Thoughts On: August 2017


The Grand Marriage - Grand-Marriage-Zilla?

Quick Thoughts: The Grand Marriage (2013)

Made by Faisal Al Otaibi, this is the Comoran film of the series.

The Grand Marriage is a Comoran documentary produced by Al Jazeera that follows a former scholar, Yehia Mohamed Elias, as he prepares for a dual grand marriage to his first wife, who he has been married to for 20 years, and his second wife, who he has been married to for just over a year. The grand marriage itself, which is a second ceremony that, either by months, years or decades, follows the initial small wedding, is not very common because it is so expensive, though, it is nonetheless an important tradition that is seen to signify true adulthood and grant higher social standing in Comoros. Yehia Mohamed Elias' wedding is a particular rarity because the ceremony is for both his first and second wife. As hectic as this sounds, the ceremonial process plays out smoothly over the course of this light-hearted and enjoyable narrative. I could't refrain, however, from thinking about weddings and their representation in 'documentary' form from the West - specifically through British and American T.V shows (which my mother and sisters watch) like Don't Tell The Bride and Bridezillas.

A good episode in these shows sees everything slowly fall apart with a big explosion and the bride or groom not showing up and then the two separating, bloodied and teary-eyed. There is then a cynical representation of marriage - which often isn't seen as heavily traditional - in much of Western media. There is, too, the romantic idealistic representation through movies and magazines, but the comparison between the reality T.V show weddings to The Grand Marriage makes this documentary all the more intriguing. What then struck me as I watched this was the degree to which tradition, and in turn social standing, play as significant elements of relationships in Comoran culture. Moreover, there is a transparency in the social structuring of these events which is simultaneously absurd and enlightening. It then goes without saying, but, I really enjoyed this documentary and would recommend it to anyone interested. To watch this film on Al Jazeera's YouTube page, click here, or, watch it here:

< Previous     post in the series     Next >

Previous post:

The Hidden Face - Deception Behind The Mirror

Next post:

The Hitman's Bodyguard - Dumb Fun Without The Fun

More from me:

The Hidden Face - Deception Behind The Mirror

Thoughts On: The Hidden Face (La Cara Oculta, 2011)

Made by Andrés Baiz, this is the Colombian film of the series.

The Hidden Face is an immense movie, and one of the most surprisingly smart horror films I've seen in a quite a long time. If you have not seen this film, I urge you to see it; it looks beautiful, it understands the tropes of its genre and how to avoid them, the direction is solid and so are the performances and the script. Without knowing any more than this, go find this movie and watch it. That said, let's delve into some...


Beyond the technical achievements of this movie is the brilliant script. Starting out as an average horror movie, this seems to be about an evil, predacious man/boyfriend: our main character, Andrán. We then quickly assume that he is hiding something - someone - and that some malevolent fate lies before his new girlfriend, Fabiana. However, with the turn of the second act we get the reveal that, assuming Andrián is cheating on her, his old girlfriend, Belén, decided to play a prank on him that goes wrong - she gets trapped in a safe room that she thought she'd be able to spy on him from as he realises that she has 'left'. This is where she stays as this new relationship eventually begins. And with this, Andrián seems relatively innocent to the first act in which we assumed he was hiding something. As this plot line develops, it is then Belén who becomes the one in the wrong; it is her own sly attempt towards revenge that backfires on her. Sympathising somewhat with Andrián and Fabiana, this story then seems to be about silence and deception as poisons in a relationship, both when people lie and hide the truth (meaning that Belén and Andrián are at fault). Whilst this sentiment remains throughout the second act, by the third, and by the time that Fabiana finds and then refuses to release Belén, there is a shift. Initially, I didn't like this twist as it seemed melodramatic. However, this radical, even melodramatic, choice is an extension of the ongoing commentary on deception and lies - which are all connected to selfish, destructive ideals.

With everyone then having a 'hidden face' - a side of their being that they do not show to those in this ghostly love triangle - there seems to be an inevitable, oncoming collapse. We get this with the implication that, by the end, and with Fabiana now trapped in place of Belén, the relationship between all three of these characters must be in irreconcilable catastrophe. If Andrián does manage to find and free Fabiana, how will their relationship go on? If he doesn't find her, will he believe he has, again, been abandoned - despite breaking all ties to the girl he was flirting with? How will Fabiana, much like Belén, be able to live with herself knowing she made such a terrible mistake that entirely decimated her relationship?

The only way that these characters could emerge from their 'closets' without confronting this catastrophe is with a lie. In such, Belén may deceive herself in thinking that she did the right thing by pranking her boyfriend - assuming that he wouldn't change (even though he did) - and that it was simply unfortunate that she got trapped. Fabiana may deceive Andrián if and when he frees her by claiming innocence and suggesting that she accidentally tapped herself in the safe room. And Andrián may also deceive himself by assuming that he is the innocent party in all of this (also by ignoring the clue that Belén was trapped). After all, it is the safe room that seemingly represents the mind-set of suspicion, distrust and cynicism that Belén entered and got trapped in to see her worst nightmares come to life. And this, too, may be what Fabiana has got herself stuck in too with the ending. So, ultimately, this movie is about the construction of that prison of suspicion, distrust and cynicism, one that has mirrors that reflect all that you, through projecting your worst nightmares, will want to see. By the end, it is then still Andrián that is the malicious boyfriend; whilst he didn't chop his girlfriend up and hide her in the walls, he certainly left her for dead behind them.

However, whilst this movie does hold Andrián as the bad guy, the catalyst for everything that goes awry in this movie is deception, is the 'hidden face'. Without this, the traps that lay before each character in this narrative could have never snapped shut. So, with that said, I'll leave things with you. Have you seen The Hidden Face? What are you thoughts?

< Previous     post in the series     Next >

Previous post:

Farewell, My Concubine - Fate & The Free Willing

Next post:

The Grand Marriage - Grand-Marriage-Zilla?

More from me:


Farewell, My Concubine - Fate & The Free Willing

Quick Thoughts: Farewell, My Concubine (Bàwáng Bié Jī, 1993)

Made by Chen Kaige, this is the Chinese film of the series.

Complicated and ambitious. Very rarely could a movie come to define these two words any better than Farewell, My Concubine. Whilst its 171 minute run-time may seem intimidating - and whilst this narrative admittedly holds some pacing issues - there is an inordinate amount of history, culture and drama jammed into this story. Spanning decades upon decades of political and governmental upheaval, this narrative follows to Peeking, later Beijing, Opera male actors, one of which (our protagonist, Dieyi) plays dan, meaning female, roles. This introduces to this story a plethora of themes connected to gender, abusive relationships, dependence, loyalty, trust, truth and lies, time, jealously, etc, etc. Having more familiarity with Chinese history and this narrative, there would then be an awful lot to be said about Farewell, My Concubine. However, what has struck me on this first watch is the theme of fate which overshadows this entire narrative.

With the juxtaposition of our protagonist's, Dieyi's, complex relationship with his "theater brother" and his wife (who, following their marriage, is an ex-prostitute) with Chinese history and opera, this narrative winds towards calamity with a sense of predetermination. In such, with every misstep on our character' behalf and their country's there seems to be the turning of a page in a script. From the very beginning of this movie there then builds a tension that we all know must explode - and so, it seems, are the characters within this narrative aware of this. The world of Farewell, My Concubine is then one in which fate is the stage director of people who have free will and self-determination, but fail to use it.

The question this narrative then poses to Dieyi is if he should have joined the 'theater' or 'opera' as he did. Of course this has literal translations, but the decision of Dieyi to become an actor of dan roles under the circumstance of being given up to his abusive theater master by his mother, who is a prostitute and who disguised him as a woman, has its metaphorical implications. Deiyi was given two paths before him: truth and fate. It seems the world wanted him to be a woman, to play the dan, against his wishes. Instead of fighting for what he saw to be the truth, instead of staying loyal to this self-conceptualised, honest reality, Deiyi folds - and such was the beginning of his undoing, just as it would be the undoing of any person or system who follows a given fate under false pretenses instead of establishing their own.

