Thoughts On: November 2017

30/11/2017

The Man Without A Past - Pessimism On The Inside, Optimism On The Outside

Quick Thoughts: The Man Without A Past (Mies Vailla Menneisyyttä, 2002)


Made by Aki Kaurismäki, this is the Finnish film of the series.


**MINIMAL SPOILERS THROUGHOUT**

The Man Without A Past is a tremendous film and one of the best examples of a mechanical deadpan film that does more than entertain; it fits thus among the likes of Lanthimos' Dogtooth and Andersson's You, The Living.

As frankly as possibly, this film explores the underclass in Helsinki through a quasi-allegory. In such, we see a man literally beaten into alienation and poverty by characterless nihilists before being neglected by official structures of society (hospitals, police, etc.). This motif of 'society', an abstract idea for a faceless mechanism that represents a country, being useless remains present as our man without a past calmly, undramatically and stoically tries to make his life better. In doing so, he encounters other people who, like him, fall into this abstract underclass that are forgotten by most of society, save a few generous people.

From here, the structure of the movie interacts with its comedic form: though life keeps beating our character down, there is no drama; he just gets on with things. This represents our group of nobodies as outside of all expectations of the average person. We would expect them to be miserable animals, fighting and clawing for whatever life they can - and probably out of anxiety and our not knowing how we could exist without a home, food and some degree of structure in our lives. Nonetheless, in subverting our projections of anxiety, The Man Without A Past is a strange celebration of the human spirit and its ability to understand life as suffering and act with some degree of optimism despite an internalised pessimism.

When society pulls our man without a past back into its clutches before rejecting him, an allegorical tone re-emerges as our nihilists attempt to kick him as he is down. However, because he makes himself apart of community, he is saved. And thus this film is a simple one; it is about sticking with those like you and with those that you can help as to confront the miseries of the world with a strange hop in your step and an odd smile on your face.

The Man Without A Past is then a film that masterfully brings you into a conceptual and sensory world of bizarreness that eventually makes perfect sense. For this, I cannot recommend this film more.


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29/11/2017

Ugetsu Monogatari - The Ghost Of The Female Archetype

Thoughts On: Ugetsu Monogatari (Tales After The Rain, 1953)

Two couples risk their lives to sell pots during war time in 16th century Japan.


Ugetsu Monogatari is a Japanese masterpiece by Kenji Mizoguchi, who, along with Kurosawa and Ozu, played a crucial role in bringing Japanese filmmaking into the spotlight of world-wide audiences. This is a film that explores war in a similar manner to that which Shindo does with Onibaba. In such, this uses the period drama (jidaigeki) to reflect upon WWII and its affect upon Japanese society. However, whilst Onibaba is much about how chaos escalates towards destruction, Ugetsu is about order, or structure, of a specific kind leading towards destruction.

In a powerful early scene, Ugetsu comments on the frailty of life with the invasion of our protagonists' village. Whilst soldiers rampage through homes, taking men into forced labour and ravaging women, presumably turning many into "comfort women" (ianfu) which essentially meant that they were forced into prostitution by the imperial army, our four main figures risk their lives and freedom - and one couple's young son - to save a batch of pottery. Herein lies the crux of this narrative as this scene encapsulates the core conflict of Ugetsu: structure. Structure as a concept usually manifests itself in terms of materialism - money - in this film. With money it is unquestionable that life becomes possible and, depending on how much you have, easier. However, if money, much like possessions, come to define your life and the structuring of your being, you will find yourself walking a very perilous road as our main characters do when they risk all they have for some pots that they can sell.

It is very easy to see money (i.e materialism or capitalism) as the great evil that pervades over history and life. However, money is just paper or metal. Money is a symbol of trade. Thus, money, much like all material possessions, comes to symbolise an abstract idea of what exists between ourselves and others: it represents a social facade. And so, material possession is not just a currency of life in a direct sense - money does not just buy us food - but a currency of ones future in the abstract because material items represent who we are and how we are to be interacted with. This is made very clear throughout Ugetsu with a strong presence of hierarchy that is signified by clothing: the armour of a samurai and the kimono of a rich lady. We can all recognise the fallibility of this structure of being: to live and behave only in regards to ones own and others' facades is shallow. However, in this respect, what does "shallow" mean?

To be shallow is to have no personal depth and, by extension of this, have no ability to perceive complexity in the people or world around you. Not being shallow is then defined, in large part, by an ability to transcend the material world and peer into the realm of possibility. In such, to have depth is to have potential; to see depth is to see potential. Thus, in Ugetsu, our main male protagonist, Genjurō, becomes shallow when he neglects an idea of the future as ambiguous and dangerous. In refusing to see his exploitation of war as a precarious and dangerous affair, Genjurō then loses sight of possibility. And this leads him down a slippery road of thinking of his life in terms of certainty and money; him selling his pottery and becoming rich. This mind-set infects Tōbei, his neighbour and co-worker, who is already susceptible to failing to see the future with depth and potential dangers because he is so scornful of his financial situation and ungrateful for his family life (he wants to become a samurai for the money and fame, despite not knowing how to fight and thinking that he only needs armour and a spear). As a result, the two define themselves by certainty - a certainty that lies in materialism: pots, money and clothing. Their wives recognise the trouble of this, but cannot stop their stubborn husbands. This loss of influence in the wives signifies that the two men are becoming further shallow: they do not see the depths and potential of their wives.

This is where we come to the key scene in which all four characters risk their lives to save the pots. On one hand, they must all be thinking that they are salvaging their existence in a dreaded time of war, that they are taking a risk so that they can make some money and continue living. However, on the other hand, they must recognise the stupidity of their actions and the fault in holding material possession in greater stead than the security of a family circle. Fate, however, does not do our characters a favour. Whilst they manage to escape capture, the pots also survive; they do not get the lesson in the importance of family that they needed and that the ruined pots would provide. Taking their dumb luck and running with it, the beginning of the end is then signified.

Having already lost sight of the depths of the future and of people, three of our main characters become rich whilst Genjurō's wife and son await their return in hiding. However, now he has some money Tōbei runs away from his wife to buy armour - which leaves her to be captured and forced into prostitution. Furthermore, Genjurō allows his material possessions to define him and thus when a woman - who turns out to be a demon - attempts to seduce him because of his ability to craft pots, he follows her and abandons his wife and son. What we see here is the husband's shallowness ironically materialise; their obsession with material possession turns themselves and, more tragically, their wives into objects for fate to exploit. For the wives, this is, as we would expect, devastating: Tōbei's wife is raped (presumably multiple times) and turned into a prostitute, whilst Genjurō's wife suffers to keep her son alive before dying. Meanwhile, the men are left to be tortured by their stupid mistakes for the rest of their lives.

If we step back to the very beginning of this narrative, it is clear that we are made to realise that, whilst the structure of materialism and money is faulted, there is a connected and higher structure: family. Family defines the presence of social ties. Money and possessions influence and regulate social ties. Individual actions determine how social ties function. Ugetsu follows this paradigm by presenting the family as a group of connected people under the threat of being pulled apart (by war). Further to this, money and material possession are used throughout as a device that determines how the family live: if they are in poverty, if they are in ecstasy, if they are alone, etc. It is, however, the two men's individual descent into shallowness - a perception defined by the present and material objects - that ultimately destroys the family. And whilst we watch this play out, we are constantly made to hear the words, "family is all that matters", ring in our heads. Why is this?

As mentioned, this film is about destruction via structure, not chaos. Thus, there is always a presence of the female archetype (which structures - such as family - revolve around) in this film; it is the men's conception of their wives that leads them into descent, and later for Genjurō it is a demon that motivates him. This paradigm is key to Ugetsu as family is the force that is always in conflict with war. And so, whilst war is defined by the destruction of others with, sometimes, some base in preserving land and people, family is only about the preservation of others. And this preservation, whether in war or in a family circle, is boiled down to the union of male and female archetypes. It is then through these two archetypes that we eventually see destruction flourish through union and structure.

With the man and woman together, there is, literally and figuratively, the possibility for creation and preservation. Singularly, the man and the woman (especially in modern times) can exist. However, under the pressure of chaos - under the pressure of something as intense as a war, or just as minimal as personal existential conflicts - if men and woman do not support one another, then all are doomed. I am of course speaking in general terms here, and so recognise that there is greater intricacy to human relations than the dichotomy between male and female (the anima and animus if we were to attempt to be more precise). However, speaking in terms of concept, narrative and Ugetsu, this unity via the male and female is key to pick up on as a prevalent and pertinent force of human history.

