31/07/2017

Nothing's The Same/Bigger Plans - 2 BFC Shorts

Quick Thoughts: Nothing's The Same (2008) & Bigger Plans (2012)


For Burundi's place in the series we will be looking at two shorts from the BFC.

  

The Burundi Film Center is a non-profit organisation that helped fund and organise the production and promotion of short films made by students with the wider goal of seeing an artistic and journalistic culture flourish in Burundi. Today we'll take a quick look at two of these shorts and the first will be Nothing's The Same.

This short, made by Linda Kamuntu, follows Anémone, who, going to collect water, is confronted by the jealously of other women when she encounters her fiancé. Contemptuous with her seeming virtuousness, the two women then warn that "she'll gets what coming to her". Going home after collecting water, Anémone is assaulted and then raped, leaving her fearing that she will not only contract a disease such as HIV, but be abandoned by her fiancé. Nothing's The Same then attempts to create a realist narrative centred on a fear of virtue being destroyed in every sense of the word, but also a fear of abandonment and social condemnation.

With some ok acting and competent direction, this script and idea is executed quite well. There could have been a greater use of more expressive cinematic language as well as a better registry of the emotional shifts that our main character would have gone through. But, all in all, Nothing's The Same is not a bad movie.

The second film we will be looking at is Bigger Plans. This short film, directed by Cynthia Niyonsaba, has a simple premise rooted in one decision our main character, Moma, has to make. He has almost saved enough money to enrol at university, but is being pressured by his social group to spend his money elsewhere. With the most sincerity, his mother asks if he will help her buy a plot of land on which she could build a home for her younger children before she passes. Confronted by these possibilities, Moma has to then decide which is the 'bigger plan'.

Though this is not an immaculate film, Bigger Plans holds a particularly expressive idea as it mediates between ideas of education and family, asking what is more important and what is the greater good for people. Answering conservatively, this short has a warm conclusion that was built up to quite well. So, again, not a bad film from the BFC.

If you want to watch either Nothing's The Same or Bigger Plans, click on the links.

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30/07/2017

City Symphonies - What Have We Done?

Thoughts On: Manhatta (1921), Berlin: Symphony Of A Great City (1927), Man With A Movie Camera (1929), Rain (Regen, 1929), Concerning Nice (À Propos De Nice, 1930), Koyaanisqatsi (1982), Life In A Day (2011), Samsara (2011)

A brief look at a collection of documentaries that poetically explore regions, often cities.

      
      

When we think of cinema, we often think of moving pictures motivated by stories and narratives. However, as most will discover once they begin to study film, cinema is not confined to a particular type of storytelling, nor is it even attached to the idea of a narrative. And in acknowledging non-narrative cinema, we find ourselves in the realm of the art film, avant garde cinema and experimental movies. These are the films that play a major part in the construction of cinema's narrative spectrum - one extreme being classical narratives as old as human history, the middle ground being a blend of classical modes and experimental modes and the opposite extreme often being the avant garde and abstract forms of cinema.

Beyond the obvious forms of narrative cinema and its meetings with the abstract - examples of this being films that utilise interpretations of surrealism in otherwise traditional story structures, movies such as Spellbound, Los Olvidados or Shutter Island - I have often been intrigued by non-narrative cinema. And accompanying my interest in abstract animation, which seems to push the bounds of what the frame can be used to accomplish, and surreal narratives, which also question what a frame can do - but in regards to character, subtext and story - I've always been enamoured by City Symphonies.

The City Symphony is a form of montage cinema that sprouted from and flourished in the 1920s. It is one of the most important forms of cinema for many reasons. One reason would be that City Symphonies act as time capsules; tangible moving portraits of lost space and time. Secondly, City Symphonies played a hugely significant part in some of the first conscious forms of experimental cinema - which often, before the true advent of sound, attempted to explore and establish cinema's relationship with music. Thus, some of the first experimental films came from Germany and figures such as Walter Ruttmann. He not only experimented with animation, but the aesthetics and capabilities of documentary and editing. His work, among others', then acted as a branch of sorts to Soviet Montage, as represented through figures such as Vertov, Eisenstein and Dovzhenko. However, whilst we could talk about the importance and influence of Soviet Montage, this introduces the third reason as to why the City Symphony is one of the most significant forms of cinema; it all comes down to its influence. As many would know, the City Symphony often played a part, either directly or through mere contribution, to nationalist propaganda in the 20s, 30s and beyond. Because of this, we can make a strong argument for the idea that the power of imagery was truly allowed to flourish through the City Symphony as a mode of cinema, but, was ultimately used for political and sometimes destructive means. However, with that as a kind of introduction to this mode of cinema, what we will do today is take a brief look, nothing definitive, at a few examples of City Symphonies over time.

So, where to start? I think the best place to begin would be the Lumières. The Lumières did not make City Symphonies; this certainly wasn't on their minds as they popularised and spread the invention of moving imagery around the world. However, it is undeniable that what the Lumières did has strong aesthetic and conceptual links to what someone such as Vertov did in the 20s; they showed the real and mundane world to paying audiences as a captivating form of spectacle. Thus it was the Lumières that, much like Edison, brung to moving imagery the idea that people are interested in themselves and the novelty of humanity being able to control and hone space and time. If you then compile the Lumières' work into a feature length film, which has been done, you will see a basic form of the City Symphony; a simple depiction (one without a concept of editing) of the world and the people that inhabit it.

The pre-cursory form of the City Symphony that the Lumières' body of work can be seen to represent took a few years to then evolve into more complex forms of documentary - look, for example, to the work of Alfred Machin who would spend part of his career around the 1910s hunting exotic animals across the world, or the work of F. Percy Smith who explored biological life in more intricate detail to what Marey initial did in the pre-cinematic era, from the 1910s up until the 1930s. However, in the evolution of the documentary there was lost, in part, the concept of the image itself holding power, and so imagery fell subordinate to information; and we can understand this by considering modern form of documentary (anything to do with nature, science or culture) which are almost all focused on expositing facts and stories through forms closely representing narrative cinema. But, there was a period around the 1920s in which the documentary evolved into something entirely different.