For this subtext, Farewell, My Concubine is a highly rewarding film that takes some patience, and a fair dosage of concentration, to get through. So, to end, have you seen this movie? What are your thoughts?

UPDATE: For another film from China, click here.

< Previous     post in the series     Next >

Previous post:

Frozen - Let It Go?

Next post:

The Hidden Face - Deception Behind The Mirror

More from me:


Frozen - Let It Go?

Quick Thoughts: Frozen (2013)

The to-be queen of a remote island kingdom inadvertently traps the region in a perpetual winter, and so her estranged sister ventures to reconcile with her.

There isn't much to be said about Frozen. We have already talked about all that it lacks and does wrong when looking at Brave. But, though this is not an exceptional effort on Disney's behalf, I don't feel there is a need to go on a tirade. In fact, I quite like this movie, even though it has depreciated in my view over time (and you could recognise this by reading previous posts in this series over which my praise of this movie has very much so waned). The songs are pretty great, it looks brilliant and it is good enough fun to somehow sustain under dozens and dozens of watches. Like with Tangled, I am not exaggerating when I say I have seen this movie, in full and in part, over 100 times. But, because I have little sisters who love this film and have been watching this movie for almost 4-years straight, this is a plain inevitability.

The positives of this story concern an idea of relinquishing oneself from suppression and secrecy through truth. However, with this as a singular statement not supported by other ideas of responsibility, change, maturation and a greater journey towards truth and virtue, this is rather basic and not worthy of much praise at all. Again, I respect and enjoy this movie, but only as a kids' film and as a piece of entertainment. With a better lead character than Anna, and with more of an arc given to Elsa, this could have been an interesting film that holds up under security. Without this, I think this film is destined to only be remembered as a monumental success because of that one song.

That said, do you see more to Frozen than what I've outlined? How does this film compare to the contemporary Disney masterpieces such as Wreck-It Ralph and The Lion King as well as classic masterpieces such as Cinderella and Dumbo?

< Previous     post in the series     Next >

Previous post:

Wreck-It Ralph - Compromise & Acceptance

Next post:

Farewell, My Concubine - Fate & The Free Willing

More from me:

Wreck-It Ralph - Compromise & Acceptance

Thoughts On: Wreck-It Ralph (2012)

A jaded bad guy in an arcade game wants to be the good guy for a change.

Wreck-It Ralph is a perfect movie. Not only is it Disney's best modern film, but I think it is a strong candidate for the best Disney film - maybe even the best animated film - ever. From around the mid-00s until 2012 and Wreck-It Ralph, Disney had lost their form and had been making ok to mediocre movies: Brother Bear, Home On The Range, Chicken Little, The Wild, Meet The Robinsons, Bolt, The Princess and The Frog and then Tangled. We talked about one of the biggest mistakes that they were making in the previous post of the series and, if you'd like to have a masterclass in how to do the complete opposite, just watch Wreck-It Ralph.

With rich personas filling the major and minor positions, with some phenomenal world building, beautiful aesthetics, an astounding ability to conjure emotion and an intricate narrative, Wreck-It Ralph exudes mastery from every one of its minutes; the third act in particularly is wholly flawing. Whilst someone could comb through this movie and pick out tiny faults, the 'sins' of this movie really don't amount to much, nor do they impact the viewing experience. My favourite part of Wreck-It Ralph, as always, has got to be the story and its subtextual significance.

Wreck-It Ralph is a movie about media itself. Specifically, it is about arcade games, but, its narrative applies to films as well. Each of the games in this movie are worlds that give birth to characters - usually, the good and the bad. Fix It Felix Jr. is one of these games. The world that this game metaphorically represents is the average home or small community. The patriarchs doing battle in this home seem to represent a tension between destruction and preservation: Ralph wrecks and Felix fixes. However, whilst this implies a 'good guy' and a 'bad guy', these characteristics themselves aren't wholly indicative of goodness and badness. As we find out when we step into the game, not only are these characters programmed to act as such, but Ralph seeks more than destruction, and Felix doesn't live in a perfect world of his own construction; Felix lives a cushioned life with a tight community that shuns, or at least finds awkward, Ralph. They in turn make him more of a 'bad guy' than he actually wants to be. But, before we continue with this line of thought, we should take a second to ask about this person...

Stefanie is an average regular here, but she is also, partly, a reflection of the audience. She interacts with games such as Fix It Felix Jr, and whilst she doesn't get an incite into its world like we do, she comes into contact with its fundamental ideas and, by playing the games, actively engages them. What she then learns in Fix It Felix Jr is how to battle destruction with preservation. What she would see in a game such as Sugar Rush is how to confront hierarchy and competition in the form of a race. And in Hero's Duty she would learn how to fight against infection for the sake of responsibility itself: duty. All three of these games comment on life - as do all video games. After all, we only care to play these games as they all seem to mirror real-world situations in the abstract and so allow us to engage in hypothetical acts of vanquishing evil, winning a race or saving people. However, whilst video games get chemical pathways flowing, they lack nuance. What we are then doing as we step into these actual games is finding this nuance by seeing how they, almost as parental figures to young gamers, function and face conflicts as tools that abstractly teach children such as Stefanie.

With Fix It Felix Jr as a 'teacher' or 'parental figure', we could imagine the two patriarchs, Felix and Ralph, as the two sides of a dad. Whilst fathers are often seen to fix and preserve things - not just literally - they are also often seen to be the stern parent, and the one who tutors you not just through care, but by pushing you out into the world and seeing you gather some cuts and bruises. In an abstract sense the father can then be seen to fix and preserve your sense of 'home' whilst simultaneously destroying it. Moreover, he shows a child the harsher side of the world whilst demonstrating how to confront this. Whilst some would argue that Ralph possibly represents physical destruction in the household, it's clear that this narrative urges Ralph to uphold his responsibility of running the game. Thus, it is his responsibility as a parental figure to embody the darker side of fatherhood so that Felix can represent the lighter side.

This is something that Ralph learns himself through becoming a father figure to Vanellope. Whether it be in the mini-game car shop, the scene in which he builds the race track, or in the numerous sequences in which he must destroy things for the greater good (the destruction of the car scene and the confrontation of Turbo in the end being perfect examples of this), Ralph learns that wrecking things is sometimes best for a child; it not only saves them from harm, but it teaches them how to be tough and responsible. This is what Ralph then holds onto when he realises that being a 'bad guy' doesn't mean that you're a bad guy. Not only does he then see that he is the needed antithesis to Felix, but also that destruction is sometimes necessary in life. And one of the most subtle expressions of this is the manner in which his and Vanellope's relationship functions. Whilst they end up saving one another multiple times over, they're always teasing and poking at each other too. This teasing is a form of destruction (why bring down a parent or child through minor insults?), but, as we all know, destruction of this kind is playful; we enjoy confronting it and one another in controlled, safe contexts.

This is a good point to discuss Turbo. He is used as a cautionary tale, one that implores that people shouldn't change. Many people would scratch their heads at such an assertion; shouldn't we all strive for change in life; shouldn't we all try to be the hero? The fact is: not really. As Ralph learns, darkness in varying forms is essential in life. Whether we're playfully teasing a child, destroying the danger that threatens them or representing an archetypal form of destruction in a game that a child would learn from, we need to utilise our darker side. There does need to be a relationship between the light and the dark, but this idea of needing a dark side remains true. As a result, it is not so important that we become the greatest and most virtuous beings in the world, full only of, and surrounded only by, light. In fact, this is far from what the world needs. Striving to be the absolute best or attain something antithetical to your purpose, "going Turbo", is an act of selfishness and a display of ignorance. As an archetype of this notion, Turbo, like the characters in Sugar Rush, teaches children how to compete and race for gold. However, better formats, better games, came along to replace him. Instead of recognising that this evolution is for the greater good of children, Turbo tries to take over the new game to the destruction of all. "Going Turbo" means refusing to recognise the bounds in which you are allowed to change. So, when Ralph is warned against going Turbo he is essentially told that: whilst he can't abandon his programme to win medals every day, he can become a father figure to Vanellope; he can become a good guy of a different sort.