The bond between male and female in Ugetsu suggests that the depths of humanity is found in this basic unity; in family, which, itself, is the product of a man and woman. This is very clear as, when the two men of this movie become shallow and see the world as a playing ground in which objects and materials can be won, they loose sight of their wives as human beings that not only have depth within them, but use this depth to decipher the danger and ambiguity of the world before them: the husbands become so blinded and arrogant that they fail to hear their warnings and so see them suffer by virtue of the shallowness.

In focusing on Genjurō, Mizoguchi finds greater complexity in this commentary by reviving a female archetype through the demon: Lady Wakasa. Wakasa is one of the most important characters in this film as she is the manifestation of our shallow male. She then represents unity, but she is corrupt: she is a representation of death, as is said in the film. What we are then seeing with Wakasa is a commentary on war. As mentioned, wars can be fought for freedom, country and family: preservation. However, wars exploit the human proclivity to preserve for the sake of destruction: we, somewhat paradoxically, destroy some to save others in war. The female archetype, whether it be a motherland or "a girl worth fighting for" to reference Mulan, can then be understood to be the catalyst for war. As is shown in Ugetsu, this is true on smaller scales, too: men work and earn money for women and family. However, there is a corruption here. Losing sight of the true female archetype - a wholesome and functional idea of family, your wife, your land - will leave you fighting for what they represent rather than what they are. In such, a woman, as bonded with a man, can signify happiness, high social standing, unity, strength and success in various forms. However, shades of happiness, social standing and success can be found elsewhere: in money, material possessions, power, etc. It is the paradigm of seeking to own an object rather than understand and co-exist with a subject (who the female archetype really is; your wife for example) that is the fatal flaw that arises numerous times across history to cause devastating tragedies that this movie comments on with symbolic war and shallow men.

However, in critiquing war and shallow, blind men, Ugetsu depicts the suffering of women whilst understanding that the shallow, blind men (and maybe war, too) are initially motivated by the protection of women. It is then the movement from life to death, from the true and real female archetype (the wife) to the hollow ghost of the female archetype (a demon), that lies at the heart of this movie and allows it to depict the twisting of human nature; that which, notable, couldn't be without mother nature.

In conclusion, the structure that Ugetsu is focused on rests upon the idea of a family as centred on the female. With men replacing real females (their wives) with ghostly, death-bound representations of females by seeking fame, fortune and empty love that they do not have to work for, they use a faint idea of structure for the sake of destruction. And such is the incredible profundity of this narrative, one that leaves its men dreaming, praying and living under rituals that pay respect to ghosts of their former wives and selves.







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Blog News


It has been a while since the last blog news, so now seems as good a time as any to catch up. There aren't any significant announcements today, but I can say that the next screenplay of The DSU is quite close to completion. So, within the next few months you'll certainly be hearing more about book 8.


In regards to the Every Year In Film Series, we are now coming up to 1910. Last week, we took a break from the series as I think we will continue to do every time we move into a new decade, so I hope everyone looks forward to the next post that will come out later this week.

Some may be wondering what is happening with the mini-series on Finding Nemo. It is still in progress and there are still two post that will be coming out. I did, however, burn myself out by watching the movie numerous times in the space of a few weeks. I have been reluctant to revisit the mini-series because of this, but will certainly be back on track to finish it off soon. I was thinking of possibly jumping into another Disney film to add to the series before returning to Finding Nemo, but we shall see how this pans out in the next week or so.

The World Cinema Series. We are really blasting through this with about 58/201 countries covered. Our next country will be Finland and, after that, France. I had been contemplating expanding certain parts of the series for nations with really significant industries. This would have included countries such as America, France, Germany, Britain, Iran, Nigeria, Japan, India, Mexico, Italy... etc. However, I have disregarded the possibility of covering 5-10 films from each significant country as there are so many countries that I could possibly do this on and a few that I have passed in the series already (Argentina, Brazil, China, Denmark, etc.). This means that I will have trouble finding a film for countries such as France, but we will continue to cover one film for each country nonetheless with a few updates made available that link to extra films.

I still do like the idea of attempting to give an overview of significant countries' film histories, and so once the World Cinema Series is over, we may be able to open up a Regional Cinema Series where we can zoom in on Middle Eastern Cinema, Western African Cinema, Latin American Cinema, Hollywood, Bollywood, etc. In this series, programmes that analyse specific film histories could be constructed. This will take some planning and the completion of the World Cinema Series, so this is something for the future, but maybe this sounds interesting to you.

Lastly, I'd like to note that, to all you regular users, I am always interested in hearing your thoughts on movies and all the subjects we do (or even do not) touch on. The comments are open and I will reply as soon as I can. And this is true on all of my social media (Letterboxd, Twitter, Google Plus, etc.). So, if you think I miss something in a movie, if you think my reading is nonsense, if you have a movie recommendation that you would like to see on the blog or in The End Of The Week Shorts, if you have suggestions for changes/additions to the blog, if you have your own blog or content that you'd like to share - if anything - please shoot a line my way. Here are links to all of my social media stuff that you can usually find on the about page:

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And that's it for today. Thanks for reading.

28/11/2017

Elephant - Confounding, Confused

Thoughts On: Elephant (2003)

A depiction of the day in which a school shooting occurs and the characters that it affects.


Van Sant's Elephant is a confounding film that, from one perspective, hides behind its complexity, and, from another, utilises complexity to articulate a story about a tragedy in the only perceivable manner. With long, wandering shots that follow characterless figures along an empty, meandering and hyperlinked plot, Van Sant expands the time element of his cinematic space whilst constricting the spatial element. In such, there is a sense of the inevitable when watching Elephant - especially on re-watches. In following characters around halls there then emerges a tinge of dread that only intensifies as we wonder "when will things explode?" both literally and figuratively. This dread of the inevitable future ahead of our characters leaves us not only clinging to the present moment, but wanting to understand it; to pick up on who characters are and what they say about, comment on, or, depict concerning the devastating phenomena of school shootings. In parallel to this, we are trapped: we have to stare at characters' backs, stuck in time with them, often in a very shallow world restricted by a tight depth of field. This sensation of entrapment has the colours of this film - the innocent yellows, reds and whites, as well as looming browns and dark shades - define the surroundings, creating a strong atmosphere of disharmony. And this disharmony is only ever emphasised through the use of music and the clunky social exchanges throughout the film; nothing flows, the music is off-beat, wrong notes are hit and the interactions between characters are dry and often very awkward.

All of this disharmony within the temporally and spatially restricted prison of a frame that Van Sant creates grinds rather uncomfortably against the free nature of the camera and, further to this, against the hints of comedy and familiarity in the content and setting of this narrative (as a high school movie). From a distance we can then see that Elephant is constructed on the narrative and formal level with conflicting dichotomies. And when considering all of the mentioned details under such a guise, we can assume that Vant Sant, at least in the first half of this movie, is attempting to create anxiety within the viewer that will have the inevitable conclusion be a release of our worst nightmares. However, this is not the case.

Watching Elephant as it presents itself - without preconceptions or a preloaded political and ideological mindset - this film appears very paradoxical. We assume that there is supposed to be a commentary on high school shooters, one that is focused on--at the very least, and without expectations of a solution to the problem--the tragedy of the phenomena. However, try as I might to see the finale as a dire disaster, I can't manage it.

The actual shooting that ends this film presents itself, and I perceive/experience it, as catharsis. This paradox of Elephant may be specific to me only, but I wouldn't be surprised if you, too, found that none of the characters in this film are given any substantial humanity. In fact, you, too, may agree that they are rather made out to be annoying caricatures that only complexify the two school shooters. So, after about 40 minutes of just following depthless jocks, dorky nerds, problem kids and bulimic blondes, seeing them shot dead is almost a release; we get some sense of why the two disturbed boys decide to shoot up a school. And absurd as this sounds, without truly indulging their evil, Van Sant captures the shooting without any sympathy for the victims. As a result, the anxiety, pressure and dread culminated through the expansion of time and restriction of the cinematic space leaves the once-dreaded conclusion cathartic; you enjoy it on some level.

Again, I wouldn't be too surprised if I'm alone in thinking this, but, equally so, wouldn't be shocked at hearing the same from others. However, it is at this point that I ask myself if this is a bad movie or not. After all, much of Elephant is constructed around hints of criticism with references to parental neglect, homophobia, the ease of gun access, ignorance, bully, etc. This leads us to believe that Van Sant wants us to perceive the ending to be a devastating tragedy. With him failing in this regard, it seems that the movie is a bad one; one that is riddled with clumsiness, pretence and ethical issues.