The turn of the 20th century is, in accordance to human history, probably the most radical era we have ever experience. Not only did the industrialisation of the West speed up the evolution of culture and technology like history has never experience before, but it also made possible two World Wars and some of the greatest tragedies humanity has ever known. Cinema as an invention of the late 19th century played a part of this as an expression and projection of change - and this is where City Symphonies seemingly found their footing. It was then in the early 1920s that films such as Manhatta surfaced. Made by Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler, this is a promotional look of wonder at Manhattan's cityscape, people and bustling life. Thus it is a blend documentary and advertisement that utilised cinema's capacity to enthral and project spectacle. However, beyond introducing undertones of patriotism and advertisement to documentary, Mahatta shouldn't be considered a true City Symphony because of its lack of musicality; which is of course established by the editing. So, because the editing (the stitching of imagery depicting buildings and construction) in this film is interrupted greatly by expository cards or inter-titles there isn't any sense of a symphonic montage, leaving this film more a portrait of a city, less a symphony.

To come to true Symphonies, we have to find ourselves with figures such as Ruttmann and his 1927 film Berlin: Symphony Of A Great City. What Ruttmann further introduced (Vertov's early work pre-dates his, and it is thought that he inspired Ruttmann) to non-narrative cinema and the documentary was the idea that the cut could act as an aesthetic, rhythmic and sensory tool. He began this study of film rhythm with abstract animation, what he would call Absolute Film, in the form of his Lichtspiel Opus films in the early 20s. These are essentially shorts that the animators at Disney would later refine and bring to life with music in the 1940 Fantasia. However, it was Ruttmann that consciously studied this form of animation to test cinema's rhythmic capabilities in the silent era, which lead to the founding of new cinematic language. This is all expressed through two of his interests meeting: film and architecture (which he studied before working on films). And so we come to Berlin: Symphony Of A Great City.

Ruttmann used his documentation of a city as an aesthetic practice ground through which he expressed hair raising abilities in regards to framing and editing. And though Ruttmann denied that his film was politically motivated, there is an undeniable subtext underlying this abstract narrative. In such, Ruttmann very clearly asked one question: What have we done?

This is a question that has forever been attached to the City Symphony - arguably since the days of the Lumières. We could argue this because the awe we find in imagery is often attached to the wondrous nature of creation, being and life itself. This is exactly why cinema was born as a spectacle and novelty; the pure fact that people could make pictures of the world move inspires a question of What have we done? However, whilst this question can be asked in awe, it can be asked in despair and with critical undertones. And we certainly see these two interpretations of this question embedded into Berlin: Symphony Of A Great City. Whilst imagery of the average person, mass production and city life seem to glorify Berlin, there are clear sequences within this narrative that critique the city through a depiction of the poor and impoverished settings. Formally speaking, however, what Ruttmann projected in these sequences was the essence of Soviet Montage.

From the early 20s and onwards, the Soviets utilised cinema as a means of expression in a way that no one else in the world really had before. In such, the Soviets theorised upon and question the idea of the cut. The cut, edit, assembly or montage is almost as old as cinema itself with the first cuts appearing in films dating back to 1895. However, what motivated the evolution of the cut was, in large part, the chase film. Founded by British filmmakers such as Mottershaw, developed by Americans such as Porter and perfected by the likes of D.W Griffith, later, Buster Keaton (though, Keaton developed the content of chases, not so much their form), chase scenes were how movies really dazzled audiences in the 1900s and 1910s and were also how filmmakers proved their technical capabilities. Griffith was probably the first master of this; and we can see this with his use of cross-cutting in films such as The Birth Of A Nation and certainly Intolerance. However, whilst the chase scene motivated an exploration of the edit and what it can do in terms of spectacle, momentum and emotion, it wasn't until the Soviets began experimenting with it that montage took on a whole other meaning, literally. Kuleshov, for example, showed the world that the cut can often mean more to cinema than imagery itself, for it is the collision and meeting of images that can produce mood, atmosphere and subtext.

However, outside of narrative films such as Strike, Battleship Potemkin and Earth, Soviet Montage was of course applied to documentaries. And thus we come to the masterpiece City Symphony that is Man With A Movie Camera. Just like Berlin: Symphony Of A Great City, Man With A Movie Camera celebrates the industrialisation and radical change that the early 20th century encapsulated. But, whilst Ruttmann's film asks the question "What have we done?" with both positive and negative outcomes, Vertov's film is almost entirely positive (for example, despite sequences like the one in which a man is hurt, the efficiency of rescue services becomes the point). Thus, Man With A Movie Camera falls into the canon of Soviet propaganda along with the likes of Strike, Battleship Potemkin and Earth. But, to give an example of a City Symphony that interprets the question, "What have we done?", to the opposite extreme to Man With A Movie Camera, we could look to Jean Vigo's À Propos De Nice. Inspired by the Soviets, and in collaboration with Vertov's brother, Vigo constructed a highly critical depiction of an industrialised city in 1930 that shows the City Symphony's capability to ask its question, "What have we done?", with overwhelming despair. Thus, À Propos De Nice, because of the overt nature of its criticism, is probably one of the most expressive examples of the meaning that can be found through montage and the juxtaposition of images. However, because of its biting criticism we could argue that the spirit of a City Symphony, which is founded in exploration and celebration bordering on propaganda, is quite lost on À Propos De Nice as Vigo seemingly has more of a focus on the culture of Nice as opposed to its geography. At the same time, this could all be disputed.

But, moving on, when we look at A Man With A Movie Camera, one of the most pronounced elements of the City Symphony certainly becomes the evolved power of imagery. Vertov's masterpiece utilises the language of the image and of the cut to conjure imagery that we simply have never seen since; and in such the frames of Man With A Movie Camera, as motivated by montage, are imbued with a momentum and weight that, I think, could only have been captured by the Soviets in the 1920s. This is because Russia in the 20s saw itself as, or at least projected itself to be through propaganda, on the forefront of a world-wide cultural revolution - that being communism. Thus, in films such as Man With A Movie Camera there is a patriotic and national pride in the imagery that was only ever again captured with such force by the likes of Nazi propaganda. Because this motivation to project national pride was so deeply embedded into these films, there is an irrevocable power that exudes from their imagery; just look to the opening sequences of Triumph Of The Will or the entirety of Man With A Movie Camera. However, what this strength and power came to represent was incredibly sinister, leaving City Symphonies, the techniques and aesthetics that they provided cinema with, a stain that, in scrubbing at and concealing, filmmakers utilised quite carefully.

