18/08/2017

Annabelle: Creation - Structure & Pacing: The Real Tension

Thoughts On: Annabelle: Creation (2017)

We just covered this film, essentially delving into its subtext, or hidden meaning, with spoilers. For that, click here. What we will be concluding now is the critical analysis of this film's formal cinematic design.


Annabelle: Creation is a film that I grew to appreciate quite a bit thanks to the intelligent storytelling that comes out of the script. However, this is a film that is incredibly rife with bad horror tropes. To the film's favour, I wouldn't say that this is any more of an assault on the idea of originality than most average horror films. Moreover, there was a clear attempt in this narrative to embrace the tropes whilst dishing out some genuinely horrific imagery doused in some well-earned atmosphere and tension. There was one thing that really got on my nerves with this narrative, however, and that concerned the atmospheric crescendos that come to a dead stand-still at their peak. To better explain, something strange will happen: a door will open off its own accord. The camera then has us stare straight at it, the character in the scene wary and confused as they close the door and then walk away... it happens again... the door creeeeeeks open... the music starts to swell... the person edges towards the door... the camera has us stare for an age more... the music grows louder and louder... their fingers come to the door handle... small pieces of sound design are emphasised... the character starts to doubt their actions... the music's coming to its peak... something is gonna happen--BANG. Another door slams shut, all tension and horror are gone as the person pushes the door and runs off. Whilst this exact scene doesn't exist in Annabelle, you see this paradigm repeat itself again and again and again and again throughout this narrative. Even when supernatural beings actually start chasing characters, the tension will continue to build, only for--BANG--a door to shut and the problem be done with.

This is so incredibly frustrating as this movie's slow pacing never goes anywhere and all the built potential of atmosphere and tone add up to nothing. This is actually something that I began thinking about when sitting through the trailer for the up-and-coming It before this movie started. (Trailer watching is a practice I try to avoid). The trailer for the King adaptation seems to imply prolonged scenes in which children interact with clowns, meaning highly tense scenes that don't end abruptly with false scares or loud noises. Whilst I have no faith in trailers at all, I began to think of a movie that had us stay in a horrifying situation that played out to its full extreme. The perfect movie in this regard would then start with a door opening and then, without jumping through time or having any unnecessary breaks, horror just flowing from the screen in a constant crescendo until the final climax in which everyone's nails are bitten clean to the bone as they lie several feet from the edges of their seats.

With this unrealistic ideal movie in mind, I began to search my memory for examples of already-existing films that do force their characters to stay in a moment, letting the horror play through to its very extreme. After finding a few sparse and loose examples, like REC, The Exorcist and The Shining, I suddenly realised something: there is a whole genre in which this is the goal. This genre is commonly referred to as exploitation. We've talked about exploitation and video nasties (the British-named counterpart) before. In case you don't know what these films are though, we'll define them quickly. You can skip this next paragraph if you already know...

Exploitation films emerged from New Hollywood in the late 1950s and evolved across the 60s and 70s, coming to a dead end around the early 80s. These movies are the product of filmmakers that took advantage of the new cencorship infrastructure in Hollywood as well as the changing economic environment - which was far more accepting of independent films that came from outside of the big studios. Many exploitation films are horrors that focus on one idea to the point that it is ridiculous - and this is a kind of game that the audience and filmmakers play. However, whilst almost all exploitation films are highly sexual, violent, torturous and grotesque (seemingly with the goal of the filmmakers being arrested for obscenity, animal cruelty or after being accused of murder) some are also heavily racial (Blaxploitation for example), and so they can all be characterised by a focus on the lewd and the socially unacceptable. Video nasties serve as a cousin to this genre of film as they are a breed of exploitation films that reached markets through the new VHS technology that emerged from the 70s.

Exploitation films such as Cannibal Holocaust, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Last House On The Left and Pink Flamingos all have a sadistic fixation with prolonging scenes, or ensuring we see the most extremely gratuitous and tortuous things occur as quick as possible. Are these the height of my ideal horror cinema? I don't think so. Whilst exploitation films often take things to their extreme, milking a concept for all it has, they lack technical prowess in regards to the writing; they lack tension and atmosphere.

What then seems to be the solution here is a meeting of the exploitation film and the high-end modern horror film; the combination of atmosphere and tone with an exploitative fixation on horror. But, this solution, whilst it's a nice idea and piece of motivation, comes with many of its own problems. Where is the line between prolonging tense scenes and exploiting concepts, reducing them to absurdist gore-porn?

This is a very difficult question to answer as there's one lesson that Spielberg seems to have taught most modern filmmakers: don't show the shark until you absolutely have to. Jaws works because the imagination can often be stronger than reality; a horrific thing not seen can be far more terrifying than something horrific played out right before your eyes. This is because potential, the unexpected and possibility are harder topics to grasp and comes to terms with than what is before you. Knowing this, filmmakers imply horror instead of striving to think up the most horrific images like those apart of the exploitation movement did. Thus, when we consider the pacing and structural issues of dud and anti-climatic horror scenes in movies such as Annabelle: Creation, there develops a tension in these scenes beyond the anxiety we may be imbued with as we wait for a jump scare. This tension is between the sophisticated soft-core horror and the hardcore, balls-to-the-wall, all-on-show exploitation horror. As a result, the line between these two contrary approaches to is called absurdity. Some filmmakers know how to embrace absurdity, Wes Craven and Sam Raimi are pretty brilliant at this, whilst some are better at keeping away from it, James Wan and David Sandberg seem to be quite good at this. There doesn't seem to be anyone, at least, no one who comes to mind, who can negate absurdity and push their horror scenes to their utmost extreme, drawing every ounce of terror out of them. This leaves us in a place that's not too better to that which we started at.

I'll then have to leave with a few open questions to you. Can you think of any horror movies that take their scenes to their utmost extreme without becoming ridiculous and before having to cut things short with a door slamming or a false scare? Do you think the line between exploitation and atmospheric, jump-scare horrors is insurmountable? How do you think this element of filmmaking could be improved upon?






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Annabelle: Creation - The Horrifying Toy Doll

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17/08/2017

Annabelle: Creation - The Horrifying Toy Doll

Thoughts On: Annabelle: Creation (2017)

A group of displaced orphans move into a household haunted by tragedy.


Quite inadvertently, I've seen every single one of the Conjuring Universe films. Whilst I don't think this series is particularly good or bad, much like the Paranormal Activity films, they just seem to find themselves in front of me. The weakest Conjuring film, in my view, was certainly Annabelle as it was so forgettable. So, going into this movie, I wasn't expecting much at all. Nonetheless, I was pleasantly surprised by a well-constructed and intelligent picture. There are major downfalls in this film's design however. We will not get into the most significant of these, but, I will say that what initially brings this movie down is its bland characters - not one of them are particularly interesting or emotionally engaging. This is something that I believe most people will pick up on, and so will be the biggest hurdle to enjoying this narrative. That said, the scares, whilst predictable and heavily reliant on the sound design alone, mostly work to a satisfactory degree it seems - my girlfriend jumped quite a bit. What's more, the direction is pretty flawless. Sandberg, quite like Wan with the first Conjuring, uses his camera in the way that seemingly all horror movie directors would love to if they had a big enough budget; he often has us float through, above and across the sets, a ghost like Kubrick's camera in The Shining, but with a distinguished modern aesthetic. However, this can draw too much attention to itself at times as the camera movement is often unmotivated, yet not impressive enough to really justify itself. But, this isn't overwhelmingly distracting and, especially by the mid-point, this film ultimately finds its footing and works pretty well.

The other strengths of Annabelle concern its subtext - and this is the element that really made this movie worthwhile for me. To delve into this, be warned, because we will be using...

**SPOILERS**

With this second Annabelle film, Dauberman (writer) constructs a pretty expressive narrative about sisterhood, femininity and the dynamics of a female social group. He does this with the use of the Annabelle doll and the generationally diverse cast of women. A question we must ask to understand how this group functions is: why are toy dolls anything from lovable to pleasant to weird to creepy to horrifying?

As many people may already know, there is a theory that places particularly creepy human representatives (like dolls and robots) into an "uncanny valley".