What we can now begin to see define itself in this narrative is the idea of comprise and acceptance for the greater good. However, this manifests itself through both Hero's Duty and Sugar Rush in a differing way in which it is found in Fix It Felix Jr. and the characters within that game. Hero's Duty, for instance, whilst it is about responsibility, honour and, of course, duty, sees its main character learn to make a compromise within herself, when she steps outside of the game, to let go of her rigid sense of battle. After all, whilst Hero's Duty has the sentiment of honour and sacrifice about it, Calhoun's backstory seems to teach a terrible lesson: never love as it will only make you weak. The world of this game embodies this dangerous idea entirely; the Cy-Bugs never stop coming and they can't be settled with, only destroyed. By re-introducing romance into Calhoun's life through Felix, this narrative forces a comprise within herself between the soft and the hard; she learns to love again. What this game represents when its evil side spreads to other worlds is then that the duty we assume in one place will not directly translate into others. In other words, you do not have to be defined by one context and you do not have to be the single hero of every possible story (which is what Turbo failed to recognise or come to terms with). So, whilst Calhoun learns this by running into Felix - who she has to work with, not just lead as she does in her game - Ralph learns the same idea by stepping outside of his game and realising that he, too, can be recognised as a different person in different games.

Taking a moment to look at Felix's character arc, we also see a paradigm of exponential improvement flourishing from these acts of compromise and acceptance. Whilst Felix is a good guy in the beginning of this narrative, he does not reconcile with Ralph - with destruction - until the end. This occurs because he begins to see Ralph as a brother in the same programme, game or lesson as he. This is not just a commentary on parental figures accepting their light and dark sides - their constructive and destructive attributes. The evolution of Felix into a better guy is also a reflection upon the idea that good breeds goodness. With Ralph and Calhoun's transformation comes the transformation of Felix and Vanellope, and then the further transformation of all involved in each of these games - as we see with the happy ending. The comprise and acceptance that this narrative then implores is shown to heighten and improve the bounds in which we have to live and be responsible in. Thus, whilst Ralph is not allowed to change into a 'good guy', he is allowed to change his world, with Felix's help, for the good.

Turning to Sugar Rush, we find ourselves in a highly competitive world - it even seems sadistic and pointless if we imagine the characters within to be constantly racing one another in a Mario Kart-esque game filled with weapons and traps. However, this is the world that Vanellope wants to enter. By doing this, she directly interacts with the cautionary tale of "going Turbo". She then learns of her place in her world, and how to accept and deal with this, by being suppressed and imprisoned by Turbo, or King Candy's, regime - and this remains with her when she eventually assume his position as ruler of Sugar Rush. What this game then represents is then still comprise and acceptance, but in the context of nonetheless winning; Vanellope has to accept the fact that she is a glitch, but then has to use this to her advantage.

Taking into account the three games of this movie and how they interact, we see an intricate tapestry formed, one that recognises that these games teach children basic lessons, but then gives nuance and greater meaning to them. In turn, through Fix It Felix Jr, the importance of reconciling and managing the dark and the light forces of life and being is made clear. In Hero's Duty, the essential purpose of dutifully living in more than one context and having more than one purpose is outlined. In Sugar Rush, the acceptance of an imperfect self as motivation to be the best is presented. So, by the end of the narrative, we then become reflections of Stefanie...

... as she is no longer the soul reflection of ourselves who have maybe interacted with the archetypal first-person shooter game, racing game and level game. In such, we know the nuanced versions of the messages that these games supply. And this is what makes this movie such a tremendous one.

There is something more about Wreck-It Ralph that really elevates it into being on of Disney's greatest films. As with Tangled and Frozen, here Disney revise the great princess stories that they told in the 30s, 40s and 50s, and then revived again in the 80s and 90s. Tangled and Frozen are, however, very shallow attempts at revising the Disney princess film. This is because they see figures such as Cinderella as weak and in need of a man. As we have explored early on in the Disney series, this is a lazy and cynical reading of this film, one that would give birth to narratives that only ever imply that women can be physically strong and independent without showing any real character or any real conflicts within them. Wreck-It Ralph on the other hand shows independence, strength, but also an ability to accept oneself as well as others' help, whilst changing when necessary, through Vanellope after putting her through so much pain and torture. There is then the essence of a fairy tale captured by her rise to the throne. However, she does not take this position. And this is the element that Wreck It Ralph outshines films such as Cinderella. Why should girls only dream of being a princess? Whilst there is an argument for monarchy in society, I don't think an argument for a monarch has any stead against a president or democratic ruler. Without wanting to delve into these political topics, let it then just be said that, if girls are to be given idols, wouldn't someone such as President Vanellope be a great alternative to (not necessarily a complete replacement of) Princess Cinderella?

Whilst Cinderella is a brilliant narrative and one of my absolute favourite films, and whilst her ascendancy to power and success is beautifully portrayed, the position of 'princess' that she finally does assume is a somewhat shallow one. The revisionary aspects of Wreck-It Ralph that make the final position of power that the 'princess' assumes a more meaningful and substantial one is then to be applauded. Added to this, however, we have numerous other characters that act as platforms for other archetypal forms of success and happiness that are found through compromise and acceptance; kids watching this film aren't just told to be a winner, a princess or a president, but also shown of strength, love, friendship, marriage, parenthood and what it means to sometimes be a bad guy. It is then very hard to argue that Wreck It Ralph doesn't have one of the greatest narratives and messages that Disney have ever produced.

With all of that said, we have our place in which to finish. Before ending everything though, what are your thoughts on Wreck It Ralph and everything that we've covered today?

< Previous     post in the series     Next >

Previous post:

Every Year In Film #21 - The One Man Band

Next post:

Frozen - Let It Go?

More from me:


Every Year In Film #21 - The One Man Band

Thoughts On: The One Man Band (1900), and various other films by Georges Méliès

Today we will be exploring the career and films of Georges Méliès (and so this will be a long one).


Georges Méliès is probably the best-known filmmaker from the earliest days of cinema's expansion - and for good reason. Off of the back of his own achievements, thanks to film historians, journalists and inspired filmmakers, and thanks to the movie Hugo which was based off of the book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Méliès should be no stranger to even the average film lover. To begin this post, we should start to talk about Hugo, which may be many peoples' primary, maybe only, contact with the cine-magician.

Whilst you can feel Scorsese's love for film history in Hugo, this is not a very good film. Its shining elements come with its exploration and dramatisation of the career of Méliès as well as the manner in which his glass studio and the wonders that were created within were brought to life. Everything outside of this plays as a dull, failed attempt towards a film that someone such as Jean-Pierre Jeunet, with Marc Caro, could make work. Putting the negatives aside, however, it should be emphasised that much of this film, whilst it contained real characters and was based on some true events, is highly romantic and, in large part, a made up story.

The basic elements of Méliès' career that are caught by this film are of course his first encounter with the Lumières' Cinématographe, his rise to fame, his fall from the public eye around WWI, the destruction of his films and his rediscovery in the late 1920s. There are a few integral, yet missing, elements of his career that leave this a romantic tragedy of sorts. Moreover, the representation of his filmography is quite shallow. What we will then do today is fill in a few of the gaps that this film leaves whilst chronicling Méliès' career before looking at a selection of his films.

Méliès was born in 1861 in Paris to wealthy boot factory owners, Marie-Georges-Jean Méliès and Johannah-Catherine Schuering. He attended the prestigious Lycée Louis-le-Grand where he received a classical formal education and would later go on to attend Ecole des Beaux Arts, an art school in which he developed his creative interests. As a child, he would often be more focused on his drawings than actual work, and so often found himself in trouble. Looming over his head during his time at Lycée Louis-le-Grand would be his parent's boot factory that he and his two brothers, Gaston and Henri, were inevitably going to inherit. Méliès had no interest in working for, or managing, his family's factory, though he had to endure this for a period before, following a mandatory 3-year service in the French military, he was able to continue his education in London. It was then in 1884 when Méliès was sent to learn English and be a clerk in Britain that he would come into contact with pantomimes and magic shows put on by John Maskelyn and George Cooke in the Egyptian Hall.