This seems to be a reason why modern cinema doesn't resemble the cinema of Soviet Montage in the 1920s despite its power and expressive nature; to anyone who knows film history, imitating the techniques of pre-WWII propagandists too closely can leave a bad taste in your mouth. Moreover, the motivation for this kind of cinema doesn't really exist in the modern day because our industrialised age isn't such a new one. This implies that the style that came out of the 20s was, in large part, an expression of that era; an era that the modern age doesn't at all resemble. As a result, the City Symphony in many respects became the travelogue, which is a form of documentary that depicts cultures and regions of the world.

However, the City Symphony still exists to this day in varying forms. But, before delving into this, we will have to look at a different kind of City Symphony: Mannus Franken and Joris Ivens' 1929 film, Regen. This is a Dutch City Symphony that, unlike many montage films of this era, doesn't have a singular focus on a city, nor much to say about it, rather, nature's interaction with it. In turn, Rain is a study of weather's, specifically a downpours', effect on a city that gains a rhythmic quality not so much through the editing but the movement and textures of its imagery. Whilst there is a sequence in Man With A Movie Camera that comes close to exploring this, what Rain really represents is a reintroduction of what we could say the Lumières' documentary films resemble in regards to City Symphonies. In such, Rain is a spectacle film and an evolved form of early silent cinema; one that is defined by its capacity to have us not just experience a city, but question and ponder upon the implications of an event. As a result, Rain is both a poetic non-narrative film and a City Symphony. And I believe that this form of montage is what has stayed with filmmakers through the ages as opposed to that which Man With A Movie Camera represents.

When we then look beyond the 1920s and 30s for examples of City Symphonies, we encounter a challenge of definition - or just have to accept that this trend only existed in this era. Assuming that we only have a challenge of definition, the most significant 'City Symphonies' to come out of more contemporary cinema should be considered 'World Symphonies'. An example of this would be Koyaanisqatsi. Much like the 1929 Rain, Koyaanisqatsi applies the principals of montage quite loosely and so should probably be defined as a poetic documentary. This is because the montage present within Koyaanisqatsi is more a compilation of images that ask a question holistically instead of segmentally. In such, I am suggesting that the juxtaposition found in Berlin: Symphony Of A Great City or Man With A Movie Camera builds up to a point. In contrast to this, Koyaanisqatsi uses less juxtaposition and less collision of imagery not to build a point, but to ask a question. As said, almost all City Symphonies ask "What have we done?" as a society and world culture, but Koyaanisqatsi takes this a step further and asks us to critique the manner in which the world is changing through the definition of the word "Koyaanisqatsi". This separates it from City Symphonies as there is an inherent sense of documentary as a form of advertisement and even propaganda within the Symphonies from the 20s.

However, this is not the singular thing that separates Koyaanisqatsi from the City Symphonies of the 20s as films such as À Propos De Nice (which I would also question if it were City Symphony) had this critique and questioning in their subtext. Added to this critique and questioning are the hugely differing aesthetic and formal choices in Koyaanisqatsi. As implied, much like Rain, Koyaanisqatsi chooses to focus on spectacle and framing as opposed to the art of montage.

However, we'll take a quick break from this line of discussion to delve into a most removed example of a City Symphony. In 2011, a compilation of 100s of YouTube videos selected from a pool of over 80,000 submissions were constructed by Kevin Macdonald and Loressa Clisby to portray a life in the day of the people of the world. There is so much that could be said about this astounding film, but, if we consider it to be a World Symphony, not too far removed from a City Symphony, it becomes a representative of how this very old form of cinema has evolved.

Much like Koyaanisqatsi, Life In A Day reflects the manner in which the world has become connected through industrialisation and digitisation. And what both of these films then seem to represent is another reason as to why the City Symphonies of the 20s have gone extinct (at least, in the form in which they initially existed). Not only were much of the Symphonies propaganda, but they represented a nationalistic ideal. And whilst patriotism has certainly not evaporated from the world, there has been a strong trend of revisionism, especially centred on nationalist themes, over the last few decades - arguably since the 1960s and the significant change that that decade and wider era represented for the West. Life In A Day them seems to formally reflect this huge shift in culture and technology; in comparison to the City Symphonies of the 20s, it is a globalised shout from countless individuals and so one of the purest cinematic time capsules that had ever been constructed.

The last 'City Symphony' that we will then touch on is Samsara. An epic exploration of culture and change, Samsara seems to encompass the idea of a World Symphony and so is a significant mirror that the modern age could hold up to the filmmakers of the 1920s and their City Symphonies. Whilst it certainly has the theoretical underpinnings that the Soviet Montage filmmakers gave cinema, Samsara is formally alien to a film like Man With A Movie Camera. This is because the use of juxtaposition is subtle and the camera work less symbolic of 'moving pictures', rather, 'slightly moving pictures'. We see this with the reliance on the wide angle framing, slow and fast motion and colour. Thus, the editing, the montage, in this film is not so much concerned with the stitching of imagery, rather, the mise en scène and the content of imagery. And this is the detail that separates most modern incarnations of City Symphonies from those in the 1920s; they are concerned with content as opposed to form.

When we then look at Samsara, every image is less apart of a symphony, more a motivation for research; to truly understand Samsara you would then have to be aware of all of the cultural and historical details it references. Thus, what really defines World Symphonies as a form of cinema that has evolved from City Symphonies is the idea that "every picture has a thousand words" as opposed to "every cut has a thousand words". It's this poetic use of spectacle that then seemingly acts as a reprisal of the work of earliest filmmakers, such as the Lumières, that partially utilises the techniques and ideas that flourished out of the 1920s. This would then lead us to question if these films function at their optimal formal capacity and if they could be better somehow.