This is a very interesting tool with which you can understand horror movies, but sticking with Annabelle, it's clear that the doll, because it is constructed so well, but not well enough, fits quite snugly into the uncanny valley. However, realism isn't the only determining factor of its creepiness in my view - and this film attempts to emphasise this. There is an emotional connection that people, girls especially, can develop with their dolls (baby dolls in particularly). This is because, once they hit a certain age of maturity, girls' biological functions as well as surrounding social mechanisms motivate them towards empathy, care and compassion for young humans. When this emotional symbol of emotional attachment - the toy doll - is pushed down the uncanny valley, the after-effects are pretty poignant - hence a plethora of Chucky-like movies that have been made over time. Dauberman seems to be somewhat conscious of this concept and so uses the symbol of Annabelle to test his group of females with age-old tropes of horror.

As has been made fun of time and time again with spoof movies that make use of virgin teens alone surviving the killer/monster of a given movie, horror is classically pretty puritanical in its often unforgiving application of religious themes. There are then heavy motifs throughout the horror genre of women being punished, tested and used as cautionary tales of sin. Whilst many will find this distasteful, I believe that this can have a significant place in a horror film if used well. Relating this to the film at hand, not only does Dauberman punish his corrupted female characters in Annabelle: Creation, but he does so for the sake of building his story.

So, to begin the dissection, there are three females in this story that are really put on trial. They are the mother, who lost her daughter and, with her husband, used satanic forces to bring her spirit to life again; one of the oldest orphans, Nancy, who pushes around and bullies (passive-aggressively) her younger house mates; and, finally, one of our main protagonists, Janice, who has broken her leg and fears being treated differently by her friends because of the injury. It is the devil that resides within Annabelle's (the dead daughter's) doll that is used to punish all of these women. Because they express no faith - as is made clear by Sister Charlotte - these three figures are then susceptible to the whims, and in turn the punishment, of the devil. To provide a secular explanation, because these figures hold no concept of a higher, transcendent (of basic understanding) and archetypal good that they remain loyal to, they leave in themselves a sympathy towards the bad - which is a slippery path towards self-destruction. Further contextualising this, however, is the use of a feminine symbol: the Annabelle doll. This uncannily horrifying doll is then representative of these women coming into conflict with, or neglecting, their female values.

We see this paradigm quite clearly with the parents of the dead Annabelle. They chose not to accept the death of their little girl and instead fixate on the impossible. By neglecting a trust in a higher ideal of goodness, they, with vanity, turn away from a positive perspective to wallow in their sorrows by bringing their daughter 'back to life'. The mistake that this is, is made clear by the fact that the devil (ultimate darkness) inhabits their daughter and later takes the mother's eye - her perspective - a wound she masks with a portion of a doll's face (which is not too different from what she does by remembering her daughter through her doll). When the parents attempt to provide penance - which is reversing their previous negative actions by trying to move past their daughter's death and by opening their home to a group of orphans - they come into conflict with themselves. We see this through the sinister and uninviting atmosphere captured by the 'welcome' the girls receive; the parents are struggling to move on - the evil, possessed doll still lingers in their home - and this eventually kills them.

It is Janice who exploits this weakness in the couple by going into Annabelle's room. She knows that this is socially wrong (a sin) and so she is possessed - possibly by the parent's own negative attachment to their dead daughter. However, this is something that is never expressed too clearly, which could have easily been done through the parents being put in a trance of sorts by the possessed Janice, which in turn indicates that Dauberman doesn't have a full grip on his subtext. Nonetheless, Janice's punishment through the doll seems to be two-fold. Not only is she punished for committing a sin, but she also seems to act with too much pride; like the parents, she doesn't want to accept help in her weakened state, so instead isolates herself. Again, this idea isn't expressed very well as Janice's actions around this element of story are portrayed as rational, not irrational. But, despite this weak element of writing, it is clear that Janice's conflict concerns obeying authority and establishing/maintaining sisterhood. By failing in both of these regards (ignoring her elders and losing her friend) she is eventually consumed by the doll.

Concerning the hostile atmosphere in the house that the orphaned girls move into, we come to the bully, Nancy. She, much like the scarecrow from which the devil that kills her rises from, puts up a malevolent facade as a form of defence. Nancy is not scaring birds away from crops, however. She is, probably out of self-defence, attacking the younger girls - and often as to project her own 'maturity'. An example of this would be her mistreating Janice's friend, sending her off to play a game of hide-and-seek which she never engages in, only so that she could 'talk about boys'. This minor act of obnoxiousness becomes ever more pertinent when she constantly scares the other girls into mistrusting the new house in which they live. As mentioned, this contributes to the already tense atmosphere and so puts further pressure on the still-mourning parents.

As could be expected, this explodes with all of these characters being seriously hurt or killed, but the most compassionate, naive and innocent surviving the coming of the devil. What this transforms this narrative into is a tragic parable about a predominantly female social group failing to unite under an symbolic idea of creation. Creation is an attribute linked heavily to women, after all, we all have mothers without which we couldn't exist. This idea is expressed through these female figures, which have almost all lost either mothers or children, all coming into conflict through the loss of a child as well as biological maturity. This may stem from the fact that they've all forgotten how to properly play with dolls. Considering this idea metaphorically, what I mean to suggest here is that the social mechanisms (like a toy doll) that motivate women to be highly sociable, compassionate and caring - something that would be referred to as archetypal femininity - have been put under much pressure with seemingly irreconcilable after-effects. Again, this idea could have been better expressed with other dolls playing larger parts in this narrative - maybe the older girls bully the younger ones by stealing and throwing away their dolls whilst calling them weird or childish. However, the fact that so much of this clear subtextual conflict revolves around the doll already speaks volumes about each of these characters and their function in this narrative.

To come towards a conclusion, what Annabelle: Creation is quite clearly about puts emphasis on Creation. This is a movie about girls and women coming into conflict with their own femininity and in turn an idea of sisterhood. What this will then make clear is the abstract ending. Why does Janice grow up calling herself Annabelle? It seems that the girls throwing away the doll in the end was not a good thing; they never truly embraced their inner conflicts despite confronting them. What that would suggest is that maybe Janice was exiled from this group and was sent to another orphanage where she grew up with inner demons and insurmountable psychological torment. This was around the important age of 12 - which is about the point at which puberty will start for most young people. For the fact that all of these conflicts arise in the house following a 12 year period after Annabelle dies further implies that this movie is heavily focused on creation, loss and growth as attached to females coming under much duress. Interestingly, 12 years after Janice-turned-Annabelle is adopted, she has a nightmare about killing her parents as her boyfriend sleeps next to her. Again, the mid-20s are another tuning point in people's lives as this is where they may begin to think about starting a family - a significant point of maturation at which conflict can, again, arise, leaving the final scene of this narrative the last beat if a parabolic tragedy concerning women who can create life and must learn how to sustain it (a child; a doll) through their social practices. All of these conflicts, as said, concern sisterhood and an idea of these women's sense of feminine self. The fact that "creation" is then the abstract focus of this narrative through the doll then adds a very strong layer of intelligence to this story. The girls in this story all suffer because they do not come together and also show little understanding of, and sympathy for, the highest feminine virtues. This is done through disrespecting Annabelle's mother and one another which, all too soon, devolves into chaos.

With all of that said, it should be recognised that, whilst this is a very intelligent script, Dauberman doesn't demonstrate a full control of this subtext and so leaves this story lacking in certain respects. Ultimately, I would then say that Annabelle: Creation is an above-average horror film with quite a few faults. But, as said at the top of this post, the most significant of these issues haven't been brought into the light. We will then do this in another post on pacing and structure. But, for now I'll leave you with this question: What do you think of Annabelle: Creation and all we've covered today?






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Tangled - Classical Essence?

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16/08/2017

Tangled - Classical Essence?

Quick Thoughts: Tangled (2010)


A stolen princess with magical hair dreams of leaving her tower.