There is a counterpoint here, however. Van Sant seems to have precise control over what his camera says and does; it seems that he wants to alienate and push us away from melodrama, emotion or even basic drama. Does he do this to test our ability to humanise characters ourselves and empathise with innocent victims? Does he do this to simply and objectively capture truth? Does he do this so we don't see school shooters as monsters, rather, broken humans?

I struggle to commit to any one of these suggestions as they do not completely resonate with the formal or narrative design of the film in my perception. When watching Elephant, I then feel lost in a precisely constructed world that bears no point and attempts to, but then bails on the decision to, abstract meaning from the inert, mundane and possibly meaningless. In the end, I can't say that Elephant is a bad film, but nor can I say that it is a particularly good one just because it is impenetrable. To suggest that the idea of a tragedy (a school shooting) is equally impenetrable and thus imply that this validates the way in which Van Sant constructs Elephant is a particularly weak and uninteresting suggestion to me as it says little about the intricate details and outcomes of the film.

All I can then end on is the opinion that this is a confounding, confused film. However, I'd like to know what you think of Elephant, so, what are your thoughts?







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The Land Has Eyes - Warrior Woman


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27/11/2017

The Land Has Eyes - Warrior Woman

Quick Thoughts: The Land Has Eyes (Pear Ta Ma 'On Maf, 2004)


Made by Vilsoni Hereniko, this is the Fijian film of the series.


The Land Has Eyes is set and was shot on the island of Rotuma, which is apart of the Fiji archipelago and, whilst it is a Fijian dependency, is self-governing and separate from the four major regions of the cluster of islands. This is the very first feature-length film to emerge from Fiji and, as is a very common trend throughout the history of world cinema, this investigates the conflict/relationship between modernity and local tradition. With many allusions to a legend of a female warrior, this film then explores the strength of women and its representation in traditional Rotuman culture that has, more generally speaking, been forgotten to some degree in the present day; director, Hereniko, for example said that his crew had to construct all of the traditional thatched-roofed homes for the set of the film and that the production of the film reignited interest in tradition amongst his people.

With clear motivations to depict a relationship rather than a conflict between tradition and culture, The Land Has Eyes is a successful endeavour as the story emphatically construct its female lead and a solid narrative journey (that is based on Hereniko's own life) for her to travel. The downfalls of this movie, however, lie in the fact that the film is in the script and remains there. In such, the camera work does little in the way of bringing life to the story and instead actually leaves a strong sense of disharmony in the frame. Tonally and aesthetically inconsistent with the story, the form of this film is largely affected by an over-enthusiastic camera that, rather than pushing the subtext of a scene through precise cinematic language, only manages to cheapen it. This is a very common problem with most first-time or amateur productions: as good as the story is, it finds difficulty in finding its way to the screen due to cinematics that are too ambitious, or merely do not suite the script's needs.

Nonetheless, the power of this film speaks to just how solid the script is. Whilst there are then moments of discord, this is a film worth seeing.

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End Of The Week Shorts #33

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Elephant - Confounding, Confused

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26/11/2017

End Of The Week Shorts #33



Today's shorts: 5 Centimetres per Second (2007), Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (1978), Hipsters (2008), The Headless Woman (2008), The Circle (2000), Delhi Belly (2011), Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989), Q (1982)



5 Centimetres per Second is a beautiful work of animation, one structured around tension and imbued with a deep sense of romanticism. Thematically, through its 3 episodes, this briefly explores the fleeting nature of life, the brevity of beauty and the distancing force of fate. 
Unfortunately, I didn't connect with 5 Centimetres per Second. I may have just been in the wrong mood going in, but I wasn't pulled into the tone of the narrative at all. So, whilst some moments of characterisation spoke to me, this felt very inconsequential and nostalgic for nostalgia's sake. In recognising the aesthetic wonders that this holds, I can't say that this is a bad movie. It does, however, lack something to grip and sink your teeth into.



Brilliant--ridiculously stupid and ludicrously illogical, but nonetheless brilliant. 
Snake in the Eagle's Shadow is very much so the stereotypical martial arts movie about school rivalry, wandering teachers, searching students, assassins and an array of styles: Mantis, Dragon, Cat, Snake, Tiger, etc. Fully embracing all of these cliches, Chan brings a spark of his iconic comedy into the mix, and thus we have a terrific action-comedy. Paying little mind to story and character, Snake in the Eagle's Shadow is awash with stunning choreography, ingenious direction, nutty camera work (emphasis on the zooms) and blistering editing. So, despite the fact that this film doesn't take itself seriously, there is true talent and craft on display that demands to be seen. 
If you think you're a fan of Jackie Chan and have only seen his American movies, give Snake in the Eagle's Shadow a watch (and then Police Story, The Drunken Master, Who Am I?, etc.).



As intriguing as a Russian musical sounds, all interest wears away as Stilyagi, or Hipsters, goes on... and on... and on. Whilst Hipsters is not edited slowly, it is a painfully cumbersome film with far too little story and very little character. This means that once it makes its statement on self-expression and shines light on 50s Russian counter-culture, Hipsters has nothing else to do but meander on with weak drama and empty romance. 
After the first 20 minutes I was then hoping for some kind of gear shift and for the so-so songs to pick up, but this never happens. Unfortunately, Hipsters is then little more than a lot of noise made by annoying characters that offers a very basic (allegedly anachronistic, too) incite into Russian history. I just can't recommend this one.



The Headless Woman is a difficult and very opaque film that is, in a way, a psychological thriller, but, due to its structuring and direction, there is no sense of genre or plot in this film. The absence of narrative, resolution and character makes this a confusing experience, one that defies articulation. 
Whilst I have to say that I didn't enjoy this--even as an art film--at all, it pulled me in at points and provides a lot of material to ponder upon. In essence, this seems to be an allegory about times of dictatorship in Argentina and the 10s of thousands of people that would be 'disappeared' by the state. In loosely alluding to this history, The Headless Woman is an inaccessible film about truth, deception, guilt, denial and the dizzying trauma of witnessing - or at least believing you witness - tragedy.



The Circle is a film that explores what it is to be a woman living outside of the control and supervision of men in Iran. 
With a sparse, hyperlinked structure, The Circle follows numerous women through a day that is overshadowed by a looming sense of inevitability and danger. And, as individual as each woman is, they are all linked by subtle rebellion and so all seem fated to meet the same end. As sprawling and elliptical as this story is presented to be, its structure is then self-contradicting: the free-form narrative path is stuck on circuitous track with one certain end. 
It is this relationship between form and content, between freedom and oppression, between chance and inevitability, that leaves this film so striking. Recommended.



Far from a masterpiece, but entertaining enough, Delhi Belly is a too-much-in-one-day crime-thriller dark-comedy; it is Adventures In Baby Sitting, Harold & Kumar Go To Whitecastle, It's A Mad...World, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, The Hangover, etc, but, with a lot of poop jokes (Delhi Belly itself is a poop joke... so that says a lot). 
What sets Delhi Belly aside from the mentioned films somewhat is the density and intricacy of the plot; this film runs at a million miles an hour with no true A plot and B plot but an alphabet of plots forming one huge flow of narrative. Getting swept up into this makes Delhi Belly a highly entertaining film despite its shaky writing - which uses expletives with no sense of reason or natural cadence, an incredible amount of cliches and ridiculously low-brow jokes. If you're then looking for some nonsensical blockbuster fun, Delhi Belly may be the film for you.



Less a body-horror and more an art film, Tetsuo is an insane masterpiece. 
With motifs of industrialisation, capitalism/competition, sexuality, poverty and technology this explores the modern age (Japan in the late 80s) as a force that turns people into monsters. With horror imbued into every element of its design, this is one of the most disturbing and unsettling films I have ever seen. I dare say this is the only true horror I have ever seen as it isn't at all diluted by the traditional drama, mystery, thriller, comedy, etc like almost all 'horrors' are. However, to see this as a genre film is to degrade its self-conscious and awe-inspiringly articulated commentary on the modern day man. I cannot recommend this more. Find this, and you are in for a ride you won't be able to forget.



The poster, as to be expected, is way better than the film itself. Surprisingly, however, Q isn't a horrific movie. 
The direction, writing and acting throughout are very mediocre (sometimes questionable). However, there are glimmering moments of structure, character and dark comedy that make this more than watchable. The special effects have, of course, dated - and rather drastically. And this is only emphasised by the direction and terrible design of the creature. Nonetheless, building upon its strengths, Q holds some sparse satire and subtext concerning corruption at the individual and governmental level that is quite amusing. 
All in all, I had and had a pretty good time with Q. It's ridiculous and quite obtuse, but watchable enough.






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24/11/2017

Whisper Of The Heart - The Emergence Of Personage

Thoughts On: Whisper Of The Heart (耳をすませば, 1995)


A book worm with her head in the clouds nears the end of junior high school.