But, it's at this point that I'll end. What do you think of all of the films we've covered today? Do you have a favourite? What are your thoughts on how the City Symphony has changed? And how do you think it could/should change?







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End Of The Week Shorts #16.2



Today's Shorts: Horton Hears A Who! (2008), Danse Serpentine (1900), Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron (2002), The Phantom Carriage (1921)



A fantastic family movie bursting at the seams with fun, it's difficult not to like Horton Hears A Who. The animation and world building throughout are spectacular, the direction is surprisingly good and the voice performances by Carey, Carell and Burnette work wonders. There are a few dud jokes and plot-holes in the script, but it does well in producing a joyous narrative about unity and looking out for the little guys. Whilst this is dumbed down a bit and this film in general presents itself as more of a kids' movie rather than a family movie at times, there is very little to fault with Horton Hears A Who. 
So, whilst I wouldn't say that this is a perfect movie, I'm sure this is one that'll be remembered as a lot of fun for many years to come.



The Serpentine Dance (Danse Serpentine) was hugely popular around the turn of the 20th century. It was a burlesque dance created by Loïe Fuller that involved the manipulation of flowing fabric under changing coloured lights. Countless different versions of this dance where put to film between 1895-1901 and onwards with everyone from the Lumières to Edison to Georges Demenÿ to Alice Guy-Blaché making and remaking each other's depictions of the performance. 
It is this version from Guy-Blaché that expresses just how popular this dance was; to keep the performance interesting to audiences 5 years after the first films depicting it were made, Guy-Blaché shot Madame Ondine performing it a cage with live lions and tigers. So, to anyone who thinks re-makes and absurd rip-offs are a problem unique to the modern age, maybe watch this.



Spirit is a classical tale about freedom, leadership and home that is energised by some terrific animation and a brilliant soundtrack provided by Bryan Adams. 
It cannot be understated just how intricate and expressive the characterisation is throughout this movie. The choice to only provide voices to the horses through V.O is brilliant as it forces a use of ingenious cinematic language and pure cinematic storytelling. And so it's the culmination of the art direction and cinematic direction that provide this movie an incredibly strong backbone as it explores, with a good dose of romanticism, the forceful nature of American imperialism in face of the free 'spirit' of nature. Whilst I wouldn't say that there's much profundity to be found in the subtext of this narrative as it is something we've seen time and time again, it does manage to utilise it masterfully to conjure that tremendous emotional momentum and punch. 
In the end, this is a film I saw when I was a kid and it has always stuck with me. To my relief it holds up and so I wouldn't hesitate in recommending it.



A spectacular, yet equally dark and sombre, masterpiece of early Swedish cinema, The Phantom Carriage has incredible aesthetics weighed in balance with the content of its narrative. 
This is essentially a more profound version of Dickens' A Christmas Carol with far more corrupt characters that face existential questions of a similar class, though, they asked with greater intensity, resulting in a far more impactful emotional resolution. In such, The Phantom Carriage poignantly explores the idea of retribution and death as a question of one's own life, goodness and worth. Added to this there are a plethora brilliant special effects, solidifying this as a mesmerising silent film. 
Certainly one for the film buffs, The Phantom Carriage is worthwhile watch and an undeniable masterpiece.





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End Of The Week Shorts #16.1



Today's Shorts: Godzilla (1998), Top Hat (1935), La Belle et la Bête (1946), Gojira (1954), El Topo (1970), Pandora's Box (1929), The Blood Of A Poet (1932)



I've seen this film too many times. Caught it as it was on T.V and I barely paid attention. 
The spectacle of Godzilla is really dulled by the painful writing, which is certainly the worst part of this movie. There are hints of a social commentary on post-Cold War American society, but I didn't see it amount to much; I was too distracted by the terrible characters. What's more, I cannot understand both the choices in characters and the casting in this movie - all involved are so bland and forgettable that it becomes annoying that you have to spend so much time with them. 
Whilst I can understand the unforgiving criticism of the Godzilla things as they do look stupid and are a ridiculous movement away from the classic monster (which has left this movie being considered non-canon), the CGI never bothered me considering its time and the ambitious scale. With better direction, writing and acting, I think the creatures could have had a better presence and have actually felt like a threat (especially in the third act). Beyond this, people generally thought this movie sucked when it first came out and I don't think times have changed - rightly so.



Could you really ask for more from a musical romantic comedy? Top Hat is a masterpiece and a perfect piece of entertainment. The numbers all work, the comedy hits, Astaire and Rogers, of course, gel impeccably and the direction is brilliant. 
If I had to, I could fault the predictability and formulaic nature of the script, but I won't. What's more I could mention that the sound design isn't impeccable, much like almost all movies from the 30s, but, again, I won't. There's nothing worth faulting about this movie, it's one of the greatest musicals I've ever seen and it wonderfully captures, like few films ever have, the old Hollywood magic. I can do nothing other than repeat myself; Top Hat is a masterpiece and a perfect piece of entertainment.



An incredible cinematic re-telling of a classical fairy tale, one imbued with such immense beauty through both the design and Cocteau's direction. Made more than phenomenal by the impossibly rich cinematic language, La Belle et la Bête manages to encapsulate the spectacle of early cinema as projected through figures such as Méliès along side the poetic cinematic aesthetics of Vigo, Gance and Dulac to produce a masterful portrait of compassion, fear, repulsion and beauty. The cinematography alone is enough to leave you in awe, but with every single detail of this narrative fine tuned to perfection - the comedy, the melodrama, the costume and set design, the characterisation - La Belle et la Bête is an overwhelming piece of immense, fantastical cinema. 
If you have not seen this film, do not even hesitate, this is a true feat of filmmaking and a purely great picture.