Tangled is Disney's fast and loose retelling of the classical tale of Rapunzel. For the fact that this is so far removed from the original tale, much of the archetypal subtext has been lost and replaced by a rather basic adventure full of tropes and predictability, and not much depth. If we were to delve into the subtext of this film we would only be re-tracing ground, though with a fair degree of futility, we've covered in much detail recently when exploring parent-children relationships and dreams. (For more on this, click here). In fact, when we compare Tangled to films such as Coraline, or even Disney's 1991 Beauty And The Beast, both of which this is quite similar to, Tangled is, story-wise, quite mundane. This is something that I didn't really foresee when initially planning this series well over a year ago.

I have always enjoyed Tangled, and still do, even after seeing this film dozens and dozens of times - I have young sisters, so this is nothing close to an exaggeration, believe me. I've always liked Tangled for its intricate animation and projection of characters, in particularly, Mother Gothel during the first act and in the 'Mother Knows Best" sequence (which is undoubtedly the best part of the entire film in my opinion). But, because, much like the majority of the best Disney films, Tangled holds up under a ridiculous amount of re-watches, I assumed that, when the time came, I'd have quite a bit to say about it. This is not really a position I find myself in. Whilst this is a truly gorgeous movie with great characters bursting with personality, the intention with Tangled, as said by the filmmakers, was to transpose the feel and aesthetics of the old Disney films - such as Cinderella and Pinocchio - into a CG world. Put straight, despite clear inspiration and a return to the princess figure, the essence of these films, both stylistically and atmospherically, is lost on Tangled. Whilst I speak from a bias towards the classics, Tangled doesn't feel like a true Disney film like even the recent Treasure Planet and Lilo & Stitch did. At best, this feels like a rather fantastical CG blend of a 50s Hollywood musical and a romance such as Roman Holiday. This has a lot to do with the direction; the 'camera' here functions nothing like it does in classical animated films, instead resembles that of a live action movie. Again, I really appreciate this and think it works for this narrative - though this doesn't have it contend with the best that Disney has offered.

What Tangled represents, to me, is something that, in 2010, was a long-time-coming. Whilst Disney made major strides away from their classical style in the 1960s with 101 Dalmatians and continued this through the 80s and 90s with the gradual implementation of CGI, it was after a run of CGI films that eventually lead up to Tangled that Disney, maybe inadvertently, made a resounding statement, saying that the classical style is finally, truly and completely a lost art form. With films such as Mulan and Lilo & Stitch, this idea could be looked past as the old, yet morphed, Disney magic still resides within these narratives. This magic is not present in Tangled; because of the irreconcilable distance aesthetically and tonally put to screen with this film, Disney adopted much of what Pixar does best in terms of style, and so have very clearly stepped into a new era.

This shift, if we consider the films we skipped past for the series, films such as Chicken Little, The Wild, Meet The Robinsons and Bolt, has some rather unattractive and forgettable attributes, but, thinking ahead to Wreck It Ralph, also has much promise. However, this will be something that we will have to explore further in later posts. To bring things towards an end, I'll emphasise that Tangled is a film that I really enjoy, but don't see much substance in thanks to a very basic narrative that is solely reliant on characters. These are just my thoughts though. What do you think of Tangled, especially considering its place in the wider catalogue of Disney films?

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Abouna - Irresponsibility

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Abouna - Irresponsibility

Quick Thoughts: Abouna (Our Father, 2002)


Made by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, this is the Chadian film of the series.


I'm not sure why - I think it's just because I saw this film at the right time - but, Abouna had a strong impact on me. From the very start, themes of responsibility jumped off of the screen and mixed perfectly with motifs of abandonment, isolation and confusion. In such, we follow our two forsaken main characters, whose father walks out on them and mother sends them to a Koranic school to be disciplined, as they trudge through events that seem far beyond their experience, age and depth. They then have to confront the meaninglessness that life can present when childhood structures are suddenly ripped from underneath them - simple structures like daily routines, but also more complex events like moving schools and watching your family dissolve around you. Without drowning in the structureless landscape that I could only imagine a young teenager would perceive when they look out into the world having endured much of the events depicted in this film, our main characters become the epicentre of a narrative based on strife as a force that would pressure many people into a foetal position in which they would forever remain--but also a force that many manage to stare in the face and simultaneously engage life as it seems we all must do.

The warm cinematography and use of colour throughout this film overlay this narrative with a sense of instantaneous nostalgia and melancholy, making visceral the pertinent themes of childhood. And the technicalities of this film are made all the more impressive knowing the strange shooting schedule: the footage from the end of every day of shooting would have to be sent over 2500 miles to France from Chad. After the film was processed and the crew was told that the footage was good, several days after they had sent it, they could begin shooting another day.

Somehow managing this schedule, somehow putting to screen a well-directed and good-looking movie with a highly affecting and poignant story at its heart, Haroun has clearly done something lasting and spectacular with Abouna. I would highly recommend anyone even slightly intrigued find and watch this film.

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The City Of Lost Children - Creation In Vain

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15/08/2017

The City Of Lost Children - Creation In Vain

Thoughts On: The City Of Lost Children (La Cité des Enfants Perdus, 1995)

A strong-man circus performer's adopted brother is stolen by an organisation who give children to an evil scientist that steals their dreams.


The City Of Lost Children is a film we recently, and briefly, covered without spoilers. To see this, click here. Today we will be exploring the narrative of The City Of Lost Children with spoilers, so, if you've not seen it, you've been warned.

Jeunet and Caro's 1995 film is a fairy that is essentially about vanity and its effects on children. The vanity that is referenced in this narrative isn't, however, a narcissistic obsession with one's own image. Instead, an indulgence in one's own existential and material being. Picking up on this, but not focusing on it, some theorists have seen The City Of Lost Children as a critique and exploration of capitalism; both its positive and negative sides. Whilst I see this as a layer and a valid interpretation of this narrative, I think the heart of The City Of Lost Children is certainly the theme of family, or rather, a lack of positive familial groups. And in focusing on this element of the narrative, it becomes increasingly evident that father figures in particular are being assessed and critiqued throughout this story.

There are two primary father figures in The City Of Lost Children: One and The Scientist. Whilst One is a compassionate father, The Scientist is a vain one. We come to understand this through the fact that One is one of the clear sacrificial heroes of this narrative (alongside Miette) whilst The Scientist is the figure that has sparked the sinister network that sprawls across the nearby city. This web of selfish malevolence was then ignited by The Scientist's four life-creating experiments. First was a beautiful princess, who he constructed to be his wife. Something went wrong with the genetic building of Martha, however, and she emerged from the experiment disfigured - a dwarf. Next, The Scientist cloned himself, creating his identical sons - but they too weren't perfect; they all fall asleep without a moment's notice. After this, The Scientist wanted someone to talk to and so he created a brain in a jar. He strikes out again though; the brain constantly suffers from migraines. Focusing on his masterpiece, not so much his shortcomings, he finally creates a scientist more brilliant than himself, Krank, who cannot dream and so ages unnaturally, then eventually becomes corrupted and evil. After destroying his father, The Scientist, with his mother (or at least, this is what they aimed to do), Krank then attempts to steal his youth back by extracting the dreams from innocent children in the nearby city.

What this summary would begin to imply is an archetypal story of a 'perfect' creation being corrupted - something that is seen in differing lights within narratives such as Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, Terminator and Tron. These narratives seem so archetypal as human beings understand that, with science, we have great potential and limitless power, but simultaneously recognise that some people can't even keep a simple house plant alive for more than a month. So, should people, all of us in general, who can prove themselves to be so naive and incapable be granted such power? This is the question that many of these narratives begin asking, but, the most complex actually bypass this kind of questioning as, upon consideration, it is actually a terrible thing to ask. This is because the question proposes a problem with one of two polar options that prove to solve nothing. The dialogue surrounding such a question would then be:

Should we be granted such power?
Yes.
Well, let us continue on our current path just as we are.

Or:

Should be be granted such power?
No.
Well, let us sit here and never change and just rot.

Simple answers provide simple solutions; if the answer is too simple, the solution will fail. Understanding this, better writers will not ask these questions, instead, they will ask something along the lines of: how do we change so that we align ourselves on the path towards being able to handle such power, such as the A.I in Terminator or Tron, or the biological and chemical advances in films such as Frankenstein and The Invisible Man? This is, self-evidently, a far more useful question and one that is asked just as such, or with an opposing inflection: what will happen if we don't change and still take this power? And such is the common approach seen in films such as Terminator. The City Of Lost Children explores both sides of this coin, asking what happens if people do not change as well as depicting a manner in which people can change.

