadomasochistic push and pull - characters being the rope between the two. Moreover, exploitation films capitalise on fate as a structural element to produce anti-tragedies. The anti-tragedy is a concept of mine that defines the relationship an audience will have with an exploitation character. There is the element of fate; the fact we know they’re probably going to die horribly or do something inhuman, but one that isn’t tragic in the same respect something like Romeo And Juliet is. The Shakespearean tragedy is mostly masochistic, is us being swept away by romance knowing it will all fail in the end. Conversely, the anti-tragedy present in exploitation film yearns for this failure and embraces it. In such, it is much more sadistic as there are no tears to be expected by the end of The Last House On The Left or a contemporary take on this kind of narrative such as A Serbian Film. We are almost made to sneer at the tragedy in these films. A Serbian Film is probably a better example than The Last House On The Left because there is such a brutal dismissal of the family in the end of this film. Without spoiling it, the inevitable tragedy is one used just to continue the horrific cycle that the characters try to escape. There is no poignant gut punch to this ending though, one nothing like you would see in a tragedy such as Bicycle Thieves of Rififi. This ending is just the films final ‘fuck you all’.

This only works, however, because the characters in this film are empty. There is some amount of traditional characterisation put into them, but this is all ridiculous. That is to say that it is not taken seriously by the audience, nor considered the purpose of watching the film. You see this so much more explicitly in The Last House On The Left. The parents aren’t characterised at all - no one is. They say stupid shit about tits in the beginning, act teenagery or like a happy family near the middle, and then they’re all tortured or turn into monsters by the end. With this, there is no sympathy needed from the filmmakers. The attraction is simply the violence, not necessarily the characters it is inflicted upon.

With such a dismissal of character in exploitation films what we are then seeing is a incredibly rebellious form of cinema - one that is often rebellious without a cause, without much perspective or intent. The Last House On The Left is a convoluted example of this. As the title may have already indicated to you, this is a film with something of a political message to it. It takes progressive themes of love and peace and instills them into the victim caricatures - the teens. Their meeting the criminals because of drugs is a commentary on being a hippy, free and all those other cliches. They thus fall into a nasty trap as the world isn’t full of people we should love. Moreover, the sexual sadism inflicted upon the two girls further demonstrates how ‘free love’ isn’t something people really want to embrace. There is only horror in these sequences because we are a culture which will not accept free love, that needs consent, that conserves sex as an act that is not at all free to all. If we were truly a ‘free love’ culture, we firstly would not observe the term ‘free love’, it’d be ‘free pleasure’. Secondly, if sex were free, given away as conversation is, then rape couldn’t be a thing. Just as someone couldn’t rape you with unwanted small talk, they couldn’t rape you with forced penetration. This is what the film means to serve as commentary on. What’s more, the dismissal of cops, the reliance on self-sovereignty and guns make this film seemingly very pro-right (the latter being a much more cohesive example of this) leaving the lasting commentary a somewhat conservative one.

What this says about The Last House On The Left as an exploitation picture is incredibly confounding. It is both conservative in its message, but incredibly liberal with its presentation. What this leaves this film as is a spit in the face of both left and right in a political sense, and ultimately a very rebellious feature. This is what makes this feature a undeniable great exploitation picture, but, character cannot be forgotten at this point. It’s the caricatures of political archetype that fuel this narrative. And in such, we see the duel purpose of ‘characters’ in exploitation films. They are there as pawns of both emotional engagement and intellectual inquiry. They serve the audience and filmmaker as an extreme approach to what are usually much more subtle aspects of cinema. Whilst we usually try to make characters seem like real people as to get across the emotional message of our films, the exploitation picture makes the point that creating them as them pure objects can be emotional impactful, too. Whilst I believe that traditional characters, complex ones we’re made to believe could be real people, are more effective devices in a story, I think exploitation characters are the only way to speak to people in such a directly reflexive way. When characters are real people we can’t see them as mere monsters, as mere sex things, as just a teenager. When characters become more like people, they become less like archetypes and so distinguish themselves from our biases. Staying away from this, exploitation films can be so visceral and troubling to people. Moreover, they allow filmmakers to make much more explicit commentary. Again, real people aren’t archetypes; it’s with archetypes that you can make broad statements. That’s what you see in The Last House On The Left in the parents, teens and killers. They are little more than extreme representations; through and through archetypes.