Returning to Paris the following year, in 1885, Méliès had found his passion: he wanted to be an illusionist. It's here that he would then attend Ecole des Beaux Arts. He put himself through school by again working at the factory so that he could focused on painting, puppetry and set-design whilst learning the craft of illusionism and developing his skills as a magician. Also upon his return he married Eugénie Génin, who he would later have two children with, against his parents' wishes.

In the years that he worked at his father's factory Méliès would frequently attend performances at the Théâtre Robert-Houdin whilst taking magic trick lessons from a man named Emile Voisin who would later allow him to put on his first shows. This was all until 1888. In this year Méliès' father would retire and Georges would sell his share of the company to his two brothers. Using this sum he would take over the Théâtre Robert-Houdin. He worked here as a showman for almost a decade, developing over two dozen of his own magic tricks whilst updating the theatre as to keep the slowly disappearing audiences present. Also during this time he worked as a cartoonist and met Jehanne D'Alcy, an actress that would become Méliès' long-time mistress, later a performer in his films and even later his wife.

Having, by now in 1895, established himself as a significant figure in the Parisian entertainment world, Méliès would find himself on the list of 200 attendees invited to the private unveiling of new innovations in colour photography as well as some dabbling in motion picture photography. This invitation was of course to the Lumières' show in the Grand Café where they demonstrated the Cinématographe in action for the first time. Astounded, Méliès would want to buy the device. He was then among many who would offer the Lumières money so they could fulfil their own visions of what this device could do. Much like Alice Guy-Blaché, Méliès then saw potential in this device that the Lumières would never conceive of. However, no Cinématographes were sold on this day; the Lumière brother's father, Antoine - who Méliès knew - denied all offers. Méliès would then return to England, likely having been told of a projector device that his mistress, Jehanne D'Alcy, may have seen whilst on tour. He would meet with the inventor of this device, Robert W. Paul, and purchase the Animatograph alongside some of Paul's films and a few of Edison's Kinetoscope shorts.

Returning to Paris, Méliès would develop plans to show his collected films at the Théâtre Robert-Houdin. He would also work with an engineer, Lucien Reulos, to convert this into his own camera which he patented and called the Kinematograph.

Within months of his return from England, Méliès would then be screening Paul's and Edison's films at the Théâtre Robert-Houdin and starting to make his own pictures using film from Eastman Kodak that he would have to perforate himself using a machine designed to do so (because, by this point, Edison's type of film stock hadn't become standard, nor available to the public). This was then the start of a profoundly important career in which, over the span of over 15 years, Méliès would make more than 500 films, most of them short, but a few coming in over 10 minutes with a select few pushing towards the 20, 30 and even 40 minute mark. It was in his first few years of work that Méliès established himself as the cine-magician who was not only creating narrative films like no other was, but was almost single-handedly responsible for the development of special effects in the cinema. Working in the studio that he constructed in Montreuil during 1897...

... with new cameras from Pathé, Gaumont and even the Lumières he made a diverse set of films that stretched far beyond what became his most popular - later, most iconic - film, A Trip To The Moon. He would spend his most prolific years working between Paris and Montreuil, making films during the day and running them in the Théâtre Robert-Houdin at nightMéliès evolved exponentially in this handful of years until, about the mid-1900s, his work plateaued. He then spent the latter half of his career revising old tricks and putting on an already aged show.

The fall of Méliès' career came around 1910 when his methods and intentions concerning cinema as an artistic and creative outlet couldn't keep up with international expectations and when his films stopped drawing an audience. It was then after the huge success of A Trip To The Moon that Méliès had to establish a presence in America as to protect his films from copyright infringement and piracy. He sent his brother, Gaston, who was happy to abandon the failing boot factory, to set up the Star Film Company office in New York in 1902. The two brothers could produce films that would be distributed across America in a regulated fashion. Not all of these films were made by Georges, instead, produced by Gaston, especially in their later years.

The Star Film Company would later be apart of the Motion Picture Patents Company (a conglomeration of film companies brought together by Edison to establish control over the film industry). Gaston would then produce films in America, helping Méliès supply the contracted 1000ft of film per week to Edison, the president of the company. However, unhappy with the monopoly, and its distribution structure, that Edison was creating in America, Méliès opted to become an independent filmmaker again in 1909. Around this time he would be venturing elsewhere in the entertainment industry and so, from 1907, film production would be on, off and sparse with Méliès making ambitious, but nonetheless, few films. Eventually, with ties between Edison and Georges more or less cut, Gaston would work on a separate branch of Star Film and continue to supply Edison with movies up until 1912. Gaston then produced over 150 films between 1910 and 12 whilst Georges focused on a new contract.

In this two year period, Méliès would sign a contract with Pathé that involved a lot of money, but also put Méliès' home and glass studio in Montreuil at stake. Producing some of his most elaborate films for Pathé, Méliès found no financial success. Whilst he had upped the production value and run-time of his movies, they were still not much more sophisticated than his work in the early 1900s. Meanwhile, in 1912, Gaston was on a journey throughout Asia and the South Pacific, sending film back to New York to fill his quota with Edison. However, the footage received was not acceptable and the journey cost far more than it produced. Indebted, Gaston had to sell the American Star Film branch to Vitagraph Studios. He would live the last of his few years out of contact with his brother.

In late 1912, Méliès' contract with Pathé failed and he now had nothing to solve his debts. He was bankrupt. In the following year, Méliès' wife died. The year after that, WWI broke out. The year after that, Gaston died. Because of the war, Pathé could not take the Montreuil studio as a moratorium had been put in place, but, that only allowed soldiers to use the main studio as a hospital in the latter half of the Great War. What's more, during the war, the French military confiscated over 400 of Méliès' original prints, melted them down and, almost as an act of unjust fate, used the celluloid to make heels for shoes. There was, however, a second studio in Montreuil. Méliès turned this into a theatrical stage and, with his family, would put on shows until 1923. It was in this year that Pathé could take the studio as well as what was left of Star Films. Added to this the Théâtre Robert-Houdin was torn down. Enraged by seemingly endless misfortune, and with no place to store the left over possessions, Méliès destroyed everything from the Montreuil studio. This included sets, costumes and the remaining negatives of his films.

By the mid-20s Méliès had married his mistress, the actress Jehanne D'Alcy, and now owned a small shop in Montparnasse station from which he sold sweets and children's toys. He lived humbly with his wife and young grandchild, but would eventually be re-discovered and, by 1929 would be apart of a gala that looked retrospectively at his recovered works. Since then, Méliès has gained his place in the film history books, often being given some of the brightest and most dazzling chapters concerning the birth of cinema. To date, over 200 of his 500 films have been found and preserved with a majority of them readily available to access. However, what of these films?

Let us start the story all over again with a new perspective. Having been to the Lumières' private show, having constructed his own camera, Méliès would begin making short films in 1896. Une Partie de Cartes, or, Playing Cards was the first of these:

Méliès began where many pioneering filmmakers of the late 1800s began: the simple street scene. Resembling many of the Lumières' constructed table scenes, Playing Cards simply features three friends playing cards whilst drinking as well as a waitress who serves them - two of the friends being Gaston and Georges Méliès and the waitress Georges' daughter. In fact, Playing Cards is thought to be a remake of the Lumière short of the same name that came out in this same year. This would make Méliès' first film an example of the endless re-constructions - these are hardly individual enough to be considered remakes - that would occur in the early silent era. Without really knowing what to point and shoot at, filmmakers would imitate successful films. The Lumières' Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat and The Sprinkler Sprinkled were amongst the first and most widely reconstructed films that then set a president of recreation that took more than a decade for film industries to begin controlling. Even in the 19-teens, however, imitation across international markets would still be incredibly prevalent. (In short, a lot of people stole off of the French; firstly Méliès and then the filmmakers at Pathé).

What we are then seeing with Méliès' first film are humble, somewhat plagiarised, beginnings that would soon give way to extravagance and originality. So, having gotten his first film under his belt, Méliès would continue to test his camera, shooting street scenes, magic tricks that he would perform on stage and small situational comedies that have all been lost. With his comedies he would again be following in the footsteps of the Lumières by working in narrative forms that, whilst they undeniably are narratives, don't strike someone as more than a staged street scene. Alice Guy-Blaché, discluding the films of Charles-Émile Reyaud, was then the first to formulate a story constructed for its subtext and meaning with The Cabbage Fairy, not just its entertainment factor as with the first narrative film, The Sprinkler Sprinkled. This was all a few months before Méliès made his first narrative film (that has survived to this day), A Terrible Night.