By no means at all is Gojira a simple monster movie spectacle, it is rather a profoundly tragic exploration of humanity's capacity and ability to deal with power and destruction in the post-atomic era. 
In constructing this overwhelmingly melancholic parable, Honda of course puts to screen some of the most iconic cinematic images of all time - which, as much as they have been celebrated, have also been bastardised. But, though this movie has clearly aged and could easily be mocked for its practical and special effects, there is a great display of ingenious cinematography throughout this narrative; which is supported by the direction and script wonderfully. And the script is certainly the strongest element of Gojira. Not only does it articulate a stunning subtextual narrative, but it is structured perfectly with very little fat, repetition and unnecessary scenes. 
A classic for good reason, Gojira is an astounding piece of cinema that everyone must see.



There is something entirely transcendent of sense, articulation and reality imbued into the fabric of Jodorowsky's cinema and El Topo captivates this perfectly. 
As a series of absurd parables rife with symbolism, surrealism and insanity, El Topo is one of the most unique films you will probably ever see; and about as far removed from the western as you could formally get, El Topo is also a meta-narrative that defies definition and, to a certain degree, description. There is, however, an incredibly captivating quality woven into Jodorowsky's imagery, story and edit that place you into his wonderfully alien world and have you feel a strange sense of belonging. The best way to then describe this film would be to say it is like hearing a foreign language and understanding it, not knowing how such a thing is possible and not knowing how to describe or articulate what you've absorbed to anyone else. 
A masterpiece as defined by its own standards, El Topo is a film I urge and dare you to see.



Though the direction and cinematography are very striking throughout, I did not have a good time with Pandora's Box. 
The root of all my problems were quite evident after the first few scenes; whilst I quickly gathered together who each character was and what their motivations were, I was never sure if and how I was supposed to be empathising with them. And because I assumed all control over characters was relinquished, I began to really disconnect from and then despise our protagonist, Lulu - because there is nothing redeemable about her character. However, when it became obvious that we are supposed to have seen Lulu as innocent and the victim of a world with laws such as, to quote Roger Ebert, "Anyone who looks that great, and lives life on her own terms, has to be swatted down by fate or the rest of us will grow discouraged", I was pretty much ready to walk away. 
If this is the questionable point of this movie, then it is poorly made in the first hour, leaving the final half pretty exhausting. Though I was confident that this was a promising picture, I've been left with nothing other than exasperated disappointment.



I watched this yesterday, but couldn't organise my thoughts into even an initial reaction. Having thought about it for quite some time, The Blood Of The Poet seems to be an intricate dissection of, as the title may suggest, a poet seeing his life and his worth in his work. The manner in which this is shown to haunt our main character is incredibly striking; the use of both sets and cinematic language give this film such a plastic sense of fantasy, which is to say that it feels constructed for the purpose of art, but nonetheless holds an element of immersive mythos. 
Very impressive, but equally dumbfounding, The Blood Of A Poet is an intriguing example of avant-garde poetic cinema.





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Every Year In Film #17 - Comical Encounters In Tiergarten, Stockholm

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28/07/2017

Every Year In Film #17 - Comical Encounters In Tiergarten, Stockholm

Thoughts On: Comical Encounters In Tiergarten, Stockholm (Komische Begegnung im Tiergarten zu Stockholm, 1896)


A brief display of comedic anarchy; people dance down steps, faint, fall off bikes, get into fist fights and all ends in chaos.


In 1896, cinema really began to explode across the world as a spectacle and new invention that brought images to life better than any other forms of projection or animation that anyone had seen before. Much of this can be contributed to the Lumières and the beginnings of the French film industry, which saw the start of the careers of Alexandre Promio, Alice Guy-Blaché and Georges Méliès. However, over in America, Edison's manufacturing company are still relevant with Dickson, Heise and James H. White producing dozens of kinetoscope shorts. And attached to these two hubs are countless imitators who are either making their own film equipment, copying the likes of the Cinématographe or are utilising official equipment - much of this was notably fuelled by Edison's decision to not file for international patents on his equipment. But, it's at this point in the Every Year series that we will have to assume that film history is going to get far too voluminous for us to keep a total grip on it. Whilst I certainly wouldn't say that we've covered every detail of cinema up until 1895, we have certainly touched on a good portion of it; something we won't really be able to do again. In fact, we will reach a point much like this one around every turn of a decade as there is a clear ramp of world-wide film production that has escalated over the first 100 years of cinema. This is up until, as we will all know, the modern age and the advent and popularisation of digital cinema. It's here where we would even start to struggle with a question of "What is cinema?", but would also be swamped with a seemingly infinite pool of films that no one, not even with 1000s of life times, could ever get through.

So, what we have to establish at this very early stage of the Every Year series is the means through which we will try to move forward. Firstly, we will be trying to pick up on every major change in cinematic history, but also attempt to give examples of the most significant filmmakers and movements. What we will then certainly not be doing is constructing a history of American cinema. Whilst the American film industry is one of the most significant, and has been since the birth of cinema, certainly the late 1920s, we will try to be looking at cinema as a body of work belonging to the world, not just one corner of it. So, as an extension of our attempt to find the most significant examples of cinema that, whilst they will not provide you a picture of all of cinematic history, will be great representatives of its evolution, we will be attempting to find interesting and non-obvious selections.

However, with all of that said, we will not be looking at the year of 1896 prospectively. Instead, we will take this moment to put to rest the era of 'pre-cinema'. Whilst the argument for this era ending in 1900 is a strong one, we will be taking advantage of the next few posts to build up to the 1900s. However, as implied, before that we will be taking a quick look over our shoulder to see what we've missed - and this is why our subject for today is, Komische Begegnung im Tiergarten zu Stockholm (Comical Encounters In Tiergarten, Stockholm).