So, it’s by seeing characters as cinematic pawns that you can both define an exploitation picture and start to know how to write one. Before moving on with the point though, I want to touch on the stigma that must be attached to the term exploitation film, not to mention all of the phrases I’ve been using to describe them. Whilst exploitation films are brutal, are extreme, are sometimes pretty empty, they’re often a class of cinema I can, maybe not fully embrace and enjoy, but certainly accept. This is because they're a cinematic class of films. Whilst they push things to an extreme like Warhol or von Trier have, they do so for the audience and filmmaker. This is why, despite all that’s fucked up about them, I don’t mind them. In fact, I only have two reasons for not liking exploitation films in general - and they’re pretty subjective. Firstly, the actors and characters are designed terribly. Whilst the characters on the page make some amount of sense and are justified by the intentions of this type of cinema, the way they’re acted out for the screen is often unbearable. Some might like this style of acting, or just not mind it, but I have no yearning to really get into these films, nor re-watch them. The second reason why I’m not a fan of the exploitation genre is their contrived nature. By dismissing all aspects of verisimilitude with the inevitable absurd acts, these films become almost pointless to me. For some, I know this is their purpose - just fun experiences - but, I get frustrated with throwaway films as I just see no point in them. I much rather prefer films with elements of exploitation that manage to sustain verisimilitude, that are believable; film such as:

    
    

These films, to me, seem to be the fruits of exploitation. Whilst some filmmakers push the cinematic form to extremes, others slot in behind them and see what they can do with ground covered. So, whilst A Clockwork Orange is incredibly controversial with aspects of exploitation present in its elements of brutality and sexuality, it is a film by Kubrick and so is a serious movie, one that has great depths and doesn't just mean to just be vulgar as to entertain. That isn't to say that all exploitation films do is this, be vulgar as to entertain, but, none are in the same class as A Clockwork Orange, none are as good or better. Whilst I could sink deeper with this subject, it is one I want to save for another time. So, moving on...

The final defining attribute of the exploitation film is a somewhat paradoxical one. When I feel exploitation films working, it’s because they’ve managed to suck me in. They do this with a cinematic atmosphere of intimacy. What I mean to imply here is an almost childish fascination. In the same way a teenager may find porn for the first time, just out of interest and intrigue, people usually stumble upon exploitation films. In such, they want to see something that they maybe shouldn’t. For this to work, for it to really speak to the curious viewer, there must be an air of intimacy and so a sense of safety generated. That means that the film won’t condemn the violence or sexuality wherein; it is always played out with a tone of ‘yes, this is fucked up, but it’s ok to be watching it’. You don’t see this in blockbuster action films; In short, anything by Marvel or DC...

      

Batman is a great example of this anti-exploitation. Violence has to be justified, it has to have conditions. The same can be said when we look to The Avengers. There is a explicit stigma attached to violence in the action elements of these films. This is exactly what exploitation films relinquish.

This is a lesson that these kind of films need to learn from - it’s ok to to have elements of exploitation in your film; it makes things fun and we really don't need morality nonsense thrown at us so much. It’s here where I have to say I have huge respect for exploitation pictures. Just like they agree to play a game with their audience, they agree to say that we’re adults and can see some fuck up shit if we want. These films are a middle finger in the face of age certificates, in fact they wear them as badges; the gold being what was an X, what later became NC-17 or an 18. The crux of this agreement between audience and filmmaker is, however, one founded on an intimacy. This is generated through the pure explicitness of the films, and so, to know when you’re watching an exploitation picture, all you really have to ask is: am I somewhat comfortable going into this film? Do I feel ok when seeing this fucked up shit?

