Thoughts On: October 2018


End Of The Week Shorts #81

Today's shorts: Armageddon (1998), Happy Feet Two (2011), Intolerance: Love's Struggle Throughout The Ages (2016), Bad Boys (1995), Foxy Brown (1974), Ghosts Before Breakfast (1928), Four Weddings And a Funeral (1994), Attack The Block (2011), School Of Rock (2003)

Roger Ebert introduced Armageddon as the world's 'first 150-minute trailer'. It is clear that he meant this sardonically - derogatorily - but, despite the lack of exactitude in Ebert's phrase, he outlines why, it seems, this is such an important film. Armageddon is a significant mile-marker in what I would call Michael Bay's 'Bastard Cinema'; a mode of film unable to generate a pretence of originality and subjective input; a kind of film that has disavowed from the dream component of cinema, that resorts only to its spectacle. Thus, the magic that is cinema is stripped of a mystical quality and reduced to cold, hard illusion. And such is what Armageddon is as a 150-minute trailer; a two hour and a half impression of story, archetypes, drama and symbolism. Much more could be said, but I will hold my tongue. I am struggling to find myself disliking Bay's films of recent. That leaves this respectable in my eyes.

If the first Happy Feet is silly and cheesy - albeit, enjoyable and very well constructed from a technical stand-point - Happy Feet Two is pretentious and rather insipid despite the technical achievements. What this lacks above all else is character establishment and development that engages one in the narrative to a degree that prevents the ensuing melodrama and exuberance from being alienating. Put simply, the first Happy Feet manages to capture the audience's heart, which blinds their higher functionings to the narrative slop. Happy Feet 2 captures nothing and the slop is a challenge to trudge through. With every beat of ecstatic revelation and triumph, of melancholy and failure, I shrivelled in on myself like a metal can having all the air sucked out of it, cringing and yeesh-ing beyond control. In short, Happy Feet Two tries too hard and becomes insufferably pretentious every now and then. Not great.

If D.W Griffith made Intolerance in 2016 instead of 1916, Hollywood would never bother with Michael Bay again. What that specifically implies, I'm not sure, but my gut tells me I'm right.

Intolerance is D.W Griffith's epic masterpiece, one that entirely overshadows The Birth Of A Nation--even if only judged technically (morality aside). Birth is a boring melodrama with two extended action set-pieces. Close-ups, camera movement, gargantuan sets, innumerable extras, cross cutting--you cannot find them in Griffith's 1915 effort if one judges such things by the standards of his 1916 triumph. Intolerance is a truly epic explosion of a new-found HUGE CINEMA; a mountain that was quickly sighted in the late 1800s, one that the Italians began to climb after 1909, one that Griffith summits with Intolerance. Again; a masterpiece, maybe cinema's earliest.

Pretty excellent.

This Michael Bay's feature-length directorial debut, but this is not necessarily a Michael Bay film; this is a Simpson/Bruckheimer film - as was The Rock. Until Transformers (you see glimpses of this in Armageddon where Bay started producing) Bay was a pretty anonymous figure in his films. The Bay genre - fast cars, larger than life characters, even bigger explosions, etc - seemingly grew around him for his first few features. In such, this falls some place in between the likes of Beverly Hills Cop (a Simpson/Bruckheimer film) and Transformers. Comedy motivates all in this action flick; it gives each scene its chaos, its tension, its vibrancy and character. This was clearly written to be a comedy. Through direction and set design, however, action flourishes. Alas, there is a balance found somehow, and so whilst this isn't a masterful character comedy or action film, Bad Boys works brilliantly. An absolute (maybe mindless) joy.

One of the most striking examples of exploitation cinema, Foxy Brown reduces film to its surface components to generate a physical-interactive experience. That is to say that this means to have an audience be physically affected (this goes for arousal) as part of an unspoken agreement to play a game of spectatorship and exhibitionism. Foxy Brown, however, breaks one of the most fundamental 'rules' of exploitation cinema. There is no such thing as character in the exploration film; 'characters' are objects and pawns to be played with. Alas, Foxy Brown gives our titular character a subtle sense of morality and humanity despite constructing her in a Meyer-esque fashion (empowered, yet equally sexualised; a deified oedipal mother). I then found this uncannily trashy and a little too tragic and human to watch as a mere exploitation film. Unexpected (likely unintended too) as it is, I came away from Foxy Brown pretty depressed and unsatisfied.

I don't know how to confront this film, nor really what to say about it. Such, I suppose, is one of its main intentions: to leave one frustrated and speechless. Alas, with imagery of a ticking clock, of floating hats, of violence, directionless movement and guns, this seems to be about disorder and lost civility. Ghost Before Breakfast revels in incoherence and the nonsensical. So, in addition to rousing frustration and , it manages to subject its viewer to disarray, quite possibly to dare us to make sense out of things, to do more than feel.

Four Weddings and a Funeral must be a half-descent rom-com as, as these things tend to nowadays, it gave me half an anxiety attack. I wouldn't, however, say this is particularly good.

Relying heavily upon the space in between romantic meetings, Four Weddings and a Funeral makes a spectacle out of speeches and, at least for the first half, manages to generate quite an ambiguous swelling of failing romance. The latter half of this, however, had me at a loss. Not enough character can be developed on the days we spend with our cast and so they all start strong with clear defining traits, but fail to prove their humanity. So, at first, we fill in gaps with our own emotions, but, by the end, all feels too contrived. I then very much so disliked the ending, feeling unconvinced of the apparent love that always was to be. So, whilst written well as a comedy, as a romance... not for me.

Attack The Block takes a decades-old trope tantamount to Dinosaurs vs. Cowboys - as is seen in The Valley of the Giant Gwangi, and as has been replicated dozens of times over - and contrives something rather genuine. The best parts of this then come from character and the feeling of authenticity (seeing Boyega in this long before Star Wars pretty much ruined his place in the Hollywood blockbuster for me). Stepping into the minds of council-grown teens, this presents the expected hero narrative - an allegory about responsibility and of finishing what one starts - without betraying its foundation. This is to say that we discover a hero narrative as and how our characters do, all revelations theirs, not some screenwriter's. Such is a pretty rare and admirable achievement.

My criticisms of this are pretty much negligible. A great film to re-watch (especially with brothers and sisters a bit too young to be seeing it for the first time). Highly recommended.

Pretty hard to dislike, School of Rock is as silly as it is endearing. It is not the independent and humbly subversive kind of cinema one usually expects from Richard Linklater, but it nonetheless retains the sense of heart and character captured in the likes of Slackers and more, but with added punch, vibrancy and energy.

The performances aren't all brilliant, but the casting doesn't disappoint - could anyone but Jack Black have played Mr. Schneebly? The songs, too, aren't overwhelmingly impressive, but their unfolding in the classroom is brought to the screen tremendously with invisible, but impactful cinematic language. And though I'll probably appear pretentious in saying this, I will: this is really what makes this film work and brings the comedy to life - the editing and camera work. All in all, a Linklater film, and a good one at that.

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Measuring The Truth Of Drama

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Blog News

This is a minor bit of news. I have recently been attempting to reconfigure, update and rearrange the ads on the blog. (I am not very good at this, and, in all honesty, forgot that ads were a thing here). If you see the ads as you read, I hope they do not negatively affect your experience on the blog. Any and all feedback about the ads is welcome, but, I thought I'd put this into a short bit of blog news just to acknowledge some of the changes.

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Measuring The Truth Of Drama

Thoughts On: Truth, Drama & Shades of Consciousness

A look into how we are presented truth through drama in the cinematic space.

For centuries upon centuries, there has been a strand of art criticism that assumes narrative and drama are mimetic; are imitative of life. If art, if drama, is imitative, if it yearns to represent human action and being, what can we suggest is drama's fundamental purpose?