Whisper Of The Heart is a touching romantic drama and the first feature-length Ghibli film not directed by Takahata or Miyazaki. Whilst this was the first and last film that Yoshifumi Kondō would direct for Ghilbli he had already worked on Kiki's Delivery Service and Only Yesterday and was seen to be a rising talent in the company. Unfortunately, this only emphasised the tragedy of his death (that would heavily impact the entire studio) four years after this film's release.

Watching Whisper Of The Heart it is very evident that Kondō had worked on Only Yesterday as these films seem to be in direct conversation with one another; one explores memories of childhood awakenings whilst the other explores a journey through childhood awakenings. However, with the young teen romance being quite a common story told in Japanese anime, Whisper Of The Heart starts out on grounds that have been covered many times before. Nonetheless, slowly pushing through familiar tropes and cliches, Whisper Of The Heart emerges as more than nostalgia-provoking goop. The strongest element of this narrative is its telling of a story of learning how to tell stories. In such, Shizuku struggling with a romantic awakening whilst confronting a shrouded and ambiguous future is a narrative device in communication with the book she comes to write. What she learns from her encounters and adventures are then reflected by not only the content of her story, but also the struggle and process of writing it. With clear subtext, Whisper Of The Heart is thus a film about fear and doubt as creative forces that make a person out of a child.

One of the most touching products of this subtext is seeing Shizuku operate in her different relationships. With her father, mother, sister, friends, acquaintances and romantic interests, she is a different person. Seeing her exist in these various social contexts builds a true picture of her character, and so seeing each individual relationship - sometimes subtly, sometimes drastically - morph, gives insight into an incredibly natural and genuine arc of character. Thus, the contrite and trope-ridden teen romance is subverted by a focus on genuine moments, not empty gestural moments that merely imply emotions.

With its rounded character and genuine story, Whisper Of The Heart holds a strong lesson in storytelling: It is one thing construct a romance that affects and it is another to construct real characters and put them on a journey. If we then compare Whisper Of The Heart to a film such as 5 Centimetres per Second, an episodic teen romance anime, we can see the archetypal shell of a teen romance to be constructed by both narratives, but filled only by Whisper Of The Heart. In such, 5 Centimetres per Second wants us to step into its narrative and use its story as a mechanism of catharsis. Such is a common paradigm present in many forms of storytelling, especially melodrama. However, there is a cheapness to the melodrama and a film such as 5 Centimetres per Second. They have us step into a realm of emotion and imagination, but that is it. Once guiding us into this place, Whispers Of The Heart does not just feed us what we want (which is catharsis). Instead, we are made to follow a character as more than an archetype. Thus, an individual, somewhat unique, story is created.

Following this line of thought, we can come to see that archetypes, motifs, themes or various other structures of narrative storytelling that impressionistically coax us into a cinematic space are sources of "attraction". Attraction, a little like spectacle, is the side of movies that make them so watchable and addictive. Too much attraction and spectacle, however, leaves movies looking like T.V: narrative storytelling - a kind embedded into a system that is all about more, not a cohesive whole - constructed to waste time away. When a story takes the reigns once it manifests a level of attraction or spectacle and begins asking us to keep up and go where it wants to go, it starts to become "art" (speaking beyond strict definition and merely in abstract, colloquial thought). This is the difference between 5 Centimetres per Second and Whisper Of The Heart. Both are beautifully animated and bear touching romantic dramas, however, one takes a step beyond this and provides more than archetypes and attraction; the heart, personality and charter of storytellers comes through the impressionistic haze.

And, uncoincidentally, this is what Whisper Of The Heart is about. It is about finding what makes you worth listening to and refining that. We - all humans - are the same to some degree; if we weren't we couldn't consume one another's stories (voices of personage), recognise archetypal structures, understand and be affected by them. However, whilst this constructs the possibility for communication, what comes through and sticks is the parts of ourselves that are more than ordinary and are consciously carved and nourished. It is the polishing of our personal 'gems', as this narrative implies, that brings people closer than they'd expect and makes a social nothing into something and someone's personal everything.


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23/11/2017

The Corpse - Get Rich Qui...

Quick Thoughts: The Corpse (Askerenu, 2013)


Made by Tamiru Berhanu, this is the Ethiopian film of the series.


Somewhat like the cinema of Eritrea, Ethiopian cinema, despite its scope and volume, has very little written about it. Ethiopia's case isn't as extreme as Eritrea's however. There are a selection of contemporary and older Ethiopian films (stretching back to the early 70s) that have gained international recognition; Harvest: 3000 Years and Difret, for example. However, this forms a small pool of films that are dwarfed by the relatively anonymous stream of contemporary films. As with Eritrean films, the only place these can found by anyone outside of the country where they probably circulate on video or DVD and through the cinemas, is the internet with YouTube channels such as Arda Movies. Added to this, etmdb.com is a site which provides the most information about the Ethiopian film industry that collects and catalogues a vast number of Ethiopian films citing innumerable companies, artists, awards, etc, and is seemingly attempting to bring greater recognition to the national film industry whilst building a stronger culture around film.

Our film for today is an example of a mainstream Ethiopian movie. Askerenu, or The Corpse, is a thriller/melodrama and a dark twist on the get-rich-quick film. In such, this sees a wife plot to kill her husband with her new lover, who plans to use the money she will give him to build a private hospital. Told using a complex network of timelines, there is a freshness and ingenuity imbued into this otherwise cliched, much-told plot. And as things continually deepen, there emerges a hint of horror that provides a striking, rather unforgiving, climax. The only faults of the film, as one that holds a strong amateur aesthetic, is that the experimentation with structure and editing is embedded into the script whilst the direction and numerous other cinematic elements seem to be playing catch-up. As a result there is a sense of discord and confusion about the final product, but one that nonetheless allows the audacious script to shine through.

If you're interested in checking out Askerenu, you can follow this link, or watch the entire movie here:


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21/11/2017

Vagabond - When The Music Stops

Quick Thoughts: Vagabond (Sans Toit Ni Loi, 1985)

A girl nobody knows, but has wandered into many lives, dies.


Agnes Varda's Vagabond is a brilliantly constructed film that confronts and presents a main character in a manner that is quite rare. Following a wandering female hitchhiker, this film is a constant question of who? and why? In such, we are not only wondering who our main character, Mona, is and what she wants form life, but also why she is in the situation she is in and why we are watching her. What then makes Vagabond, as with all of Varda's best films, so unique and relatively rare is its distinct feminine voice.

It must be noted, however, that Vagabond is not a particularly fun film, and nor is its main character particularly rational or likeable. Defined by pugnacious indecisiveness, Mona is trapped in an existential crisis; she wants freedom, but sometimes lets through hints of the pain she feels as a lonesome wanderer. The most expressive element of this narrative is then the motif of music.

In music, there is harmony; you can step into a sonic world of melodic and rhythmic structures and find peace, unity, sense, euphoria or a plethora of other emotions. The real world, however, is not constructed like the musical realm: harmony is very difficult to find and maintain. With Mona's love of music, alongside other transcendental substances such as alcohol, weed and sexual pleasure, comes a clear message that she doesn't want to be apart of the real world - or it is at least implied that the real world is not something that she wants to confront. The many existential questions she raises along her journey then are: How must one interact with the disharmony and imperfect, sometimes dysfunctional, social structures of the human world? How does one operate as a cog in a system who wants freedom? Can the system be escaped - need it be escaped - or can we only perpetuate our relationship with it under a positive or negate feedback loop whereby all that we hate and are within the rules of a game are only emphasised and further contorted?

Using these questions, Vagabond explores the Mona's perception of relationships whilst briefly depicting the average person's reactions to her as an outsider and as a radical dissenter of the traditional pathways of life. However, in being a tragedy of sorts, Vagabond is ultimately about the disharmony of nature - human nature as well as all that effects and surrounds it. For the way in which this is cinematically articulately, this film certainly deserves much praise.






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20/11/2017

Pom Poko - Whimsical Deception

Thoughts On: Pom Poko (成狸合戦ぽんぽこ, 1994)


A group of transforming raccoon dogs decide to fight back against the developers that are destroying their lands.


Pom Poko is an intriguingly multi-layered narrative, one that isn't an out-right cry against deforestation and industrial development, instead, is, in a way, a humble tragedy about failure and inevitability. Thus, when confronting ecological or 'green' themes, Pom Poko is reserved and more so focused on Japanese folklore and mythology than social critique. But, in mentioning folklore, we have to jump straight into the raccoons, or, more accurately, the Japanese raccoon dogs/tanuki, that form our group of main characters.