I can then only compare the experience of seeing a good exploitation picture as to seeking out and finding fucked up YouTube videos. I'm fascinated with people getting jacked, bitten, dismembered and killed by animals. I also like to see them do it to each other. Why?  I suppose there is a transcendence when I watch these ‘fucked up’ things. I don’t feel like I’m engaging in something taboo or something I know I shouldn’t be; it’s just interesting. In such, there isn’t really a violence in seeing a person having there arm torn off by a crocodile. There’s just a ridiculous sense of awe. I don’t indulge the fact that the guy is currently experiencing the most horrifying and painful thing he may ever, instead I focus on that consequence as a concept. Yes, this is dehumanising, yes, I’m seeing the man as an exploitation character, but I think this is a very human thing. In the same sense, I have a great interest in hunting videos and MMA. These are things I could never see myself engaging in, but they’re a great interest to me sat on one side of a screen. Whilst there’s a contrived and very fake element to this engagement, it seems to be a watered down expression of the human inclination to learn and experience - everything from the positive to utterly negative. Many centuries ago, you’d be able to see your neighbours die of disease or in battle, centuries before that, you’d likely be seeing those in your village being picked off by predators, daily. This experience has been eradicated in almost all areas of the developed world. We do not see our food killed. We do not know what battle is. We don’t know what it is to die of disease, to fight for your life against the real monsters in the dark. I’m incredibly grateful for this fact and so embrace the byproduct of this societal cushioning: fucked up YouTube videos.

The exploitation picture of course proceeds the fucked up YouTube video though, but nonetheless shares its essence as a piece of intrigue; something that will safely push buttons of horrific experience we don’t really get to play with anymore. It must be said though, again, that these films have a contrived element to them. They are very clearly cinematic; they’re not fucked up YouTube videos as they’re not real and don’t try to be. Because of this, it is difficult to make an exploitation picture - especially nowadays for people like me who consume real messed up video footage. However, I’m sure that you’re shouting bullshit right now. Beforehand, said that I had to turn off Cannibal Holocaust because of the animal torture, and now I’m saying I watch people and animals die on YouTube. The reason why I can consume one media and not the other is that killing animals for a film - and in such a sadistic manner - goes a step too far. This is all to do with the contrived nature of cinema. You can accept real accidents and documentations of animals existing in their natural state; humans hunting, because it is real; it is the state of things. Documentaries of lions having sex and killing things are shown in the middle of the day because there is a consensus of reality in these documentations agreed between all of us. However, you can’t even see a hit of sexuality or heavy violence in cinematic form on most channels at the same time of day. This is because cinema is created, it has a purpose as entertainment and commentary. Documentaries are purely observational, we accept things such as death in them as they are considered to not be contrived. This, again, links into our ape side. We all used to watch our friends die of diseases or in the jaws of animals almost every day centuries/millennia ago. This, whist tragic, must have been something somewhat accepted. That is to say that it would be acceptable in comparison to someone feeding their friend to a lion. Whilst a lion making off with a friend is apart of life, feeding that friend to a lion shouldn't be acepted - even for art and entertainment. This is because there’s a human control present here. The same can be said for cinema and documentaries; we don’t like to see someone/thing thrown to the lions, but, we will accept the lion taking someone/thing.

This all speaks to exploitation pictures. They have to walk a thin line. They must figt their contrived, human created, nature with cinematics and a sense of intimacy to work. Because Canniabl Holocaust doesn’t manage this well at all, it is an exploitation film that goes too far for me. When we look to The Last House On The Left, we see a film that has some moments of intimacy where the violence is immersive and awe-inspiring in a horrific way. We see this in scenes such as Mari’s murder, but it is lost quite a bit in the final act due to the utter absurdity. Nonetheless, the crux of exploitation films working is undeniably intimacy.

So, those are the three extra defining parameters of exploitation films:

1. It is a concept that the exploitation film exploits, one that is fixated on to an extreme.

2. Characters do not exist in exploitation films; they are caricatures or pawns for audience and filmmaker.

3. The exploitation film, at its best, is intimate.

So, there you go, these are extra elements to exploitation films that further specify and clarify this class of cinema. What are your thoughts?




Previous post:

Beauty And The Beast - Escaping The Throes Of Abuse, Destruction And Dysfunction

Next post:

The Mirror - Artistic Sensibilities

More from me:

amazon.com/author/danielalck