In my best estimation, the fundamental drive for all human behaviour is 'optimal survival'. Herein lies the basic function of drama: to represent and imitate the human struggle for optimal survival. Alas, survival, optimal or not, is an uninteresting concept - possibly for the fact that it is so vague and ill-representative of the complexity in the humanity in 'human struggle'. What matters more than surviving is how optimal survival is gauged and set into hierarchy, which is to say, given value. The most interesting question we may then ask in regards to drama is how it defines and presents a question such as: What is optimal survival?

Drama's more profound purpose is found here. Imitative of known and unknown reasoning and paradigms in the universe of the human soul, drama is an evocation and question of value structures: orders of truth. Ideological film criticism is predicated upon the assumption that value structures are contrived by human hands alone; that value, meaning and desire are given, enforced and taught. Inherent to Marxist or feminist film criticism is then also this assumption that drama represents values. However, this philosophy is construed, in my opinion, in a rather distorted, unimaginative and half-truthful manner. In the same respect that a behaviourist theory of tabula rasa is devalued by biological psychology, social constructivist idioms of the social 'sciences' are undermined by social bios, life as it is evidently and implicitly laid out before the human psyche. That is to say that much social constructivist film criticism is founded upon, again, half-truth (a subject we can return to). By extension of the fact that life, I find, proves itself incongruous to ideological film criticism, drama, which is imitative of consciously and unconsciously recognisable truths of being, so often does too.

The social constructivist philosophy is not entirely valueless, for, as evident as it is that value is not just given, but felt, retrieved from the depths of genetic and biotic history, it is equally evident that humans have their effect on the shaping and distribution of truth. The issue implicit here is one that emerged when consciousness arose out of unconsciousness. Life, lying dormant, knows all; yet it cannot know this and speak it. To exist is to know. To become conscious of existence is to be put in a position where knowledge must be found again, so that truth can, at long last, be spoken. Night changes to day, but dare we assume the sun and the moon know one another? Dared we have, however, to begin to know the sun, the moon and our twirling earth. Dared we have to give those entities a name, to make gods out of them, to defy, to utilise and even to walk upon them.

As light emerges through the dark depths of the human psyche, it is crystallised and given a name. Alas, the truth of any package of light is rarely given a suitable name. The label, therefore, is not the truth, but merely that which tries to contain it. What we are dealing with on an individual and social level when truth is contained concerns an unresolvable quality assurance issue. If truth cannot be known in essence, how can we know one crystallised representation of truth is any more truthful than the next? Jean Epstein provides an answer to this question in the realm of film criticism via his theory of lyrosophy. Containers of truth - drama and narrative as examples - can be judged in regards to how their objective presence resonates with our subjective being; when truth is evoked in such a way that knowledge is felt, we may hazard to call it absolute. Such an assumption is predicated on the belief that truth 'lies within'. More than a cliche, this belief relays back to the assumption that life, lying dormant, knows all. Within every individual is dormant life; we call this unconsciousness, and consciousness holds within it truth.

Unconsciousness is far from the answer to the conundrum of quality assuring 'truth containers'. Jung, in understanding this, split unconsciousness into two categories: the personal and collective. Freud dealt with the personal unconscious in his most famous sexual and childhood-centric psychoanalytical theory. Jung dealt with the collective unconscious in his most famous theory of archetypes.

It is uncoincidental that film theorists have struggled to apply Jung to film theory whereas Freudian (and by extension, Lacanian) film theory has been rather dominant, that, as a consequence, film theory is not a very developed field. Feminist Freudian/Lacanian film criticism, as one example, assumes that truth is located in the personal unconscious whilst this is, arguably, the realm where truth is distorted most. If truth lies in the equivalent to Tao, an unknowable Way of the universe, then it must travel up into reality and up into the dormancy of humanity (the collective unconscious) before reaching the personal unconscious of the individual. The personal unconscious is a place, as Freud describes, profoundly shaped by past experience such as development in childhood. Truth related to the personal unconscious is personal truth, it is far from absolute truth. Humanity's closest station on route to absolute truth is in the collective unconscious; is in the unconscious components that every individual human mind has held. Drama and narrative represent these elements via archetypal characters, genres, tropes and structuring, via elements inherent to all stories (or at least, most stories of a kind). The exploration of just this is missing from film criticism. Such is represented by the struggle to apply a Jungian mode of theory to film and by the unsatisfactory reliance on Freud, which inherently formulates a philosophy of truth existing and emerging from the personal unconscious - which is a troubling presumption.

Of course, if truth is assumed to be held in the personal unconscious, one will be lead to assume that values are socially constructed, are insidious and corrupt even. Of course, if this philosophy is inherent to some of the most popular modes of academic filmic discourse, it will have the tone and appearance that it does: politically distracted and sometimes blindly ideological in its criticism. To confront all that is unsatisfactory about so much film criticism, drama must become the focus, drama as understood to be imitative of truth far deeper that what resides in the personal unconscious, but nonetheless an entity that interacts and must rise through, not just the personal unconscious, but also consciousness.

The truth about the truth in drama can then be accessed, I hypothesise, with a threefold analysis of a narrative's dramatic elements. What appears to be conscious, personally unconscious (what I would refer to as subconscious) and collectively unconscious (what can be called unconscious) can then be analysed simultaneously.

If we are to refer to the hierarchy of elements in the cinematic space, that which we have theorised and referenced before, we must make obvious the fact that we are about to build a theory of logic: (.

If drama is a pre-requisite of the cinematic space, is that which makes space move in a cinematic narrative, logic is concerned with the moulding and handling of the essence of cinema and is the key to bringing drama out of the abstract and towards reality (toward the rules or form of a film: its physical manifestation). The embodiment of logic is, most centrally, filmmakers, for drama is conceived of and managed by a screenwriter, director, actor, set-designer, etc. The logic of the collective filmmaking force becomes the logic of a cinematic space. We have spoken about this before in our exploration of expressionism, impressionism, surrealism and realism (the four main modes of cinematic narrative, which have their links to drama - thus in logic, too, is a theory of expressionist typhlodrama, realistic biodrama, etc). Alas, whilst we have spoken of the logic of a cinematic space before, we aim to do so in the most fundamental sense now.

The essence of the essence of cinema is truth; drama is the fundamental element of a cinematic space, truth (that of an absolute, universal and collectively unconscious character) is the fundamental element of drama. The deepest connection a filmmaker, or rather the logic of a cinematic space, has to this essence of essence concerns the path through which it is accessed. And thus we come back to consciousness, subconsciousness and unconsciousness. These are the three fundamental modes of a cinematic space and define how truth is accessed or cultivated.

The conscious mode of evoking truth via drama is well-represented by what you might call 'intellectualism' being put on screen. One can look to a New Wave filmmaker such as Godard and perceive his management of drama to be wholly conscious. Auteur theory rather conclusively shapes the way that he and his New Wave practitioners approached cinema. If they pen an entire narrative, then they get to dictate, personally, every element of its being. A cut and its purpose must then be pondered upon by the filmmaker, emphasised to be of personal choice - so must camera angles, character choices, even the existence of the film; all of these have conscious reason behind them, or at least, this is the illusion someone such as Godard wishes to conjure. He makes his cinema, he is his cinema; its truth is his truth.

Clinging to cautionary brevity as we first start to define these modes, we will move on. Quentin Tarantino is a good example of a subconscious filmmaker. His cinema is, in essence, a bastardised version of New Wave, Godardian cinema; it is pseudo-intellectual and distracted to a far greater degree with masturbation. The truth present in Tarantino's cinema then seemingly emerges from his personal unconsciousness and the personal unconsciousness of his characters (who represent drama and truth). This characterlogical element of his cinema is descendent of the exploitation films his cinema is very clearly inspired by. Exploitation cinema is profoundly subconscious, revelling in sexuality and violence as part of a game that is only half-understood and never consciously confronted. We feel this in Tarantino's cinema, too; the drama clearly a construct of Tarantino, but the truth inherent to it not necessarily under his conscious control.

Spiritual cinemas, those of Bresson, Bergman and Tarkovsky, are prime examples of unconscious logic in the cinematic space. It is not that these filmmakers do not have a presence in their narratives, that they demonstrate no conscious control over drama. Rather, they consciously cultivate frames through which truth of an autonomous and free character can emerge. Whilst Tarkovsky may then consciously manipulate drama as to frame some commentary on a boy's relationship with his mother, Tarkovsky stakes no claim on the truth that emerges from his framing; truth be told, the truth in a Tarksovky film is in-incarcerable, cannot be attributed to anything material, let alone any foolhardy individual's consciousness. Tarkovsky's cinema, like Bresson's and Bergman's, then evokes some of the most tantalising lyrosophy any cinema ever has; truth that can only ever be felt.

It is common for these three modes to emerge in one film. It is important to be able to recognise them as they not only effect the way in which drama must be conceived of, but they speak volumes on the nature of the truth the drama is evoking. Anyone who is familiar with the cinemas of Tarkovsky, Tarantino and Godard knows already of the differing approaches one must take to access the drama. I will not delve into this subject. However, we can dwell briefly on a question of whose cinema is most truthful.

In my opinion, truthfully unconscious cinemas such as Tarkovsky's are most truthful; they reveal the most about human nature and have the highest mimetic qualities within them. Alas, our questioning is not helpful. It matters less how absolute the truth drama evokes is than how clear and lyrosohically affecting said truth is. If one cannot understand a Tarkovsky film, then its truth is wasted - a Godardian film may seem far more truthful. What matters most when it comes to truth and consciousnesses is tangibility; not only what truth is evoked, but how it is evoked as well as how accessible and affecting it is. These different qualities must always be considered. We will always have to find truth in a film first. Recognising if a narrative's logic is conscious, subconscious or unconscious can help with this; in a Godard film, we have to be able to recognise the self-reflexivity motivating formal choices; in a Tarantino film, we have to listen to what characters say (often about vulgar or inane things) to explore the narrative truth; in a Tarkovsky film, we have to feel time and the elements. After locating where truth is packaged in a cinematic space, we have to question the way in which it is packaged; how reliable of a source Godard is as an intellectual; how deep Tarantino's insight truly is; how spiritually aware Tarkovsky is. It is here where we can begin to apply psychoanalytical concepts to the creation of narrative: Godard's cinema, we could suggest, is very egoic; Tarantino's is immersed in the personal unconscious (his childish desires and, likely, fetishes); Tarkovsky's films float in some ethereal collective unconscious. From such an analysis, we can ask very simple questions; how truthful is the ego, is personal experience and desire, is one's connection to collective, universal being?

These major questions impact how we confront the specifics of truths that are instilled and recognised within us, the audience. That said, we must also question the manner in which our consciousness, subconsciousness and unconsciousness interacts with a cinematic space. Things then become very complicated at this point. But, all of these elements require analysis if one is to speak of the truth evoked by drama. One of the great weakness of Freudian film criticism is an inability to recognise consciousness and (collective) unconsciousness as an element that characterises and effects dramatic truth. A great weakness of Jungian film criticism is an inability to recognise consciousness and subconsciousness. And a great weakness of technical (formal) film criticism is its inability to judge subconscious and unconscious truth. If the essence of any diegesis is to be confronted, all three shades of consciousnesses must be analysed and questioned by a cautionary eye of sympathetic consciousness.

Far more could be explored on this topic, and indeed, an exemplar of the ideal criticism of logic and consciousness is required. Alas, I will end having outlined and introduced this topic. I then turn things over to you. What are your thoughts on everything we've covered today?

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West Beirut - Divide

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West Beirut - Divide

Quick Thoughts: West Beirut (بيروت الغربية‎ 1998)

Made by Ziad Doueiri, this the Lebanese film of the series.

West Beirut is a film I dare call pretentious. It tells a coming-of-age tale that is set during the Lebanese Civil War. We follow a teen, Tarek, on a meandering, rather blind and ignorant journey through the streets as his country divides. Tarek has no goal, but all of his intentions seem to be fuelled by an itch in his crotch; and so he rebels in school, play fights with his father, moans to his mother, gets into constant arguments with neighbours, courts and then forgets about a girl, screws around with his friend, spies on large-breasted women with a camera, almost dies trying to get the film developed and risks his life to find his way into a brothel. It feels as though we are paced in Lebanon rather coincidentally by this film - and such is a positive comment on the film's verisimilitude and authentic edge. However, it is not possible to never question why a civil war and so many cultural conflicts are juxtaposed with a teen's brazen and open-ended sexual development. I thought that the boy's sexuality would lead to revelations on the conflict between the Muslims and Christians waging war, but, though this is always hinted at (for instance, the Tarek suggests that the Muslims and Christians should meet at the brothel to solve all their problems) there is never physically dramatised any such thematic conflict. This leaves me without a clue of how to see this as more than a weak coming-of-age film - one rather reminiscence of Machuca (which I can't say I cared for). It follows a rather silly boy, indulges his chaotic teenage-hood, visualises elements of his cultural history, and eventually allows the reality of war to dawn upon him as he watches its effect on his mother and the struggle that his parents must endure. Alas, this all feels like surface-level drama; nothing at all penetrating, affecting or in need of being said. I then think West Beirut succeeds only in appearing to be about something when, in reality, it does very little of meaningful function.

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Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom - Kidsploiting Dreams

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Measuring The Truth Of Drama

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Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom - Kidsploiting Dreams

Quick Thoughts: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018)

Should the dinosaurs on the Jurassic World island be saved from an erupting volcano?

Fallen Kingdom is a film written by a monkey who has seemingly never pondered upon any reason for telling stories, who has such a lame grasp of the technical functions of narrative that they have managed to create something inadvertently surreal. Without establishing characters, without an attempt at editing the lax plot beats of its predecessor, Fallen Kingdom is a blur of horrible caricatures and uncanny gore - something approaching kidsploitation. Without a care for character, this has two narrative foci; firstly, this means to suggest that humans will inevitably abuse technology to their doom; secondly, with such overwhelming humanity and morality, this means to fetishise and deify the dreams of children in the form of dinosaurs. The plot: 1) the island that the dinosaurs were left on in the previous film is about to erupt, 2) the characters from the previous narrative are going to help rescue the dinosaurs with the help of some rich guy, 3) the rich guy betrays them and has invented a new evil dinosaur, 4) the good dinosaurs and main characters fight the bad dinosaurs and other rich people who want to buy them, 5) the day is saved, but all the dinosaurs, the source of all the problems in this narrative, could be sacrificed - a child prevents this from happening, unleashing a literal Jurassic World as now dinosaurs will roam wherever they please(?).

The consequence of the mindlessness of this story is found in the moronic ending, a Rise of the Planet of the Raptors that is supposed to--somehow--be cool and exciting, that is the ultimate expression of hubris in our characters - or at least would be if Fallen Kingdom cared at all to consider them even remotely representative of real people. Throughout Fallen Kingdom, we are told that dinosaurs should be saved; that dinosaurs should be protected by animal rights, but never are dinosaurs used as more than plastic toys on a child's bedroom floor. In addition to this, we are told that humans are irrevocably evil, that, no matter the good intentions of the few, there is always something equating an evil capitalist over seeing all that will turn innocent dreams into something malevolent that wealthy Asians and Russians will salivate over. Why couldn't Pandora's Box be allowed to close? It only makes sense for Fallen Kingdom to have been about sacrificing dreams, about unconsciousness that has been pushed into consciousness being allowed to slip back into the recesses. Dinosaurs are a child's dream. They are presented by this narrative as such; they always help the good guys, unless they're under the control of the baddies, and they always kill the bad guys (with what reason, I don't know). For our characters to develop, this dream needed to die. Our characters do not matter and the dream lives. So, instead, we fall into a perverse fantasy with soulless caricatures. The melodrama and the unsettlingly enthused tone of the narrative formulate an incorruptible seriousness--a stone face--despite the impossibly apparent ludicrousness of this narrative's logic. It is this that makes Fallen Kingdom surreal: surreally, ideologically stupid. This emerges, I assume, not necessarily because the literal writer, as a person and human being, is a monkey, rather, they are made to dance and hoot like one by the tentpole sure-fire that is the to-be Jurassic World 3; $187 million (aprox) budget + $1.3 billion box office = sequel. Universal, Amblin, etc. cannot let what has become a ridiculous child's dream die. They hang archetypally motherly themes above this narrative - those connected to animal rights and so on - whilst depicting the world as malevolent and innavigable. Mother's death-coddle leaves us all like the father from Step Brothers, sentamentalising over how one should never lose their dinosaur.

The technical mechanisms working underneath this sad and bastardly story are fascinating and deeply revealing of many problems in a whole swath of (melodramatic) films. I will save the technical exposition for another time, however. For now, have you seen Fallen Kingdom? What are your thoughts? I leave you also with a thought experiment (or a literal experiment you can try for yourself):

If you presented your hungry dog or cat with food and then ran throughout your house with it and tried to hide from them, would it be at all hard for your dog/cat to catch or find you?

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End Of The Week Shorts #80

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End Of The Week Shorts #80

Today's shorts: California Man (1992), Struggle In The Valley (1955), What Women Want (2000), The Holiday (2006), It's Complicated (2009), The Intern (2015), Something's Gotta Give (2003)

I grew up watching Encino Man (a.k.a California Man) and it has only gotten better. From "SHUSH!!" to "I'm the Stoney crusty dude, d'ya know that?", this has stuck in me somehow, not as the dopey stoner comedy/nonsense high school prom romance that it is kind of is, but as a series of ridiculously memorable characters and moments. Seeing this after quite some time today, however, there emerged quite a bit more. What struck me most was the construction and performance of the Encino man himself: Link. Fraser and the writers give this character an uncanny depth and humanity, which elevates the rather silly narrative about popularity and becoming ones true self to a respectable level of maturity. So, whilst this could be dismissed as nonsense, there is substance to be found in this, a film about unconscious, genuine social conduct being the pathway toward morality and some good times; a hero's journey that will see you master all realms of society equally and develop your own family.

Struggle in the Valley (a.k.a The Blazing Sun) is a classical Egyptian film from a period when Egypt's cinematic industry was the third largest in the world. This is only my third venture into Golden Age Egyptian cinema, but, though there are of course implicit problems in comparing any non-American cinema to Hollywood, the films that I have seen from this period do have a slight classical Hollywood touch - and this is most evident in Struggle In The Valley via its melodrama, romance and large, sweeping score. This tells a tale of corruption and betrayal that tests a pure and incorruptible hero archetype. It has subtle socialist and anti-system overtones that are wrapped up in more traditional ethic concerning religion and romance. This make for what you might call high-mimetic drama, which is itself a little dry (I had to watch this in sections) and not too investing. So though I cannot say I enjoyed this Struggle In The Valley much, its story stands out as strong, as does the direction and cinematography.

I remember sitting through this quite a lot when I was a kid - my mum really liked it... and so did I--just a little bit. When I was a kid, the magical element of this high concept melodrama captured my imagination. Today, however, the conceptual spectacle was less attractive to me. What makes this work is the thematic exploration of empathy and the rather unique incarnation of a hero's journey that literally, rather than symbolically, sees a masculine character try to figure out his place in a feminine world. It is this element of the film that reaches out and, whether you want it to or not, pulls you into the cushy melodrama for a good time. That said, this isn't a masterpiece. The dialogue can often be silly, our main character gets off too easily and isn't truly tested, and the depth of character can sometimes leave you wanting more. A little too sentimental and not smart enough to move into a self-reflexive mode, What Women Want is highly watchable even if it is imperfect.

The high concept is thrown in your face and you immediately know the ending... and then you realise it is 130 minutes away. Whilst I want to say that The Holiday is just too long, it needs every second of its run-time to pull something out of its characters. It starts out considerably shaky, constructing a romance about love of an unconventional character through figures who are contrived with what is supposed to be human fault, but what sometimes feels like stupidity. These characters go on predictable character arcs and in so subtle sparks of palpable humanity eventually begin to fly. Kate Winslet's performance and character is the strongest; Cameron Diaz's is the weakest. Our male side-characters are somewhat awkward and their presence imbued with often unbearable sentimentality. And the masturbatory reflections on Hollywood--simply not to my taste. The many moving parts of this narrative, whilst individually weak, do come together to form something of a cohesive hole. So, whilst this is a little inane and rather easy to let play in the background, I have to say that I didn't mind The Holiday.

Maximally cringe-inducing, awkward, laughable, immoral, contrived and human, It's Complicated is probably Meyer's most dramatologically complex film. Though unquestionably a romantic melodrama, this has hints of absurdity in it that feel inadvertently 'artistic' - 'artistic' in the sense of European art cinema; something uncanny, perturbed, non-Hollywood (maybe too Hollywood) and ever so slightly avant-garde. It's then hard to objectively confront this thematic bellow of coherent ridiculousness. Simultaneously enjoyable and detestable, I could not help but deeply empathise with certain elements of It's Complicated's narrative, whilst I was entirely disassociated from much else. One moment I'm then sentamentalising over my own experiences that certain conflicts arise in my memory and then the next I'm scoffing and sneering. Needless to say, but this was something of a ride.

I hated this when I first watched it. Running through much of Meyers' filmography before re-watching The Intern today made things so much more palatable. That doesn't mean that this is particularly good, however.

As is always the case in Meyers' films, what you are tasked to look for is humanity in messy situations. The difficulty here, however, is confronting the 'mess' - which is always presented with a thin skin of pretence, sentimentality and insipidness. Such a skin rests rather thickly upon The Intern, yet its greatest fault is the depth of complexity. Character conflicts are then rather inane and so the melodrama is inflated with a sense of inconsiquence and frivolity too contrived to be swallowed without a grimace. In total, this says and does nothing particularly noteworthy--nothing that isn't done 'better'(?) in The Holiday and It's Complicated.

Having just dedicated over 10 hours of my life to Meyers' works, I have been left quite numb. Something's Gotta Give is one of Meyers' weakest films - maybe a little better than The Intern. Nicholson initially disrupts the expected tone with a more morbid and unanimated performance. This quickly gives way. Emerging from this is one of the most nonchalant and nonsensical relationships Meyers manages to put to screen; a mother falls for her daughter's 60+ year old boyfriend. Very little time is spent on the absurdity of this predicament (which is uncharacteristic of Meyers) and so you are left with a rather nasty taste in your mouth. Much of the narrative spends time waiting for the two to come together and fall apart, never does it actively investigate the development. And all ends weakly. Where there is often a subtle question - a precarity - held over the melodramatic conclusions of Meyers' films, this ends with an unpronounced, inane feeling of happily ever after. So, as a Meyers film, this is not really up to scratch in my opinion.

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A Limousine The Colour Of Midsummer Eve - Searching For Comedy

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A Limousine The Colour Of Midsummer Eve - Searching For Comedy

Thoughts On: A Limousine The Colour Of Midsummer Eve (Limuzīns Jāņu Nakts Krāsā, 1981)

Made by Jānis Streičs, this is the Latvian film of the series.

A Limousin The Colour Of Midsummer Eve is considered to be one of the best Latvian films ever made. It is an ironic familial comedy about estranged family members converging at an elderly aunt's house after she wins the lottery. All wish to receive the aunt's new car after she dies. The narrative contrasts many worlds within the family - upper, lower classes, city and countryside dwellers, men and women, young and old, lonely and aspirational. It is from these clashings of character and theme that comedy is to emerge. However, this is where the film lost me. Edited rather chaotically, A Limousine The Colour Of Midsummer Eve seems to be working under logic that I could not at all follow; the point of each scene, the montage, the juxtaposition, the sound design, all jarring and abrupt to me. Unfortunately, all the irony that is clearly weaved into the narrative went over my head entirely, leaving some seemingly paedophilic strands of the plot more than disquieting. Such, I feel, is a risk of watching comedies in a foreign language. Whilst one can always expect to not fully get the nuances of a comedy in a language foreign to their own, for me, A Limousin The Colour Of Midsummer Eve represents an extreme case. I struggled to understand the comedy formally, thematically, dramatically and characterlogically--not just linguistically. And such left me rather bewildered - even slightly downhearted; as though I bought a highly acclaimed film that does not have subtitles

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The Ontology Of The Photographic Image - Realism

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End Of The Week Shorts #80

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The Ontology Of The Photographic Image - Realism

Thoughts On: The Ontology Of The Photographic Image (1960)

A look at some foundational ideas of a key film theorist.

In the last post, we spoke about Jean Epstein - in my opinion, one of the most respectable theorists to have written about cinema. Today, we will look at another key critic whose impact on cinema, though indirect, may be more substantial that Epstein's. The man whose ideas we will explore today is André Bazin.

Bazin never made a film. Nonetheless, he was a hugely influential film critic in France during the 40s and 50s. He came to prominence in a post-war Europe, when French cinema began to undergo incredible change with major contribution from a shifting cinematic culture around film that would culminate in the French New Wave. Bazin is best know for founding Cahiers du Cinéma and nurturing young writers who would go on to physically build the French New Wave. When Bazin then started to write about film in 1943, Jean Luc-Godard would be 13 and François Truffaut 11. As he passed away in 1958, however, the two would be concluding their short-filmmaking periods and preparing to make their first features: The 400 Blows and Breathless respectively.

It is not likely that Bazin would like the New Wave films for his taste was bound unexplicitly to a realist cinema that strayed from montage and self-reflexivity. It would be ironic, then, that he would plant the seed of auteur theory in Truffaut and co. with his belief in film as a director's personal vision - even if that director was never to be known as his film played (something the New Wave directors--Godard in particular--show almost no appreciation for). Ultimately, a reference to the New Wave is no way to understand what Bazin thought. One would be much better off studying Italian Neorealism.

What I aim to do today is condense and briefly explore one of Bazin's most foundational essays: The Ontology of the Photographic Image. Our analysis starts with the title and the key word, 'ontology'. Ontology implies a study of being, so this will be a study of the nature of photographs. It starts with a question of mummification, however. Bazin diagnoses photography as such:

If the plastic arts were put under psychoanalysis, the practice of embalming the dead might turn out to be a fundamental factor in their creation. The process might reveal that at the origin of painting and sculpture there lies a mummy complex.

Quickly we will begin to see why Bazin's writings are easy to transition to from Epstein's. Like Epstein, Bazin considers plastic art, photography and, in turn, cinema, to be dealing with life and death. Bazin focuses in on this idea not to discuss objectivity and subjectivity per se. In regards to cinema and photography, he is largely focused on objectivity via realism. He then moves on from his opening statement to draw a subtle allegory about mummification in Ancient Egypt and art; how painting took the place of biological sculpture:

Louis XIV did not have himself embalmed. He was content to survive in his portrait by Le Brun.

Whilst he sees art to be bound to realistic re-representation, Bazin is not entirely comfortable with the phenomena of art - painting - representing objective reality. He argues that 'by providing a defence against the passage of time it [mummification; art] satisfied a basic psychological need in man, for death is but the victory of time'. This--art preserving a person's image after they die--would be an objective function of art, a means of capturing reality as it is, that is not inherently virtuous.

In addition to this, Bazin suggests that art developed a further, more virtuous, function beyond psychological comforting, beyond saving man from death, and such concerned aesthetic, that which could express the subjective spirit. Art, painting, is then stabilised when the mimetic and symbolic functions described are held in balance, when paintings can both represent man, in doing so, abstract him from time, as well as express the reality of the human soul. Alas:

The need for illusion has not ceased to trouble the heart of painting since the sixteenth century. It is a purely mental need, of itself nonaesthetic, the origins of which must be sought in the proclivity of the mind towards magic.

Whilst painting was once in harmony in Bazin's view, it found itself in turmoil between the sixteenth and nineteenth century because it neglected aesthetic concerns, neglected attempting to evoke the spirit of things so it could simply re-represent reality, allowing painting to comfort man, allowing man's image to 'magically' be preserved beyond his death. I am no student of the history of art and painting, so I will not attempt to argue against an obvious generalisation of questionable veracity. Nonetheless, in face of this conundrum, Bazin makes three major points. Firstly, Picasso changed all, becoming an icon of modern art - the likes of which is aesthetically driven and often entirely disengaged with reality and realism. Second, photography subsumed painting's desire to conjure an illusion of reality. Thirdly, there is only one true kind of realism. Let us move into the meat of his thoughts with this:

The quarrel over realism in art stems from a misunderstanding, from a confusion between the aesthetic and the psychological; between true realism, the need[,] that is[,] to give significant expression to the world both concretely and its essence, and the pseudorealism of a deception aimed at fooling the eye (or for that matter the mind); a pseudorealism content in other words with illusory appearances.

It is rather difficult to understand Bazin here as, besides a short footnote about Communists and Eisenstein, he gives no examples. However, what he speaks of is a pretence, an illusion, conjuring realism for the sake of psychological comfort; seemingly, painters attempting to put people onto a canvas just as they are, without alteration, without expressing their soul, and without much reason for doing so beyond preserving their image. Where Epstein's theory of photogénie may be applicable to 17th century figure paintings, Bazin refutes all purpose and labels this kind of art pseudorealistic; obsessed with an illusion of reality and unable to capture truth in reality. Realism that captures the essence of reality - another kind of image which could be described as photogenic by Epstein - is true realism for Bazin. But, how does one distinguish one from the other? Bazin speaks about two approaches to creating realistic imagery, one that fails and one that doesn't fail to become photogenic, yet provides no ontology of the successfully realistic image.

Such would be a major weakness of Bazin's essay, a non-specificity, an inability to speak of a work's value quantitatively and qualitatively. Alas, we come to his final and most sophisticated point in the essay:

All the arts are based on the presence of man, only photography derives an advantage from his absence.

This is essential Bazinian film philosophy. Bazin loves realism. Like Malreaux, he sees 'cinema as the furthermost evolution to date of plastic realism'. It is because a filmmaker can essentially become invisible, can place a camera down on the ground, walk away and let it create art alone, that he revered the medium to the degree that he did. Bazin, on the edge of re-articulating Epstein's theory of photogénie, yearned for films to capture reality in such a way that something transcendent would emerge. He explains his views best here:

... photography ranks high in the order of surrealist creativity because it produces an image that is a reality of nature, namely, an hallucination that is also fact.

Ultimately, Bazin doesn't say anything as complicated and insightful as Epstein, at least in my view, but he is a key figure in the world of film theory whose work is worth reading. I then leave things open to you as always. Have you read any of Bazin's work? What do you think of all we've covered today?

If you're interested in reading The Ontology of the Photographic Image, follow this link.

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Approaching Epstein - Photogénie & Lyrosophie

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Approaching Epstein - Photogénie & Lyrosophie

Thoughts On: Concepts of Jean Epstein: On Certain Characteristics of Photogénie (1926) and The Lyrosophy (1922)

A look at two key ideas of Jean Epstein.

So often, I find film criticism rather tedious and reading other theorists' writing a bit of a task. There are a rare few critics/theorists that I can read and enjoy; Jean Epstein is one of these writers. French silent filmmaker, a key figure in the so-called Impressionist movement of the 20s, Epstein developed an approach to cinema that had focus on the place and character of the camera. Expressionists focused on their sets, Constructivists, their cutting. The Impressionists developed an entirely internal form of language, one that consciously sought to bring out the soul of that which found itself in the cinematic space. It was such a soul that was intended to be impressed upon the audience.

In conjuncture with his films is Epstein's writing (primarily that from the 20s), his most famous idea being photogénie, after that, lyrosophie. Photogénie was not an idea unique, nor original, to Epstein. Alas, it is his description of the phenomena in, for example, On Certain Characteristics of Photogénie, that is so impactful:

What is photogénie? I would describe as photogenic any aspect of things, beings or souls whose moral character is enhanced by filmic reproduction. And any aspect not enhanced by filmic reproduction is not photogenic, plays no part in the art of cinema.

What Epstein articulates with his idea of photogénie concerns the life and death of imagery. As the common saying goes, an image, a photograph, captures life. If we ponder upon this for a moment, however, we must come to accept that not all images have 'life' in them per se. Only certain photographs can capture the life in, say, someone's eyes. Following this logic, we cannot suggest that images come to life when played at 24 frames per second. It is only when photographs that truly manage to capture life begin to move at 24 fps do we come to a heightened, truly life-capturing form of cinema. This is what Epstein described with photogénie: only certain blocks of images could exude moral being, a soul, via filmic reproduction:

Cinema thus grants to the most frozen appearances of things and beings the greatest gift in the face of death: life. And it confers this life in its highest guise: personality.

To follow this logic fully, one must also come to grips with lyrosophie - which, admittedly, isn't nearly as well defined by Epstein (at least in the works that I have read) as photogénie. The tension in much of Epstein's writing--whether it be on photogenie, lyrosophie or any number of other things--emerges from a question of truth that is lost between the real of the subjective and objective. One of Epstein's key essays,  La Lyrosophie, then speaks much about science and the place of scientific evidence in art:

... while science demonstrates, feeling is itself the essence of the demonstration, that is to say, the pure affirmative. And if it does not succeed in being this complete affirmation, it is but an absurdity, a nullity. Science progresses; feeling is immediately everything or nothing.

The knowledge of feeling is a passion. Lyricism takes sides with everything and nothing of what it knows and leaves it indifferent, for as soon as there is knowledge in a lyrical state, instantly this knowledge is perfect - that is, it becomes love, passion, possession, and self-forgetting. Science looks for causes through the study of effects. Lyricism creates causes in proportion to effect, that is, it invents them.

Epstein's affirmations here are overwhelmingly expressive. While he does not reject scientific truth, he asks what occurs when scientific and subjective truth meet. He then suggests elsewhere in his essay that 'even if the experiment fails, you still believe that hydrogen can combine with chlorine'. With this we can recognise that, whilst Epstein seemingly exists on the edge of a philosophy of pure relativism - each individual having their own perception dictating the nature of truth (which is itself inevitably malleable and subject to subjectivity) - there is a more complex network of ideas at work. Relativism has a tendency to destroy all notions of absolute truth. Epstein disrupts and then relocates absolute truth. We then may have a scientific truth at hand: hydrogen can combine with chlorine. Subjective experience, an experiment conducted in our kitchen, may imply that hydrogen cannot combine with chlorine. In face of this subjective experience, one would not readily declare that scientific truth has failed; rather, the experiment failed. (Further testing would ensue at this point). So, whilst subjective truth may not destroy scientific truth, for Epstein, scientific truth isn't necessary absolute truth. Absolute truth emerges only when perceptual truth aligns with scientific truth; there must be some kind of resonance between the subjective and the objective for truth to be felt, to be received as truly true. This phenomena is termed lyrosophy by Epstein; lyro meaning lyric, sophy meaning knowledge. This is when 'science enters a lyrical state' and we feel reason, sense logic and experience knowledge. Let us then look again at this:

Science looks for causes through the study of effects. Lyricism creates causes in proportion to effect, that is, it invents them.

Science is dead until it is brought to life via investigation. This animating process would involve a scientist seeing a flower bloom, studying it, and then learning how to describe the process: cause discovered through a study of effects. The life that comes out of such a scientific approach would concern something such as the beauty or eloquence of an equation or of realisation. Art follows an entirely different path of mimesis. An artist would then aim to present the beauty of a flower's existence in a way reveals the complexity of the fact that it is blooming. Here art has a transcendent life that reveals mechanisms in reality. The difference between art and science is not necessarily qualitative; the beauty of poetry and an equation need not be compared. What is of interest is the function of fantasy and imagination. When knowledge falls into fantasy or imagination or when fantasy and imagining reveals knowledge, there emerges lyrosophy. Lyrosophy can come from science, but Epstein suggests that science dies before lyrosophy emerges. On the other hand, lyrosophy seems to be an inherent quality of what Epstein considers art.

If we combine our rudimentary understanding of both photogénie and lyrosophie, we can begin understand some of Epstein's major contributions to film theory. Epstein dealt with cinema as a window towards something lofty and absolute; it was a mechanism that transcended reality, allowing the objective visions of the world to merge with the subjective processings of humanity via poetry (creation). Artistic cinema, the cinema Epstein seemingly loved, existed in a lyrosophical mode. It allowed greater truth to emerge from the collision of objective material and subjective perception. The result of this collision is a feeling of great profundity, it is the ecstatic experience of knowledge itself. The process by which this occurs is described by the phenomena of photogénie. Photogenic images are those which bring the objectiveness of imagery to life, open up reality and materiality to something transcendent, something estimating moral being and personality. Photogénie then becomes a wormhole through the realm of lyrosophy; the experience of art is the movement through the lyrosophic space via the path of photogénie.

Such concludes our brief look at a filmmaker who wrote from love, a love of cinema and experiencing film, a theorist, one of the few who tried to express why we should all love film with seriousness and conviction. I end by turning to you. Have you read anything by Jean Epstein? How would you summarise some of his work and what are your thoughts on all we've covered today?

If you are interested in reading more from Epstein, the book collecting his work that I am reading through can be found here.

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End Of The Week Shorts #79

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The Ontology Of The Photographic Image - Realism

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End Of The Week Shorts #79

Today's shorts: The Land Before Time (1988), Sausage Party (2016), Boles (2013), Top Gun (1886), The Birth Of A Nation (1915), Casablanca (1942), Christina P: Mother Inferior (2016), Coraline (2009)

How beautiful that it is that a story--told perfectly--from a land before time is a story of the ever-present moment, of an unending, cyclical movement between abjection and hope traversed through courage and unity. And what a brilliant story to be raised on, to visit again today.

Told with a rare degree of pictorial harmony, characters that exude personality, drama that balances symbolic action, pathos, tragedy and heroism and a poignantly intense sense of adventure, The Land Before Time is a masterpiece in the realm of the family film. So simple, so touching, this is almost impossible to fault. If anything, this should be a film that endures for many decades more.

I got about halfway through before abandoning Sausage Party, so this review shouldn't count for much, but the sexual humour is incredibly childish whilst the animation is ok, the voice performances mediocre and the script wobbly. Seth Rogan and co seem to be in a similar realm to Adam Sandler and his Happy Maddison group in that both make comedic films with the same group of people that formulate their own genre whose comedy is often self -reflexive. This so often means that the film - whether it be This Is The End, Grown Ups, That's My Boy or this - seems to have been more fun to have made for the creators than it is for the audiences to watch. Furthermore, this leaves most jokes feeling like inside ones that audiences are somewhat awkwardly let in on. The end product is a little like looking in on skits that young teenagers made whilst having a laugh.

A quaint short film about a writer's block, Boles essentially deals with a writer who lacks inspiration, who has no reason to write anything. He seems to find this when a prostitute who lives in the same building as him (whom he also sometimes spies on) asks him to write a letter to her finance for her. He struggles at first, seemingly wrestling with his own perception of the woman, but moving past his projections, moving into the complexity of a real person and confronting her humanity, the writer finds a way to write again. In completing the letter, however, he comes to realise that the prostitute never was - which emphasises the necessity for a psychological reading of the story, one with links maybe to some kind of archetypal distortion or possession.

Short and visually rewarding, this is a story told rather well and with simple means. Worth finding and viewing.

I have seen Top Gun more times than I can count, and I can't say that it has got better as I've aged.

The characters have become far more shallow in my perception and, to this day, despite seeing this at least 20 times, I still don't really understand the plot as it unfolds. Maybe that is just my attention failing me. That said, I can appreciate the cinematography, especially in the opening and scenes like it; the exploitation of a rising/setting sun, of cloud, smog, fire-breathing engines and more conjures such sumptuous imagery, the atmosphere of so many shots thick and almost palpable. And the aerial combat scenes--emphasis on sound design and direction--brilliant. I have no idea how these were put on to film as well as they have been; the illusion of continuity is not perfect, but it has its effect. On the whole, however, this just feels silly and empty and so I can't say I particularly enjoyed it too much this time around.

What a joy it is to re-watch The Birth of a Nation.

I cannot say that Griffith's so-called masterpiece impresses me much; I'm far more impressed by his earlier chase films, such as The Lonedale Operator, and his later melodramas, such as True Heart Susie. The Birth of a Nation sits in between these two periods in Griffith's career quite awkwardly. The Lonedal Operator shows a sophisticated sense of time and cross-cutting (Birth improves upon this, it must be said, but not very much). True Heart Susie shows Griffith utilising his sentimental approach to narrative to a far less insidious, more character-based and, arguably, more photogénic, manner - Birth is pretty much devoid of the latter two elements. Without a focus on character and without a narrative of much substance (ethical or otherwise) Birth feels to me to be an achievement in scale significantly less impressive and groundbreaking than both Pastrone's Cabiria and Griffith's own Intolerance. I can then only question the legitimacy of Birth's place in film history.

What makes a movie a classic? When it comes to Casablanca, I can only empathise with Ingrid Bergman and say... I don't really know.

The cinematography is excellent, the script isn't bad, the performances are ok, the characters are fine--objectively, this isn't particularly great. In describing the phenomena of Casablanca's fame, an Italian critic has said that "Two clichés make us laugh. A hundred clichés move us". The rather cynical and disinterested part of me wants only to agree with this assessment. Casablanca never meant much to me; I can only care for it as an Ingrid Bergman picture, but, her character, whilst the harbinger of the most complex drama, is left to the side and ignored so that Bogart can sulk because the screenwriter is withholding exposition. The sentimentality, the romance, the politics, the apathy, the stoicism... not for me.

Every time I watch a new stand-up special, I feel like I am losing my sense of humour. Maybe I'm too familiar with the stand-up comedy of these days, maybe there's too much of it out there, maybe joy has escaped me, maybe there's not much good comedy being staged. All I know is that, whilst I was amused, I didn't laugh - and it's been quite a while since I have.

Coraline has a brilliantly multi-layered narrative with a plethora of psychoanalytical elements about a coming of age; a girl moving into puberty, becoming aware of boys, yet having childish naivety call her back towards an opened-armed mother - one that is not anymore. There is then a sadness in this film - a remorseful look back upon one's tangible childhood that has just passed them by and will never be seen again - that is overlaid with horror and comedy. I would be fascinated to see this movie try to empathise with Coraline on this more remorseful, naively melancholic front instead of only engaging her with heroic expectations. That said, whilst more may have been explored with this film, what has found its way to screen is purely ingenious. Much has to do with Neil Gaiman's original story, but its condensation and visualisation is astounding. A joy to re-watch and a film that always ends before I'd like it to.

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Top Gun - Contrivance: Manipulative Soundtracks & Literal Melodrama

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Approaching Epstein - Photogénie & Lyrosophie

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Blog/DSU News

Summer is over. My schedule has shifted. It's time to try and get back on track with some blog material. I am working again on the Every Year In Film series, and am hoping to continue on to 1916 soon (within the next two weeks) with a look into the emergence of American cinema in the mid-1910s. The World Cinema Series, as some would have noticed, hit a hitch, but is back on track.

There hasn't been much from The DSU in quite a while. My plans with the screenplays have shifted slightly with a few projects floating in the air. I am not sure what direction I will go in with things, but when they are under way, I will let you know. Currently, I'm working on a short story that may just find its way onto the blog - that, however, is also to be decided.

If anyone follows me on Letterboxd or enjoys the End of the Week Shorts, they may have noticed that one of the lists that determine what will appear in the shorts - I Have Become Cinephile, Destroyer Of Lists - has changed. I hope to focus for a while on African cinema and the list I have chosen selects a lot from the Egyptian cinema of the 50s, so look forward to some reviews of that sort.

It has been quite some time since the last piece of blog news, so I thought I'd reach out to you with some updates and plans. Thanks for reading.


Top Gun - Contrivance: Manipulative Soundtracks & Literal Melodrama

Thoughts On: Top Gun (1986) & Manipulative Scores/Soundtracks

A look into contrivance in cinema, how audiences receive it and how it shapes a cinematic space.

Whilst much could be said about Top Gun as a genre film and an 80s film that sits in a strange post-New Hollywood space (the 60s and 70s being a world apart from the 80s and 90s in Hollywood in so many respects), today we are going to use this film as an example of a musically lead melodrama. This kind of film has been a key part of cinema since the coming of sound, one of the greatest examples coming from the late 30s via Gone With The Wind. In the likes of Gone With The Wind, the musical score or, as in Top Gun, the soundtrack, becomes a dominant force in the cinematic space - or rather, above the diegesis and so on the periphery of the cinematic space. In a variety of ways, these films demonstrate how music can 'manipulate' an audience. However, what exactly does this mean? This is our question for today: what is the impact of a manipulative score or soundtrack on a cinematic space?

To confront this question, we must place drama at the centre of our discussion. A cinematic space is made to move, is given time, by actions and conflicts. In art, in narrative, in cinema, action and conflict are the epitome of drama. To ask how an active slot of cinematic spacetime is manipulated by music, we must then specify with reference to drama. After all, we are all more than familiar with the place and purpose of a dominant score. When a character is sad, the score emphasises this, when they are angered, questioning, lost, scared, anything, the score sweeps in to heighten their emotion, to make palpable their inner thoughts, to physicalise the conflict and drama at hand; a quasi, some would say lazy, form of expressionism. In some cases, the lyrics of a song may even provide exposition of some sort, revealing the inner questions of character or the themes being explored. If we turn to Top Gun, we have a great example of this in Kenny Loggins' Danger Zone:

Top Gun (maybe rightly so - and quite like thousands of Hollywood films like it) is surrounded by a somewhat indifferent attitude that treats the film's narrative as meaningless spectacle, the comedy, romance and maybe characters the only aspects of substance thanks to their ability to entertain. Alas, as Loggins' song makes clear, this does have some meaning underlying it. Top Gun essentially deals with the ideal man in the ideal state - that being a hero in a danger zone. The danger zone is the place anyone who seeks greatness must venture in to, and Top Gun essentially deals with the effects of travelling into this place. We may argue that all hero narratives have this sentiment in them to some degree with stakes raising to their highest at the point that a hero must truly prove himself. Let us not stray, however.

What we discover with Loggins' rather horrible music video - which strangely imitates Apocalypse Now, a war film that is a world apart from Top Gun - is that Top Gun is not necessarily a meaningless film, nor a film constructed without intention and theme. The illusion that is conjured by the music layered onto scenes is the implication that this narrative has no meaning to speak on - thus it becomes an agent of simplification.

If we think about this on the level of character and drama, we come upon something troubling. Is it really that dominant musical scores manipulate the emotions of audiences, or do they create an illusion of emotion about characters? This is a very important distinction to make. The idea of a musical score manipulating an audience is a very vague one to me. I cannot imagine how to formulate or conceptualise this. With what does a musical score manipulate an audience? The answer would lead one towards assertions of association. A soundtrack may carry its own emotional meaning that, though it is separate from the narrative, is combined--associated--with it via sound-montage. The audience is, one could say, tricked here, but to be more specific, we could suggest that the score attempts to create an illusion of emotion around characters and drama, to represent the essence of the narrative moment with external material. In essence, the cinematic space does not carry emotion and symbolic material of great expression itself, a song does; we are not ambiguously 'manipulated', instead, the cinematic space is built with non-diegetic material.

With that outlined, we come to a problem. Is all non- or extra-diegetic material unwelcome in the cinematic space? One could make a good argument for 'yes' here. V.O is so often deplored in film and so are opening texts - just as much as dominant scores are. There then seems to be a common expectation in audiences that story will emerge from the diegesis, from characters within the physical world of a film. Alas, why? Why do we not like non-diegetic material being used 'too much' to tell a story on screen?

In my estimation, the problem with dominant non-diegetic elements concerns contrivance. Without music, V.O or opening text, an editor/writer/composer pretty much evaporates from a film and we are left alone with our performers, who, if they perform well, will only be perceived as their characters. This preservation of fantasy and illusion allows for simple, high quality communication through the artistic medium thanks to unbroken boundaries. When watching a film, one merely needs to pay attention to the rules of the world. In a melodrama, rules are a little like gravity: you don't need an equation to feel it. In more complex, arthouse films, one can often feel the need for someone to explain why this particular kind of gravity exists. And this can often be because we feel the presence of an auteur shaping a cinematic space with complex rules that require questioning. To break the continuity of a melodrama with non-diegetic material can re-introduce the filmmakers into question and so something is sullied; suddenly we must acknowledge the fact that film is made, that story is an illusion, and so we lose sight of the story and we are taken too far from it to feel anything - almost as if a melodrama's aura has a smaller radius than an art film's.

Let us stop before we fall too far into this exploration of why the non-diegetic is often disliked. We must ask who dislikes the non-diegetic. If we use Top Gun as our example, we can see that, whilst critics generally didn't care too much for it, audiences did. And a big part of this was the film's two incredibly popular original songs, Danger Zone and Take My Breath Away. We must now then contradict our pre-suppositions: do audiences really make value judgements based on the dominance of the non-diegetic?

It is difficult to tell. However, maybe it is reasonable to suggest that critics are sensitive to contrivance whereas general audience aren't necessarily. The massive success of so many 70s, 80s and 90s films with equally successful soundtracks is a testament to this. And such begins to suggest that a cinematic space with clear rules and explicit boundaries (an unbroken fourth wall for instance) isn't necessarily conducive of higher quality communication via art. We must then re-evaluate how we judge contrivance. And so we come back to drama.

Top Gun is a melodrama. What makes it melodramatic is its handling of reality. In short, melodramas orchestrate a reality; they present reality musically: contrived. To be specific, as specificity will really matter shortly, melodramas do not make up their own reality. Instead, melodramas present reality with a set of assumptions that manifest as stereotypes, archetypes and tropes. This makes melodramas foundationally 'unreal', however, the unreality of melodramas is predicated on what one might call a distilled or simplified vision of reality. Melodrama is easy to recognise with a simple question: Is this real, or is this what I assume things could be like?

If we apply this question to Top Gun, we quickly come to realise why it is melodramatic. Are we convinced that air force pilots act exactly as those in Top Gun do? Or, do we assume, given the little we know about fighter pilots, that Top Gun presents a simplified, distilled and heightened representation of real fighter pilots? I am more than inclined to assume the latter. And in assuming that the filmmakers behind Top Gun worked with stereotype and upon a set of personal assumptions, we can come to find greater truth in the Hollywood melodrama.

Tarantino is probably one of the greatest melodramatists simply for the fact that he seems to be the purest. Through Tarantino's films there is a very strong sense that not only is everything to do with his cinematic space based off of stereotype and trope, but that the logic underlying all of his films is not based in the real world, but in the world of movies. Thus, Tarantino is always, and rather consciously, making movies about movies; a gangster movie not about real gangsters as Scorsese would endeavour to, but a gangster movie about the only kind of gangsters Tarantino would have come into contact with: those on the silver screen. This melodramatic basis in the unreal gives films constructed under this mode, such as Top Gun, a characteristic naivety that doubles as a quasi-ideology: an often unconscious set of presuppositions about the real world. In my belief, audiences are attracted to this and may even find pleasure or entertainment in it.

Whilst I would not argue, like Slavoj Žižek does, that cinema tells us what we should desire, I would suggest that cinema, in addition to providing desires, massages and plays with pre-existent desires or yearnings in our sub-conscious. Melodramas formulate a mode of cinema that is built on unreal presumption and that appeals to audience's unreal presumptions. Under this unscientific investigation of the world through our own biases, I am confident there is some truth (albeit distorted and masked from ourselves). In Top Gun, the truth presented would be attached to the discussed thematic meaning in the narrative - that concerning the hero living on the edge of destruction, in the danger zone, as to become the best: the ideal. This truth is put through an aesthetic and stylistic grinder and dramatised by stereotypical personas, but it is nonetheless accessible. Alas, this is not what we are interested in. It is not important that melodrama brings truthful representation into question, but rather, that engaging what could be truthless representation is a source of either pleasure or discomfort for audiences.

Here, we make our return to non-diegetic material. Those who recognise and/or dislike soundtracks that are 'manipulative', for some reason or another, are negatively perturbed by unreal representations, or at least, representations of the world that aren't trying to mask their own contrivance. (I suspect that many critics who dislike melodrama, decry high concept cinema and bemoan manipulation, merely have the ability to recognise this contrivance and have not questioned its place in cinema, and have rather contrived for themselves an emotional and psuedo-intellectual response to it). On the other hand, those who cannot recognise and/or like manipulative soundtracks and scores are clearly left in comfort in a contrived world based on presuppositions they may just share - or have accepted from film.

Much more could be said about this subject, and indeed it cries out to be outlined more concisely, but, let us not get lost. Let us instead come to the conclusion that dominant non-diegetic material such as a song falls into the mode of melodrama rather comfortably. Melodrama, as we have said, makes music out of reality. To have music drive melodrama in a film like Top Gun leaves us with a literal melodrama, a musical 'musical drama'. Here contrivance is doubled-down upon. Not only is this kind of film made for audiences who are to have the same unreal set of presuppositions about the world as the film does, but the audience is also supposed to be comfortable with the illusion that is cinema. In this sense, once could argue that what snobbish critics may refer to as stupid, trashy films are often made for more sophisticated audiences, those that can very easily accept that a film is a film and can operate and receive emotion from a meta-textual piece of melodrama--can embrace the 'melodramatically meta' cinematic space. Granted, this meta cinematic space isn't likely accepted consciously by the majority of those that enjoy Top Gun. Instead, audiences who enjoy the likes of Top Gun are naturally, subconsciously comfortable with a contrived presentation of an inherently contrived piece of art; if a film is just a film, why should a filmmaker worry about damaging the sanctity of the cinematic space with heightening elements such as hyper-expressive soundtracks? What matters most is impact. Truth is given, it is assumed; narrative is known, it cannot be taught; cinema must affect, it can only intensify its ability to do so. It is for this perspective that the likes of Top Gun and other literal melodramas exist.

We will bring things towards a close now as we are approaching a topic I have tried to explore before: Bastard Cinema. Implicit in this perspective of film as just film is the assumption that film has lost its magic, that practically all the stories have been told, and that new experiences can be streamlined and heightened if filmmakers also embraced such facts. It is from this perspective, which, in my view, really starts to flourish in the 60s, that cinemas such as Michael Bay's have emerged. So, there is much more to be said about contrivance and its impact on drama and the cinematic space. But, for now, what are your thoughts on music's effect on melodrama?

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