All mythology seems to have a dual purpose; one side that is practical and one that is more enchanting. A very common combination of purposes seen in myths is that of fear and a lesson. Thus, many ghost stories warn children not to do certain things (wander into a forest, bully, steal, lie, etc.) whilst making them scream and then giggle. We see this in Pom Poko with the tanuki warning humans of their destruction whilst, in the parade sequence for instance, providing awe and wonder. More traditionally, however, the tanuki are depicted as quite similar to the fox. Japanese folklore adapted the idea and symbol of a fox from Chinese folklore, which saw the creature - as is known quite universally - as cunning, evil and sly. To different degrees, various stories will utilise the fox's traits to either portray evil or just smarts across cultures - we of course see an example of this in Pom Poko with the fox being cunning but also slightly cowardly. However, whilst the fox is cunning, the tanuki, which appears in Japanese folklore centuries after the fox, is often more clumsy and silly (as we see in the film). So, though tanuki are presented as having greater power than foxes, they suffer from their love of food and joy which mutes their abilities.

If you have seen Pom Poko there's not much more to be said about the tanuki without delving deep into Japanese history with many specific examples - which, for the sake of staying on track, we won't do. However, there may still be the question of: What is going on with their 'pouches'?  In certain dubbed versions of Pom Poko the tanuki's testicles are just called pouches, sacks or some other euphemism, but, there are no illusions in the original, nor in Japanese folklore. Real tanuki, or Japanese raccoon dogs, have very large testicles in proportion to their body size. Their pelts - specifically their scrotums - were also used by goldsmiths to shape jewellery (they were used as pouches and wallets, too). And so because of the lingual connection between "gold nugget" and testicles (which, on the tanuki, are naturally large) in Japanese, the animals became increasingly more humorous. Over time, this expressed itself in the shape of the tanuki; they were often drawn as fat with large bellies that, when they weren't beating their testicles, they would play like drums. And this is all depicted in Pom Poko with the creatures' three facades: the realistic, the anthropomorphic and the cartoonish. These three forms reflect the the evolution of tanuki depictions whilst acting as a device that the is used to characterise and contextualise the story.

However, it is difficult to know how to react to the tanuki and their testicles as, for one, they're a strange sight, and two, the context around sexuality in Japan is a little confounding. In Japan, whilst pornography and sexual obscenity are censored, there are numerous genital festivals that celebrate penises and vaginas as signs of fertility and/or peace and unity between the sexes with disembodied representations of seemingly obscene imagery; from an outsider's perspective, and as we would think of our own cultures, there is a general rift and disharmony that follows no real rule or pattern in regards to such an intimate social topic. Taking the tanuki as they are, it may then be best to define them primarily by their humorous facade without looking too deeply into this. However, looking beyond the facades of the tanuki and questioning the crux of their amusing abilities and mischievousness, we can easily find the lesson that these folkloric creatures embody to concern caution. The tanuki, a little like the fox and even the snake, represents the dangers of deception. However, whilst the fox and snake are often portrayed as deeply insidious, the tanuki generally lead their victims astray as a kind of game. Thus, they will transform landscapes or beat their stomachs to signal thunder, all to disorient travellers. So, whilst tanuki hold whimsical attributes, the flip-side to their dual purpose is that of warning wanders that nature can lead them astray; and such is the purpose of the fox and snake, too.

Takahata embraces this idea of the cunning, but silly, tanuki brilliantly in his exploration of industrial development. Instead of painting developers as evil and snake-like, waging a war against nature, humans are shown to be self-indulgent and pig-headed - at least, this is what is reflected with the confrontation with the tanuki. We can then think of legends such as King Arthur where one 'dragon' confronts another and see a similar paradigm map onto Pom Poko's narrative structure. With one tanuki in nature confronting another tanuki in the humans we see the naive and indulgent side of humanity confronted by its natural counterpart: the group of raccoon dogs. This thematic tone of conflict is where Takahata's layered narrative becomes apparent: everything that the tanuki are can be seen as a metaphor for humanity. Just like the tanuki have family, so does humanity; just as they find refuge in pre-existing structures, so do humans; we share a need to survive, thrive and enjoy life. The humanisation of the tanuki then makes Pom Poko a tragedy as we are shown to be destroying apart of ourselves by destroying nature.

This element of Pom Poko is its most abstract - though tangible - side. This is where a thematic connection is stressed and why there is this constant tension between the humans worshipping and destroying the tanuki. This abstract connection between human and tanuki is never articulated or broken down - we are only made to feel some kind of connection between ourselves and the folkloric idols - and this is because there is no reconciliation between the tanuki and humans: there is no understanding found. Stuck in this strange space between humanisation, legend and metaphorical projection and reflection, we then come to the end of the narrative where we are asked to think of the animals that aren't so integral to folklore and that cannot 'transform'.


This final commentary is ingenious as it seems that Takahata sets this narrative up to humanise one animal and show their struggle as to shame his audience into changing their views. However, this is just a subversion; a tragedy plays out, but is then nullified by a joyous ending. This basic attempt at commentary through humanisation (the likes of which can be seen in a film such as Okja) is then subverted by the fact that we are made to recognise the stories that aren't told; those of the non-anthropomorphised, non-mythologised and forgotten animals. Thus, Takahata becomes a tenuki; he leads us astray and leaves us lost with cunning trickery dressed up whimsically.

Re-watching Pom Poko after seeing its structural brilliance makes this such a strange treat that is both empty and pointlessly manipulative, but also sharp and impactful. To end, all I can ask are: What are your thoughts on the Pom Poko and all we've covered today?

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19/11/2017

Dangal - It's Who You Fight For

Thoughts On: Dangal (Wrestling Competition, 2016)

Unable to fulfil his own dreams of winning a gold medal for his country, a father attempts to turn his daughters into world-class wrestlers.


Dangal is a sensational sports epic grounded in emotional enormity. Following an ex-wrestlter, Mahavir Singh Phogat, who trains his two daughters, Geeta and Babita, to be wrestling champions, this is a loose biopic of the Phogat family. The Phogat sisters, of which there are six, are famous throughout India as wrestling champions at various levels of achievement. However, following the oldest sister, Dangal is less a biopic of the whole family and more of a sports drama about a rather confined father-daughter relationship.

Whilst this film is almost completely faultless, critique can be made on the way in which this 'biopic' is framed. Instead of depicting the whole family, or even just the two eldest as is intermittently implied throughout, Dangal has some peripheral discord about it. In such, anyone who has siblings or children will instantly sense a strong sentiment of favouritism both in the characterisation of the main figures and in the framing of the narrative. Unfortunately, this leaves you with a subtle sense of disappointment when you realised that the second oldest sister is just as accomplished as her older sibling. And, whilst this only manifests itself throughout the narrative in the form of curiosity - in wanting to know more about the younger sister - with the end, it certainly feels like we are cheated out of a fuller, fairer story.

Looking past these ethical issues of structure and framing, it is, however, very hard to critique Dangal from a technical and experiential perspective. Whilst it is possible to point to the obviously Disney-fied and clearly constructed story, I struggle to see that kind of critique as particularly relevant or pertinent.

Formula is certainly the sport-drama's friend. If we look the most iconic examples of the genre - the Rocky and Karate Kid films - we see that they work very comfortably within the realms of predictability. We do find sports-dramas that operate outside of these bounds, Million Dollar Baby and The Wrestler for example, but they're structured as straight dramas with sports as a side-note. This begins to imply the fact that sport-dramas are very much so like adventures; we all know how they must go, and thus predictability is a key convention, leaving the art of the adventure to be its framing, world building a character population. When films attempt to subvert traditional structures of sport-dramas, they then cease to signify the genre - and such is true of adventure films; just sending a character out into the world isn't really enough to qualify an 'adventure film'. In fact, we can understand the sport-drama to be a microcosm of the adventure. Classical adventures follow the hero's journey structure of the departure, the initiation and the return. There are further substructures of this narrative form, and their specification will lead us down a rabbit hole of debate, so we won't go into them. However, when adventure films, much like sport-dramas, function and feel as if they fit into these genres - not others - then this is what they follow; a birth, death and then a re-birth of the classical hero.