We then come back to the father figure dichotomy drawn up between The Scientist and One. Whilst One shows no real self-obsession at any point in this narrative, only a dedication to his 'little brother and sister', The Scientist is implied to have fallen in love with his own potential and, instead of using his life-creating abilities to aid other people, he served himself. One thing I find interesting about how he is depicted to have made the wrong decision here is the implication of genetics. Just like nature seemingly has controls in place so that we cannot successfully reproduce ourselves or with family, there seems to be a wall put in place when The Scientist attempts to clone himself and, using unknown material, create Martha his wife, Ivan the brain and Krank. And there is an appeal to a natural order throughout this movie; most clearly, through the theme of coincidence. Jeunet playfully uses this in many of his films, often as a romantic means of implying fate or a way things were supposed to be. This is true of The City of Lost Children. There are many ludicrous plot-points throughout this narrative that are emphasised to be seen precisely as such, and the clearest examples of this would be the scene in which Miette is saved from drowning by The Scientist, the sequence in which the twins attempt to assassinate One and Miette as well as the very end with the bird perching on the detonator. Whilst these are playful means of building a unique story, they also serve the purpose of implying a natural or guided fate that exists in the this story's world - which has heavy links to the existential themes of this narrative. In such, what is revealed both through elements like the coincidental opening and the many beats of this narrative that are manufactured to bring it towards a clearly predestined end, is the manner in which The Scientist is initially corrupt; he blindly and disrespectfully (disrespectful of consequence) assumes he is right and good enough, in himself, to follow a path towards great power.

It's at this point that we could extrapolate The Scientist as either a basic father figure or an archetype of something greater. In such, we could choose to see The Scientist as a figure tantamount to a world-leading force, and so in turn see the use of him as a critique of people in power; those who run countries and the economy. And it's through this line of thought that you arrive at the conclusion that this is a film about the good and the bad of capitalism, or even people in high places of power and influence. Again, I think this is a valid interpretation of this narrative, but I can't help but recognise the appeal to the average person confronting and then walking away from The Scientist, or this archetype of power. If Miette and One took over The Scientist's lab in the end, then this film would follow the archetypal structure of something such as Mad Max: Fury Road, in which minorities, or representatives of the downtrodden masses, reclaim power. With the pair escaping The Scientist there seems to be an appeal to the re-establishment of something resembling a basic family structure; an idea that doesn't have so much to do with grander themes of capitalism and governmental power even though they may be partially featured in this narrative. With the ending, it then seems to be confirmed that this is a film about family and father figures' impact on children.

Whilst we have discussed much about the father figures, we haven't yet touched on the children. These would be the many creations of The Scientist and then One's little brother and sister, Miette and Denree. It is quite clear why The Scientist's creations are corrupt and, to varying degrees, broken. However, what is it that One represents that is so good for Miette and Denree? My favourite implication of this narrative answers this question: you have to, to a certain degree, be a child to raise an adult. This is a very profound notion that not only suggests that an adult, a parental figure, needs to be understanding of a child (and so must see themself as one), but that they must assume that they are just as naive as their children are at times and that they, one day, will be cared for (hopefully) by their children. This in turn implies that, whilst adults should not act like children - and such is suggested with One's strength and his mature sense of loyalty and compassion as he searches for and protects his siblings - they should be able to see eye-to-eye with a child as a means of giving them the tools to outgrow themselves. This is a topic that we delved into when looking at Coraline. Both parents and children have the potential to descend into an Oedipal relationship where the child and parent are too attached to one another for their own good and to a degree that inhibits their growth as people. If parents do not allow their children to outgrow them, their maturation will then be stunted - and quite possibly chronically. Similarly, an adult too will become a monster of sorts; something like the Other Mother from Coraline, or The Scientist in this narrative who welcomes his own destruction by loving himself (by proxy, his creations) too much.

The connection between children and father figures in this narrative is all predicated on the idea of compassion. Compassion itself is a difficult idea as it doesn't just mean caring for someone, nor does it mean giving yourself to another person out of charity. If compassion is to be an action, not just a feeling of pity that someone does nothing but sit in, then compassion should not be thought of as a selfless ideal. In fact, selflessness is, in my opinion, a terrible idea on two major fronts. Firstly, to be selfless, you must entirely sacrifice yourself to someone else. This, in a way, is not a terrible idea as sacrifice and compromise are major tenants of a functional society. However, if you completely give yourself to someone else, you put yourself in a dangerous position. You not only rely on them to give themself to you entirely too, but you run the risk of developing an over-dependent relationship that, like the parent-child Oedipal relationship, is detrimental for all involved - thus a little spark of independence is necessary for all relationships (which, funnily, the Octopus twins in this narrative do not have). Second to these issues, however, selflessness is, like perfection, an impossible thing to achieve. Beyond dying for someone, people know that, even if it is unlikely that they will get something in return, that they are doing something for something - immaterial, emotional or internally self-fulfilling - in return. To get slightly abstract and to solidify this proposal, people may even die for another person, or, knowing full-well that an action is bad for their health and will go completely unrecognised, will still sacrifice something, because they have higher ideals or hopes such as, or tantamount to, heaven; in death, they assume they will be rewarded. So, on top of selflessness being a terrible idea if considered too seriously (as said, sacrifice is still immeasurably important), it is technically impossible for a healthy human commit to, let alone sustain under. After all, the subtext is built into the word, "selfless": it is impossible to, or even if it is, I doubt we want to, lose our individual sense of self.

To reconcile ideas of compassion, selflessness and sacrifice, people have to come to terms with a set of social exchanges. And what this again expands upon is the Oedipal relationship. But, without returning to this idea yet, understanding the function of compassion as a tool with which you engage the world and people in an exchange of good deeds, we can see why vanity is foundationally wrong. This idea, vanity as an ultimate form of corruption, seems to be a very old. We see this through the phrase "all in vain". This means that something was pointless, but "vain" itself means having an (excessively) high opinion of yourself. Why do we as a society that use this phrase - even without thinking deeply into it - attribute narcissism with pointlessness? The answer to this question rests in the figure of The Scientist. He creates his 'family' from himself; he does not find a woman to love and begin a family with. He concocts these things alone in his lab. This is an ultimate form of vanity as he attempts to create a perpetual cycle of social exchange within himself; his perfect creations serve him only without him having to serve them; he is asking them to be selfless. But, if they are human, they cannot be selfless and existentially bound to their creator as an emotional slave built for one purpose. This is why the mother and eldest son kill their father/husband. This is why creations turn on their corrupt and imperfect creators; they refuse the slave-like or Oedipal relationship that is predicated on poisonous selflessness.

With that established, however, we could falsely deduce the idea that anyone who creates something did so in vain and must be destroyed by their son/daughter. To a certain extent, this phenomena is metaphorically true; children do not want to be their parents and so their most crucial stages of maturity are defined by rebellion. Children then must transcend and kill off all that they do not like, or, rather, all that is not good, about their parents whilst absorbing all that is good into their own self. With that said, the literal killing of one's parents shouldn't happen - and this is usually because, to put it starkly, parents don't often deserve to be murdered - good parents especially. One is an example of this: he is a good parental figure that doesn't deserve to be murdered (unlike The Scientist who is allowed to die - there is a notable difference between letting someone die and killing them, however). As alluded to, what makes One a good father figure is compassion, is his ability to both look after and appear as a child to Miette and Dunree. He then, unlike The Scientist, engages in a positive social exchange with his adopted siblings instead of setting up a vain positive feedback loop which inevitably will blow a fuse. And that is the last crucial detail of the cautionary tale that The Scientist represents: setting up that positive feedback loop is so wrong because it is vain; because it yields no positive product (emotional and material) that is distributed into society - The Scientist is serving himself alone and in vain.