Simple, and staged for the sake of fright - maybe with an edge of comedy - A Terrible Night can also be considered Méliès' first known endeavour into the genre of horror, which he would return to quite frequently. An example of this would be Méliès' most impressive film from his first year, The Haunted Castle. However, before we touch on that, we must first look at The Vanishing Lady:

The Vanishing Lady is not the first trick film ever made, but it is Méliès' first. As the legend goes, Méliès was one day shooting a street scene of cars exiting a tunnel. As Méliès cranked the camera it jammed briefly. Thinking little of this, he continued cranking after the pause. Looking at his footage he saw a bus come out of the tunnel, but then suddenly turn into a hearse. Whilst this is technically a jump cut and a mere mistake, but Méliès saw the potential of this error. This wasn't just a jump cut, it could be a substitution splice or a stop trick.

The first known filmmaker to make this discovery and utilise it was Alfred Clark working in the Edison Manufacturing Company. (And before this magic lantern shows had dissolves, moving parts and changing plates, which means that the idea of a cut wasn't completely foreign to filmmakers). It was with The Execution Of Mary Queen Of Scots that Clark shot an executioner hold his axe above the head of Queen Mary. Just before he brings it down on her neck everything stops. The actress is replaced by a doll and the action continues to the effect of a grizzly trick beheading. Méliès independently applied this exact principal within The Vanishing Lady, utilising the contrivance of cinema to put on a unique magic show that could only be captured on screen. And thus, it seems, Méliès The Cine-Magician was born.

Expanding on his first trick film, Méliès would then later delve into the horror genre again with The Haunted Castle:

It is with this short that Méliès combined his ventures into narrative cinema - into storytelling - with his trick film for the first time (in a surviving picture). The Haunted Castle is then one of the most profoundly significant films to come out of 1896 - dare I say the whole of the early silent film era - because it represents cinema not only being used to tell stories, but to tell stories that only cinema can tell. Méliès understood this better than any filmmaker in this time. We know this because it was Méliès' cinema that is defined as the narrative trick sensation. The Lumières, Alice Guy-Blaché and Edison, whilst they all made narrative or trick films before Méliès were not unique artists like Méliès was. Beyond novelty and money, the Lumières' only interest in cinema, if any, was claimed to be scientific (socially). Edison didn't make films, he managed a new technological enterprise that made money. Alice Guy-Blaché, the most artistic so far, made narrative films. However, she rarely showed interest in much other than the narrative capacities of cinema. It is Méliès who developed narratives that could not be staged anywhere other than the cinematic realm.

Born from a magician who also wanted to paint and create sets, Méliès' films, in themselves, were undeniable arguments for the fact that cinema is and always has been a unique art. Méliès can then be considered the first self-defined artist in the cinema. He wasn't an inventor, a pioneer or a plain filmmaker, he developed a plastic art with a unique aesthetic that was approached and conceived of in a way that no one did before him.

Not forgetting that we are still in 1896, the year in which Méliès began making films, we can see the momentous nature of the achievements he had already attained. It was in this year that Méliès made up to 82 films, 7 of which still exist. One of his last significant efforts from this year is then A Nightmare:

A Nightmare is a notable early film of Méliès' as this is where we see his style - which is represented best by A Trip To The Moon - really come to life. Méliès would often paint and construct his own sets, props and costumes, and so, when it is said that something such as A Nightmare represents his style, this includes everything from the story down to the smallest props. As his productions expanded in his later years, Méliès' collaboration would of course be far more intense, but there is nonetheless an easily recognisable individuality about his films.

Taking a moment to consider Méliès' style, we find absurd and surreal aesthetics. Whilst the surrealist art movement didn't begin until the 1920s, it seems that a film such as A Nightmare approach this kind of sensibility. This is, of course, because of the function of the unconscious and the dream that are present in the typically "Méliès" film. Some of Méliès famous lasts words were:

"Laugh with me, laugh for me, because I dream your dreams"

This seems to define his style. Méliès didn't just bring dreams to life in the sense of bringing hopes and wishes into being, instead, he manifested imagination and the unconscious. As A Nightmare will attest, Méliès would often project the actual dream and imagination through his cinema. If we then take a moment to reflect on the last Every Year Post where we discussed special effects, we then see Méliès, too, using the formal trickery that can be managed with cinema for the sake of impressionism. By projecting the dream and the imagination, Méliès didn't just create fantasies - though, this is what he predominantly did - he also captured the perception of his characters.

These are all integral steps toward a form that somewhat resembles what we know cinema to be today, and, to repeat myself, these were all taken in the first year in which Méliès began to make movies. However, now we have covered some elements of what most will already know Méliès for, let us delve into the often overlooked elements of Méliès' filmography.

Beyond being a pioneer in the realm of trickery and the narrative film, Méliès also made a few pioneering steps in the realm of (what would become) pornography. Apres Le Bal, or, After The Ball, sees Jeanne d'Alcy (Méliès mistress and future wife) strip down to skin-coloured undergarments, bodystockings, that imply nudity as she's washed by her maid. This is one of the first known erotic moving pictures or "stag films" ever made - the first is said to be Le Coucher de la Mariée by Albert Kirchner, but this is sometimes dated to 1899, sometimes 1896. Stag films would be popular way into the 1960s and 70s, until pornography (in America) first made its way into theatres. They were essentially erotic, soft or hardcore movies that would be shown in private venues or sold to clients. Méliès is known to have made a limited selection of these movies and, if anything, knowing this adds a bit more of an edge to the simple, once-joyous, now miserable, character that Kingsley portrays in Hugo. (A note I'll tag on the end here is that this is a subject we've touched on before, here).

Other kinds of work that Méliès would produce would be reconstructed newsreel such as Divers At Work On The Wreck Of The Main:

The Maine was an American battleship that sunk in the Havana harbour during the Cuban revolt against Spain in 1898. The reason for this occurrence is unknown, though some "yellow journalists" (those who report without well-sourced, known facts) used this as a political tool and blamed Spain. Méliès' decision to recreate a scene like this - which was in fact one of multiple films centred on this event - is quite questionable. As with his successful 1902 film, The Coronation of Edward VII, he re-creates an event for the sake of relevancy or with the intention to trick audiences into believing what they are seeing is a newsreel. With Divers At Work On The Wreck Of The Main, Méliès can then be seen to either be exploiting a current event, putting his talent and skill as a filmmaker to immoral use, or capturing a current event like no newsreel ever could. This is a contentious idea that is even more relevant to The Dreyfus Affair:

As well as being one of the first known film serials, The Dreyfus Affair is another example of Méliès dipping his toe into politics and current events - which he often did between 1897 and 1902. Instead of recreating the aftermath of an accident that was, after the fact, politically charged like he did with Divers At Work On The Wreck Of The Main, with The Dreyfus Affair, Méliès chronicles an entire event (which was on-going at the point of production) through eleven one minute episodes. Over the course of this narrative he then puts to screen multiple events concerning Alfred Dreyfus, a French-Jewish artillery captain who was falsely convicted of treason. Because of the realism and context, this film was seen to imply anti-Dreyfus (and so antisemitic) sentiment, and so it was banned, becoming one of the first films to be censored - possibly the first film ever to be censored on the grounds of politics.

Whilst he is remembered as the cine-magician, taking into consideration these films - the reconstructed newsreel, the stag film and also the comedies and street scenes - we can come to have a better understanding of Georges Méliès as a little more than the magician who purchased a movie camera. What these films, the trick films included, all imply is, again, the idea that Méliès "dream[ed] your dreams". The stag film and the reconstructed newsreel then have a particular link to Méliès' fantasy and sci-fi pictures as they all used cinema as a means of accessing a world - whether it be behind closed doors or deep under water - that no other art form could. So, if Méliès was just a magician with a camera who devised a few new tricks, then almost all filmmakers are 'just magicians'. After all, cinema is synthetic, contrived and constructed despite all notions of verisimilitude and realism, which means that the grandest of fantasy films have the same roots as the based-on-real-events drama or even the porno. These roots all meander down to, in very many respects and capacities, one man: Georges Méliès.