Dangal, much like Rocky, much like The Karate Kid, follows this structure, but with a specific emphasis. Better than any of the Karate Kid films, Dangal embodies an idea of reason. And thus the student-mentor relationship in this narrative is so much stronger than that between Miyagi and any of his students. Completely understanding both the structure of a sport-drama and the reason why they work, director Tiwari focuses his narrative on the theme of greater purpose. In such, watching Dangal, it is understood that this is not about a series of wrestling matches. Instead, this is about one woman representing herself, her father, her family, her town, her country and young girls across India and South-East Asia. All sport-dramas capitalise on this to different degrees. So, whilst Dangal is only a few notches below showing one person fight for the whole of humanity, a film such as Rocky is centred on a much tighter family circle. However, almost as evocative and power as the best of the Rocky films, Dangal uses this relationship between the individual and the greater collective to project, without falter, an idea of "It's who you fight for". Some shy away from, or dislike, this kind of narrative as it brings with it a heavy sense of national and personal pride, but there is no real malice or contempt that finds its way into this narrative, just emphatic rejoice.

To conclude, Dangal is such a powerful movie thanks to Aamir Khan's phenomenal embodiment of the anti-hero father and coach, glistening comedy, strong verisimilitude, perfect structuring, a focused script and some text-book direction. Whilst there was a controversy surrounding this movie concerning Khan and his sense of nationhood when it first came out, Dangal is an incredible film whose virtues are deeply embedded in national and familial pride. This is not a movie that anyone should be missing. To end, have you seen Dangal? What are your thoughts?






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End Of The Week Shorts #32



Today's shorts: Dimensions Of Dialogue (1983), My Life As A Zucchini (2016), This Is Not A Film (2011), The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), Xala (1975), A Prophet (2009), The Waterboy (1998), Cars 3 (207), Kahaani (2012), The Happening (2008)



Dimensions of Dialogue is a thoroughly ingenious, incredibly impressive stop-motion short. 
Beyond being a mesmerising spectacle of stop-motion, this is an abstract depiction of devolution in communication. Part one, eternal conversation, seems to show the conquering of an opinion; part two, passionate discourse, shows the problematic fruits of interaction which can lead to conflict; part three, exhaustive discussion, seems to be a debate that compares apples to oranges. There then seems a clear allegory drawn by Czech director, Jan Švankmajer, concerning his own socialist state - which would have been somewhat common during and following the Czech New Wave (which includes films such as Daisies and The Firemen's Ball). 
At whatever level of complexity you choose to see this film at, I highly recommend it.



My Life as a Zucchini is a solid piece of stop-motion animation. With an array of pleasant characters, smooth pacing and some sublime moments of cinematography and craft, this is very easy to sink into and enjoy. The only downfalls of this film are a few cheesy or slightly contrived moments. Whilst it has to be noted on this point that I watched the English dubbed version, the structure of this film is very clearly meant to evoke many emotions. 
Unfortunately, I can't say that My Life as a Zucchini, for all its attempts at emotional engagement, achieves much in this regard; having seen Mary and Max, it's hard to taken aback by the serious sides of this picture. Nonetheless, this is a warm film executed very well. If you're into stop-motion animation, this is worth the watch.



This Is Not A Film is a day-in-the-life documentary that follows Jafar Panahi, an Iranian filmmaker who is under house arrest and is awaiting a verdict on his court case that could potentially have him imprisoned for 6 years and banned from making films for 20 years. Unable to shoot his scripts, Panahi hangs out with his pet Iguana, attempts to recreate scenes from his most recent screenplay and pesters his friend and a passerby into being apart of his "non-film". Everything that he shot was smuggled into the Cannes film festival and got Panahi international recognition that lead to filmmakers across the world protesting his persecution.
This Is Not A Film, whilst it is, on one level, just a whimsical and pleasant video diary, is a subdued, yet powerful statement on art and freedom that, without any direct words, says much about the Iranian political climate. Highly recommended.



Romantic comedies do not get much better than this. The Prince and the Showgirl is a film that is as much abut love and sentimentality as it is the preciousness of a well-structured romance. Building upon archetypes and tropes, this film then hits all the beats you'd expect, but with expression and grace that cannot be expressed in words. And thus this is a pure film, one that can only really be seen. 
Though Olivier directs and performs brilliantly, this is a Monroe movie. Like few the actors/actresses that have ever been, and better than almost all who have ever managed to become, Monroe is the voice, crux and de facto auteur of her best films - and this couldn't be more true with The Prince and the Showgirl. For all the cinematic magic you could hope for, this one is well worth the watch and a personal favourite.



As with Black Girl, Sembène explores European influence as a catalyst for corruption and conflict in post-colonial Africa with Xala. Following a corrupt business man who, under the ruse of sparking independence, sides with Europeans and exploits impoverished and disabled African citizens, Xala is a satirical film about being a real man. Using impotence as a euphemism for personal short comings and greed, there is then a strong sense of fate and justice present throughout this narrative - as, of course, impose by Sembène and his politics. 
Unfortunately, whilst this is a well-constructed film, I found it dry and very boring. In essence, Xala failed to captivate me in any way and so I had to struggle through, and don't feel much the better for it.



A Prophet is a truly tremendous gangster film that follows the rise of a French-Arab man of Algerian descent in a Parisian prison system. Clearly intended to be reflective of French cultural and historical tensions - much like De Palma's Scarface was for America - with allusions to ethnic conflict and an immigrant's struggle, A Prophet is packed with constant questions of place and loyalty. It is the perfect management of this subtextual conflict that gives so much power to the narrative and provides such a complex, yet compelling, anti-hero. The only short-comings of this narrative are its loose references to religion. In places they make sense, but this motif doesn't build to anything particularly substantial - at least, it didn't strike me as such on this first watch. 
Nonetheless, A Prophet is an incredible film that is technically faultless and imbued with subtle, unapologetic beauty.



Waterboy is about as stupid as a movie can get whilst still being watchable. 
I can't deny that that this makes me laugh. The jokes shouldn't work, the acting is horrific, the writing is ridiculous and without any sense of wit or brains - and in regards to the technical aspects... nothing really needs to be said here. Following a time-tested narrative formula without any risk, what Waterboy manages to achieve - as many of Sandler's best movies do - is to pull you into a world of silliness. It's then through the transparently stupid writing that all standards are dropped and you feel yourself inebriated by Sandler's approach to comedy. In one sense, watching Waterboy makes you feel like you've dropped a few I.Q points, in another, it just makes you feel human. Good, dumb fun.



It's impressive to see how shameless Disney (and Pixar more increasingly) can be. Whilst we all know them for their best work, it's probably for the best we remember the huge pile of dog shit that they've built up over time (especially on T.V and sent direct to video/DVD in regards to Disney). 
Alas, Cars 3 isn't on the dog shit pile. Structurally and aesthetically, this is a solid movie; there are even moments and shots sprinkled throughout that struck me as genuinely brilliant. However, in terms of character and dialogue, this is a very shaky movie. Imbued with just a bit too much sentimentality, this narrative provides very direct and unambiguous commentary on what it means to pass on a baton. And whilst this is done pretty well, the means through which this is done is very contrived and often too derivative to take to heart. So, seen as a family movie and with low expectations, there's ultimately not too much to complain about here.



Kahaani (or Story) has got to be one of the greatest crime thrillers I've ever seen. Following a pregnant woman in search of her lost husband, this film explores motherhood as almost a force of nature whilst putting to the screen one of the most genuine "role reversals" (I would suggest that this narrative is far above that) ever conceived of. With numerous perfectly constructed characters and some truly gorgeous cinematography, Kahaani brings you into this narrative construction masterfully, engaging you in the plot and character conflicts to levels that continually deepen. 
The only elements holding this film back are small moments in which the soundtrack becomes too invasive, the editing too audacious and the action too contrived. Beyond this, I have to say it again: one of the greatest, semi-unconventional crime thrillers I've ever seen. Everyone needs to see this.



I loosely remember seeing this near to when it came out and it didn't seem awful. In fact, I remembering being told--and more so than I remember the film--that this was a good movie. A few years later, I heard other people talking about The Happening, suggesting that this is 'one of those movies that are so bad that they're kind of brilliant'. I never knew what to think, and I couldn't remember the film at all, so, today of all days, my curiosity peaked; I had to see how good or bad the movie was. 
30 seconds in, I was bored by the elongated opening credits, so I hit fast forward. 2 minutes later... yeah, this is a truly awful movie. I don't need to say why, it is just ridiculously bad. I couldn't get through.





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18/11/2017

Every Year In Film #30 - A Corner In Wheat

Thoughts On: A Corner In Wheat (1909) & Other D.W Griffith Biograph Shorts


Today, we explore the start of "The Father of Film's" career.

  

There are many essential elements of film history that anyone wanting to confront the topic cannot avoid having to explore. The French New Wave, Italian Neorealism and German Expressionism are just a few of the essential movements. Hithcock, Kubrick, Welles, Bergman, Chaplin, Eisenstein and Kurosawa are just a few of the essential figures. But, the name, D.W Griffith, certainly looms over each of these figures and movements - over all of cinematic history. There is then no doubt that any regular reader of the Every Year Series (or anyone even slightly interested in film history) would have heard something--if not, a lot--about this man. If you've ever attended a film history class you may have even had to endured through one of his epics, Intolerance, or, more likely, The Birth of a Nation. A difficulty that we will have to confront today, as we already have numerous times in the series, is that of perspective. How does Griffith fit into film history?