Because The Scientist demonstrates no sense of compassion, self-sacrifice and responsibility, his creations then not only turn on him, but start to destroy the world as an extension of his own selfishness. This is exactly why Krank steals children's dreams which fuels the Octopus' thief-turned-slave orphanage organisation. What's more, Krank's corruption fuels the religious turmoil in the city - the organisation that want to steal everyone's sight and sacrifice themselves to God. These people are all corrupt and, by working selfishly - sometimes pretending to be selfless - and in vain, enact numerous positive feedback loops of devastation and malevolence throughout society. Thus, the whole city slowly descends into chaos. This is a phenomena - innocuous individual actions contributing to the downfall of a nation - that historians and theorists use to describe how Nazi Germany and Communist Russia were established and became so murderously corrupt; all it takes is the lightest tip of the first individual domino. A figure that is then particularly divisive, yet seemingly practical and purposefully placed into this narrative, is the flea circus ringmaster who's fleas injected people with a serum that has them turn on one another. He seems to play a pivotal role in letting the corrupt destroy themselves so that the righteous may prevail.

The final message of this film, having established these ideas of corruption, compassion and the significance of father figures, then sees Krank get exactly what he wants and Miette grow up during their final confrontation in the dream machine. Krank, who, like Coraline, over indulges in dreams and childhood, is made a child whose evil and vain positive feedback loop keeps him perpetually immature. Added to this, Miette, who not only finds and establishes a loving relationship with One, but is willing to sacrifice herself for it, then out-grows Krank and, despite his intellect, outsmarts him. What this then suggests is that good parents, good parental figures, give birth not only to good children, but children who will transcend their being, whilst corrupt, vain parental figures lay the tracks for the possible destruction of everything. This is why, in the end, seeing all of his papers raining aflame around him, that The Scientist suddenly doesn't want to die; he is reminded of who he was and seemingly falls in love with his own creations again; he cannot, and does not, change himself, only hides away from society and the past. A natural order then finalises his movement towards destruction with the bird perching on the detonator. What can be said of his children after this, who escape the explosion in the boat, is unknown. Maybe this is a positive caveat; maybe they will be good men despite their father's corruption. What is not ambiguous, however, is the journey that One, Miette and Dunree have established; it is one, thanks to its basis in rational compassion, that will mature along a path towards a higher place - a place that is hopefully not one of lost children searching for good parental figures to guide them.

It's this profound and intricate subtext - which has more elements to it than what we've covered - that really seals The City Of Lost Children as a great film in my view. However, these are just my thoughts. Have you seen The City Of Lost Children? What do you think about all we've covered, and maybe skipped over, today?







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Nascent - Like Water

Quick Thoughts: Nascent (2016)


Made by Jon Kasbe and Lindsay Branham, this is the Central African Republic film of the series.


Nascent is a short film (only 6 minutes) that beautiful depicts two children who live in the Central African Republic, one of them a Muslim and the other a Christian. Suspended by rippling slow-motion and laced with beautiful textures, warm colours and silky cinematography, this short reveals a conflict that I knew nothing of: a civil war that, to this day and has since 2013, rages between Muslim Sélékas and Christian Anti-balakas. These are two groups are made up of both rebel militia and terrorists and their conflict over the rule of the Central African Republic has displaced up to 400,000 people like the children in this short.

Not so much a documentary, not even heavily political, Nascent is a powerful gesture of hope and, from innocence, a plea for peace that would serve the country like fresh water, uniting its separated factions under a joint need to simply live. Certainly worth the watch, why not give Nascent a go...



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Cabralista - A Political Sermon

Quick Thoughts: Cabratlista (2011)


Made by Valerio Lopes, this is the Cabo Verdan (Cape Verdan) film of the series.


Less a documentary about Amílcar Cabral - a significant African anti-colonialist who lead a nationalist movement, later waged war, against the Portuguese governments in Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde - and more a platform for self-proclaimed Cabralists to exposit their passion and ideals, Cabralista was a bit of a let-down. In such, 10 minutes of surface-level reading on what Cabral achieved was far more interesting than the heavy exposition provided by this narrative.

However, with that said, I can appreciate the deep dive that is attempted in this documentary that skips over the more cinematic elements of Cabral's life and focuses on the man's ideas. However, the combination of constant talking and flashy editing (which, as a singular entity, is pretty good - apart from many of the soundtrack choices) made this film a little bit of a headache. This is primarily because I had to read dense subtitles and somehow keep up with the storm of lights and images as they flew past. If this narrative was better paced with much of the repetitive blocks of dialogue taken out, it could have had room to breath, space for more on Cabral himself and a greater focus on concise points. After all, having just finished this movie, I couldn't recall even half of the points made as everything blended into a long sermon with the word "culture" said almost a thousand times throughout.

I don't want to bash this movie too hard, however, as it did introduce many ideas and a figure I had never heard about before. But, I ultimately think this wasn't aimed for me, rather, potential Cabralist and young Africans. Seen as such, the choice of cast and the recruitment lecture that this seems to be make much more sense. So, if you are interested in politics and the views of young Africans on colonialism and activism, I would give this film a go, if not, maybe there is something to take away from this documentary, but it may be an arduous ride.

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Select Films Of Norman McLaren - Logic Of The Singing, Dancing Line

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14/08/2017

Select Films Of Norman McLaren - Logic Of The Singing, Dancing Line

Thoughts On: Hell Unltd. (1936), Love On The Wing (1939), Dots (1940), Hen Hop (1942), Begone Dull Care (1949), Neighbours (1952), Pas De Deux (1968), Narcissus (1983)


For the Canadian spot in the series, we will be looking at a Scottish-Canadian filmmaker who spent much of his career working for the National Film Board of Canada.


Norman McLaren is a filmmaker whose play with light, colour and darkness often exudes a precious and uniquely captivating quality projected with impossible verve and vibrancy. This is thanks to his constant experimentation with film form that was motivated by a seemingly concise ideal to entertain, to touch the hearts and lives of people, through a consideration of film as an art of its own and an evolution from forms such as painting. As you could then guess, McLaren was, for the most part, an animator of sorts - though an animator that produced work that was incredibly distant to that which came out of Hollywood. Before we begin to look at any of McLaren's work it must be clarified that he did not work with narratives like Disney did, nor did he create spectacles and comedies like those that would come from early animators such as Winsor McKay or out of the Fleischer Studios around the 1930s. McLaren instead worked with abstract or, early on in his career, surreal forms of animation, as well as movement as a spectacle and nonsense visual poetry. These endeavours were all motivated by his fascination with music - most notably jazz - and the idea of plastic arts, such as sculpture and painting, coming to life through movement and a relatively new form, which all lead to the constant questioning of what could be produced from cinema. So, when we watch his films, it is best not to look for a story, nor should we only be looking for the novel spectacle of the new and different. I find the best--the most rewarding--way to consume McLaren's work is through intrigue and a will to play, ourselves, with the idea of what film could be. And with that said, let us begin...

Norman McLaren was born and raised in Scotland, spending much of his early life drawing and developing his interest in art. He would attend the Glasgow School of Art where he would not only study set-design, but would join an amateur film club through which he would eventually begin making films. It seems that McLaren was often perceived, and acted, as a rather idiosyncratic character - and at a more fundamental level, was simply different from most people around him. In such, McLaren was politically polar to his conservative family; he was interested in communism, sometimes - most famously - used film as a political tool to critique capitalism and war, and would be much affected by his travels to Spain during their Civil War and, later, communist Russia and China. Added to this, McLaren was gay. Though it doesn't seem that he was open about his sexuality, and, of course, people often wouldn't be around the mid-twentieth-century, nor does this really come through in much of his art or his various appearances on television and in documentaries, it is known that his life-long partner was Guy Glover, who he met in 1937 and would often work with. Despite McLaren, as suggested by John Grierson, the famous British documentarist who started McLaren's career, being a highly sheltered artist, he had a lot of inner demons that he would struggle with - and these demons are implied to stem from the capacities in which he was different from the people around him as well as the tragedies he witnessed during the Spanish Civil War. So, whilst McLaren's presence on screen through his art is very often highly jovial, and whilst he would seem to be a very conserved and quiet person when he appeared on screen himself, but would be said to have been very reckless - especially as a driver - around friends, there are unfinished or unpublished works of his that begin to provide an insight into his darker side. McLaren, like most people, then isn't very easy to pin down under one adjective; alongside all of these variants he appears to be a highly intellectual and conscious figure in later documentaries on himself, but, again under the rather harsh criticism of John Grierson, would also be said to not be very trustworthy as a political and historical commentator. Thus arose different opinions between the two on what is McLaren's most important film: whilst McLaren would claim it was his anti-war live action experiment, Grierson would assure that it was his brighter and lighter endeavours into animation. So, depending on the lights in, and the films through, which McLaren is perceived, he and his films tend to say different things to different people.