We cannot yet conclude our exploration of this incredibly significant character. What forged the spine of Méliès' career was his developed trick films and sci-fi fantasies. We have already looked at The Vanishing Lady and The Haunted Castle, and so have seen initial examples of the stop trick edit. There are two other major innovations in editing that Méliès made: the dissolve and the multiple exposure. The first film in which the dissolve is known to have been used is the 1899 adaptation of Cinderella:

Méliès uses the dissolve in this short to move from location to location - which is an idea far beyond his time. The dissolve itself is an abstract piece of cinematic language that is far too quickly taken for granted. We accept it now to mean that time has passed, but did audiences assume this when first watching Cinderella in 1899?

I don't think this is a question that can be answered, but, if we take a quick look at another short in which Méliès utilises the dissolve, we may find an access point into breaking it down.

The Untameable Whiskers is a trick film in the same vein as How He Missed The Train from 1900. How He Missed The Train was variation on the can't-get-dress/undressed comedy short that was quite a popular means of showing ones skill with the stop trick edit for filmmakers around the 1900s. The Untameable Whispers replaces the hard cut of these films with a softer edit: the dissolve. This implied something less abstract than clothes zipping off and about a person as it's clear that Méliès' facial hair is morphing and changing forms. The dissolve thus means transformation.

Taking the idea of the morph and re-contextualising it back onto Cinderella, we can understand that Méliès was possibly attempting to imply connected spaces - that Cinderella's home morphed into the palace hall when her dreams materialised. Presumably, audiences would, however, perceive this transition to be a movement through time more than space as the dissolves are not between two matched cuts (as they are in The Untameable Whiskers). Thus, this transition in Cinderella would, again, presumably, literally be understood temporally, but figuratively be understood psychologically: the material spaces are connected by compressed time, yet also through Cinderella's imagination. This dual function of the edit in Cinderella then implies the mechanics of the dissolve as a piece of cinematic language.

Méliès would achieve the dissolve quite simply; after shooting a scene, the camera would be stopped, the film would be rolled back by hand and then set up again for the next shot. The final result would be the end of previous shot being superimposed onto the start of the next: the dissolve. Whilst you would assume that this would naturally give birth to the multiple exposure shot - which is otherwise known as a superimposition shot - Méliès actually thought to create this first.

One of the earliest surviving films that is known to contain the multiple exposures would be The Four Troublesome Heads:

Whilst the stop edit and the dissolve are tricks that most people could figure out in an instant, the trickery presented in The Four Troublesome Heads has me befuddled for quite some time. But, once you know how some parts are managed, the rest becomes obvious.

Multiple exposure is a trick dependent on light and darkness. To give the simplest of explanations, film has a chemically active layer that hardens when it comes into contact with light. The pattern of this hardening is what produces an image, and this is dictated by the electromagnetic characteristic of a wave of light. With black and white film stock, the spectrum of visible light will be registered in terms of brightness and darkness; the most colourful elements of a picture are the whitest and the least colourful, blackest. This is because white, speaking in terms of physics, is the blending of all colours whilst black is the absence of all colours--of light itself. What this would then imply is that colourful lights would effect a piece of film stock more than the absence of colour. Furthermore, the absence of light wouldn't actually effect the chemical make-up of film at all.

Understanding this, the function of black curtains in Méliès' films is revealed. Darkness in Méliès' frame is a section of canvas that he can still paint upon. He paints with light by selectively blacking out his frame. So, after Méliès has 'taken' his head off with the assistance of a stop edit which allows him to put a replica of his own head in his hands, Méliès would likely put something black over his actual head. As a result, this would blend into the background and not expose, the final effect being that he is headless. Putting his 'head' on the table, there is then another stop edit in which the head in his hand disappears. This is where the first multiple exposure begins when a new, real head appears. Here, we can imagine that Méliès is on an empty, all-black set with an all-black suite on and possibly a section of the table on his shoulders. Nothing in the frame would register on the film stock apart from his head. Thus, when this set-up is exposed to the same piece of film in which Méliès places fake heads down on tables that, with stop edits, disappear, live heads seem to be placed on the tables.

As complex as that explanation may be to comprehend, imagine what it'd be like conceiving of, then directing and performing this. It was Méliès' task to perfectly match all of his actions across all shots, remembering every beat of every action that he performs in each set-up. You could imagine this would be hard to do four times with four versions of yourself in one frame, but what about seven...

The One Man Band is our subject today and is an example of one of Méliès' most technologically complex short films. Utilising seven multiple exposures in one frame and managing seven individual performances across multiple takes, this is, in my view, the height of cinema as a 'mere' attraction. What this in turn symbolises is the fact that cinematic experimentation and evolution were motivated by novelty and entertainment in early cinema. We find this to be the case with the likes of Edison's Manufacturing Company also. As in-artistic and un-cinematic as you may argue the Kinetoscope shorts to be, they were conceived of and produced for audiences. The cynical perspective to take here would be that these figures were only motivated by money (which may have been quite true). Nonetheless, through money or mere spectacle, cinema grew by and for an audience - which is something unique to the cinema alone.

All other major arts were arguably founded without such democracy; dances and performances would be developed for relatively small-scale crowds, and endeavours such as painting and sculpture were often dependent on one client. All of these arts have their commercial sides, but they are nonetheless not products of the industrialised era, and so they did not develop as an art that had to be mass-produced. Cinema, because it is only successful when thousands upon thousands, maybe millions, of people attend and like a screening, has always used spectacle and novelty as to progress and evolve, often at odds with the individual artist, into the most accessible, expressive and wide-spread art form of all time.

Méliès embodied such a paradigm when he hit the height of his popularity in the early 1900s. Films such as A Trip To The Moon, An Impossible Voyage and The Kingdom Of The Fairies all evolved from the films we have been exploring today. They were narrative fantasies, surreal and rife with technical tricks, and they spread across international markets like fire (with a lot of piracy in the mix), helping set a trend of a universal silent cinema. So, when we look beyond 1905 when Méliès arguably stopped evolving and then to 1909, which was the start of his decline into obscurity, there is a sense of misfortune. However, Méliès decline was also a signal that film industries where evolving faster than he could or would. 1909 is thought to be the start of the D.W Griffith era, one defined by more complex narrative films and sophisticated cinematic language. Take for example camera movement. You almost never see this in Méliès' films. In The Man With A Rubber Head and A Trip To The Moon, there is a dolly forward that is used to achieve the 'blowing up' effect, but almost all of Méliès films are iconically static. This is just one signifier of why his cinema petered away. But, suffice to say that Méliès greatest years were around the turn of the century, and this is where they stayed.

Despite his decline and the ever-mounting misfortunes that defined this period of Méliès life, we can look back on his brightest days to find one of the most concentrated pools of innovation that has ever manifested. Whilst he wasn't always the first, and whilst he wasn't always the only one, Méliès embodied his innovations and integrated them into an individual style like no one else ever did. And so, above everything else, Méliès was arguably the first to develop and utilise the cinematic space and the editing that stitches its regions together as the canvas upon which the filmmaker would learn to paint and as the amplifier through which they would learn to speak.

< Previous     post in the series     Next >

Previous post:

End Of The Week Shorts #20

Next post:

Wreck-It Ralph - Compromise & Acceptance

More from me:

End Of The Week Shorts #20

Today's shorts: Forrest Gump (1994), Dead Ringers (1988), Countess Dracula (1971), A Simple Life (2011), Audition (1999), Deathstalker (1983), Cinderella (1950), Willow (1988), Like Stars On Earth (2007), Bill Burr: Let It Go (2010), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

The thing I've always loved about Forrest Gump is its use of the naive and bumbling hero. This is an archetype just about as old as cinema that is usually defined by the comic, a Keaton, a Chaplin, who accidentally falls in love and/or saves the day. Some of the greatest examples of this would then be The Great Dictator or Sherlock Jr. 
Forrest Gump takes this very old archetype and, instead of pulling from him comedy or a cute attempt towards endearment, there is extracted genuine emotion, an idea of true love and true loyalty, but also real wisdom. As oxymoronic or contradictory as this may seem, it is irrefutable that Forrest Gump works as a tale of a haphazard hero, one who exudes truth as a his only weapon and only self-defence.