From the initial emergence of moving pictures, there have been multiple epicentres from which film history has promulgated. As a result, to even begin talking about cinema, you have to juggle information that emerges from all over Europe and America. This situation only intensifies as film spreads across the world, and so, within a few years of cinema's emergence, you inevitably loose grip of even the most important happenings as there are simply far too many things going on that have been twisted by, and lost in, the annals of time. There is then an understandable polarisation of film history towards the most popular and best marketed figures and movies. So, when many think of film history, they think in terms of contemporary Hollywood, New Hollywood, Old Hollywood and the American silent era. At certain points, European art cinema will force its way into the picture as well as the epics of Japanese masters. In the same respect, the silent era is seen to be ruled by a few big actors, a few clowns, a cine-magician and Griffith. However, whilst many of these figures and infrastructures operate and are often presented as singular forces in an empty world, we are obliged to respect individual topics and times as we do modern film culture. After all, whilst the 2010s may be looked back upon as the age of the superhero blockbuster that advanced technology and commented on our progression deeper into the digital era, stuck in the fray, we probably don't see things in such a way. Whilst, yes, it is obvious that superhero movies loom over all of cinema today, we walk in their shadow quite comfortably and quite obliviously, looking for the next interesting horror, complex drama, brilliant comedy or genuine example of art. Griffith probably was, in a way, the Marvel of the 1910s.

It should be noted that audiences back then thought of film very differently to how we do in the present day, but it is nonetheless essential to remember that, whilst avid cinema-goers of the late nineteen-teens may have seen a tonne of Griffith's films, they would be aware of a much more nuanced network of the then-contemporary film culture - just like everyone that was apart of the world-wide film industry would have been. As a result, it must be emphasised that film history is about rules and exceptions. Sometimes we will talk about font-runners and unique artist who were an exception to current film culture, but came to be very influential later on. Other times, we will talk of the general rule of film culture that is only so nuanced. Whilst this implies that there is no film history - at least not a total one - this is not a mindset we can move forward with. It is true that there is always more to be said about, and found in, film history, and we should always respect this. However, cinema and film history can exist whilst continually developing. Cinema is then an individual's journey. Film history is a map. Maps are tools that will get you paces, but it is the individual's job to experience and reflect upon what is going on in the places that a map sends you to.

Let us then continue down this path today with an introduction to Griffith. We will not be diving into The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, Broken Blossoms, etc, however. This will be saved for a second part on Griffith. Today we will touching on Griffith's entry into the American film industry and his years at Biograph. In such, today we will be looking at Griffith in a light somewhat similar to that which Lilian Gish shines:

"He was the father of film. He didn't do everything the first time, like a close-up, but, he developed--he gave us the grammar of filmmaking: the cutting, the handling of humanity before a camera, and understood the psychic strength of the lens."

By our current point in time, 1909, films would have their own internal logic that was often very idiosyncratic. In such, the novel cinema of attraction, the world of Méliès for example, was quite illogical - and such is the consequence of spectacle being the focus of early cinema, not necessarily articulation. Cinema wasn't then born under conditions that the book was; writing comes from practicality and a very strict and systematised mode of communication. Like painting, cinema could just show as it didn't need rules to be understood like writing did. However, if cinema was to tell stories, not just show things, it would have to develop some kind of formal language - even if this language was never going to be taught in schools like the written and spoken word are.

It was the development of narrative that then forced filmmakers, such as Guy-Blaché, Porter, Chomón, Zecca, McCutcheon, Tait, etc, to make sense of the techniques that their contemporaries and predecessors would have discovered and to turn them into a basic language. It was Griffith's generation of filmmakers who took this one step further and set the bedrock of cinematic language by the late 1910s. As a result, we will see films such as Porter's The Great Train Robbery, Zecca's Alcohol and its Victims, McCutcheon's The Moonshiners, Guy-Blaché's The Hierarchies Of Love and Tait's The Story Of The Kelly Gang be greatly improved upon by the language that was developed by figures such as Griffith. It is exactly this that Gish picks up on above and so to understand Griffith, we will have to keep in mind the previous posts of the series throughout.

One post in particular that we must remember alluded to the end of one story that saw Griffith's begin. Born in Kentucky in 1875 and raised by a Methodist family, Griffith's decision to become a stage actor and play-write as a young man wouldn't have been too well accepted by his family. Griffith nonetheless toiled with touring companies and would attempt to get his plays put to stage in the mid-1900s. He would manage to do this once with a play called A Fool and a Girl, but the production was a failure, which saw Griffith turn to the film industry.

Generally seen as burlesque and undignified, early cinema, a little like vaudeville (which it had a significant relationship with), was somewhat scorned in America and Europe. Partially due to figures such as Chaplin, old vaudeville halls are often looked back upon with a greater sense of gritty drama and romanticism than they probably deserve. In such, vaudeville halls in Britain, both to then-contemporary social critics and later retrospective commentators, were described as places of debauchery, prostitution, sex, drunkenness, drugs and disease - but also to those who liked it, places of energy, life, vitality and expression. Whilst much of the negative probably went on some of the time and whilst the stuffy halls wouldn't have been the most pleasant of places to be stuffed into with dozens of potentially grubby people for long periods of time, they - much like early nickelodeons - probably weren't as bad as they're sometimes painted out to be. Nonetheless, this reputation had been bound to these exhibition halls and rooms and it always reflected badly on early filmmakers and actors who appeared on the screen. With Griffith putting his dreams of being a play-write to the side, we can then understand what it would have looked like to his friends and family as they saw him unsuccessfully try to sell as script to Edison's studio before being employed as an actor in 1907/1908.

One of the first known and surviving films that Griffith appeared in (under the name, Lawrence Griffith) after having his script rejected was Porter's Rescued From An Eagle's Nest where he played the father alongside another actor, Henry B. Walthall, who would hold significant roles in Griffith's later films.


It is at this point that we see our story of today intersecting with the post on inter-titles and Wallace McCutcheon's The Moonshiner. Working on Biograph films after quickly transitioning away from Edison's studio, Griffith would develop a deep interest in cinema whilst coming into contact with numerous filmmakers - one of the most significant meetings being with Billy Bitzer (who is, arguably, as much of an important figure as Griffith). McCutcheon would have been one of the key Biograph directors in the mid-1900s. However, he was an old man, and so, in 1908, would pass the reigns to his son - who couldn't live up to his father's legacy. As the legend goes, one day young McCutcheon doesn't show up, which leaves the crew and cast sitting around, twiddling their thumbs. Soon Griffith stands and claims he can direct and, considering how inconsequential a production The Adventures of Dollie seemed to be, he was granted the opportunity by those in charge.


The Adventures of Dollie doesn't signify Griffith exploding into filmmaking like Méliès did. However, whilst this lacks character and detail, his directorial debut demonstrates some of the key elements of Griffith's filmmaking: a coherent narrative, dramatic expression and emotional engagement. Unlike most narrative films of the early 1900s, the cause and effect present in this story is clear, albeit a little muddled by the distant framing and long shots. By understanding the plot of The Adventures of Dollie, drama can emerge from the antagonist conflicting with the protagonist and his innocent family. Moreover, themes of family bolster the narrative, allowing it to pull you into the story and care about what the barrel rolling down a stream really represents.

These three elements of cinema are the keys to it becoming a viable medium of storytelling and an art form. Understanding this, Griffith would then develop as a filmmaker in the 5 years he worked at Biograph, making around two one-reel films a week and creating more than 400 movies in total between 1908 and 1913. What we will do for the remainder of this post is pick up on a few of these films to track Griffith's evolution that would make him Biograph's most important filmmaker, and Biograph themselves one of the most significant studios in America.


Starting with our subject today, we come to A Corner In Wheat. After a year of directing, Griffith wouldn't yet be utilising close-ups and camera movement too often (if at all). It is then clear that his work was still influenced by the theatre - and would always remain so to some degree - as Griffith had no real interest in exploring comedies, the trick film or special effects (during his years at Biograph, he left this to other filmmakers such as Mack Sennett). So, though he would make films such as Those Awful Hats, Griffith remained focused on dramas and melodramas. A Corner In Wheat is a strong example of this, one that emphasised Griffith's growing capabilities to frame a coherent narrative.

