Thoughts On: 2020

25/02/2020

The Last Black Man in San Francisco - See & Feel

Quick Thoughts: The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019)

Two friends attempt to reclaim an old home.


I went into The Last Black Man in San Francisco hopefully, but without a clue as to what the film was about. At first, I thought this would be similar to 2018's Sorry To Bother You. And whilst both share similar traits - a focus on racial politics from a black-American perspective dramatised uncannily and with traces of absurdist sci-fi - the films are highly distinct from one another. Where Sorry To Bother You interrogates thought and motive, testing its character from an exterior position, The Last Black Man in San Francisco wholly moves into its character's psychology. Such is what lends this its queerness, but is maybe the most difficult aspect of this film. As we see this carefully cultivated world as our two main character do, we come to understand that they struggle with attachment and self-identification. However, their neuroses and strangeness are never fully integrated into the logic of the film, which is to say that we never come to understand the full relationship between character psychology and world. To expand slightly, this is about a man who believes his grandfather built a grand townhouse in the upper-class heart of San Francisco, and that his family has a birth-right to it. This is then a film about attachment, but quickly it becomes apparent that this attachment is not healthy, nor particularly sane. Alas, the strangeness of our main character's attachment is never properly addressed. There is then no moment in which his reality truly shatters. So though his perspective shifts over the course of the film, I did not find the dramatisation and representation of the world shift in agreement with this. Such cultivated a slightly incongruous tone that alienates rather than pulls you into the narrative's complexities and mysteries. What is more, the lack of clarity does not allow the full humanity of our main character to be expressed. Therefore, his cathartic transformations fail to exude anything of proper potency.

With all that said, I found The Last Black Man in San Francisco to be an intriguing film. I see in it much that could be re-evaluated and closer observed in a re-watch. But, following this first watch, I have to admit problems in the relationship between character, world, tone and perspective that left me somewhat unengaged by the film.


20/02/2020

Art's Direction of the Will

Thoughts On: Art & Will

A consideration of art as something that possesses the body and mind.


Is art merely a distraction? What if we were to argue that it not only is, but that such is one of its major functional attributes...

I open with the idea of a distraction as this is the easiest way into this concept. We have all needed to leave home to go to work, school, to meet a friend, go shopping, etc - and been stuck in front of a screen, unable to pull ourselves away from a good movie. Similarly, we have all put on a movie - or more commonly, music - in the background whilst we work or study. How about the commute to work, the house chores, exercise: art so often curtails the pain of enduring these activities, and in some cases makes them enjoyable. We go to concerts, clubs, theatres, cinemas and more to be lost in art. It is no coincidence that food, alcohol and other drugs are so closely intertwined with these events of mass distraction. Art, like various substances, redirects and overcomes the will. Art, like various substances, possess conscious intent.

I do not know what will is. In my best estimation, it is an illusion of consciousness and that faction of the human mind that believes things can be known. Furthermore, the will is a recognition of consciousness's influence over unconscious processes. At once, the will is the ability to think and then throw a stone from a bridge and the illusion that one could understand completely the impact that stone will have when it hits the water.

As art functions, it takes primary influence over the unconscious mechanisms of the body: it moves our limbs, stirs thought and conjures emotion. What is more, it may have us believe we understand - what depends on the object of attention of the work of art. This is what it means for art to take possession of you and redirect the will. We wish to relinquish control of bodily function and to be provided a certain reality, cognition, meaning or understanding by that which is not our self.

This may all sound rather insidious. And what's more, I could just as easily be speaking of aforementioned substances here in place of art: food, alcohol and other drugs. But, the deeper this is pondered, the more it seems to be part of the human spirit and way of things. Human experience consists of the transformation of the self via the submission of the body and senses. One gives themselves to life as to live. The process is at once entropic and transformative. We die and become new people as we move through life; we test the body's reaction to stimuli and attempt to, firstly, internalise and retain this as knowledge, and secondly, allow it to change the mind and body. Art is but one way of doing this. This is why cinemas are designed to dissolve the personal, conscious sense of self and body. We sit in dark, warm, comfortable rooms; our body is suspended in ambiguous numbness, we see only that which is projected onto a screen and are not allowed to speak, only react as the movie allows us to. In the cinema, we become who we are told, we feel as we are told to. This is why we go; we do not know who we should be - we never can - so, why not sample the flavours of self.

What is so fascinating about art is that it is not a wholly deterministic entity. Movies do not make us who we are truly; we are not singularly products of our experience. There are more worlds that we understand. Worlds have will, and in such, they have a sensitivity to self and other. Worlds overlap all the time; the worlds of strangers, of the archetypes; worlds of history, physical possibility and the elements. The history of the relationship between worlds leads back to Tao. This is what we abstractly and indirectly experience and enact with will. We are a unique transformation distinguished from all that has been, and simultaneously are no different from any possibility. Such is why our being transcends experience. We at once embody a history of inestimable transformations that are solidified as ourselves when we are born, and then continue to transform as we live. Art contributes in the ongoing process of the universal solidification and transformation of matter and energy. When we feel possessed by art, distracted, our will redirected, Tao touches us from afar. This is how it does its work.

What does all of this mean? It means nothing more than what is. The meaning of existence rests in a cradle of sensation and thought. It is limited to infinite transformation. There is nothing to be found below this. We may only follow the path - it is only part of us that walks anyway. What does not walk makes up the road.



19/02/2020

Toy Story 4 - Expanding/Deepening Franchises

Thoughts On: Toy Story 4 (2019)

Woody, no longer a favourite toy, tries to do what is best by Bonnie, yet gets lost along the way.


It took me a long time to sit down and watch Toy Story 4. In the last 4 years, 4 of Pixar's 5 feature-length releases have been sequels. Since 2016, the studio has produced Coco, and then Cars 3, Finding Dory, Incredibles 2 and Toy Story 4. It is hard to come to a conclusion, but the question is very apparent: is this good or bad?

I am yet to see Finding Dory in full, but, I would actually say that Coco is maybe the least impressive Pixar film of the last 4 years. That is to fundamentally say that the sequels are not poor in quality. Such may be a bold statement, but, even Cars 3 was a solid film. Pixar do not know how to make bad films. My grievances with Coco come from its tone; this feels, to me - especially following some unwanted re-watching - to be a slightly disingenuous film concerned more with the creation of a world and the cultivation of a child archetype to become possessed by than anything. What is more, the triteness of its musicality and the spectacle of aesthetics are somewhat dull. That said, the story of Coco holds its own - and, of course, this is an original feature - so maybe it exists on the same level as Cars 3. The debate is not very important.

We may establish the fact that Pixar sequels are not bad. Nonetheless, there is a pressing question: are they necessary? Maybe the most damming aspect of the Cars franchise concerns how pointless it appears. The depth of characterisation in all of the Cars films and shorts is easy to criticise. And though we appear to be in an age of the series and the embrace of the infinite narrative, this pointlessness compounds with the advertisement of every new sequel. There is, too, the exasperating sewage pipe splurging from the ass-end of Disney a constant, putrid stream of live action re-makes. With the explosion of Disney live-action remakes - none of which are good, nor justifiable at present (time may change things) - the increase of Pixar sequels feels more worrying than it maybe should be. Such, at least, is what Toy Story 4 indicates.

Toy Story 3 stands out in the Toy Story franchise as a film that cannot exist without its predecessors. Its ultimate goal is an exploration and evocation of mortality: the death and transformation of childhood. This drama is centred entirely on emotion and sentimentality, therefore, an attachment to and knowledge of the two previous features. This aspect of the third film in the franchise can be read positively or negatively. On the one hand, we see Pixar returning to the same well to evoke sentiment in their audience by simply pointing at their previous successes. But, on the other hand, we see the development of character and narrative to a deeper level of drama. Here is the fundamental debate at hand when we consider this new trend of sequels in Pixar. Are these sequels developing greater, deeper narratives, or are they merely expanding a franchise. With Toy Story 3, I leaned toward the latter. Toy Story 4 presents greater complication.

Like 3, Toy Story 4 relies on its predecessor as to be comprehensible. However, it returns to a central thematic hub of the franchise - which concerns individuation. Toy Story 1 was about jealousy; 2, community; 3, mortality; 4, freedom. Toy Story 1, 2 and 4 all require transformations of character. Toy Story 3, however, is more so about acceptance - it felt like the natural end to the franchise. Toy Story 4 successfully reopens the gates by following its main character further along a journey toward individuation; of not only accepting his life, but living it. This activity and engagement of transformation invigorates Toy Story 4 with more than sentiment, and so I see this film as more of a success than 3. In such, it deepens the franchise instead of merely expanding it.

The picture is then complicated. Toy Story 4 seems to be a substantial addition to the franchise, but, this is not a universal phenomenon for Pixar. This brings me back to the apprehension I confessed as we started. What are we to expect from Pixar next? Are they going to continue to deepen their franchises through substantial narratives? Or, will we see more quality products that maybe only need to be seen once?


18/02/2020

Birds of Prey - Worlds of Character?

Thoughts On: Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn, 2020)

Quinn leaves Joker, and so it is open season.


I recently re-watched Wonder Woman, and it is through what is easily considered DC's best film to date that you can see glimmers of where the studio can go. Wonder Woman worked because it captured a character well and invited us into her perception. As a result, her world view becomes a world building tool. Birds of Prey seemed promising to me because it doubled down on this structural approach. This is a film that detaches Harley Quinn from the Joker so that her composition as a character can be explored. This exploration is left in the hands of Harley herself as an unreliable narrator of sorts. It is through this set-up and narrative approach that we are pulled into the world of Harley Quinn. Phillip's Joker - which is not necessarily a DC film - did this with stupendous success. We were pulled into a character's psyche and made to see the world as they did. Oscillating between an objective position and a subjective perspective, spectators immersed in Joker see profound meaning emanate from an attempt to understand character and the impact of their will on their world. Does Birds of Prey achieve anything comparable?

The answer to this is a yes and no. Birds of Prey falls into a character's psychology, but it trivialises its drama to a significant degree, using Quinn's mental instability and moral incredulity as a source of melodrama. Joker is a realist typhlodrama, Birds of Prey is an expressionist morodrama. The two share certain narrative techniques and both films' logic are defined by character psychology, but there are many conventional and modal differences that impact the quality of meaning that either film can potentially evoke. Joker is primed for affect; it means to rattle and shock. Birds of Prey lacks the seriousness to explicitly and directly do this. This is a film of queer pleasures; like a Scorsese gangster flick, this aims to reveal the ecstasies of immorality and move into an anti-hero's world. The results of this are appeasing but maybe a little lukewarm. The world we fall into in Birds of Prey is an amusing one, but, as you maybe expect, there is not much to learn there. We see and experience a side of Quinn that we hope to, but gain little of real substance from this. As a result, Birds of Prey is likely not as good as Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman had more heart and depth; Birds of Prey simply doesn't feel particularly substantial. It is funny and immersive, however. In total, then, this is worthwhile and has me interested in the new Wonder Woman.


17/02/2020

Shorts #109

Shorts: Edge of Tomorrow (2014), 13 Hours (2016), Cache (2005), A Night at the Opera (1935), Underwater (2020), Our Hospitality (1923), Wonder Woman (2017), Queen & Slim (2019)



Edge of Tomorrow is still as unexpectedly impressive as it was when I first saw it in cinemas. What makes this work so well is its unique concept and its production of a sentimental character capable of securing genuine comic moments. So whilst this leaves you wanting to know more about how organic matter can control spacetime and separate consciousness from said elements, Edge of Tomorrow does arrest you in affective, interesting drama. Cruise is great in this less serious, less noble, incarnation of a familiar character type he is often cast as. Blunt, too, is great. The script is structured incredibly well; and the spectacle is immersive. Edge of Tomorrow is easily slept on, but unquestionably good.



I cannot remember finishing 13 Hours - I fell asleep at some point the night I watched it. But, I still feel an unambiguous lack of bother to figure this out and return to the film. I can get down with a Michael Bay melodrama, but, this - a semi-realist configuration of the Bay drama and aesthetic - I haven't much patience for. Without exuberant excess and ridiculously boisterous, half-articulate symbolism, Bay's drama and aesthetic is left with its conventional crutches and an awkward political discourse I do not care to try and navigate through. 13 Hours is filled with weak characters, cliche and highly questionable representation. It is too conscious and too serious to be acceptable as a Bay production. I just didn't know what to do with this as I watched it.



Haneke's Cache, or Hidden, is as simple as it is dense. It has very few moving parts, but uses these in such a kaleidoscopic manner that they fractalise one another, constructing an ambiguous hall of mirrors. So much of Cache is concerned with the internalisation and processing of one's impact on the world and moral responsibility. The film subtly teases out of its audience an array of assumptions without ever confirming them, thus imposing back onto the spectator a question of their own associations. Take, for example, the film's subtle evocation of class and racial guilt. Do we see this as a post-colonial exploration of race-relations - prejudice, xenophobia, etc - in Paris as a result? Or, does this merely present such elements - peoples of certain races - that we cannot help but internalise and allow to awaken our conscience? Whose conscience and what conscience: Cache's conundrum.



A scintillating spectacle of smarts and silliness that stands out of the Marx brothers' filmography as maybe their most spectacular and expansive feature. How are you to speak of such an anarchic comedy? It is hilarious and rousing, but how and why? A Night at the Opera breaks its own logic as it constructs it. Like a cartoon character laying train track whilst they sit atop of run-away locomotive, this meanders through drama of intermittent intelligibility. But, as soon as plot points begin to resonate, they are solidified by illogic and silliness: everyone is trying to get a contract signed, but each time the topic is approached a gag of complete illogic destroys its intelligible place in the structure of narrative. Such is what makes A Night at the Opera so good. It is a pure comedy in that it constructs and deconstructs convention at a rate that is impossible to make sense of, but can somehow be followed.



Underwater is a mediocre and very familiar sci-fi adventure. It does nothing new with the monster in the house, lost in space, narrative form. Its monsters are ugly and uninteresting, its characters are mere caricatures subservient to a plot and spectacle that does not register as particularly affective. You cannot call this at all incompetent in any respect - it just isn't particularly original. Maybe the epitome of the mundane, Underwater isn't worth much to anyone familiar with this genre of film.



Our Hospitality presents a smart take on a romantic plot line regurgitated innumerable times in the genre. It heartedly resolves hatred with love, masking all true conflict with comedy that lambastes and sublimates the reality attached to its mimesis. There is nothing particularly special in this beyond Keaton's star persona. Such frames Our Hospitality as one of the actor-director's lesser films as this does not feel as inventive and ingenious as the likes of Sherlock Holmes jrn, One Week and The General. Chaplin may have been the better storyteller, Keaton the better technical filmmaker, but here Keaton doesn't revel in what he thrives in: the technical gag and smart stunt. Such comes in small bursts, but leaves one yearning for greater set-pieces and a more elaborate plot. That said, Our Hospitality has survived almost 100 years of film history, and is still worth watching.



Wonder Woman is just as I remembered it to be. The first 30 minutes are terrible, but as soon as Wonder Woman's character is cultivated through her relationship and movement into war, this film wakes up. DC are starting to understand what they are good at. Marvel can do the world building and can generate a vast narrative rife with symbols and sentimentality. DC have personalities. They have archetypes that can define worlds and energise an aesthetic experience of their perception of things. What DC cannot do is work within the confines of a coherent dramatic mode. Their usage of degrees of realism and seriousness is poison - it ruins their films. Unreal and subsumed in subjectivity, the DC film begins to work. All they need to do is continue to figure out their characters - that's it.



Queen & Slim is a very evocative piece of cinema. It consciously produces a sprawling and powerful invective discourse on the black American experience. This discourse is not simple and it does not resolve itself. There are many ambiguous and open ends left in this narrative. Maybe the most affecting emerges from a scene in which montage juxtaposes a sexual encounter and fatal protest. The two events are correlated and imbued with highly sensationalised sentiment, but their causal relationship and its ramifications are entirely subsumed in darkness. What does it mean that passionate protest causes violent destruction? This is the crux of Queen & Sim's discourse. It is challenging to engage and difficult to process, but this is a film that undoubtedly puts a lot into your hands.



16/02/2020

1917 - Aesthetic & Drama

Thoughts On: 1917 (2019)

Two soldiers must reach a battalion about to run into an ambush.


I have seen 1917 twice in the cinema now, and it has only become more abundantly clear that this is a truly special work of such incredible technical brilliance. What I did not anticipate from 1917 was its poetic expression and magisterial ability to articulate concisely and directly thematic and aesthetic points of interest. If we look to 'one-shot' films such as Rope, Birdman and Russian Ark, we find examples of visual and technical spectacle concerned with form's ability to capture material diegesis. That is to say that the spectacle of these respective films stems from the impressive presentation of what is within the frame. For example, Birdman is filled with shots, moments and performances that are designed so that the audience questions - how did they capture that? Russian Ark and Rope, too, centralise choreography - both that of the camera and performers: blocking. Russian Ark does so to access an ethereal tone, Rope to generate tension. All of these attributes emerge from a set, however: and so we feel like we are watching something quasi-theatrical. It then is no surprise that Birdman concerns itself with the theatre. After all, that appears to be one of the ontological crises on the periphery of this kind of film: the age-old tension between theatre and cinema. That said, whilst 1917 advertises itself as having similar concerns, it does not. 1917 subverts this developing convention of the oner and the one-shot film, focusing not only on what is material and real within the frame, but cinematic spacetime's relationship with the abstractions of the medium: those magical elements of music and theme specifically.

If Mendes showcases a mastery of anything in 1917, it is a mastery of directional cinematic language. With cutting extracted from this film's lexicon, its ability to manage the spectator's eye is found in the movement between varying focal lengths and shot types: wide to close, long to short. It is the movement from wide to close framing or a long to short depth of field that not only transforms the way the spectator may see subtly, slowly progressing drama, but provides and emphasises the logic or knowledge of certain sequences. Take for example a simple moment in which our main character must cross a broken bridge. Here there is a transition from a near-POV look at the bridge to a tracking shot behind the solider to a close-up of his feet, to a mechanical crane wide that tracks and pushes in on his hurried movement across to the other bank when he comes under fire. This analysis is dependent entirely on my memory of this scene and so my description may not be entirely accurate, but what is presented in this moment is dense and layered. Through these transitions, not only is tension and panic built and expressed, but attention is called to texture, to the slippery mud on the soldier's boots; he is isolated, moved by pure, automatic desperation and overcome by an unrelenting and fearless confrontation of possible death. How this over-tonal thematic discourse shifts through the film is dependent on scenes like this. The mere push-in on boots (which is a recurring shot that tracks the hell that this solider has trudged through) pulls us back to a recognition of his suffering and will. Our migration between near and far perspectives of such pathos and triumph then not only serves as a temporal transformer, but adds density to a brutal and immersive lyrosophic experience.

Let us try to unpack this further. We will start with how the cinematic language becomes a temporal transformer. The difficulty of a long-shot film concerns the fact that all the 'boring bits' of life that film often cuts out, must be masked and managed. Our characters in this film then must travel approximately 6 miles (if I remember correctly). This is the source of all drama - an adventure of sorts. However, this journey should, in reality, have many quiet (boring, stale, meaningless) moments of inaction. Whilst editing would usually cut these moments away, the script and blocking in 1917 must work together to invigorate all moments with either aesthetic or dramatic substance. This is where we see cinematic language become a transformer of time. It speeds and slows it down, orchestrating a visual narrative that sustains the spectator's interest by constantly providing nuanced perspectives of drama. As a result, though there are numerous images of 'walking', all of these images are differentiated and layered with new logic. Some shots of walking generate tension, fear and anticipation, others evoke reflection, others call attention to details, such as how soaked a solider's boots are. It is because the frame is managed in such a way that it constantly makes new articulations of familiar drama. This technicality is extremely impressive and, as said, one of the key innovations that 1917 makes as a one-shot film. But, adding to this, the entire technique is further compounded in complexity by the fact that it is only one half of tremendous sound-montage. That is to say that, a much as differing shot types alter the meaning and density of drama, so does the music. The score of 1917 is incredibly rousing and subtle; it works also to slow down and speed up time, to layer on top of drama aesthetic wonder. And so whilst it seems that technical visuals are what make 1917 special, close attention will make obvious the fact that it is the interplay between sight and sound that are so impressive in this feature.

With that discussed briefly, let us consider 1917's lyrosophy. Lyrosophy is an old French film theory term that alludes to moments in which meaning is experienced or evidence is felt. It is watching 1917 that I began to realise how significant this term may be. Whilst the cinematic language of this film is rather structured and technical, the most expressive moments of the film are not grounded in drama, per se, rather aesthetic. However, immediately after having this thought, I questioned the very definition of the aesthetic and dramatic. I have worked for quite some time on trying to understand the term 'drama'. I have come to see it as action and conflict that is mimetically associated with an expression of universal immanent logic through the collective unconscious and then conscious cognition surrounding and pervading a cinematic space. 'Aesthetic' on the other hand, is a term I haven't given significant thought. In the works of Kant, Bergson, Schiller, Hegel and
Dufrenne, the aesthetic binds art to an existential ontological aporia: a question of an immanent or transcendent 'beyond' from which meaning or experience is derived or travels back to. My knowledge of these philosophers, you'll have to forgive me, is not too deep; but it is apparent that the aesthetic is in some capacity an evocation of nature, spirit, the transcendental and humanity to them. And so following this back to Epstein, I began to see through 1917 what aesthetic could really add to the structure of the cinematic space. Where drama is subsumed in the logos or logic of a narrative, aesthetic is bound to a pneumatic spatio-temporal aspect of narrative centred on experience. In short, drama and aesthetic formulate lyrosophy with drama providing knowledge and aesthetic feeling. It is then when drama and aesthetic dance together that knowledge can be experienced or evidence felt. Aesthetic is, in this regard, at once haptic and epistemological; it reaches out to the spectator and pulls them down a road of inquiry. Drama plays a very similar role, and, in truth, aesthetic and drama are very hard to separate. Aesthetic concerns the experience of material objects; it facilitates an experience of their significance via sight, sound and more. Drama is concerned with actions. Alas, actions, and those who act, can be objectified and can contribute to or exist within an aesthetic. How then is the aesthetic and dramatic object differentiated?

It is not clear to me that the two phenomena are separate or can be distinguished definitively. Drama, action, however, focuses on discourse: the accumulation of actions formulate a line of articulation that is quasi-linguistic. Aesthetic, too, communicates, but not through discourse. Aesthetic does not have the ability to transform action into language. It presents materiality as a statement in and of itself. Aesthetic and drama evoke notions and characteristics of Tao, but their mechanism of communication is possibly what separates them: aesthetic primarily evokes, drama discourses. That is not to say that aesthetic cannot formulate discourse; aesthetic has its logic and thus presents ideas. Consider the way in which light and colour say something. Alas, let us recognise that colour and light cannot articulate like action and speech do. Drama travels higher up the annals of the mind, up from the unconscious to consciousness. Aesthetic dwells lower down. Together, however, drama and aesthetic generate lyrosophy. They situate the spectator in a space and time of meaning. Aesthetic enhances the experience of spacetime, drama gives space and time motion and logic that rationalises and layers the experience provided by aesthetic. Let us consider here an example in 1917.

Coming back to consciousness after tumbling down a flight of stairs, our main character enters a town lit intermittently by flares. The strobes of light cast deep shadows and harsh glare over a crumbling, broken town; it becomes a surreal place rife with enemies but also depths to hide in. It is aesthetic that allows us to experience such a place as such. It is difficult to articulate fully what this aesthetic experience is composed of and evokes, but such is the nature of the aesthetic. So much of this experience, it must be emphasised, emerges from the sound track; it situates us within an alien wonder and sublime ambiguity that is at once fearsome and dangerous and unbelievably tangible; a reprieve and a new part of a journey. It is as our character begins to act that drama imbues an experience of this town with a knowledge of its place. It is as our solider then runs from enemies and gun fire, and eventually comes upon a young French woman in hiding with a baby, that we begin to formulate a consciousness of this town as an in-between place. It is somewhere that the journey may be stopped, a place of light and darkness where the solider could either be shot and killed for lack of sight, or where he may hide out within the realm of two anima figures. This place is a significant one in his venture as it returns us to a question of duty. On the one hand, our solider has his aim, and it is imbued with layers of existential substance: he not only means to save thousands of lives, but fulfil the will of another fallen soldier. But, what is forgotten in this journey is what resides beyond war for our solider. This town and its harbouring of the anima (young woman and baby girl) returns us to a vision of the soldier's spirit; his aching desperation and reluctance to return to his own family having completed his duties in a war he does not understand.

So much could emerge from a close analysis of 1917: it is a genuinely brilliant film that beautifully explores the notion of self-sacrifice. But, what I mean to bring to light here is how dependent this film's success is on a coherent expression of aesthetic and drama. It is then with a superior and precise management of cinematic language that 1917 cultivates powerful lyrosophy by intricately presenting the depths of experience facilitated by aesthetic and the knowledge provided by drama.




10/02/2020

Learning How To Art

Thoughts On: Logos & Pnuema

A consideration of the creation and expression of art.


There is a common notion in martial arts that one must prepare their body for the event of a fight. Training and practice then go out the window the moment a fight starts. Instinct takes over and the body performs what it has been taught to do so. It is possible to see in this not only the basis of martial arts, but all arts. What transforms discipline, skill and actions into art is the embodiment and expression of the depth, substance and meaning of that discipline, skill and action. Seen in this light, art is the presentation of a philosophy of being.

This idea is rather self-evident in martial arts, but slightly more ambiguous in a medium such as cinema. Martial arts requires two (or more) individuals interacting via combat. Their communication is physical and enclosed within their relationship. Cinema requires a piece of work and an audience as to make its artistic expression. This relationship is an open and abstract one. However, there is much to learn from its relationship with 'training'. As with fighting in martial arts, the moment of expression - the screening - of cinema relies heavily upon instinct, flow and automatism. Thinking has its place in this moment of expression, but, it is a secondary process; thought follows sensation, only to be closely followed by sensation again. This cycle subordinates thought to instinct, consciousness to the unconscious. Such a situation is unlike other activities in which we think and then do. Of course, artistic creation or expression requires premeditation. A film must be planned and thought through. However, creation and expression are two separate process in art. The creation and cultivation of artistic material involves the rationalising of sensation. The expression or performance of this sees sensation's rationality presented. In music, the cultivation of skill - the ability to play an instrument and understand musical theory - involves conscious practice and training. As music is played, however, consciousness is replaced by unconsciousness, and the performance exudes the ascertained logic and essence of the objects and concepts studied. When a great guitarist then plays, it is not scales and picking techniques that are presented, but the essence of a certain sound, its meaning and ability to move others. The study of the technique is a journey to the depths of its existential and universal place and meaning in the world.

In cinema, a similar process sees the logos and pneuma of a film created. This process is multifaceted and far too complicated for me to pretend to understand. Nonetheless, part of this process involves the disciplinary study of writers, choreographers, performers, directors, cinematographers and more. Writers' objects of study concern ideas, characters, plots, dialogue, rhythm, structure and more. Part of a film's expression is then involved in evoking the essence of the logic within a certain idea, a certain vision of individuality, of a succession of space, time and causality, of sound, flow and more. In addition to the contributions of a writer are those of the cinematographer, whose object of study is light, colour, composition, texture, exposure, tone and more. So, in a film there is presented too the immanent substance of certain hues, light temperatures, tones and more. These myriad of elements and more all have vast, deep and dark implications. They reach down through the collective unconscious and they emerge from Tao. Resonant, powerful art has a chance of revealing this fact. The spectator has a chance to perceive it. But, to perceive art, the spectator, too, needs their training. A fight needs at least two individuals. Cinema needs work and an audience. The spectator completes the cinematic space, and in turn play their part in the expression of art. Because the spectator, too, expresses, they must go through a cultivation or creation process. Film spectating is a discipline. The notion of cinema-as-entertainment may make this assertion seem trivial, but, all spectators needs to have a skill or discipline to engage cinematic material. After all, how could we be moved by a movie if we did not understand its plot, characters, themes and more? Our mind has to do some amount of work to make sense of a film, and, as anyone who has re-watched and studied a film will know, this takes attention: the process is a continuous one. This is part of the reason as to why films change to us over time. We learn more about them and see more in them as a result of our own study and attention.

We see here, then, how a cinematic experience is something like a fight. Whilst the aim of artistic expression in a cinema is not dominance or victory, it requires two disinclined subjects communicating and interacting with, or exchanging, skills. What is expressed here depends on the subjects involved in this interaction and skill and discipline. In cinema, the traces of practice, skill and disciplined are encapsulated in a film's - or rather, a cinematic experience's - logos. This is the trace of a conscious study of a certain object. Most fundamentally, it is the trace of one's interface with Tao. Pnuema is what is unconsciously expressed in the performance of skill and discipline. Pneuma encapsulates the essence of the object - or, at least, the ascertained essence of a studied object. This is to say that, though an object may be studied, only a certain level of its depth or a fraction of its breadth may have been comprehended and translated through performance. The relationship between the cultivation and expression of skill is a nuanced one. When we watch a fight on TV, we are seeing captured performances. The television broadcast and the fight are two different modes of expression complimenting one another. Is this true of cinema?

A performer on film expresses their art in a take of a shot or scene. But, does their artistic expression end here? I find it hard to know how to answer this question. Certainly the performance is over and the actor or actress has completed their job. Having shot all of their scenes, they can only be a spectator of their art. However, their expression is not substantiated, completed, until a film is screened. So, cinematic expression starts on the set, but cannot end when a performer has finished performing. Cinema starts with an idea and ends with a screening. If we consider every artist involved in the creation of cinema a 'filmmaker,' then we can comfortably say that their process of artistic creation starts and ends as a film is put into production; their expression, on the other hand, does not start until the screening of the final product does. To answer the question of whether a performer's artistic expression ends when their take does then relies on how we think of that performer: are they an actor or actress and is their art acting - or, are they a filmmaker, and is their art cinema? I lean toward the notion that everyone involved in the creation of a film (including the spectator) is a 'filmmaker'. However, their is a long debate about auteurship and authorship in cinema that is very complicated. But, it need not impinge upon my final point.

Every artistic agent contributing toward the expression of a film engages the same process in the moment of expression. They feel and then think and then feel again cyclically. This oscillation between consciousness and unconsciousness is what manifest drama; it is a movement between expressing pnuema and logos; it is breathing and rationalising. This movement also manifests genre as emerging from unconsciousness and consciousness is the presentation of the real and unreal. The unconscious-conscious relationship is one of the fundamental yin-yang phenomena that emerge from an interaction with Tao. Logos and pneuma are the final cosmetic state of the yin-yang phenomena. In fact, it is the unification of yin and yang that produce affect and then inter-objectivity. Alas, the discussion is becoming highly technical and dense. This is a topic I'd like to return to, but, for now we can begin to see that one must learn to 'art'. Expression is dependent on cultivation and training. This training defines the moment of expression by an oscillation between an unconscious channelling of the immanence of an object studied and a conscious consideration of said object. Such formulates the ambiguous concepts of logos and pneuma that require far more attention.




03/02/2020

The Gentleman - Character & Place

Thoughts On: The Gentleman (2019)

The boss of a sticky bush empire welcomes chaos the moment he tries to sell his business.


I have seen The Gentleman twice now. I said after I saw it last that I'd rather re-watch this than The Irishman - nine times out of ten. As brash a statement as that may be, I certainly find this manifestation of the gangster film far more appealing and appeasing than the latter. The Gentleman is a carefully pieced together puzzle of a narrative that pulls you into a world populated by larger-than-life characters and outlandish drama. It does an incredible amount in its sub-two hour run time. I re-entered The Gentleman thinking of its innumerable plot points and reversals, and as it started, I got slightly nervous; I thought, this could be long. But, only a few minutes into the film, I eased into things, and it felt far shorter than it did on the first viewing. This film screams by, smooth in tone and punctuated with brilliant moments of humour and violence - all of which are grounded in the exploration of world-as-character and characters-as-world. It is this interchangeability of personality and space-time makes this film so special, and it is one of the most magical capabilities of the gangster genre film. This is a genre built upon something of a morbid fascination and an overt embrace of the collective shadow. That is to say that gangster films are about anti-heroes and villains. They allow us to peep into dark worlds, engorge ourselves on the thought of vices and brutality and have fun whilst doing so. Scorsese, via Goodfellas and Wolf of Wall Street, is a master of this genre of film. But, The Gentleman, alongside other key Richie gangster films, comfortably sits in the same genre and on the same level as these behemoth classics. Scorsese did not return to this magic with The Irishman, not with the success that Richie did having returned from a hellish foray into Disney live-action remaking. And such was hinged upon this interchange of character and place. The Gentleman is a film whose setting has a character by virtue of its ability to produce so many varied subjects. It is a film that caricatures various Londoners and Brits, and uses their personalities to define and welcome us into a certain vision of Britain and London. Here is the interplay between subject and place. We are lost in character the moment we enter this film. Every element of the screen informs us of it. And such is the joy of this film; we are locked in a purely subjective space. Engaging aesthetics and narrative then become like having a great conversation in which the exchange of identity and personage is addictive and perception-warping. I do not know how to describe this phenomenon well, but the immersion into a purely subjective space is powerfully engrossing. I believe this is what happens in gossip shows, reality TV and personal vlogs. Cinema has a similar mechanism at its ready as these mediums do, but I believe it is something like The Gentleman that captures this with power and class. A tremendous film.


02/02/2020

Shorts #108

Shorts: Alita: Battle Angel (2019), Panga (2020), Bad Boys For Life (2020), The Intouchables (2012), Uncut Gems (2019), My Neighbour Totoro (1988)



What is Christoph Waltz doing in this movie?

This is a well-rounded mess. Nothing works - maybe there are some moments of griping spectacle, but they are fleeting at best. The mix of CGI and live action is... ugh. The CG modelling and physics are uncanny. The character construction is childish. The narrative is naive and contrived. Characters are never tested, plot points simply proceed and dominate the development of story. The dialogue - poor; rife with flat exposition and embarrassingly unemotive. I'm somewhat baffled by Alita's success, and don't care for the sequel. I'm sure Edward Norton will only embarrass himself more so than Christoph Waltz has here.



Seemingly following in the footsteps of the recently (somewhat recently) successful Dangal, Panga brings forth a female sports, action narrative as to question norms in gender roles and empower female athletes seeking a greater degree freedom.

Not based on a true story, Panga lacks stakes in a certain regard and does feel somewhat constructed - especially considering the lacklustre third act and finale. Ultimately, the excitement of a kabaddi game is not well represented or captured. Nonetheless, this is a very good film. It is humorous and has a rich tone, and at the heart of all is Kangana Ranaut who bears an incredibly warm and genuine aura as the central protagonist. If this found the success that Dangal did in the sports side of this drama, Panga would undoubtedly be a brilliant film. But, because it only manages character and thematic commentary well, this doesn't quite execute all you hope it to.



What can be said about Bad Boys III?

It is not particularly good. It doesn't even stand out as particularly notable either. It is moderately fun, but on the whole mediocre and a little forgettable. There is an attempt to push deeper into our established characters and expand the cast, and whilst the latter is somewhat successfully managed with humour, the former attempt to explore Marcus and Mike is lukewarm. Somewhat understandably, this lacks the intensity and action seen in the previous films, but I was left rather unexcited and only mildly engaged by Bad Boys For Life. So, in the end, there's not much good to say about this; I won't say Bad Boys III never should have been made, but, I'm not sure if we need more - unless maybe Bay and Bruckheimer teamed up for a bigger, more ridiculous spin off... who knows No likes



It has been a long time since I watched The Intouchables - it must be about 6 or 7 years. I had always remembered it to be fun and heartwarming, but had developed over the years a bad taste for the film. Maybe it was just its popularity and the simplicity with which I remembered it, but I began to think it was only so-so. With a re-watch, I discovered again its warmth and sentimental simplicity. I wouldn't assume that this narrative holds up under much scrutiny, but it is clearly attempting to tell a story of two people setting one another on a route toward independence and dignity. Much could be read into this politically, but, left as such, I think The Intouchables is a brilliant piece of cinema and a very well constructed comedy.



Pure magic.

Nothing else need be said.



I have seen and written about My Neighbour Totoro so many times. The film is a space of pure comfort and intrigue; it beautifully articulates the essence of a childhood and its place between understanding and imagination. My Neighbour Totoro is then an ecstatic, fantastical adventure both because of, and in spite of, the fact that it is also a minor melodrama of melancholia. This is a film that asserts that there is no distinction between imagination and understanding; to hope and be lost in self is inextricably related to one's vision of reality. It is imagination that elevates understanding and articulates the yearning to grow and overcome. My Neighbour Totoro exudes this optimism with cinematic magic, and for this, is one of the most charming films in existence.



31/01/2020

Fighting With My Family - Questioning The Mechanisms of Photogénie

Thoughts On: Fighting With My Family (2019)

A girl from Norwich tries to become a WWE champion.


Fighting With My Family is not a good film - it is mediocre at best. Whilst I wouldn't suggest that it is strictly a 'based on a true story' narrative film's responsibility to report the facts of its 'real story,' there are times when egregious contrivance and manipulation damage such a film. This is the case with Fighting With My Family. Whilst I used to love the WWF when I was a kid, I know nothing at all about the whole thing now. But, even to an entirely unknowing spectator of the film like myself, this film clearly cuts huge sections out of its main character's ascent to a 'title'. To anyone who has seen the film--or even not-- you may find reading Paige's Wikipedia entry more dramatic and captivating than the feature-length film. There would, however, be little point in this film adapting a Wiki page, representing a story and wrestling career that have been televised - and let's not forget are scripted. Fighting With My Family then does somewhat well in understanding that it is not the drama in the ring that needs to be put into a narrative, rather, its relationship with an untelevised 'behind the scenes' that Wikipedia does not capture. Nonetheless, whilst this is understood, the attempt at managing both the scripted narrative of Paige's wrestling career and her life beyond garners poor results. This is largely because there are clear gaps in Paige's presented wrestling career, which in turn fails to translate the real work and turmoil that would have accompanied her rise to the top of her sport. The biggest indication of this film's failure is then the fact that I was left wondering: How do you become a pro-wrestling champion? What do you have to do as an athlete and entertainer to be given the hero's narrative? Fighting With My Family only suggests some fluff in this regard: you have to find yourself. Whilst this archetypal location and affirmation of self may be justified for sitting at the basis of this narrative, it is given no structural and logical support. That is to say that Fighting With My Family should have been structured to express this tale of individuation with greater emphasis on what really went on behind the scenes as to nuance and complexify what can be read as a cliched, oversimplified story.

Let's not fall too far into this discussion, however, as it is making me rather nauseous for how silly it is. Fighting With My Family is a WWE co-produced movie, so you could expect it to shy away from the true business side of things. This is a film, you could argue, that merely emphasises the political statement made by the WWE as they facilitated the rise of Paige and women's pro-wrestling. Seen in this regard, WWE are just patting themselves on the back here. And as such, Fighting With My Family is relegated from mediocrity down to worthlessness in my eyes. But, let's not let conspiratorial assumption take the main stage here. If anyone has any interest in what occurs behind the scenes in pro wrestling, I'd recommend Beyond the Mat - a documentary I saw when I was too young and made wrestling too real and a little sad.

I didn't expect much at all from Fighting With My Family. I approached this film because of its lead, Florence Pugh. Having recently seen Little Women and re-watched Midsommar for about the fifth time, I felt that Florence Pugh was the stand-out actress of last year. Midsommar is the first movie of Pugh's that I had seen, and in it she brilliantly captures and expresses the twisted, bipolar core of the film. Midsommar is at once a tale of individuation and a fatalistic revenge narrative; the script surreally manages these two extremes as to evoke a profoundly complex sense of unconscious perturbance and break-through. For this, the film is sensational. But, if all of its brilliance could be boiled down to one statement, it would have to be presented with an image of Florence Pugh's face at the end of the film: her reaction to her terrifying journey into the depths of her neurosis. Such a shot and its power can only be defined and understood with the concept of photogénie. This is an old idea used by French filmmakers of the silent era. It describes evocative, beautiful images, but defines them not by spectacle, instead their morally enhancing ability. The idea of photogénie then suggests that sublime images awaken in us a sensitivity to moral meaning. In the case of the defining shot of Midsommar, we see not just a beautifully composed image, but an image that pulls us into the soul of a character, a subject, to better sense an underlying exploration of death, desperation and tragedy that runs through the film.

Midsommar's photogénie - specifically, the film's projection of Pugh's visage and performance - emphasised the actress' talent and striking aura. Little Women did well to translate this, centralising, aesthetically, the warmth, earnest spontaneity and dragging pain of Pugh's character. Photogénie then plays a strong role in the film. But, whilst we can define photogénie's effects, I'm interested in its more ambiguous mechanisms. This is what brought me to Fighting With My Family. Dramatically, aesthetically, generically, formally and otherwise, Midsommar, Little Women and Fighting With My Family are three very different films. But, what binds the first two is a successful deployment of photogénie. I wondered if Fighting With My Family would also share this. I in turn was questioning whether photogénie is a cinematographic or preformative property: an effect conjured by a cinematographer or actress. I questioned this on the basis that we often consider some things or some people just having something about them, or a subject or object possessing the inability to look bad. Is this the case with photogénie; can, in this case, a performer be unable to facilitate moral enhancement, or is this dependent on the cinematographer?

This is a tricky and fascinating subject as it bears much relation to theories of stardom. Some would suggest that stars - to a spectator who highly regards them at least - cannot make bad movies; or at least, if they are in a bad movie, they are a redeemable part of it and in no way responsible for lacking quality. In such a case, stardom - whatever that may be - transcends medial technique. If photogénie is tied to stardom, to a distinct aura an actress or actor carries between roles, then we could expect it, too, to transcend the abilities of writers, directors, cinematographers, etc. Fighting With My Family provides an opportunity to question this. Does photogénie follow Florence Pugh into a mediocre movie?

In all honesty, I can't tell. Having raised the subject and outlined it for so long, I should reach some conclusion, but I cannot be definitive. It seems clear that Pugh's aura translates between films with her embodiment of something archetypal that I cannot substantially decipher being expressed in each. In such, though Fighting With My Family is a mediocre film, I found myself drawn to its main character and awkwardly laughing away the affects of its finale as if they didn't exist. I am not sure if this is because of the script, however. As discussed, its management and contrivance of character is highly questionable and the source of the film's failings. This suggests to me that successes in the character department may be attributable to Pugh and, or, aesthetic technique. But, Fighting With My Family certainly holds little aesthetic achievement, and so I am happy to assign the success of characterisation primarily to Pugh and her aura. But, with this, does there come photogénie? My answer: maybe. There are one or two images that have something of a punctum - not a strong one, but an affective punch nonetheless. But, these images do not utilise Pugh's face anything like Little Women or Midsommar do; they are certainly nowhere near as crisp, richly textured or vibrant as those in the mentioned films. Such suggests that a trace of photogénie does travel with Pugh, but there are too many contingencies and questions here. Am I confusing photogénie and star aura? Am I undermining an archetypal narrative and competent cinematography? Am I unduly removing myself from the formulating process of photogénie? I cannot answer these questions presently. However, there is a lot to this line of discourse. So, I'll leave things in your hands. What do you think of photogénie as it relates to performers and aesthetics?



29/01/2020

2046 - What Are Characters Made Of?

Thoughts On: 2046 (2004)

A hedonistic writer falls through empty relationships attempting to keep longing at bay.


I'm starting to realise that I'm not the biggest Wong Kar Wai fan. Whilst I really like In The Mood For Love and Chungking Express, I found Days of Being Wild testing - and 2046 more so. It is the collision of sweeping, intense thematic rumination, narration and abstract montage that ruined 2046 for me. I found no balance between these elements and, more so, no tonal coherence. With a rather boisterous style, one feels 2046 calling attention to its own meaning making process whilst it plays with rather inane characters. True it is that this focuses on broken people, but the presentation of their existential ailments and psychoses fractures intimacy. In The Mood For Love works so well because, for the most part, it allows the spectator to observe and manage the distance they keep from characters. This interplay between character and spectator facilitates a sometimes intense intimacy, which in turn opens up the possibility of us understanding the meaning that characters are in the process of expressing. 2046 demands closeness and sympathy by consistently presenting characters' psychological profiles with intellectual montage and poetic narration. Presenting themselves as such, characters - in particular the protagonist - has one lose sight of the wider discourse of the film. With an overt interplay between character and spectator, something is spoilt. This result is maybe paradoxical, but it is - at least for myself - a product of incongruous characterisation and style. In such, 2046 in fact makes clearer an ontological problem of 'character' on film. How is a character constructed?

Characters are bound to story in the simplest sense. They are an expression of, and means of exploring, a world, a certain time and a certain place. However, in being bound to story, characters can also be seen to be a creation of it; of a constructed world, time and place presented by a film. In addition to this, characters can be seen as agents of drama. That is to say, they perform, they act, they do. In this sense, they are a manifestation of drama and therefore are created by it. All does not end here though. There are a selection of various elements of film that we could see being used to build character, to inform their construction and place in a narrative. Let us try to make a list of some. We can start with a dated, somewhat structuralist, perspective and suggest that characters are created by and for the plot. Such suggests that characters allow a narrative to succeed and transform, and therefore exist for certain plot beats to be hit and meandered through. This is a variation of describing a character via drama, and a means of specifying their role in the manipulation of a cause-effect chain. Next, one can consider character to be an expression of theme. Such ties character to meaning, their role being consequently defined by discourse on emotionally and existentially pertinent subject matter. In opposition to this, a character can be constructed by spectacle, which is to say, they can be constructed to be looked at, or to manifest events to be looked at. And the last key element of narrative that builds and effects characters that I'll pick up on is style or form.

This is something that I hadn't considered much until watching 2046 though this is a clear and important means of constructing character. Form defines how a character may be represented, and so the character of a style can become an aspect of character. This most clearly happens in Godard films. The suave, energetic, fractured and chaotic style of shooting, editing and producing sound montage impacts the way in which we perceive and understand characters; they become agents of chaos, suave and energetic yet fractured. In 2046, I believe we see the style and theme that builds characters at odds with one another. In such, there is an overt intellectualism about the abstract montage, costume and set design and cinematography. Alas, theme defines character by sensitivity. This is a film, much like In The Mood For Love, about longing and loss, about impending eroticism that is never fulfilled. The crisp lighting and textured set design of In The Mood For Love, its slow motion and crowded framing, its silence, distance and stillness, all inform the sensual side of character, defining them as feeling entities. Theme aids here in adding depth and substance to the prolong feeling we watch unfold on screen - as we do in great impressionist works by the likes of Bresson and Epstein. 2046 builds characters, with form and theme, as thinking and feeling entities. Theme imbues them with emotion, form with cognition. However, the constant thinking of characters bears an ambiguity that lends itself to insipidness. Characters think their feelings in a strange and dry manner. I grew tired of this thought-feeling rather quickly. Again, the reason for this comes down to the construction of character. Characters feel polarised and technically messy. They then fail to evoke or express as they are intended to; they are impeded by over-manipulation.

There is certainly more that could be explored here, but this is difficult work as the process of character construction is so mysterious and, more so, the manifestation of meaning through them is highly complex and contingent. I am then left to report that 2046 did not work for me on a level of character for reasons I have tried to outline. But, maybe I need to watch the film again - which I won't be rushing to do any time soon. That said, what the film has certainly illuminated for me is the depth and complexity of character construction. It is difficult to make sense of, but characters are story, plot, theme, drama, spectacle, form and more.


28/01/2020

Street Dancer - A Battle of Two Extremes

Quick Thoughts: Street Dancer (2020)

An Indian and Pakistani dance troupe battle on the street and in competition whilst seeking a reason to dance.


Whilst Street Dancer is a watchable film and a fun time in the cinema, it is a work of profound extremes. On the one hand, this appears to be an earnest attempt to shine light on a social issue. But, on the other, this is an incredibly silly spectacle bloated with unending dancing. It is clear that this is selling itself as pure spectacle filled with novel concept dances, but somehow this manages to slip - or rather jam - a semi-coherent social commentary into the proceedings of things. It is then hard to know where to begin with Street Dancer (or rather, Street Dancer 3D - I only saw this in 2D though). The most difficult element of the film that I could never overcome is the intense and inherent conflict between dance troupes. Why is everyone so rude and angry? Why are dance battles being approached like war? It is nothing short of absurd to witness the shoving, shouting, food fighting, nipple twisting all escalate into dance routines. Of course, this melodrama is used to set the foundation of the film's social commentary; it is another allegory about the divide between India and Pakistan with an Indian dance team doing battle with a Pakistani dance troupe - all whilst a British group called the Royals stir things up in the background and a Canadian dancer repeatedly and violently humps the floor (which is truly hilarious). In the end, social divides are overcome and the colonisers defeated, but this is not where the film find its strength. The India-Pakistan commentary feels very familiar (I have no intent to get into its idiosyncrasies), but Street Dancer introduces into this a discussion on immigration and class divides in the diaspora. Such is all, of course, summed up with great lines such as 'You dance for yourself... we dance for others...' but, the sentiment is there.

Beyond this, Street Dancer is conventionally wacky and absurd, but enjoyable for that fact. Its weakest elements are characterisation and the fact that none of the drama set up between lovers and enemies is properly explored and resolved. And on top of this, Street Dancer's commentary isn't pristine, its representation of London is highly questionable, and the acting - especially in the minor roles - can be pretty bad. But, in the end, the tone and some of the dancing makes this worthwhile if you can catch this in a good mood.



27/01/2020

Alita: Battle Angel - What Makes A Movie Bad: Consciousness & Unconsciousness in Filmmaking

Thoughts On: Alita: Battle Angel (2019)

A cyborg found in the trash heap of a sky city challenges the rule above from the city squalor below.


Alita: Battle Angel is not a good film, but it is an interesting one. James Cameron, as almost to be expected, and its other producers take a huge risk in adapting a somewhat low-key (maybe the original manga is incredibly popular, I'm not sure) IP. This fact is particularly pronounced by the recent box office returns of the likes of Ghost in the Shell. With moderate, you could say poor considering its production budget, box office returns, Ghost in the Shell seemingly indicated that anime/manga adaptations are not the way to go. But, Cameron threw this aside and pushed Alita into production after many years of struggle with a budget almost as great as the returns of Ghost in the Shell. This ballsy, seemingly nonsensical move, worked out: Alita did very well at the box office. And, in all likelihood, we'll get the implied sequel if James Cameron ever gets through his Avatar series. As a side note, James Cameron must just have to mention Titanic to be given money by Hollywood - it seems no other director could do what he is doing having not been associated with a particularly good movie since the early 2000s (of course Avatar was a huge hit, but who is interested in more?). All of that said, I'm interested today in Alita: Battle Angel as a clunky piece of storytelling and filmmaking.

I should start out with a mention of the manga. I know next to nothing about the medium, and only a fraction more about anime. But, the influence of anime and manga on cinema is--let's call it a distinguished one. It is this influence that could be explored as a root of the issues in this film, stylistically and narratively. But, I want to push past this and talk about cinema only. More specifically, I want to discuss how writers and filmmakers engage the meaning in their own creations.

There are two easily distinguished classes of cinematic meaning as attached to the conscious and unconscious processes of filmmaking. On the one hand, there is overt commentary. And on the other, there is thematic exploration. The difference between the two rests in the implied line between consciousness and unconsciousness. Commentary emerges from intended discourse, which is to say that the class of meaning produced by it is inserted into a narrative. Thematic exploration has its conscious component, but it is intrinsically bound to questioning and evocation; symbols and metaphors are presented, meaning breathes through them. In a true cinematic context, the difference between these two modes of meaning is highly nuanced and often muddied. But, in a theoretical context, one can argue that the difference between the two is clear - especially upon a broad evaluation of a narrative in its totality. This is worth making mention of because it is Alita: Battle Angel's management of, in particular, its thematic exploration that produces so many of the problems in the film.

Bad films feel fake and constructed, their stories, in some way, untrue. They are easily deemed clunky because they have no harmony about them as a result of a failure to mediate between mimetic and creative processes. That is to say that all films evoke or imitate life and its often abstract components whilst being manipulated and composed by a filmmaker who cannot simply present life, but an aspect of it. Alita, as an example of such a bad film, is clunky specifically because it attempts to compose and manipulate its thematic components too much. Let us take for example its attempt to explore individuation and the finding of one's true self. Not only does the story have to explicitly narrate this process as part of Alita's character arc, but it shows little understanding of what it fundamentally means to change, morph and develop as an individual. The film, in such, is highly conventionalised. For instance, Alita is framed initially as a child of doctor Ido. She eventually rebels against him because she wants to fulfil her potential. We are told this, but we do not feel it. We are told that Alita feels she is drawn to violence, Ido explains why, but there is no rumination on what it means for Alita to have been programmed, to have been thrown off her destined path. With these underlying thematic elements simply narrated, the movie focuses on cute moments and banal representations - such as her teen romance. This is where convention enters the picture. Alita has so many cliched, conventionalised plot beats used to half-assedly evoke theme. She falls in love with a rebel who rides a bike, is complicated, but respects her danger; she is willing to give him her heart; he is the masculine idol, her animus, that drives her toward self and away from the original animus: the father. These ideas are presented conventionally and entirely insipidly. And much of this has to do with the fact that theme is commentated, is raised into the consciousness of the cinematic space, not left to dwell, stir and churn in the unconscious. This is but one issue.

Let us consider the unconscious components of this film: its archetypes. Alita, Ido, her boyfriend, etc are all, fundamentally, elemental energies or components of narratives that are to evoke primordial, deep idea structures in the human mind. Ido and Alita's love interest, as mentioned, are the masculine components of the narrative and, furthermore, are masculine archetypes for the daughter/maiden turned warrior archetype that is Alita. As suggested, there are problems with their construction and presentation on screen that concern conventions that reduce their potential complexity to inanity. But, there is a more pressing and irritating problem here. The filmmakers, and writers in particular, become possessed by their archetypes - especially those that Alita embodies at various stages of the narrative. In becoming possessed by the abstract archetypes of their narrative, the filmmakers attempt to present pristine ideal images or imagos, which explains the incessant and somewhat creepy return to the idea that Alita is an 'angel'. They attached themselves to these imagos as opposed to associating them with a character - which should be more than an idea (or, if they are to only be an idea, let that idea be deep). As a result of this attachment, characters become affective spectacle for the viewer susceptible to possession. Archetypes should grip and transform us, but they should not define us; we should not grip them. Yet this is the intent of character construction in Alita; we are, overtly so and quite off-puttingly, asked to identify and possess character like an overbearing mother smothering an ugly child. This is a risk all writers face when they either write with their--for lack of better terminology--genitalia, or become attached to their work in a queer and unnecessary manner. Possessed by its archetypes, Alita: Battle Angel has no freedom to evoke more than an unattractive relationship between filmmaker and creation. Indeed many films do this. The films of Tarantino are a great example. Some find the relationship between artist and filmmaker fascinating... some not. I don't like Tarantino. I'm going off-track.

Far more could be said about archetype possession, but I believe it has a plain and uncomfortable place in this film. A part of this possession that will lead us to another problem concerns aesthetics. One can feel the attachment between creator and archetype in the constant search for beauty and photogénie. Alita has no photogénie, no morally enhancing images of beauty. The beauty in this film is a reflection of possession, not individuation. And such puts into question the entire aesthetic approach that it takes. Why all the CGI? What is up with the modelling and texturing in particular? This type of criticism is somewhat boring, but Alita: Battle Angel is not a good looking film. The motion and modelling are often jarring and so interrupt the experience of narrative and spectacle. Fight scenes are, at points, enthralling and even unique. But, for every ounce of intrigue is three quarters of an ounce of alienation. The CGI is, simply put, uncanny. The lighting is incredible, but the modelling - textures and physics at times, too - just doesn't work. This has you wondering why this is not a 100% CG world as it is the juxtaposition of human and computer generated cyborgs that emphatically seals the uncanniness of the aesthetic. I could pose this as a rhetorical question, but there is some sense that could be read into this choice of so explicitly distinguishing humans from cyborgs with rather overt CGI. As to formulate a discourse and commentary on identity, discrimination, the Other, post-humanism and trans-humanism, the film aesthetically embraces, even emphasises, the difference between cyborg and human whilst evoking equality and love in the narrative. I have little to make of this; the commentary appears rather silly to me if I'm honest. At best, this formal commentary made me realise I don't want to be in an age where we have to live alongside robots; I would certainly be a bigot who would despair if my child fell in love with a hard body, non-human, freak weirdo.

Let's return to narrative. Emphasised aesthetically is an inability (a conscious refusal) to properly harmonise the composition of reality and unreality within the cinematic space. A similar failure is found in the dramatic construction of the film. Alita is a melodrama, therefore we can expect it to manifest a narrative composed to evoke theme with clear inflections of consciousness. That is to say that melodramas conventionally show an awareness of unconscious material, raising it into the subconscious as to emphatically explore emotional reactions to the basic truths or components of reality. Melodramas garner great success in this management of mimesis and archetypal meaning. However, the greatest trouble of this dramatic mode comes with its constructedness. Melodramas, to a far lesser degree than any other dramatic mode, seek not to replicate reality; rather, provide an impression of specific elements. The risk they run in doing this, however, is constructing a parallel to reality that bears no tangible relation or relevance - which reduces their interface with those components of life that are to formulate the meaning of narrative to innanity. In short, mimesis is undermined by false representation; melodramas can often evoke a view of life that is so far estranged from reality that the drama need be dismissed. Such occurs in Alita. We all understand, at least theoretically, what it means to want to give ones heart away. Yet we also should know that this would not look like what Alita: Battle Angel presents it to be.

Consistently in this film, reality and melodrama do not resonate, mimesis, and therefore, meaning, fails. With no evocation, narrative falls flat; consciousness encroaches upon unconsciousness and all becomes a muddled mess: flat commentary, innane discourse and questionable preaching. This is what is wrong with Alita; Battle Angel. We see this all the time, but Alita is a particularly overt example of the many failures that cinema can produce when the relationship between consciousness and unconsciousness as it related to meaning is not properly managed.



26/01/2020

Shorts #107

Today's shorts: Suspicion (1941), Super Dark Times (2017), I Am Not A Witch (2017), 6 Underground (2019), Doctor Sleep (2019), The Gentleman (2020), Cats (2019), Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)


Hitchcock was always at his best when a sense of comedy and an explicit ambiguity pervaded his narrative.

Suspicion is as twisted as it is immersive. A pathological, psychologically driven thriller that could be compared to Mildred Pierce, this leaves us trapped in an unpalpable Freudian complex. The melodrama is tantalising, absurd and truly brilliant. Punchy, funny, suave and ballsy, this is one of my favourite Hitchcock films.



Incredible. Absolutely phenomenal.

Haptics are off the charts. Crisply textured, dense, twisted, funny, exuding photogenie, ingeniously shot, authentic as it gets... a perfect film. Incredible. I'm so grateful to have watched this.



I Am Not A Witch constructs a narrative with impressionist obfuscation, which is to say, through its structure, this is as confounding as our character is confused. Without reason and clarity, this puts into combat chance and coincidence with corruption and superstitious oppression by using an accusation of witchcraft to highlight those elements of nature - human nature, and the nature of the unfolding of life - that appear simultaneously consciously sadistic and benevolently bitter. It is hard to put into words the intent of this film beyond this, but it is not hard to recommend it.



I have a soft spot for Bay productions. I have seen this twice already. It is as clunky and unfunny as it is engaging and ludicrously joyful. No one is in great artistic form; the comedic acting is... fine... the sound design and soundtrack are... something to behold... the brutal CGI is... maybe respectable... the direction is intensely incoherent... and the cinematography is lush... in an epileptic kind of way. Seen alone and late at night, this is full of giggles and smiles. The magnet scene is ridiculous. Let's not make mention of the politics.



Really rather good.

Doctor Sleep holds its own as a sequel to Kubrick's behemoth. It is far more articulate and self-exploratory than the former film, and this lends it a unique edge. The Shining is an incredibly ambiguous descent into a hell of a questionably supernatural character. Doctor Sleep focuses on the downplayed supernatural elements of The Shining, simultaneously illuminating and expanding upon the previous narrative in a highly fascinating way. Though at moments a bit too intense (Stephen King horror adaptations really seem to want to push the line in regards to the depiction of child abuse and violence around adolescents these days), Doctor Sleep is a great companion piece to a classic that has not been impinged upon. I need to watch this again.



I'll say this for now and leave it at that... if I had a choice of re-watching either The Gentleman or The Irishman, I'd go for The Gentlemen 9 times out of 10.



Never have I been transported by a film like I was by Cats. I do not mean to suggest that this is either a good or bad quality of this incredibly strange... artefact... but every time I hear the ominous and anxious soundtrack of this film, I feel myself being sucked back into something like an undesirable psychedelic experience. Watching Cats, I truly found myself going places. Where I went, I do not know. What happened there, I cannot tell you. It was a strange and draining place, as meaningless as it was irritating. Self importantly inane, Cats is an incredible wonder. In 20 years, the world will look back with wonder. I hope it does.



Truly phenomenal. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the definition of sensuous; it masterfully establishes distance between characters before breaking this down and again building this up again. This oscillation between near and far, metaphorically, physically and existentially, manifest a purely powerful sensuality that I cannot recall any other film conjuring in such an impactful manner.

The cinematography and framing are simple and stunning; the way in which faces and eyes sit on the screen--truly overwhelming. And then imbued into this is an intricate story of the gaze, of memory and reality, freedom and fate. Incredibly nuanced, incredibly affective, masterfully directed by Sciamma, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is magic.