This is a short film made by Max Skladanowsky with some peripheral help from his older brother, Emil - who primarily worked as the promoter. Born in Berlin (Max, 1863; Emil 1859), these two brother's were German inventors. Max himself was trained in glass painting, photography and optics and would go onto work in the manufacturing workshops of Willy Hagedorn where lights, magic lanterns and other theatrical paraphernalia were constructed. He, along with his brother, would join his father, Carl, in 1879 after their schooling and apprenticeships to aid in his new enterprise concerning magic lanterns. In German, the type of shows they would put on would be referred to as "Nebelbilder", which translates to "fog pictures", which were otherwise known as "dissolving pictures". These shows involved magic lanterns with multiple lenses that would allow for superimposition and, as implied, dissolves between different slides. These kind of shows were interesting in themselves as they imply where different types of cuts would later come from in cinema - they certainly weren't the pure inventions of filmmakers. However, with Emil, Max and Carl Skladanowsky venturing into this enterprise and touring across Germany, later Central Europe, there developed an interest in the capabilities of 'magical' pictures within Max. Thus, after a many years of touring with various forms of projection devices, Max and Emil constructed their first chronophotographic camera in 1894. This utilised unperforated Kodak roll film, and so was already behind the frontier of film equipment. Nonetheless, in 1894, Max began shooting his first pictures. However, with over a decade of experience in projection shows, we can assume that Max was designing and creating these films for one purpose; public showing. This is why, only a year later, Max had constructed his Bioskop...


The Bioskop was a projector that utilised two lenses and two bands of films. The image projected onto a screen would then be an amalgam of two images projected via an alternation between the two lenses that would be controlled by the spinning shutter on the front face. This technology has very clearly been inspired by their magic dissolving picture lantern shows. Whilst my research into the Bioskop hasn't confirmed this, it seems apparent that the two strips of film would be projected through the lenses producing two continuous, overlapping images. However, without a shutter, the two superimposed images would just be a blur. With a shutter spinning, one of the lenses would be covered whilst the other would intermittently be projecting a passing frame.


What we can then imagine that this would produce the on-off effect and the switching between the two lenses that would be required to mitigate the blur of the moving film rolls. And in understanding the Bioskop down to this level, it becomes very clear that this was a pretty unique, and equally strange, invention - one that in no way resembles the manner in which moving picture projectors would come to function. (Note: Polish inventor Kazimierz Proszynski also constructed, around 1894, a device called a Bio-Pleograph that used two strips of film to function, meaning Skladanowsky's Bioskop wasn't entirely unique).

Inspired and motivated by their experience in magic lantern shows, the Skladanowsky brothers, having shot their first films and constructed a projector, would then show their new product publicly for the first to a small audience that included the directors of the Wintergarten Theatre in Berlin. Impressed by the presentation, they contracted the Skladanowskys to project their films in their theatre for a substantial 2500 Reichsmark. It was then in November of 1895, two months before the Lumières would publicly project their films to a paying audience, that the Skladanowskys played their films at the Wintergarten Theatre. Some of the films are the following...


... Boxing Kangaroo, which, though it may seem absurd, is/was a fairly common vaudeville or circus act. The Wrestler...


... which features Eugen Sandow, a famous vaudevillian renowned to be the World's Strongest Man, also considered the father of modern bodybuilding. Sandow also features in an Edison kinetoscope short directed by Dickson a year later:


However, a last example of the first films that Max Skladanowsky shot is The Serpentine Dance...


This dance is something we've discussed before and is actually featured in countless early silent films made by everyone from Edison to the Lumières to Alice Guy-Blaché with some of the most mesmerising examples being colourised. In fact, you can get a good sense of how popular this dance was by the extremes to which Guy-Blaché took the performance as to keep it fresh and interesting. She shot a performance in a cage with live lions and tigers:


As absurd as that is, we'll move on. Whilst the Skladanowsky's were the first to project moving pictures for paying audiences and were initially incredibly successful, this only lasted a matter of months. When the Lumières released their first films, the Skladanowskys' contracts were cancelled. This was simply because the Lumières' technology was superior; not only was it simpler to operate, but the image quality was better.

This marked the beginning of the end for the Skladanowskys. Whilst they had a few more screenings over the years and made a handful of new films, they were quickly out of business. And without the means to market and evolve they were pushed out of the spotlight and have stayed out of it to this day - which is a reason why we are all told that the Lumières made the first films and were the first to perform a a public screening for a paying audience. When we then look to our subject for today, we have a representative of the last strains of pre-cinematic technology...


(I should mention that "slut" in Swedish means "finished"). This was an effort made by the Skladanowkys as they travelled through Europe. In fact, this is actually the first known film to have been made in Sweden - which of course developed its own film industry that would become world-renowned in the nineteen-teens with directors such as Victor Sjöström, who made The Phantom Carriage, and become a key player in the European art cinema of the 50s and 60s through the master that is Ingmar Bergman. However, and as said, when we look to Max Skladanowsky's Comical Encounters In Tiergarten, Stockholm, this is not really a representative of the start of the Swedish film industry. Rather, this is a film made by a German that signals the triumph of the Lumières over all pre-cinematic efforts, who then gave cinema its first stable point from which to flourish - something that no one else in the pre-cinema era managed to do.

Before we end, there are many names that we should mention that define this pre-cinematic era. Firstly, we have Janssen, a pioneer in chronophotagraphy...


Muybridge, who was the first to make pictures move...


Marey, a scientist who produced astounding art...


Le Prince, who put 16 lenses onto one moving picture camera and was seemingly the first to actually use film to create moving pictures...


Greene, who never quite managed to produce technically viable products and whose films are gone.


Demenÿ, who worked with Marey and later attempted to commercialised chronophotography...


Dickson who, with Edison, successfully commercialised cinema...


Reynaud, the first animator and one of the first to put narrative into the moving picture...


Anschütz, who electrified and blew up the phenakistoscope...


There are many more names that could be mentioned, but here we have the main players in a world-wide race to invent the next great fad... something that almost no one could foresee developing into cinema as we know it today. And so, it's here where we'll end today, ready to jump into the epoch of cinematic attractions and leave behind everyone from Muybridge to the Skladanowskys.

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27/07/2017

Ratatouille - Change & Nature

Thoughts On: Ratatouille (2007)


A rat with an acute sense of smell and taste aspires to be a great chef.


Toy Story, A Bug's Life, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles and Cars. Up until 2007, Pixar had made some all right films and a handful of lasting classics. However, whilst they passed into to the realm of greatness once with Monsters, Inc, it wasn't until Ratatouille was released that, in my opinion, Pixar ventured into this place again and emerged with another masterpiece. Whilst many have ranked and compared the body of Pixar's work, most do this with a one or two-dimensional approach to their narratives. In such, many look to the aesthetics and the emotions which the Pixar films capture and project. And if we are to judge them on these factors alone, the likes of Toy Story, Finding Nemo and Monsters, Inc overshadow everything that Pixar has made. But, if you really study these narratives instead of just experiencing them (which is a side of these movies not to be overlooked), I believe the hierarchy shifts. In such, when you judge every facet of the Pixar movies, the likes of Ratatouille truly pronounces itself as a tremendous movie and maybe one of Pixar's best.

So, to get the obvious out of the way, Ratatouille is a entirely endearing movie with rich animation, wonderful characters, brilliant moments of comedy and an ingenious script. And it is probably that ingeniousness embedded into Ratatouille's screenplay that had me fall in love with this movie on the first watch. However, with more repeat viewings, the core ingeniousness of this narrative's concept slowly flourished into something far more profound than I initially recognised. In such, Ratatouille initially seemed to be about talent coming out of unexpected places; talent that needs to be nurtured and supported by society. However, whilst this is a significant part of this narrative, we could push much deeper into the nuances of this film's ideas.

The primary level at which to understand Ratatouille would then be its depiction of exploration and the 'nature' of organisms and their societies. We see these themes funnelled through our main character, Remy...


Remy is a rat born with a gift that is entirely antithetical to the concept his nature. In such, he is, oxymoronically, a rat with good taste. This divide within himself leads him to explore the world beyond the confines of his nature and his family group, which in turn leads him to distance himself from his family and nature. We then see Remy as a rat who wants to transcend his being as it has been given to him by the world around himself. In such, the distance that grows from his exploration of what makes him different to his family not only signals a change within himself, but rats in general. However, Remy being different to all of the rats around him doesn't instantaneously make him the new pack leader, instead, just poison checker...


It is then at this point that we should discuss the role that food plays in this film. As we have all heard before, and as is said in this film, "you are what you eat". This is a literal statement with implications that stretch beyond what we would usually think. "You are what you eat" is tantamount to saying that you are all that you come into contact with; you are your environment. This is because everything that you put into your body and mind, everything that you surround yourself with, defines you to varying degrees--and whether you like it or not. When Remy then says, "if you are what you eat, then I only want to eat the good stuff", he is not just saying that he wants to eat good food to live a better life, but that he wants to change the manner in which he exists. We see this extend into the idea of theft; Remy does not want to steal food - and this will become an integral part of his relationship later on with Linguini. However, in opposition to all that Remy aspires to stand for is his father.


His father, Django, only wants what is good for his family; that which is grounded in sense, safety and the path of least resistance. As a result, Remy's father is fixed to an idea of compromise; it's ok to take what humans do not want even if it is not the best produce because, firstly, humans do not want it, and, secondly, it can't get us into much trouble. Aspiration and exploration, the abandonment of nature, then seem to be very 'human' traits that are only reserved for those with the power and given privileged to risk things without fear of losing everything to Django. Because Remy and his father cannot come to agreement on whose interpretation of food's (which in turn means the environment that the rats construct and maintain) role is in their society, Remy is left with his brother, Emile...


Emile is an interesting figure as he is not defined by aspiration or comprise, like his brother and father are, rather, plain consumption and pleasure. This leaves Emile impressionable, but loyal, and always hungry. He then represents the average person in the rat colony; he is not the comprising leader, nor is he the outlying, aspirational son. What he will then come to represent, in part, is the nature of all rats. He then understands and is willing to oblige the change that his brother presents if he can prove it is for the greater good. However, when Remy tries to teach Emile this, they're lead into the kitchen...


As is foreshadowed by Remy's initial experiment in which he tried to teach Emile about the art of cooking...


... this exploration may lead to trouble. However, before it does, Remy comes into contact with two significant details - both on the television.


The first detail is given by Gusteau and the idea that "anybody can cook... but, only the fearless can be great". This is what defines and motivates Remy's aspiration to eat better food and explore; he is searching for greatness and knows he must be bold to achieve it. However, after being re-affirmed of this, Remy discovers that Gusteau died after descending from greatness, and that his death contributed greater to this descent. As a result, his restaurant now only has 3 stars, not 5. We will delve deeper into this idea later, but, firstly, despite Remy's aspirations for greatness, his exploration leads to disaster...


All that his father predicted and preached comes true; the humans reject Remy despite his being different and this turns out to be disastrous for the family. As a result, Remy's extreme act of rebellion leads to the distance between himself and his family being stretched to its extreme; his is left alone and with nothing:


Here, left with nothing but his cook book, all of Remy's aspirations turn sour; the great food in his book only intensify his hunger pains.

It's at this point that we'll take a step back and begin to consider the roles of the fathers in this narrative. As can be seen in many great stories, Remy, our protagonist, has two fathers. There is his literal, worldly father...



And then there is his idol, the father of his dreams who is great and powerful...


However, Remy has just learnt that Gusteau died a failure. Why? It seems that he gave the world all he had and couldn't provide anymore; his talent and skill hit their peak. It is here at the end of the first act, at the first major turn of this narrative, that Remy realises that the, to refer to an archetypal character, old king is not so great anymore. This leaves his dreams exposed to reality, hence, his real father is proven right; exploration, risk and dreams fail Remy and conservative, cautionary compromise saved his family:


With his identity questioned in the most pressing of manners, Remy is left shook to his core - much like Gusteau was after a star was stripped from him. However...


... Remy does not just lay down and die. He turns in on himself, which is represented by Gusteau, a figment of his imagination, coming to life, and finds hope.


It's here that Gusteau then recognises that Remy has lost everything, but nonetheless urges him to go and look for food...


... however, Gusteau doesn't just want Remy to steal. After all, he does not want him to become his father (or at least, he does not want him to betray himself to become his father). This is why he says "a cook makes, a thief takes". What he re-affirms in Remy here is then the idea that the goodness he seeks in life...


... must not only be strived after, but it should be manifested; Remy should cook. But, in holding onto these higher ideals, Remy is still left hungry. It is here that Gusteau assures one of the most poignant ideas in this narrative: "food always comes to those who love to cook". Now, this is a very old idea, one that could best be explained by a look at a biblical quote. However, before I show you this, what I will largely be drawing upon here is an interpretation of an idea taken from a talk of Dr. Jordan Peterson's. You can follow this link, or watch this clip here, paying attention to the first 2 minutes...