As a young man Griffith would read many books, most notably, those of Charles Dickens. Considering the significance of Griffith and the narrative techniques he adapted from Dickens' novels, film purists are obliged to tip their hat to the novel as they watch films with parallel plots. But, whilst Griffith's later films, Intolerance most famously, would utilise a collage of plots, this all began with films such as A Corner In Wheat. Juxtaposition was then the technique that Griffith pushed forward like few others did.

Unlike earlier narrative films that feature parallel editing, films such as A Daring Daylight Robbery and A Great Train Robbery, A Corner In Wheat has a succinct focus on not just showing multiple spaces effecting one another, but multiple ideas or themes interacting. As a result, it is not always directly important that the rich corporate owners cause prices of bread to rise for their own gain in this short. Instead, the fact that this profoundly impacts the average person is the purpose and point. Thus, from juxtaposition doesn't just come an understanding of a plot, but of themes of greed and exploitation. Thus, the scene in which the corporate leader falls into the vat of corn bears strong subtext of retribution whilst the pathos of the average farmers and people is simultaneously alleviated and extended - after all, death doesn't mean the end of their problems; which is what the final shot of the film suggests.

This complex narrative says much about the power of a cinema that doesn't even have dialogue yet, and it certainly had its impact in its day with Griffith's position in Biograph becoming much more significant as his films hit their mark with audiences. However, Griffith's use of the cut wasn't limited to this thematic juxtaposition, as we will find with the Lonedale Operator.


The Lonedale Operate, made in 1911, holds an early example of the iconic Griffith chase sequence. Following a formula of thematic juxtaposition topped by emotional catharsis, Griffith utilised cross-cutting to inject excitement back into cinema. After all, by 1911, we are many years away from a time when moving images alone were enough to generate awe. As can be understood through the manner in which audiences, distributors and studios together welcomed longer narratives, more was being demanded of cinema around the 1910s.

The reasoning for the success of Griffith in this period is implied with the idea that he was the first great American filmmaker. What this suggests is a subtle difference between a great French, Indian, Brazilian or Japanese filmmaker. American cinema is defined by entertainment. We cannot deny that great art comes out of Hollywood, but we can all easily gather why American cinema is considered the first cinema that was followed by the second European art cinema. With Griffith being considered the first great American filmmaker, we can infer that he was the first director to entertain like no other.

This is then where we come back to his structure, inter-cutting and The Lonedale Operator. It was Griffith's ability to use cinema as a sensory tool to engage audiences that made his films so popular and his techniques so innovative. What a film like The Lonedale Operator represents is then cinema forming a world of sensation within story. In the realm of Méliès, the world within a screen is detached from narrative and so the spectacle is singular; as discussed, this also means that its rules are very specific, illogical and lacking of real meaning. In the realm of Griffith, the world is bound to subtext and emotion, and thus we have the possibility of verisimilitude - there can be no such thing in a Méliès trick film; they are all about fantasy in the face of reality and verisimilitude, and such is there attraction.

In The Lonedale Operator, we see a few close-ups and mid-shots, but it is clear that Griffith's focus is not on the framing of his story, rather its editing. In The Musketeers Of Pig Alley, however, we will see him utilise the frame in more creative ways...


The Musketeers Of Pig Alley is sometimes considered the first gangster film, but, it obviously isn't. It is certainly an early gangster film that deals with American organised crime outside of the Western, cowboy context, but, films such as The Kelly Gang and The Great Train Robbery are clear predecessors; we cannot fully discount them as gangster films after all.

Nonetheless, with this film it is very clear that Griffith is constantly questioning what it is that a scene visually articulates. With the opening shot alone, we see this demonstrated.



With the reveal of the mother here, Griffith integrates meaning into the frame by providing characterisation and further context around the emotional state of Gish in the opening medium shot. Without the cut, merely with his blocking, Griffith then provides emotional subtext whilst progressing the story: textbook filmmaking. Moving forward with a densely cross-cut and elliptical narrative, Griffith continues to utilise his deep focus to bring greater verisimilitude, emotion and meaning out of his frame. His abundant use of extras is particularly expressive here as it builds a strong sensation of a complete and real world:


However, the most iconic part of this film is, of course, this close-up...


If you can find a good, crisp copy of a Griffith picture, you will see some of the greatest close-ups ever put to screen, close-ups that have such rich texture and light that is all too rare. This doesn't say too much about Griffith. He would claim that he 'invented' the close-up as to show the face of a beautiful actress all the better - but, to cut him slack, he used them with great expression and reason. However, what this close-up speaks to is Bitzer's (Griffith's cinematographer's) mastery of the camera and light. We will save Bitzer's story for another time, but his images both here and in films such as Broken Blossoms speak for themselves.

Moving forwards, we will touch on The Mothering Heart...


Griffith himself would become one of the most famous men alive in the 1910s - just about as famous as his United Artist co-founders: Chaplin, Pickford and Fairbanks. And this says an awful lot as, whilst he started out as an actor, audiences would not know him for his presence on the screen, rather, his omnipresence over it. So, in a way, Griffith would become one of the first true auteurs who made films that people would see because of him whilst consciously knowing he made it. After all, figures such Porter and Méliès, as famous as their films where, did not have their names written in lights.

Alas, whilst Griffith was an icon, the iconography of his imagery should be much attributed to actresses such as the Lillian Gish and Blanche Sweet, who were just two of the stars that he would have created. With Gish in particular, Griffith would be able to capture a powerful sense of innocence and sympathy in a plethora of films (The Mothering Heart, True Heart Susie, Broken Blossoms, etc.). Whilst he is infamous for his racism, Griffith's films are in fact very romantic and highly sentimental. To further the complication, his racism actually quite obviously stems from a place of misguided nostalgia. Less a rampant supremacist and more a fool, Griffith's racism is clearly a consequence of his upbringing - which explains how he could make a film that romanticises the KKK one year and one that paints a 'yellow man' as a tragic hero a few years after. Griffith was all about heroism and so his films are imbued with this sense of patriarchal and matriarchal honour and integrity. This is - rather ridiculously, especially by modern standards - how he saw the KKK, just as it was how he saw his less controversial heroes. However, we bring all of this up because the foundations of Griffith's thematic approach and his relationship with his actresses is incredibly crucial in The Mothering Heart.

Just as much a Lilian Gish picture as it is a Griffith picture, this is about as melodramatic as films can get: a baby's tragic death instantly brings a married couple torn apart by infidelity back together. However, as absurd as this sounds, Griffith somehow manages to make this ending viable with a mixture of extreme emotion all put upon the capable shoulders of Gish. The base of all of this is his thematic sensibilities that he would consistently utilise to inform his developing catalogue of film grammar and make films that exude woe, trauma and melancholy, yet also, strength, stoicism and integrity, and all through his powerful leads.

The last film we will touch on from Griffith's Biograph era is The Battle at Elderbush Gulch.


The Battle at Elderbush Gulch signifies Griffith becoming Griffith... master of the epics. From 1906 onward, feature films were becoming more common. Growing ever more aware of cinema's ability to assume grander scales, Griffith was itching to make longer movies at Biograph. However, the studio, of course, was not as enthusiastic as Griffith. And thus the end of their relationship was nigh. From the very start of his time at Biograph Griffith objected to making films "like sausages", and around 1912, he would be pushing to make films that exceeded 1 reel - which meant more money and red flags for Biograph.

Widely considered Griffith's best Western and greatest short film, The Battle at Elderbush Gulch, above all else, feels grammatically modern. And this is something that becomes more and more evident as Griffith moves further away from his second year of filmmaking: his cutting is economic, his shots are precisely framed, his structure is powerful, his characters are distinct and somewhat round and his narratives are defined. Far more than earlier attempts at epics, or even basic narrative storytelling, films such as The Battle at Elderbush Gulch then feel watchable. And in such, you don't have to put on your researcher's hat to get through them as much as you would with more primitive silent films. Whilst this isn't as true for his more demanding, far longer, features, when we look to at the best of Griffith's Biograph films, it really feels as if cinema as an art is being born.

However, knowing that he could do so much more and that Biograph wasn't going to allow this, Griffith, in 1913, left to journey into the most infamous, significant and rocky part of his career. But, as implied at the top of the essay, this is where we end our look at Griffith today.

To conclude, exploring Griffith's development as we have today has allowed us to see a radical shift in the silent era. Keep in mind, however, that Griffith was not working in a vacuum; he was not the the be all and end all of silent cinema around the 1910s. And so such, I'm sure, will be the subtextual point of the following posts in the series.

Before I let you go, to see a more biographical exploration of Griffith that far exceeds the scope of this more analytical post, I'd recommend the three-part documentary D.W Griffith: Father Of Film.

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