This is a complex and highly intriguing psychological film with many elements of horror embedded into it. Dead Ringers follows two identical twins who become gynaecologists, but have two core inner conflicts concerning, 1) their connection to one another, and, 2) their perception of the female as a life-creating entity. These two conflicts combine and collide over the course of the narrative as the two main characters, as played quite impressively by Jeremy Irons, seemingly confront both their being--their existence--as the crux of their incredibly challenging relationship - one predicated on the two sharing too much (everything from research to women). 
Because these two figures have such a complex relationship involving one another's virtues making up for the other's faults and downfalls, they become like two clasped hands slowly being torn apart. To watch this almost surgically constructed event unfold over the course of this narrative is very intriguing, and so I certainly wouldn't shy away from recommending this to anyone interested.

A spectacular movie, and certainly the most complex and intriguing vampire film I've ever seen. 
Countess Dracula is a Hammer Horror that has very little to do with Dracula at all. It instead follows an old window caught in a vast spiral of deceit, vanity, shame and self-destruction, one who embodies sexuality as a manipulative tool and as a source of meaning whilst bathing in the blood of virgins. Stringing along with her numerous foolish men whose guiding compass is stuck below their belt, this narrative is then a stark, sometimes graphic, sometimes sensual commentary on sexual and social promiscuity. 
The only faults you could find with this film would be technical: the sound design goes a little awry at times and some sets have a bit too much 'spring' to them (don't watch the feet of the actors or you'll find yourself too distracted by this). Nonetheless, I really enjoyed this movie and would have to recommend it to any horror fans.

A Simple Life is a subdued and beautiful film about ageing, but more so autonomy and life a cycle of caring and dependence. In such, as it follows a maid who has served a family for over 60 years into her final days, the boy she has looked his whole life, who is an adult now, discovers that it is now his turn to care for her - but without infantilizing her. 
Without drama and without any huge revelations, A Simple Life is an affecting, leisurely poem that contemplates the humbleness of life as it approaches its end. And so it is with seeming effortlessness that this narrative encompasses itself, articulating all that could be said about its themes perfectly before driving deep into your psyche to find a comfortable place and nestle there. Surely not something I will be forgetting soon, A Simple Life is an exceptional picture.

I'm not too sure how I feel about Audition. Formally, it is an intriguing play with time and reality through flashbacks and dreams that merge into what we are to assume is the real world. Story-wise, this is a horror that quite clearly serves as a projection of a self-proclaimed romantic's fears concerning re-marriage, moreover, it is a challenge to his concepts of coincidence. There is embedded into this further complexities with parent-child and male-female conflicts surfacing in a rather grizzly manner. But, there isn't much to really immerse yourself in with this narrative; it isn't paced very well and the characters aren't too interesting. 
So, though there are obvious sparks of greatness in Audition, I felt disconnected from it throughout. I could see how others would really get into this, but I simple struggled to.

The goddamn poster got me. 
At its lowest points Deathstalker seems like a bunch of idiots in a forest with too much money decided to make a movie. At its highest points, this is a very cheap, somewhat amusing, Conan: The Barbarian (which came out the year before this). 
Whilst the direction and cinematography are surprisingly competent, the acting, dialogue and character-writing throughout this film are awful. I think everyone involved knew this to be the case as there's a plethora of bulging muscles, tits and ass to distract you from how bad this movie is - moreover, a lot of terribly staged action and gore. Unfortunately, to anyone above 13, this won't work that well. 
I can see an attempt towards building a world with a gripping mythos and also some semblance of subtext (which I wasn't paying attention to) in Deathstalker, but, I think the only reason people would watch this nowadays is to laugh at it. That said, how did this get three sequels?

A perfect movie, one that has always been one of my absolute favourites, Cinderella is probably the greatest fairy tale put to film. 
Understanding that most fairy tales, Cinderella in particularly, use archetypes and psychological projections (consider the use of animals that represent people in this narrative), a tension between reality and perception becomes evident. This phenomena is often labelled "romanticism", but, whatever you may call it, Cinderella manages the implications of both inner and outer realities perfectly, bringing to life one of the purest stories about hope and dreams. By utilising the psychological defiance and maturation of its protagonist, this film then makes a case for "and they lived happily ever after" as a realistic statement; if you grow into the highest ideal version of yourself, it would not be inconceivable that you could manifest for yourself a "happily ever after". 
Whilst there is so much more to be said in respects to how these ideas are actually presented in the narrative, this is what makes Cinderella such a brilliant movie beyond all of its cinematic magic that most will recognise as children.

Quite starkly a re-imagining of Tolkien's Lord Of The Rings, Willow, whilst not completely original, is a wondrous movie and one of the very few epic fantasy movies that actually work. With its ties to Lord Of The Rings comes the classical tale of an archetypal good, both feminine and masculine, doing battle with evil whilst virtue from the most unlikely of places guides the way for the innocent. This is captured brilliantly by the intelligent script and brought to life with near-perfection through the acting, direction, cinematography and general art design. Kilmer and Davis are in particularly good as a trade-off Aragorn and Frodo. 
The only faults in this movie are minute and technical; there are a few special effects shots and bits of ADR that don't hold up. Beyond this, Willow, in my books, whilst not as iconic, sits up there with Star Wars and Lord Of The Rings as an almost flawless epic of rare proportions.

Whilst a little sentimental and over-idealistic in parts, also a bit bloated, Taare Zameen Par, or, Like Stars On Earth, is a movie I can't really fault. 
In short, a celebration of compassion and humanity and an understanding gesture towards the problem-child, Like Stars On Earth is as up-lifting as it is immersive. Rife with catchy and affecting songs as well as playful direction and editing in the montage sequences, each chapter of this narrative transitions further into the depths of misunderstanding and isolation before emerging with a heartfelt call for the recognition of the uniqueness in all children. Though this can be seen coming from quite some distance, the script layers and plays its emotions with great dexterity, pulling you into its story without any refrain. 
All in all, a brilliant movie that, once its starts, has you in its grips until the very end. Highly recommended.

By now I basically know most of these jokes by heart - and they still work wonders. 
I think this has to be Burr's best special. It captures everything that makes his on-stage persona so purely hilarious. As the title ironically implies, Burr is like a coil slowly being compressed by the subtle nuisances and common annoyances in the world, waiting to explode, unable to let much go at all. His comedy is then just as much catharsis as it is an average man's social commentary on the world around him. Overflowing with paranoia, anger, suppression and, most of all, genuity, Let It Go is ultimately such a precious gem of comedy because it is seemingly a self-served therapy session, Burr the precisely articulate psychiatrist and the frothing-at-the-mouth patient all at once. 
Truly one of the greatest comedy hours ever put together and performed, Let It Go is the work of a self-effacing master.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is one of the greatest screwball comedies ever made that is not only quick, subtle and witty, but one of the most heated and sensual films ever to be rated U (G). 
A deconstruction of both classical rom-coms and marriage, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, whilst a tad nihilistic and immoral, and overtly materialistic, means to reveal the crux of all relationships to be both attraction and security. Without pretence and without pulling many punches, this concept is put to screen perfectly with excellent performances by Monroe and Russel and brought to life with some brilliant musical numbers. 
Simply one of those movies I can't stop grinning at from start to finish, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is flawless fun.

Previous post:

A Night At The Opera/Our Hospitality/City Lights - Early Comedy Archetypes & Conventions

Next post:

Every Year In Film #21 - The One Man Band

More from me:


A Night At The Opera/Our Hospitality/City Lights - Early Comedy Archetypes & Conventions

Thoughts On: A Night At The Opera (1935), Our Hospitality (1923) & City Lights (1931)

Three films from the most iconic comedic figures in cinematic history.