"Food always comes to those who love to cook" is very much so a reflection of:

"Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and these things shall be added unto you.
Take thereof no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself"

What is being said by Gusteau, just as it is in the Bible, is not that people should just do what they love, but that they should seek righteousness. Gusteau posits this idea within Remy with the idea that he shouldn't just steal, but should cook; he should not take from the world, but make something to add to it. What Remy is then fuelled by here is the idea that, to quote Peterson, "If you dare to do the most difficult thing that you can conceptualise, your life will work out better than it will if you do anything else".

This powerful idea pervades the entirety of Ratatouille. Not only is Remy confronted by it here...


... but so is Linguini here...


... Colette here...


... and Ego here in the end...


Ratatouille is then a classical story about doing the right thing and daring risk everything for that; it is about faith in goodness and striving for better.

However, whilst I could wrap things up here, there's quite a bit more to this narrative than this. Whilst the narrative of Ratatouille is motivated by this idea of righteousness and a trust in dreams, all of these themes and ideas catalyse its initial implications of a rat changing its nature...


And these ideas, as said, are heavily linked to father figures. In Ratatouille, father figures, Gusteau and Remy's dad, Django, do not just imply a righteous path. In such, Django doesn't just provide Remy with ideas of family and loyalty and Gusteau doesn't just give him the ideas of dreams and change, but, both father figures provide Remy lessons through their own faults. Django then lives a safe life with a certain degree of security, but he is also happy to sustain his family in destitute conditions. Moreover, whilst Gusteau was great, he couldn't sustain this. However, to fully understand Gusteau's faults, we have to realise the significance of Linguini...


Linguini is, of course, Gusteau's illegitimate son. He had an affair, but he never provided himself a chance to continue his lineage. This is why, after Gusteau loses one star and dies, he loses another. It is not so much a final slap in the face, but an affirmation that Gusteau's legacy had be tarnished and will likely stay that way. If he had a son or daughter to step in his place, the loss of the second star would then provide them with a chance to save that legacy, but not without a true challenge; they wouldn't just be able to ride with the sails of their father's success, but would have to build that ship back up again. So, this is the significance of Linguini and is what justifies this image here...


Linguini is an encapsulation of one of his father's greatest faults and, just like Remy has to overcome his father's downfalls, so must Linguini overcome his. This, to jump ahead in the narrative, is why there is a romantic element to Ratatouille...


It is largely Linguini's task to do better than his father in regards to the way he managed (or refused to) his family. This is certainly an element of this story that could have been explored to greater depth, but the implication that, with Remy's help, Linguini could not only live up to his father's legacy, but also surpass it, is a pretty profound idea.

So, what adds another layer to this narrative is then its depiction of figures not just following a path of righteousness that their fathers paved, but also reaching the end of that path and continuing to build it towards greater places. Whilst we see this with Linguini establishing a relationship with Colette and Remy becoming a chef that later supports his family, the fact that the two are paired implies that the spirit of Gusteau, the idea that 'anybody can cook, if...', that anybody has the potential to change, which Remy embodies, not only furthers Gusteau's own legacy, but has the potential to better both humanity and rats as a species.

This is then where our initial ideas of nature and change come back into the picture; Ratatouille is all about the idea, which is explicitly stated in the film, that nature is not something that you can't change, rather "nature is change". Thus, we see the two layers of this narrative giving birth to one. When our main characters strive for righteousness and then strive to surpass their father's legacies, we see them attempting to alter the manner in which their societies function. The fact that they attempt to do this through food reinforces the idea that "you are what you eat". Food is a fundamental aspect of living, and so to change its quality and the perspective people hold on it, is to deeply affect a society. Thus, there are two enemies in this narrative; rubbish...


... and goodness...


Change, as a theme, interacts with these two forces with our main characters trying to positively change the world in spite of their fathers, who do not want (or did not) change, and figures such as Skinner and Ego who either oppose their actions or are attempting to negatively change the world. Thus, the fight between rubbish and goodness becomes a fight against this rubbish...


... and this goodness...


The ultimate fight that both Remy and Linguini fight together is then a complex, abstract one; a mesh of overcoming their fathers, but simultaneously supporting and bettering their legacy, then again, also keeping things the same, but changing in a positive direction; all by altering the make-up of their society - as represented by food. Whilst this is difficult to articulate cleanly, it has to be so because what our main characters are doing is not simple. They are managing themselves and their families in relation and in opposition to one another - and all simultaneously. And I think this messy activity is symbolised perfectly with the hectic nature of a kitchen and cooking with a multitude of ingredients, tools and machines. But, what unites and solidifies all of the numerous parts in this movie into one cohesive and tangible idea is this...


... is the idea of perspective. What Remy does with his final dish is pretty spectacular; he directly effects the manner in which a person perceives the world. This is a very rare event, one that happens far less then we would like to think as people do not have revelations very often - and certainly not consciously guided by another person. In reminding Ego why he loves food and also where he came from, Remy then shows him how "nature is change". Ego's past is brought to the present and he is made to realise that he is still the same peasant boy who loves food as a comfort his mother would present him. A similar thing happens with Remy's father...


He is made to see that his son is simply an incarnation of himself; both are fixated with food and caring for people, Remy just has higher ideals that, as opposed to what Django would imagine, are attainable. What we thus see here is a reconciliation with two seemingly conflicting concepts: nature and change.

The beauty of this film is then found in the fact that, though all characters present have this enlightening moment, the world around them isn't quite ready to change.


The last statement of this narrative is then a not a utopian one, instead, a recognition that people can change, groups of people can evolve and dreams can sometimes come true - all in their own humble way.


It is this tremendous sense of realistic resolution that leaves Ratatouille a masterpiece in my opinion. So, having outlined a lot of what makes this film great, I hope your re-watches reveal greater depth and nuance to this narrative. But, with that said, what are your thoughts on all we've covered today?

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