So, moving onto the start of McLaren's career, during his time at the amateur film club of the Glasgow School of Art, he would produce two notable shorts films, Seven Till Five in 1933 and then Camera Makes A Whoopee in 1935. Both Seven Till Five and Camera Makes A Whoopee are documentaries, the former portraying a day-in-the-life of a college art student and the latter an experimental documentation of a school ball. In these films McLaren makes clear how Russian directors such as Podovkin and Eisenstein inspired him. We see this in the manner in which he jumps through spaces with a focus on the cut itself; the juxtaposition, collision and movement of imagery. Embedded into Russian Formalist (Constructivist or Montage - different people use different labels) films is not only a deep focus on the concept of a cut, but also its rhythmic, musical and symphonic qualities. This is certainly what McLaren strove to capture in his second short, Camera Makes A Whoopee - which was more complex than his first as McLaren had access a camera that would record single-frame exposures, which allowed him to do a little stop-motion animation.

Both of these films would be submitted to the Scottish Amateur Film Festival and both would win prizes. John Grierson was a judge at this competition and, though he criticised McLaren's films for lacking discipline (something that, arguably and positively, McLaren never really developed), he would hire him as a cameraman. Learning about documentary, camera operation and editing, McLaren would be sent with Ivor Montagu to shoot footage of the Spanish Civil War in the mid-30s once he had graduated from school. This would have profoundly impacted him as he witnessed bombings and the amassing of dead bodies that few other filmmakers were putting to screen in the form of newsreels at the time. The film that may have got McLaren this job would have been Hell Unltd which he made in the Glasgow Art School in 1936. It was the developing fascism in Europe during the latter half of the 30s that would motivate McLaren to make the anti-war peace film. Here is an excerpt:


Working with Helen Biggar this was, quite starkly, a film--basically propaganda--that decried war as a capitalist construction only instigated for profit. This was a very rare kind of venture that McLaren would only make again with his 1952 film, Neighbours. In comparison to Neighbours, Hell Unltd is a somewhat crude and inexpressive film as it doesn't have a narrative, nor does it have many formal expressions, that are particularly striking. There is established, however, McLaren's use of 'pure cinematics'. This is very evident for the fact that this is a silent film; McLaren would only ever use sound in the form of music, never dialogue. The combination of Soviet Montage aesthetics and sensibilities and this pure, silent film-type storytelling is a crucial element of McLaren's cinema as, though it almost always implies a sense of humanism (either through its social commentary in films such as this, or through a need to uplift and entertain as in most of his animated efforts) his films are very rarely centred on and feature people. A good example of this would be a film from later in his career, A Chairy Tale, in which McLaren demonstrates more (or equal) compassion for inanimate objects than for himself - which is seemingly a complex motif existent throughout many of his films.

After working on the Spanish Civil War documentary, McLaren would continue to work under Grierson and the British General Post Office Film Unit. Here he would work on documentaries such as Book Bargain, which would show the production of the telephone directory, and News For The Navy, which shows how a letter would reach a sailor  in foreign waters. Around 1939, however, McLaren would briefly pursue independence when he moved to New York and received a grant from the Solomon Guggenheim Foundation. For 2 years, he then developed his interest in percussion and music in film, making animated shorts such as Dots:


It's with a film such as Dots that we begin to see the backbone of McLaren's cinematic career established. Not only is he working with animation here, but he experiments with rhythm and film form. In such, McLaren draws directly onto his film stock (which is atypical as most animators will draw on paper and then photograph those cells), and, most inspiringly, would draw his sound track. As was explored in the documentary Pen Point Percussion, McLaren would simply paint or draw marks onto the ribbon, or track, that captures the audio on a piece of film. By drawing various shapes at different distances he could control the various attributes of his sound design and synchronise his images with 'music' whilst giving character to formless entities.

McLaren was then, loosely, part of a movement that started in the 1920s with one of the first avant-garde movements of cinema through which filmmakers would attempt to explore the relationship between image and sound. This was famously done by filmmakers such as Eistenstein, Vertov, Pudovkin and Dovzhenko in Soviet Russia, but also Germans such as Walter Ruttmann. Ruttmann was not only involved in the City Symphony movement of the 20s, but made films such as Lichtspiel Opus I:


Like the Swedish filmmaker, Viking Eggling (who made Symphonie Diagonale), Ruttmann explores the content of film as a musical and rhythmic force. This is in slight opposition to the Soviet Montage filmmakers and Ruttmann's City Symphonies where the cut was the rhythmic focus. These were then essential experiments that have since been apart of the cinema in the form of animation - which is highly rhythmic because of the control animators are allowed to exhibit - but also the classical musical. All of these experiments project and play with the idea of imagery as a harmonic entity; not only would images resonate and harmonise with one another, but they would also harmonise with human emotions and the individual psyche. The fact that filmmakers have always been experimenting with the harmonising qualities of cinema is precisely why films - everything from Danse Serpentine to An American In Paris to The Raid - hold immersive attributes that urge us to sit in the dark and marvel at the play of light and sound.

However, whilst filmmakers of the 1920s explored the relationship between image and sound, those in the 1930s were arguably attempting to reconcile this bond. This is, of course, because of the popularisation and advent of sound-on-film pictures: talkies. Talkies, to anyone who took film seriously in the silent era, decimated the establishment of cinema as an art - and, in many respects, during the 30s, filmmakers had to learn how to make films all over again (though, never were they again like those from the silent era). Silent films were widely heralded, especially in the 1920s, as a universal language of picture and sound. Thus, ideas of a German film, an American film and an Italian film were very different to what they are now; because there were no vocalised languages embedded into these films, they were international entities that could be sold world-wide. Because cinema as a universal language was lost in the late 20s, filmmakers like McLaren, as inspired by others such as Oskar Fischinger, brought the world films without words, just abstract notions of character, story and spectacle. An example of a film made by Fischinger that McLaren likely saw, and would inspired him to make films such as Dots, would then be An Optical Poem:


An Optical Poem represents a very old notion that has existed in various art forms for centuries, one which implies that there is such a thing as visual music - or that music inspires imagery, or vice versa. For many, music is then not complete without images, and for most, imagery is not complete without music. Whilst various filmmakers had tested and played with this hypothesis, after seeing films by Fischinger, McLaren would strip this notion to its bare bones - an idea we will return to later.

What a film like Dots gives insight into is the individuality that McLaren symbolised for many filmmakers with his homemade movies. It was then far before the home movie revolution of the 1970s when the first video cameras that used cassettes where released that McLaren would be making movies that did not necessarily require more than one person or much money at all to be made. This is why McLaren could later captivate audiences through appearances on television shows and, in the 50s and 60s, go to China and India to teach people about animation; his approach was iconically simple, but highly expressive and so conceptually lucrative. It must be said, however, that McLaren was not a completely individual, isolated artist who made all of his films by himself. He in fact worked with Evelyn Lambart, who would co-direct many of his films, for much of his career - and also had various students work under him. So, whilst McLaren is a brilliant representative for individual home made movies, it must be said that he, much like almost all filmmakers, never worked completely alone.

Something else that must be touched on to understand McLaren's films is his inspiration from surrealist painters such as Yves Tanguy.


The surrealists are amongst some of the most interesting artists as they often attempted to take the idea of the subconscious and the Freudian dream and bring it into material being. As a result, transformation and metamorphosis are deeply embedded into surrealist sensibilities as the dream and the subconscious flow freely and without true material constraints - all whilst, arguably, holding windows into the deepest pits of the human condition. With films such as the 1939 Love On The Wing, made under the GPO, McLaren demonstrates his capacities for surrealism as well as his inspirations from Tanguy:


Because this short was deemed too suggestive and "too Freudian" by the GPO, it was only given a limited release. Nonetheless, what we can see in this short is a different kind of surrealism that was quite unique to McLaren. Whilst he captivated ideas of metamorphosis and made his films without a conscious thought of where he was headed, McLaren also took the idea of form and the line - that which traditional painters usually attempt to conceal in their art - and embellished it.

Whilst the lines in the paintings of Raphael, Donatello, Da Vinci and Michelangelo where put in place to be concealed and to blend into real faces and real bodies, animators and cartoonists traditionally embrace the rudimentary chaos that the basic line could represent. By following what has been referred to as the 'logic' of this line with his surrealist inspirations, McLaren reduces cinema to its most basic and foundational elements before building it back up again. We see this in something such as Love On The Wing through the very crude animation that nonetheless expresses poetic ideas of communication through writing letters - and this would all develop as McLaren's career continues.

After leaving the GPO and working in New York for a two-year period in which he made the mentioned film, Dots, among others, McLaren would then be hired by Grierson again to work at the Canadian Nation Film Board. And it's here where he would make some of his finest films. At the NFB, McLaren would often be creating shorts that would fit into film programmes that included newsreels. This was in a period before television, and so the cinema played a significant role - as it had done for decades - in the spreading of news and the supply of entertainment. However, this was also the period of WWII, and so the newsreels that would proceed animated shorts were particularly grim. McLaren's job was then, in large part, to bring a bit of light into the cinema and the lives of people in the WWII era. So, it was at the Canadian NFB that McLaren made films such as Hen Hop:


It has been said that Picasso saw this film and not only liked it, but rose in his chair and exclaimed something to the effect of: "finally, something new!". This is because McLaren's attitude towards the idea that painting was a dead art and that cinema was the new art, was made pretty evident in this short. He then not only revised the idea of the 'artistic line' for his work in Hen Hop whilst implementing surrealism into the abstract narrative, but brought his paintings (for this was, in a way, what he considered many of his films) to life. The effect of this was abstract art of a very particular kind - one which, as mentioned, broke cinema down to its most basic state, before constructing layers around it. As an extension of this idea that McLaren reduced cinema to its most rudimentary forms before building it back up, it is probably best to consider the manner in which he brought character to the practice of abstract art.

In a famous psychological experiment conducted by Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel during 1944, participants were asked to watch a short film before assessing the characters put to screen. This is the short film:


After seeing this, participants were asked questions such as:

What kind of a person is the big triangle?
What kind of a person is the little triangle?
What kind of a person is the circle?
Why did the two triangles fight?
Why did the circle go into the house?
What did the circle do when it was in the house with the big triangle? Why?
Why did the big triangle break the house?

What Heider and Simmel were clearly testing here was the ability of people to attribute personality, consciousness and motive to the most abstract of beings. This must have been a question that, leading up to the 1940s, was asked by many people after decades of watching animated films of various degrees of abstraction dazzle and entertain audiences. McLaren's films made this question a very pressing one as he seems to test the limits of abstract characterisation; he, after all, didn't just animate mice, near-human beings and various other creatures. We see this expressively exemplified by later films of his such as Mosaic, Rhythmetic and Spheres. These shorts closely resemble the Heider and Simmel experiment and what they, alongside films such as Hen Hop, Dots and Love On The Wings, achieve is the grounding of abstract art.

Abstract art can range from anything to Malevich's Black Square...


... to Mondrian's Tableau I...


... to Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase...


... to Kandinsky's Composition VII...


Whilst some of these pieces intrigue me, I have to admit a complete disconnection from works such as Black Square and Tableue I beyond basic concepts or aesthetic materials. That said, I feel a general distance from abstract art as it only implied life and abstract ideas. Conversely, what Norman McLaren does is give life to abstract art and so allows it to be far more expressive thanks to its projections of character and being - that which we attribute to his art like we do the Heider and Simmel experiment. As a result, what separates McLaren's films from most forms of abstract art as well as most forms of animation is its simplicity, yet also the power and life that exudes from the basic aesthetics. If you then took one frame of McLaren's work, it'd be about as interesting as the average piece of abstract art. However, let his films play and you have something that transcends the mediums of abstraction and animation due to the plane of abstract, yet apparent, reality that his work exists upon; there isn't an abstract drawing of a hen in his films, there is rather just a hen dancing.

When we turn to what is often considered Norman McLaren's masterpiece, which was co-directed by Evelyn Lambart, we can see absolutely everything we have thus far discussed put on sparkling display:


Begone Dull Care is, in my view, a play ground for everything that McLaren strove to do. Not only does he create a film with a universal language made up of music and picture - which is emphasised through his use of multiple languages in the titles - but there is also his fascination with rhythm, time and music. Synchronising the flurry of abstract forms with jazz captivated this whilst he put on a display of nonsense visual poetry (which he would return to definitively with La Merle, or, The Blackbird in 1957). By combining music with his abstract, metamorphosing and surreal interpretation of the artistic line, McLaren also makes a definitive statement on his animated films as paintings. He then ultimately embodies the logic of a line that sings and dances as if in a wondrous dream - and this is one of the most profound ideas that McLaren gave to cinema.

After this pretty immense achievement, McLaren would continue work, three years later making his most famous film: Neighbours.


This is a poetic anti-war film in a similar vein to McLaren's Hell Unltd. But, whilst the peaceful sentiment is the same, McLaren's control over narrative in this film is far more poignant and affecting. He was spurred to make this film from his time spent in communist China teaching people his craft. He left China just as the Korean Civil War broke out and a few years later made this film. We see a pattern repeating itself here as, before making Hell Unltd, McLaren was immersed in the anxiety of watching fascism develop in Europe during the mid-30s. This suggests, and has been confirmed by McLaren, that he only made these films as a reaction; he never really considered himself a political filmmaker (beyond the fact that he always worked for national associations like the British GOP and Canadian NFB) and didn't have much of an interest in making many films like Neighbours and Hell Unltd. Nonetheless, he has said that: (paraphrasing) if all his films where to be set on fire apart from one, he'd want that film to be Neighbours. And this is because of the human message of this narrative that affected many people. Whilst John Grierson starkly opposed this idea, suggesting that something such as Hen Hop is what "Norman is for", he was recognised with an Oscar for this short. McLaren's reaction to this when he was called up and told on the phone apparently was: "who's Oscar?".

Having, by this point in the 1950s, made many innovations in abstract and surreal animation, visual music, pixilation, painting on film, scratching animation onto film as well as painting sound tracks, McLaren had done so much, but still had much work ahead of him. He would then work with chalk and more abstract animation, making many films such as A Chairy Tale, The Blackbird, Rythmetic and Mosaic, which have already been mentioned. One of his final great works came with one of his most technically difficult and utterly beautiful endeavours, Pas De Deux:


At the later stages of his career, McLaren really focused on his interest with movement itself, making a few films centred on dancing - films such as Ballet Adagio, which is a mesmerising slow-motion depiction of a very difficult ballet dance, and Narcissus, a narrative dance film centred on the Greek myth. Pas De Deux, the first of these films, is probably the most impressive. Here, McLaren combines a stroboscopic, or chronophotographic, effect that was popular in photography since the days of Étienne-Jules Marey...


... with an aesthetic not too dissimilar from two films made by Maya Deren: Ensemble for Somnambulists from 1951, which was an unreleased test in preparation for The Very Eye of Night from 1958.

McLaren's contemplation on time in relation to movement in Pas De Deux says much about his previous work and the control he was used to exercising when he animated his films. And, if anything, McLaren seemed to form a film theory of his own by this point, one that was not focused on the cut itself, as with Soviet Montage, but the possibility that exists between frames. What lie dormant between frames, for McLaren, was a window through which abstract thoughts and consciousness flowed. This is far more true with his animated films, but it seems the sentiment exists in his highly manipulated narratives, like Pas De Deux, too. The implication of many of McLaren's films is then a kind of control that you very rarely see in cinema. He always worked on his films personally, often with someone by his side, but never did he work in the huge communities that those in Hollywood and Disney do. This meant that McLaren had more control over his work than even the most diligent of filmmakers, say for instance Bergman or Kubrick, could demonstrate. And so the legacy of McLaren rests heavily on the idea that he was one of the few painters and sculptors who got his hands on some film and did something more than just experiment or create avant-garde films. With McLaren then came a full package of art, experimentation, life, entertainment and colour; a package that very few filmmakers have ever provided.

Now in a period in his life (the 70s/80s) where he felt he could not make any more abstract films, despite loving that artistic form since he was a teenager, Narcissus was McLaren's last cinematic effort.


McLaren considered this film to partly be a reflection on himself as he thought, now near the end of his life, he had developed a narcissistic shade of his personality over time - and that narcissism was one of the major sins in his contemporary era. With more unapologetic assessment from John Grierson, he said, considering his general job security throughout his career, that McLaren was "the most sheltered artist in the history of the cinema" and "not a tragic person", despite his suffering. What's more, McLaren knew himself that he was shut away from the public, leading a private and quiet life. And so maybe this is what he saw to be the narcissism that revealed itself through this film. Nonetheless, McLaren suggested that the narcissist, the artist who loves his own work, has given great things to society - and so maybe he's not all bad. And such seems to be the final note that can be made on the individuality and the subconscious, abstract drive imbued into all of McLaren's films.

Norman McLaren died at aged 72 in 1987 having been with his partner, Guy Glover, until the very end. He received dozens of awards over his career and is celebrated, in particularly, by the Canadian National Film Board, who have preserved many of his films and put them online - some of which you would have just watched here through their YouTube page. On a penultimate note, if you are interested in learning more about McLaren, I would highly recommend the documentary, Creative Process: Norman McLaren, which is on the NFB website as well as a retrospective documentary in two parts (part one, part two). With that said, I'll leave things with you. What are your thoughts on the films of Norman McLaren?


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13/08/2017

End Of The Week Shorts #18



Today's shorts: The City Of Lost Children (1995), Zabriskie Point (1970), Forbidden Games (1952), Pickpocket (1959), The Black Pirate (1926), The Mummy (1932), One A.M (1916), Beauty And The Beast (2017)



The City Of Lost Children is a complex mish-mash of fairy-tale and fantasy with astounding world building, off-the-wall writing and a completely unique aesthetic. By far, my favourite part of this movie is Dominique Pinon, who plays around 6 different characters. He is the shining co-star, alongside director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, of The City Of Lost Children that brings so much off-beat magic to this story. 
The only critique I could issue this film would be that Jeunet doesn't handle the logistics of his action scenes (or moments) very well at all. He is much better at building characters and constructing a strange world than he is at capturing adventure or tension that is connected to physical conflicts. 
With that said, this is a movie I want to talk about at greater length, but will have to give another watch before I can. So, maybe in a few days I can return to this film and better decipher its narrative subtext.



A meandering, boring and rather cumbersome film, Zabriskie Point is understandably labelled Antonioni's biggest failure. 
There are a handful of impressive sequences in this film that combine music, montage and a plethora of formal techniques, but citing these few and far between scenes only reveals Zabriskie Point to be worth a few moments of spectacle and controversy. But, on the note of controversy, an orgy in a blistering hot and dusty desert doesn't seem all too appealing to me - I'm not sure about you. That said, much of this movie is bloated with emptiness; every single character, statement and beat of this story is painfully meaningless, staggeringly pointless or plainly awkward - the scene with the low-flying aeroplane being a particularly nonsensical scene. 
There's really not much to say about Zabriskie Point. If you have to, maybe seek out clips from the best scenes of this movie. Beyond that, I wouldn't recommend Zabriskie Point.



Forbidden Games is an emotional tour de force. There's no other film I know that manages so many serious themes - war, death, lies, poverty, family - and so many varying emotions simultaneously. In such, it's very difficult to define the genre of this film. Is it a historical film? A drama? A tragedy? A dark comedy? A romance? A family film? There are elements of everything mentioned in Forbidden Games and Clément manages each detail almost perfectly. The only hiccup of this film, in my view, was Paulette's, the littler girl's, initial reaction to her parents death. Beyond this, this narrative weaves and meanders between emotions and themes whilst it explores the idea of death and how a child copes with such an idea to sometimes absurd, yet sometimes profound, effect. 
I think it'd be safe to say that Forbidden Games is something of a masterpiece, if not, a great film with an uncanny ability to emotionally guide you through its story.



So perfect, so precise, so simple, so subtle, Pickpocket is Bresson just being Bresson. 
No other director comes to mind when I think of precision and control over cinematic language. And within Pickpocket Bresson puts on a true masterclass as he asks us to follow eyes, hands, slumped shoulders and all that they hide - and it cannot be understated just how excellent Martin LaSalle is in this film. But, all of this funnels into an impossibly expressive and striking exploration of immorality and nihilism at a very minute, realist scale. It is then without any flashing lights or loud noises that a film that defies articulation, to a certain degree, has been constructed. Whilst I could outline the themes and the possible ideas within, no essay could do this film much of a service; Pickpocket is a silent vacuum of a masterpiece.



A spectacular adventure and a story of heroism unique to the silent era and Douglas Fairbanks. Rife with iconic imagery - the descent down a sail with a knife, swashbuckling of various kinds, the mass movement of bodies across the brilliant sets, the special effects swimming sequence and the wonderful shot of Fairbanks being raised up the levels of the ship by his men - The Black Pirate is sequence after sequence of classic spectacle cinema. Imbued into all of this is a tremendous sense of romantic fantasy, which seals this narrative as not just archetypal, but genuinely captivating. And, of course, the two-colour Technicolor, as Fairbanks designed this narrative around, adds further aesthetic wonder to the spectacle of this narrative. 
Having had a great time with this iconic film, I was only left wishing the score on the version I watched was a little better. As more an adventurous thrill-ride, less a profound piece of art, I highly recommended The Black Pirate - especially if you can find a good score.



A very clunky classic, The Mummy is a film I would only recommend to anyone seriously interested in old horror pictures. 
I myself didn't have a good time with this film and only watched it to delve deeper into the classic Universal Monster movies. Whilst Frankenstein would be the most interesting of these films in my view, The Mummy falls through the ranks and below the likes of Dracula, The Invisible Man, The Wolf Man and The Creature From The Black Lagoon. This all comes to the fact that this film relies on atmosphere, but only has one shot - the one iconic shot of Karloff's face - that actually captures an immersive aesthetic and mood. With clunky everything - writing and acting especially - The Mummy then felt quite a lot longer than 70 minutes. 
I'm sure there are some out there who could really appreciate this film, but, I think most would agree that The Mummy has not aged well at all.



More a platform from which Chaplin puts on display his astounding physical comedic creativity than anything else, One A.M is mightily impressive and very amusing. 
Every time it seems that Chaplin has sapped every ounce of comedy out of a prop or section of a set and things are about to get boring, he finds new grounds and new jokes. So, through this almost entirely diminished art form of slapstick, Chaplin seems to form a plot of jokes, making call-backs and devising twists on subjects and props like a stand-up comedian would juggle topics - which really has me considering slapstick in a completely new light. 
Whilst I must say that I prefer Chaplin when he merges comedy into narratives, One A.M is very much so a testament to his imagination and physical capabilities. To then see a side of Chaplin concentrated and projected to screen in a way you may have never seen before, certainly find and watch One A.M.



I spent far more time complaining about and distracting myself from the sight of this film than actually watching it, so I probably shouldn't be doing a review of it. Nonetheless, there is absolutely no good reason for this film to exist. The performances all suck, the movie looks terrible, it sounds terrible and the pacing... terrible. I don't just mean the pacing of the overall narrative, but the manner in which scenes play out and are paced leaves no tension, no drama, no emotion - nothing. This film is just scene after scene of underwhelming, disinteresting, sub-par slop. 
I have so far refused to see The Jungle Book and Cinderella - I didn't want to watch this movie, but it was on - and so I remain without any confidence in these ridiculous live action remakes. Even if these movies are half-decent and I'm talking out of turn, I really can't see a good reason for Disney to be doing this - it just seems cheap and shameless. If you want to see a live action Beauty And The Beast please watch Jean Cocteau's 1946 masterpiece.




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