The first 50-odd years of comedy films are an incredibly intriguing, though largely extinct, form of cinema. They differ from the modern day cinema, and the modern day comedy film, in innumerable ways. But, if we take a brief look at 3 examples of comedy from around the 20s and 30s from some of the most iconic comedians of all time, we can explore some of the elements of movie-making that have been more or less lost.

If we start with A Night At The Opera, we come to my favourite Marx Brothers movie. The Marx's form of comedy is one pretty unique to the early 30s as they seemingly played a notable part in the evolution of sound cinema in the Hollywood mainstream. In bringing what was essentially vaudeville and Broadway theatre into the cinema, the Marxes represented a new wave of comedy in an epoch that even the likes of Chaplin didn't really thrive in. They were some of the first major comedians to then incorporate hilarity into their style of cinema through dialogue and sound effects. We see this through the constant quips and puns, or the endless verbal tirades Groucho would go on - and often at the expense of the oblivious or shocked-beyond-belief Margaret Dumont (who arguably made their comedy quartet a quintet). It was then Groucho, most iconic of the Marx brothers, who seemed to embody the lessons cinema had to learn from the stage in the 30s; he had timing, he had subtlety and he knew how to fill a soundtrack. And, as much as the Marx brothers films are a good ear bashing, they are also a chaotic, yet welcoming, symphony in comparison to most early 30s sound movies. The majority of the early talkies, as good as they may have been, almost all have very sketchy sound designs that are rife with long, awkward pauses. Just like the musical taught filmmakers to fill this space up, and to use silence effectively, Groucho Marx then seems to offer similar lessons to comedians.

However, looking beyond their place in film history, what the Marx represent most starkly is the reoccurring character that has not only become a rarity in modern cinema, but is something perceived to be negative or unfortunate for an actor who can only play variations of one character. It took the likes of Chaplin, Keaton and the Marx years and countless hours making films and plays to fully understand their on-stage or on-camera presence, and once they secured this character, they very rarely deviated from it. In such, Keaton was the stone-faced clown; he was usually a romantic hero, yet the smallest man in his films. He then faced his conflicts without a hint of exaggerated emotion. He was the stoic, pratfalling stunt man in a meticulously designed world. With Chaplin, we have a figure that needs very little explanation: the little tramp. The tramp, in his early incarnations could be a disgusting, rude and rather malicious character. But, over time, he evolved to be the bumbling romantic; a coarse and defiant shell easily pierced and ever easier to love. When we come to the Marx bros, we come to the hardest characters to explain. Whilst they have distinct features - Groucho the dirty blabber-mouth, Chico the relentless annoyance, Harpo his silent, deep-pocketed accomplice and Zeppo the straight man or the romantic attraction - the Marx brothers should be best defined by pure chaos. Whatever their caricatures were, their soul purpose seemed to be to exude calamity and pandemonium wherever they stepped.

Whilst much more could be said about all of these archetypal caricatures that all supersede the names of the Marxes, Chaplin and Keaton, what they all represent is the reoccurring character that we don't seem to accept outside of sequels in the modern day. These three figures all seemed to stem from the birth of cinema with repetition being the star of the earliest movies. For example, companies were often the sellers of Kinetoscope and Nickelodeon shows. Edison's Manufacturing Company is one of the greatest examples of this, but there is also Méliès who was the famed cinema magician. This focus on companies would soon shift over solely to the screen performers once they began to receive on-screen credits after 1912. Audiences were then no longer going to see an Edison short, the cine-magician, and nor were they going to the "Biograph girl", rather, Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks, Lilian Gish, Gloria Swanson, Mary Pickford or, indeed, Charlie Chaplin. This attraction to a star becomes all the more literal through our figures today: Chaplin, Keaton and the Marx Bros. They didn't just make many movies, but of course made many as the same characters - something that plainly doesn't exist anymore. Maybe we could attribute the downfall of this practice to the advent television, but there was something unique and in no way like television about the approach to story that these figures had. There was no sense of a series, no chronology in the lives of their characters - nothing to indicate that The General had anything to do with The Cameraman, The Kid With City Lights or Duck Soup with Monkey Business. Without explanation, the likes of Chaplin, Keaton and The Marxes broke the illusion of a cinematic story with the artifice of their characters (who were essentially centre-pieces that stories formed around), and this worked.

When we question why and how this could be, we could of course turn back to the idea that audiences were looking for the same characters, but, when we look to Buster Keaton for instance, it's clear that there is also a unique form of spectacle that overshadows this simple notion. Within Our Hospitality, Keaton puts on display one of the most defining performances of his character. Because the drama is atypically heavy in this short with murderous family feuds being the basic premise of the story, Keaton pushes his bumbling stoic archetype to its extreme. In all of his films, Keaton puts and/or finds himself in terrible relationships with either family or, more often, women, who do not respect him, nor give him any reason to stick around. This is incredibly true of Our Hospitality. No matter how love-struck a man is after a few hours of knowing a girl, it is doubtful that he would dodge bullets from a well-established familial enemy as to see her again. Nonetheless, this is what Keaton does in this film. As haphazard as he is stoic, he becomes the spectacle of a heroic clown by committing himself to a silent agreement made between the audience and himself to maintain and stay within the bounds of his own genre.

This idea of an individual's genre rings true with Chaplin and the Marxes too. Each of these figures not only drew audiences, but they provided them with unique conventions. This meant that audiences didn't just want to see the same performer play the same character, but the same character play in a new section of an already familiar and understood world. What Keaton then comes to symbolise is the differentiating manner in which the give-and-take of cinematic comedy functions.

Comedy does have, and has always had, elements of originality and predictability in tension. With Keaton, the predictability was in the plot of his films, yet, the originality would largely lie in the action and the gags. Knowing this, coincidence was a huge force in his stories. Coincidence allowed Keaton to manage the fact that we could predict something was going to happen - say for instance, in Our Hospitality, we know the Canfield brothers are going to try, but fail, to shoot him - yet also provide an original twist. A good example of this would be the waterfall gag in Our Hospitality. Here Keaton uses an elaborate set of coincidental happenings coinciding to provide a unique joke with a predictable outcome in the plot: he goes to fish at the same time in which a dam is being destroyed and he is being hunted, but, just as the Canfield's pass, the surge of water cascades over the falls above him to act as a curtain that shields him from his passing foes.

Understanding the function of coincidence in Keaton's films paints a perfect picture of how he, and other silent comedians, would engage audiences, giving them what they wanted, but in a way they couldn't have imagined. And it's seemingly this engagement that lies at the heart of what made the one-trick pony silent clowns so prolific and successful.

It is through Chaplin that we find the last element of classical comedies that simply doesn't exist in the cinema of today. Chaplin, whilst many compare him to Keaton, was a very different on-screen persona. In my view, Chaplin was a storyteller and Keaton was a filmmaker; Chaplin focused on story and character whilst Keaton played with the form of his movies and the elaborate design of his sets and stunt set-pieces. When we then look to a film such as City Lights, which is arguably Chaplin's greatest film, we see one of the best projections of his Little Tramp. Naive, romantic and destined for a rocky road towards his dreams, the Tramp encapsulates the poetic beauty of the mime as a vacuum for empathy. Without spoken words, Chaplin leads us towards his final shot - which is one of the greatest in all of cinema - having used the power of pure cinema to ask ourselves to step into his character's shoes and feel for him. This is what made Chaplin such a unique storyteller. Whilst we are invited to feel the physical pain, and maybe a little of the heart break, of many slapstick characters, no comedian has us feel emotional torment like Chaplin does. He, and nobody has done this before or since, put a heart in the shell of his archetype and made us bear its beating, feeling every skipped beat and palpitation.

When we begin to amalgamate the Marx bros, Chaplin and Keaton into three representatives of a lost cinema, we can see its virtues to be the manner in which the predicable was balanced with originality whilst an audience was given all they hoped for and more from figures they've fallen in love with on their cinema screens. There is so much more that could be noted about the key characteristics of early comedy, but I'll leave this to be a topic you ponder upon. So, what are your thoughts on how comedy has changed over the ages?

Previous post:

Hacksaw Ridge - The Destruction Of Us All

More from me: