Thoughts On: March 2017


The Mirror - Annals Of History, Paddles Of Memory; Dreams

Thoughts On: The Mirror (1975)

A film we've covered before, but will be looking at in a different light today...

As with all of Tarkovsky's films, The Mirror is not the easiest watch, but is clearly masterful, undeniably mesmerising, irrefutably beautiful, complex and immersive. The crux of all that makes this film so ambiguously hypnotic is the manner in which Tarkovsky uses dreams and memory to characterise his protagonist. The statement made by this formal approach is then that we are, in large part, the memories we hold of the experiences in our pasts. Tarkovsky introduces further complexity to this with his re-application of characters, like the protagonist's son in place of himself and his wife in place of his mother. This suggests a cycle built into the fabric of humanity; we are not only our pasts, but are guided by our parent's pasts and go on to dictate our children's futures. Melancholia then seems to seep into this narrative because of an indescribable sensation of loss and a lack of a place. Stuck in the currents of history, paddling your way along the present with memory, the future only seems to be an endless body of water. It's considering yourself as memory that this nihilistic paradigm threatens to surface, and this seems to be the core concept Tarkovsky explores across this narrative as we see our protagonist's memories and dreams materialise.

What's so interesting about this film's approach to character and narrative is then the divide between who a character is and what they have been through. A question we've all heard and scoffed at, asked ourselves before biting our tongues, is, who am I? This existential gas bomb is something storytellers must ask themselves - or is at least something they inherently face when casting their story. After all, how do you represent and project a character without questioning that process?

It seems to be very evident that we are genetic factors interacting with experiences - all to varying degrees and across billions of seconds and millions of moments of being. However, there is an equally common assertion that there has to be something more to people and humanity. This 'something more' can be characterised through some idea of purpose, significance, religion or philosophy, and is generally resonant, but problematically (from banal to minor to extreme degrees) ambiguous. The relation of this to writing and cinema comes when you consider your favourite characters - or, at least, characters that you feel are powerful, great, such and so on. You do not see, say for instance, Indiana Jones or James Bond as genetic factors interacting with their pasts. Whilst you are given hints of back story and come to understand them, through their behaviours, in the present moment, this is not where you find the magic of characterisation - not in my view. What makes characters great seems to be their capacity to both draw upon our own memories and past experiences, but, more importantly, to draw upon our dreams. That is to say that Indiana Jones or James Bond resonate with you because you see yourself, in part, in them. And where you do not see yourself in them, you wish you could be them. To further clarify, you may have a fear of snakes...

Whether it be genetically written into the code of your personage or you had a terrible experience with a snake as a child, you hate snakes (or at least aren't the biggest fan). And because of this, when you see Indiana freeze in fear, you feel closer to him. He becomes human because he is allowed to become a vessel for yourself - whom I'm sure you consider human. In fact, simply seeing fear humanises Indiana. It doesn't have to be a specific fear of snakes that resonates with us, but fear itself - as we've all felt that.

Indiana Jones transcends this empathy-seeking and self-deprecating characterisation however by actually turning down that humanisation we've granted him. Indiana sucks it up and grabs the snakes or runs to safety. Screaming and fearful or not, Indiana remains a hero that we probably aren't. This act of transcendence is so pivotal and is what makes a character like Indiana Jones so powerful because, as he stops being us (in a certain sense), we start becoming him; we become the hero. This is, at the least, what the mirror that Jones has become allows us to feel for a moment.

So, what we are seeing in this example of powerful characterisation is an appeal to, firstly, experience, and secondly, the dream. Indiana appeals to us on our terms, then acts as wish fulfillment for ourselves. This seems to be the magic belying the mysterious process of characterisation and it functions, seemingly so, because it is mysterious. In appealing to the dream, to our own wishes of being the hero and overcoming our fears, we are given light to peer down an avenue of pure unknown qualities. This aligns with our observation that people can see themselves as genetic factors interacting with experiences (a somewhat concrete assessment of the human condition), but, still believe there is room for more - that humanity holds a crucial ambiguity that makes it special; a soul, purpose, deity... something.

The function of a dream, whether it be in an audience member wishing they could overcome fears, get a girl, or become successful, is then a hole or a dark spot which humans constantly look for in life. Whilst we have science, whilst we have progression, revolution, evolution, we are constantly striving into a void. The scientist wants to know what is beyond the atom, what is beyond the universe. The progressive wants to know how society can change, how it can continually move to some ambiguous somewhere. We find this in all aspects of life; there never seems to be a true end manufactured into the most enjoyable and fascinating of human endeavors. And in such, science, philosophy, art and construction will never seem to end. This relates to cinema as that infinite void is the catalyst for dreams - we use dreams to push further into this void, to explore ourselves and the world around us. Cinema is thus a form of pure human procrastination - just as any other art, science or form of philosophy seems to be.

The relationship between past, present and future in reality is contextualised within the human mind as memory (past), experience or sensation (present) and dreams (future). In recognising this, we are starting to come full circle and back to Tarkovsky's, The Mirror. To ask who am I? is, basically, to further ask what, when, where and how? This is to suggest that to ask any of these existential questions, we are asking of our place in the world - we are asking of context. Context, or reality, is past, present and future. For humans to be put in context to this, you'd have to appeal to memory, experience and dreams. So, to answer who am I?, to characterise a figure, you must seemingly give them these three things - you must define them in relation to the world around them (that including the viewer and his/her world). This is the cinematic lesson we can draw from Tarkovsky's formal approach to characterisation in The Mirror. This film is so profound, in part, because of the manner in which it handles and projects memory, experience and dreams. The particular focus on memory and dreams is what gives this narrative a magical and ambiguous quality - and is what also further suggests profundity.

Before concluding, if we were to take a quick step back and look to Indiana Jones again, we see a great character - but one that would not fit into a film by Tarkovsky. For a plethora of pretty obvious reasons, there is a mismatch here. But, there is an underlying idea of memory, experience and dreams that is projected, in differing ways, through both of these figures. The reliance on experience and dreams in a present context within Indiana Jones is what makes his narrative an action film and so entertaining. There is this lack of time and presence in The Mirror, which, as said, gives it a sense of profundity, but also makes the film very difficult. What we are thus seeing when we compare these characters are two approaches to our subject, one that is entertaining and one that is intellectually stimulating. Having hopefully demonstrated this clearly enough, I'll leave you to consider your opinion on these two representatives of a spectrum in characterisation between a film like The Mirror and Indiana Jones.

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The Matrix - We, The One

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Elle - Complex Characterisation; Where Functionality Meets Dysfunction

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The Matrix - We, The One

Thoughts On: The Matrix (1999)

The world has been ensnared in a digital reality by sentient robots, and Morpheus thinks he has humanity's key to freedom.

A captivating aspect of all art and entertainment is its capacity to not only provide insight into an individual or ourselves, but, all people. This can be intentional, subjective, accidental or objective, but in all cases this seems to be an inevitability. This is because of an inherent self-centric quality to the act of storytelling. We tell stories for many reasons; to fill time, to teach, to garner attention, to connect with people, to communicate things we otherwise couldn't. What belies each and very single one of these reasons is a channel of exchange between to people, one put there to essentially transcend the solipsistic idea that we are all minds trapped in heads, unable to know if one another exists. Storytelling, in all shapes and forms, is thus a self-centric means of creating an illusion of oneness, community, society or togetherness.

This observation goes on to explain something of a trembling anxiety beneath art and entertainment; a fear of being alone, isolated and ignored. There are many consequences of this anxiety that can be best summed up by the idea of genre - which we will delve into with a specific look at cinematic storytelling.

Action and adventure movies tell us of our invincibility.

Romance films tell us of our sexual and spiritual prowess.

Comedies tell us of our bumbling wit, dumb luck and arbitrary intelligence.

Horror films tell us of our resilience and power.

But, it has be said that a question mark must be held over each of these assertions. Humans are not invincible, we are not all Mila Kunis or Ryan Gosling, just as we are not all Charlie Chaplin or Ellen Ripley. Genre movies will often play with this idea with conflict, holding this question mark of our place in the world and in relation to one another over our heads. However, with the resolution of most genre films comes a reassertion of our initial observations. As John McClain embraces his wife with a demolished tower in the backdrop, we are told that we are in fact basically invincible.

As The Beast sweeps Belle off of her feet, we are told that anyone can love and be loved by remarkable human specimens (both personality-wise and aesthetically).

As Buster Keaton imitates movies with his girl in his arms, we are told that the witty and tragicomic see lights at the end of their tunnels.

And as Laurie Strode cowers having seen her boogeyman destroyed, we are told that the good, no matter the odds, always prevail.

I certainly don't need to tell you this, but, these fantasies are nonsense. As many satirical, alternative or darker forms of storytelling will make obvious, the world is not a book, movie or play; things rarely turn out the way people want them to. But, because this is a given, there is little need to analyse this. So, instead, we'll return to the realm of self-fulfilling fantasy by concentrating on The Matrix.

Whilst I've just depicted the third film in the trilogy, what we'll be discussing today is primarily the original film in respect to this idea of self-fulfilling centricity in people making and watching movies. We are using The Matrix to discuss this for pretty blatant reasons. Like few other films, The Matrix implores the significance, power and preciousness of the human species. On a surface level, this film is just a cool, high concept movie that made some innovation in the action film genre (with bullet time and so on). Pushing deeper, many will see The Matrix as an abundance of questions about humanity, reality and freedom. I, whilst I love this movie, don't hold it so highly however. This is because I can't help but recognise the fringe that the Wachowskis are skating in the creation of this movie; a fringe between The Matrix and The Matrix Reloaded, between a great movie and a pretty mediocre one. The terrible dialogue, stiff, bland characterisation, pretentious, anime-esuque elements and piss-poor writing splattered throughout the later Matrix films is juuuuuust about being suppressed in the original film. Make no mistake, I think the original Matrix is a masterpiece, but, equally so something tantamount to a blind smash one-hit-wonder - especially in regard to the live action Matrix series.

With this more cool-tempered and reserved look at The Matrix, I've stopped seeing the abundance of abstract questions. In place of them has risen a lot of assertions put forth by the Wachowskis and a lot less ambiguity. We discussed this the last time we talked about The Matrix trilogy, but, I think the biggest set of faults in this series are the dispositions you are presumed to be taking into this film. The major disposition that you must bring is a belief in one concrete reality, one that is precious and that humans shouldn't give up.

The idea of The Matrix as a positive or negative entity or experience is somewhat explored through Cypher.

But, the vast majority of The Matrix plays out with a very religious tone. Reality seems to be some kind of God or Eden and Neo, Jesus. One of the most frustrating and condemning aspects of religion is certainly the lack of, or arbitrary nature of, answers provided. You see this in The Matrix because of its similar approach to storytelling that religious texts take. This movie means to probe, question and provide some sense of moral-intellectual structure that further gives emotional and existential support. However, there is an infinitely ambiguous singularity to the crux of all of these stories because of their refusal to be self-reflexive instead of simply assertive. With religion, this singularity is some kind of deity. There are no answers as to who, what, when, where, how and certainly why (in respect to a deity) that are in any way intellectually satisfying. There are only faith-based and emotional assumptions that may resonate with you. We see this also in The Matrix. With reality as a deity, there is no questioning of what this reality is, how it came to be, how it functions or why it is significant.

You can argue that these questions are probed - not only with Cypher, but with the end of the trilogy. With Neo 'dead', we are left with the implication that the peace is only momentary; that humans will re-build civilisation and end up ensnared in some other version of the Matrix. This gives a cyclic element to the plot of the trilogy and leaves it as an exploration of faith and a need to control in conscious beings (human or A.I). However, does it really take 3 movies to say this? Both Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind and 500 Days Of Summer say very similar things in respect to the human mind and emotions - and in one movie.

The way I see The Matrix is a dumping ground of philosophical implications that provide no cohesive whole, nor allow you to truthfully pick out a defining theme or message from the heap. So, zooming back to the first film in the trilogy, we can see this to be the fault of a, retrospectively, horrible set-up. I'll repeat, by itself, the original Matrix is a masterpiece, but, in respect to the later two films, the plot and themes are pretty weak. This is primarily because this scene...

... is resolved far too easily. I think the Wachowskis could have explored much deeper thematic avenues if Neo took the blue pill and didn't join Morpheus' clan. The reason why I think this is because of what Morpheus says as he offers the pills:

You take the blue pill, the story ends; you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.

By taking the blue pill, Neo would have been left to discover the truth of reality on his own and if he wishes. He knows the rabbit hole exists and so should be able to go down it by himself without Morpheus holding his hand as some kind of prophet. In such, we could have seen Neo wake up and see his reality with questioning eyes. This could lead to him 'seeing' the spoon bend...

This would allow Neo to opt out of the Matrix voluntarily - just as the annoying kid from the later films does. Getting to this sequence would allow us to experience what it means to see your reality and perspective shift entirely, but whilst questioning it all. Having learned the truth of human-robot-A.I history, Neo would be able to choose how, and if, he rebels against the enslaving overlords. In such, he could choose to construct his own unbounded, more liberated Matrix, defeat Smith, other programmes and even join Morpheus' cause as an independent person.

Considering this blue pill plot in respect to the red pill plot we're given, I think the latter pales as, as Morpheus describes, Neo is going to be shown how deep the rabbit hole goes - he will have his hand held and shit explained to him. With our blue pill plot, we wouldn't just be closer to Neo as a character, but possibly see him struggle harder in more action scenes - all of which have a greater sense of meaning, self-discovery and questioning. So, to the Hollywood morons out there that maybe want to reboot The Matrix, hit me up and maybe we can make it better.

Jokes aside, I raise all of this critique and revision to ask why the Wachowskis decided on this plot. The answer seemingly comes back to the structure and approach to story that many filmmakers will take. They want to tell us that we, as people and a species, are great, invincible, faulted but unbeatable and, ultimately, The One. You may sneer at this when put into words in such a way, but, I don't think this trope of storytelling can necessarily be entirely reversed - or even should be. There is this human self-centricty in stories as filmmakers need an anchor-point theme. An anchor-point theme is simply the assumption(s) you make as you go into a movie. For example, when going into Titanic, you may believe or assume that true love exists and that this is what the narrative will explore. A key strength of Titanic, however, is that it doesn't explain or affirm that true love exists. It is somewhat implied between Jack and Rose, but as we see Rose as an old woman with a family she loves, there is an ambiguity and twist given to this love story.

You will see this kind of use of an anchor-point theme in most movies - as alluded to in the beginning. Conflict of varying sorts, subtle, physical or emotional, is often used to budge and tug at presumptions brought into a movie - presumptions of true love, God or even reality. I've critiqued The Matrix because I don't think it handles this conflict very well as there isn't enough questioning which ultimately leaves a presumption of reality that you may bring into this film pointlessly ambiguous. That is to say that The Matrix relies on, and leaves you with, just faith. This is weak writing in my opinion as the narrative of the film fails to truly communicate with its audience. Yes, The Matrix may be a source of a lot of conversation and debate, but it certainly doesn't speak to you on a conceptual and emotional level like a film such as The Bicycle Thieves may.

With this narrative, De Sica not only raises questions on poverty, responsibility and social status, but punches you in the gut and mind with them. The Matrix is a fun movie to talk about because reality itself is a fun thing to question. However, the narrative of this film only acts as a facade for these questions, never a cohesive piece of communication.

The ultimate let down of original The Matrix is then that power is too simply put into the hands of a person (Neo, the audience) so that they can manipulate reality and overcome all of their conflicts with mind, heart, body and soul. Whilst we as movie goers and consumers of stories inherently seek out this self-centric exploration of ourselves, when this is done in a manner that is so explicitly servient to the audience's biases, the story becomes un-challenging and mere entertainment. So, the question I'll then end on is, how much should an audience be fed and how much should they be challenged?

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Rocky - Hidden Romance

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The Mirror - Annals Of History, Paddles Of Memory; Dreams

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Rocky - Hidden Romance

Thoughts On: Rocky (1976)

The lowly Italian Stallion is given an opportunity to fight the heavyweight boxing champion of the world, Apollo Creed.

There's a common stereotypical idea that action/sports movies are dumb, violent and little more than 'guy movies'. When you hear the fool's luck synopsis of this underdog's tale, it'd be easy to take this stance and dismiss Rocky and a stupid guy movie. But, as anyone who has seen Rocky could tell you, this film isn't so dumb and it isn't so simple. In fact, Rocky is waaaaaay up there as one of my favourite movies of all time. I have seen this film countless times over countless years and have never stopped loving it. From the spectacular use of the early Steadicam by its inventor, Garret Brown...

... to the superb soundtrack, impeccable performances and perfect writing, Rocky has this insatiable capacity to get under your skin and physically rouse you like very few other films can. But, how and why?

To answer these questions we must reconsider the kind of movie Rocky is and what exactly is a 'guy movie'. In short, what I want to argue today is that Rocky is so powerful because it is, in essence, a romance.

To start, let's confront the idea that these 'kinds' of movies are dumb. What people must mean to reference when they call movies like Rocky stupid is their basis in reality. This will combine with ideas of violence and/or aggression and so is a critique of the narrative as one with simple ends solved through simple means. In Rocky, the ending is a fight that has arbitrarily manifested - simple. Rocky must punch his way to victory after mere weeks of training - even simpler. This simplicity encapsulates all negative connotations you may attribute to a film like this. The bow and ribbon on the package is then the polarity given by the idea of a 'guy movie' as something opposed to a 'girl movie' (a.k.a 'chick flick'). These two terms suggest both a difference and similarity. Whilst guy movies are violent, action-centric and loud, girl movies are soppy, romantic and mushy - but both are simple and tantamount to guilty pleasures. However, these two kinds of movies aren't so dissimilar and certainly shouldn't be dismissed so readily. To discuss why, let's bring another film into the mix for a bit of comparison.

Pretty Woman is a great example of a 'girl movie'. Like Rocky, it has a fantastical plot that sees a prostitute pulled off the streets and into the upper class. Instead of being about punching things, however, it is about love, connections and other sticky stuff. Both of these films, in my view, then fit into a wider genre of romancy.

This term is something of a combination of romance and fantasy (romantasy seems to have been taken by a corset company) and appeals to the definition of romance that connotes mystery, awe, optimism, idealisation and sentiment - not just love. Seeing how Rocky and Pretty Woman fit into this genre is easy; both are fantastical, unrealistic, implore themes of fate and are highly optimistic. In seeing this wider genre of romancy as one that is a combination of drama and fantasy, you can begin to recognise the power of these films once you split them into 'guy' and 'girl' movies. Girl movies appeal to the stereotypical needs, wants, desires and thoughts of women whilst guy movies appeal to those of men. This, despite what it may sound like, doesn't necessarily create a divide between audiences though as the stereotypical impulses of men and women have their common purposes. This is exactly why women may enjoy guys' movies and vice versa. For example, I think Pretty Woman is a great movie, moreover, some of my favourite films ever are Amélie, Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans and Cinderella. The reason why I'd put Amélie next to Goodfellas or Sunrise next to Rocky is that they equally resonate with me because the themes and goals of these films are very similar.

Amélie is largely about freedom, eccentricity and adventure funneled into finding someone to love.

Goodfellas is also about freedom - gained through... uhhhh... unconventional means - and adventure in quest of love and family. The end goal of both Amélie and Goodfellas is ultimately security on one's own terms. Amélie, a quiet, undemanding girl who's a little strange, doesn't want to remain alone her whole life, but struggles overcoming her introversion. She stumbles into an ideal situation over the course of the narrative by simply being herself. Henry, impulsive, childish, rebellious, wants authority and a rule over a little piece of the world where no one can bother him and he can be himself. He finds this in the world of organised crime and briefly lives a great life he never stops loving. Without considering themes of hubris in Goodfellas, it becomes very clear that, like Amélie, this movie is about freedom and the ideal; romancy.

Sunrise is a film about an estranged couple coming together and essentially fighting for love and a better life together.

Rocky also holds this romantic imperative and the formation of a relationship. The only reason why we really care about Rocky winning his match against Apollo is because we want to see him become successful as a man and husband. The perfect symbolic image you can then pick from the entire Rocky series is then this:

As this image demonstrates, this movie is about a fight for family and love - just like Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans and every other romantic movie. In fact, you could even argue that Rocky is a purer romance than most 'romantic' movies as Rocky and Adrian never have any real conflicts. The only time they argue throughout this entire series is when Rocky wants to remain a man with pride who can be something to his wife and son and Adrian doesn't want to see him hurt, or worse, dead. Does that not exude a purer idea of romance and love than cheating, sex, love triangles, drama and tears?

Coming back to wider idea of romancy, what I ultimately want to demonstrate is how many of the best guy and girl movies are simply about two people finding one another, coming together and fighting, through various means, to retain that. Ideas of gender, sexual preference or whatever are irrelevant in this respect. From Titanic to Die Hard to Brokeback Mountain to Die Hard to Love Actually to Star Wars to Mean Girls to Lethal Weapon, all these movies are about people coming together. Having explored this paradigm, all we're left to ask is why this matters, and so, why this paradigm exists.

The answer lies in the simple idea of purpose. Rocky would be a dumb and stupid movie if it was 10 minutes long and was only about a poor guy being given a title shot. Without context and characterisation, any movie is dumb. But, when we're shown that Rocky wants that title so he can be fulfilled as a person who defines himself as a fighter - all so he can provide for his love - we understand that this kind of movie is about existential achievement. What this genre of romancy reflects is then an audience's need for wish fulfillment. When an audience sees themselves in Vivian Ward from Pretty Woman or Rocky, they are emotional relating to an underdog being given a chance to transcend shame, embarrassment and emptiness for pride and power. So, that ultimate weighted feeling in your chest when you see the climax of romancy movies is a combination of relief, happiness and that scene from Cool Runnings; "I see pride! I see power! I see a bad-ass mother who don't take no crap off nobody!".

To put this to rest, I'll end by saying that this is a very simple idea and observation, but certainly one that is readily overlooked by many. Retaining a perspective on exactly why mainstream films with target audiences are so impactful allows you to see the best of them as more complex or intricate than stereotype would have you see. Moreover, recognising the hidden romance in genre films often gives you better incite into yourself; romancy movies a mirror to yourself as something of a fractured and anxious dreamer. On a last note, I'll turn to you and ask what movies you see in this light...

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Jarhead - Army Of Lost Children: Transcending The Mundane Cliché

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Jarhead - Army Of Lost Children: Transcending The Mundane Cliché

Thoughts On: Jarhead (2005)

A sniper in the Gulf War waits for action, struggling to keep his mind focused on his present time and situation.

This is a film that seems to have many split. Some see this movie as cliched and ridiculous, others see it as profound and impactful. I personally enjoy Jarhead and think it is an exemplary war movie. The acting throughout the film is shaky - at early points pretty bad - as is the writing. And, of course, there are a billion references that are made...

From Apocalypse Now to Full Metal Jacket to The Deer Hunter and more, this film imitates the form, style and tone of great war movies. When I first saw this I called bullshit and was pretty frustrated, but as you're continually hit over the head with constant calls to better movies you realise that these aren't just nods. The cliches, references and tropes are all there to contribute to the narrative. A key line in the film makes this obvious is: 'All wars are different. All wars are the same'. Like Fight Club, this movie reflects on the day and age we live in, in juxtaposition to that of the previous generations. And in such, a large part of this film is dedicated to an exploration of how warfare in the late 80s is different from that in the late 60s, mid 40s or early 20th century. This is made explicit with the allusion to how war fronts move; it taking months to move the enemy back a significant distance in WWII, weeks in the Vietnam War, but mere moments in the modern age. Simultaneously however, this film is also dedicated to exploring how all wars are the same. There has always been fear, boredom, camaraderie (and a lack thereof), homesickness, anxiety, paranoia and heartbreak. And this final thematic interest is certainly the strongest aspect of Jarhead.

What Jarhead then builds itself to be is a postmodern interpretation of Platoon, Full Metal Jacket and a few other Vietnam war film classics (some of which are arguably postmodern themselves). The characters in this film seek out or begin to have the conflicts characters such as Joker, Pyle, Willard, Kurtz, Chris or Elias do in their respective films. This means that, like these many other characters, they want to get in the shit, they want to go home, they want honour, distinction, to be remembered, to live up to expectation, to be loved, to test themselves and find out exactly who they are. The futility and almost pathetic nature of these conflicts is embellished by how childish someone like Anthony is made to seem in juxtaposition to characters like Chris from Platoon or Joker from Full Metal Jacket. There is then something of an undermining of a soldier's woes and sorrows in this film, and there is no better way of recognising this than to read reviews that laugh at how 'bad' this movie is. Just as we are all somewhat tired of war movies, people in general seem to be tired of war in the real world. In such, the concept of war in modern society seems to lack punch and purpose, and this manifests itself in something I feel when seeing new war movies come out. In the back of my head, I'm constantly saying to myself, 'What's the point? It's not going to be better than [insert great war movie title]'.

This question of what's the point? is most prevalent in the war film genre as it is one of the most limited. This seems to be because the fictional war film is trying to not only document human history, but also add something to it. However, in a two to three hour space, a narrative film is not going to do much in the way of explaining history any better than a history book, documentary or teacher. This is the major what's the point? concerning the war genre. Yes, WWI was an incredibly complex social and political event in human history, but how many films must we see about it; very few will be able to show us something new or give new incite, characters and stories. Even when we do get new, smaller stories based on true events, films like Saving Private Ryan, the actual story is usually very weak. And so what narrative war films primarily aim to do is convey either the experience of war or commentate on it - and such is the stregnth of Saving ivate Ryan.

This is what we explored when looking into Platoon and the conventions of horror-war films. Through concept, emotion, psychology or physical happenings, wars films will try to show us something new by putting us into the head of a soldier or on the battle field. And it's this that is the major creative outlet of the war movie genre; communicating to the audience what war feels like. Documentaries and textbooks, in my view, do not have the visceral and emotional capacity to tell stories that cinema does and so this emotional projection of war is the primary redeeming factor of this genre. But, this paradigm sets an incredibly high bar for filmmakers attempting to make war movies. If we are precisely judging their movies on experience, and we have seen Saving Private Ryan, Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket, these filmmakers have to do something and make us feel a way that these masterful movies haven't or couldn't. Nobody really needs to be told of how daunting this task of bettering Spielberg, Kubrick or Coppola must be.

However, I'm not saying we should spend a lot of time sympathising with these filmmakers who are inherently trying to out-do the masters of cinema. Instead, having outlined this president, I think it will become all the more poignant seeing how Mendes has constructed this film around references. He seems to be submitting to these classic films, saying to the audience that, 'you have come with expectations and I know it'. He says this, as previously alluded to, because, like war movies, war in general is very much questioned in the modern day. Whilst battle, violence and bloodshed has always been questioned throughout history, there is no romantic view of The Light Brigade charging towards self-sacrifice with honor anymore in the modern zeitgeist. There certainly remains a strong sense of patriotism in many millions, but, I don't think it's reaching to say that Tennyson has been overwhelmed by Call Of Duty. This all seems to be a symptom of a post-Napoleonic world; a world that has not only seen the rise of national armies that use hundred of thousands or millions of common men, but a world that has watched those millions of soldiers die by the barrel of monolithic technological advances in WWI and onwards. In the past 200 years, war has grown many folds more devastating and destructive which has seemingly lead to the inevitable dissolution of romanticising it. After all, how can you successfully continue to glorify and promote the seemingly senseless killing of millions when the collective cause loses grip on the fighting individual?

From All Quiet On The Western Front onwards, there has seemingly been a cultural questioning of exactly this. What Jarhead then captures is a similar change in culture. Not only are we questioning the purpose of war, but the purpose of war movies; what do we have to gain from any of them? This isn't to suggest that the vast majority of people can or will rationalise that war and battle has to stop and so must the movies depicting them. All I, who is most definitely not an authority on history, war, culture or politics, mean to suggest is that there is a clear wall or shield we hold up to all that is war related - movies especially.

So, coming back to Jarhead and its design as a war film that doesn't have much respect or sympathy for soldiers, we can begin to see that the self-awareness and deprecation is there in response to a somewhat calloused audience that has seen better war films and doubts that there is much more to be said about the experience of soldiers. This manifests itself almost as a pressure that forces us to see characters such as Anthony as children and the pointless narrative the only story accessible in this day and age. In other words, the inevitability of this film's style and cliche/trope-heavy approach are what is embraced and where the substance of this story is found. In such, there is a strong sense of melancholy and isolation put upon this film as a piece of cinema, but also on the characters within it; no one seems to readily want to care about it or them.

The reason why I think Jarhead is a great movie is then the way that it uses this to drive home themes of haphazardness and loss. Throughout the film, the most prevalent conflict is certainly the loved ones left at home. Like no other war film I know of, Jarhead conveys the anxiety and pain consuming soldiers as they think of wives and girlfriends cheating or distancing themselves from them. And because this is such a significant part of the narrative, almost every action characters perform is in relation to home. We see this to be true in films such as Platoon and Apocalypse Now, but the relationship between soldiers and home is heavily weighted by themes of physical torment. And in such, the emotional conflicts of soldiers in these films seems distracted or distant by present battles and commotion. Conversely, in Jarhead, this relationship between home and war is tangible and up-front; we can't help but feel it as we're forced to wait and wait and wait. This is what gives the film its punch in my opinion. It stands up with the giants of this genre because we are forced to experience the muted woes of soldiers (muted by external forces; a society that doesn't view war or war movies as they used to) whilst reeling back and questioning our empathising.

So, to conclude, Jarhead is a heavily self-reflexive experience and film that cautiously questions what lies behind the eyes of a soldier. Are they just dumb, empty vessels? If so, why are we so interested in them, what is there to care about, what can be said about these jarheads?

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Apocalypse Now - Vicarious Revelation

Thoughts On: Apocalypse Now (1979)

Another Vietnam war film masterpiece - this time from Francis Ford Coppola.

A true pleasure to re-watch and re-watch and re-watch, Apocalypse Now is, as absolutely anyone could tell you, a pure masterpiece. Like Full Metal Jacket, it isn't what many would think of as a 'true' or 'traditional' war film as bombs, guns and explosions aren't the focus. This is a highly thematic and, in parts, experimental film that uses impressionistic cinematic language and sound design as well as a deeply subtextual narrative to explore ideas of ultimate human power and control. Because of this, Apocalypse Now is a movie you appreciate more and more given time, repeated re-visits and consideration.

However, as with the recent post on Full Metal Jacket, I won't be delving into this subtext because we've done this already. (Check that out here). What we'll be talking about today is the futile, almost nihilistic, structure of this film that sees Willard unknowingly trawl up a river to discover his true conflict and goal - that being to confront Kurtz as a man that has rebelled against the U.S army and positioned himself as a God amongst the natives in the Cambodian jungle.

This kind of structure is very common in movies and is tantamount to an anti-climax or twist ending. In short, the ending in Apocalypse Now is very much like that in Fight Club, 500 Days Of Summer and Citizen Kane. A quick warning, if you've not seen these films, firstly, what's wrong with you? Secondly, spoilers...

In Fight Club, there's the plot's ending, the end of The Narrator's character arc and the true ending. The plot's end is simply the realisation that Tyler and The Narrator are the same person. This is fun and makes for a nice twist that you may gasp at if you've never seen the film. But, the more complex end of The Narrator's character arc is his confrontation of Tyler and so sees his developed will to overcome his hatred for the world. This will lead you to think that this is a film that serves as commentary on consumerism, the modern day man, such and so on. These are definitely elements of Fight Club, but if this is all you see, I think you miss the point of the movie. The true, subtextual ending of Fight Club is The Narrator holding Marla's hand. This is a film about fear and a lack of a place in the world, and the ending solidifies this. (More on that here)

What you'll be picking up on if you've read a lot of posts on the blog is that we're appealing to the idea of 3 plot lines. This idea sees movies in three lights: in accordance to its plot, character arc and subtext. It's the last subtextual plot line that I see as the true material of movies as it uncovers the intention of the writer, director and narrative. Subtext is meaning, is the intention for telling a story, and if a writer/director doesn't simply mean to entertain, then subtext is, in essence, truth. This is what we'll continue to delve into with 500 Days Of Summer...

The ending of this film is Tom meeting Autumn. This signifies the end of the plot as Tom's search for a partner. This also represents the end of his character arc as a person who is unsatisfied with his job and afraid or unwilling to pursue what he thinks will make him happy. The true subtextual ending of this movie, however, is the implication that Tom is likely to repeat some of (a lot of?) the things that he did wrong throughout the narrative with Summer. Instead of simply making a definitive turn-around, Tom is shown as a slowly growing human that is moving into a new, but possibly repetitive, chapter of his life. The ending of this film is then a question of Tom's romanticism.

Citizen Kane. Plot ending: the journalists' failed endeavour to uncover what Rosebud means. Character ending: the revelation of Kane as a man that never got over a simple past. True ending: a solipsistic perspective is taken on who Kane really is; with his death comes the loss of all real answers as to who he is as a man; he no longer exists and so his story no longer does either, we can only infer what that is and who he was with our own personal inferences.

What we see in these three examples is a type of story that essentially sees best friends, two polar characters, realise that they actually loved each other all along. A good example of this is Clueless...

Cher and Josh start as ironic friends/step-siblings that put up with, rip on and playfully insult each other. But, of course, they end up realising that opposites sometimes attract and that they bounce off each other pretty well (despite the brother-sister thing). This revelatory structure is then, as said, very common, but has many differing applications - which brings us back to...

The plot of Apocalypse Now is simply getting up the river, infiltrating Kurtz's camp and killing him. On this journey, Willard realises that he doesn't fit into the world of war, nor the civilised structure of society. This character arc contributes to the ultimate message of the film which is on the utter chaos of human structuring, organisation and control. In seeing this, Willard is given perspective on what humanity really means in a wider sense; that we are a mere spec in a chaotic universe. As cliched as this is, it is poignant because 'we are a mere spec' or 'we are insignificant' are words we've all listened to, an idea we've all heard, but a concept that very few of us truly fathom or have realised through experience. And we do get to vicariously perceive something close to this by taking Willard's journey with him.

And this idea of vicarious realisation that is the crux of this essay. The point of this kind of structure, whether it be in Clueless, Citizen Kane or Apocalypse Now, is by and for and audience. It is so easy to say something like 'we are insignificant', but how do you make someone feel this without sending them to war and up a river, into hell, to kill their distorted reflection in a broken mirror?

This is a question all writers or artists ask when they look at their story because it's far too easy to say that 'this happens, then this happens, then this happens, then this happens'.

We all tell and hear stories like this when we're asked how our day went when we get home - things as banal as, 'I went up a river on a boat'. The thing about these stories though is that... they're not always very captivating. If it wasn't a friend or loved one telling us them, I'm sure we'd refuse to hear them. But, this kind of story telling can be raised into viable entertainment with more fantastical events - like, 'I went up a river in a boat... in a warzone'. More effectively, however, character can inject so much quality into a story.

Even if you're telling the most banal of stories, by inserting vibrant and interesting characters into this - putting a compelling, captivating person on that boat - your story will evolve incredibly. This is because you are essentially putting the listener into the story; your great character becomes a vessel for them. What this says about story telling is that it is tantamount to learning. After all, why do we watch what we watch? Why do people need to keep up with the Kardashians?

The easy answer is that it's entertaining, that it's dumb, that we get to turn our brains off and relax. (Self-defensive side note: I don't watch Keeping Up With The Kardashians). However, what I see to be a better answer is that, when you watch this show, you are engaging in an ape-like ceremony where we judge and gawk at the alpha and the elite. The same can be said for sports.

The alpha and the elite perform for us to marvel at; they put on a show for us to compare ourselves to and 'learn' from. And this seems to be the evolutionary need for entertainment of this kind: to vicariously learn. We can look at powerful women with millions, huge asses and great make-up and we can wish to imitate them or fantasise that we are like them. In the same sense, we can watch warriors go to war for town, state and country, lost in awe as we tell ourselves that they're on our side and that 'we are winning'. Simultaneously however, you may look to the powerful women and see sluts that live vapid lives with fake asses and someone else's millions or dumbass jocks, roided to the gills, throwing themselves against other morons just to put a ball at one end of a pitch for millions of undeserved dollars that they'll waste away before paying for their endless inevitable medical bills. In this rather pessimistic, calloused and negative light, you learn (somewhat masochistically) what not to be from these people, shows or games. So, coming back to this...

Characters in stories are the people that we learn from through imitation, reflection and observation. This is entertaining in the same sense that learning about insects, cars, fashion or the stars is interesting; you are gathering knowledge that you find valuable and useful. But, there's something we're missing. Who is teaching the lesson and how?

If we do not like the way that the events and characters are conveyed, or if they're shown to us in a way we simply do not understand, then the entire story beyond them goes out of the window. This is where subtext and meaning then come into the picture.

Within movies, it is primarily the writer and director's job to frame both character and plot in a manner that we not only understand, but resonate or empathise with. There's two approaches to this understanding between audience and artist. The first is showing us what the story is like or similar to. For example, Coppola shows us that Willard is like us because he is a soldier in a system, because he gets frustrated, depressed, confused and ultimately tempted. Many storytellers will take this approach as their focus. A good example of this would be Spiderman...

Filmmakers that take on comic book movies almost always appeal to the double identity, specifically, the more human side of a superhero. I've moaned about this before with an idea of an overly Human Cinema that sacrifices fantasy for identification, but it is simply there so that all of the cool shit that someone like Spiderman can do is given weight and made to seem like the average teen could be in that situation. As implied, I think there are flaws to this, but, there is a second approach.

To make an audience understand your story, you can attempt to show them what the narrative isn't or isn't like. We see these in the movies mentioned in the beginning. Films like Clueless, Fight Club, Citizen Kane and Apocalypse Now all indulge an easy reading of a story that conforms to expectation. In Clueless, we see a ditsy broad look for love, in Fight Club, we see a fight club form, in Citizen Kane, we are shown intimate details of Charles Foster Kane, in Apocalypse Now, we are put into hell. However, all of these movies, with their ends, say that 'this isn't enough', that 'this isn't all that this story is'. In such, Clueless has us see that Cher isn't so dumb, Fight Club shows us the romance and humanity in a terrorist, Citizen Kane reveals that the essence of a man can't be put into a news article, Apocalypse Now demonstrates how hell on Earth manifests and how we may find ourselves there.

There are more intricate means that a story told through differences is constructed throughout Apocalypse Now (like the distance we're held from Willard and his back story), but it is leaning on this approach that Coppola is able to introduce an idea of nuance. In such, with his structure, he allows us to think we grip his story, only to flip it on its elbow and task us with changing our views as to keep up with him. And it's this that I believe is the crux of this formal approach to story. With vicarious revelation, there is the opportunity to not only experience a story and world that you wouldn't otherwise be able to, but also gain a nuanced perspective on this new experience that maybe changes the way you see the world when you step out of the cinema.

So, to conclude, a film like Apocalypse Now is so poignant because it has an approach to narrative that, a) has an anti-climax or revelatory ending, b) relies on subtext and meaning, and, c) has the audience immersed in the world of story to the point that they intuitively understand and feel the subtextual meaning. And all of this suggests something about what makes this movie a masterpiece; it transcends simplistic story telling and becomes something so visceral that it almost seems like a tangible experience.

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Platoon - The Horrors Of War

Thoughts On: Platoon (1986)

A young man drops out of university and into combat in Vietnam.

To say the words 'the horrors of war' when discussing war movies is a clichéd and rather empty attempt to convey the impact of a film. This is because the term itself is so both banal and ambiguous - and to the point that it is almost meaningless. This isn't to say that 'the horrors of war' should not be said or discussed in relation to war movies, just that the term needs a bit of clarification. So, by taking a look at 4 of the best war movies ever made, we can begin to categorise and distinguish the 4 modes or approaches to 'the horrors of war'. These movies are, of course...


... Saving Private Ryan, Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket and Platoon. Before we begin discussing these movies and their characteristics, it has to be clarified that we are looking at these films as anti-war movies. This means we are considering their aspects that mean to show us the chaos, terror and torment war can be to society and individuals. Other movies such as Top Gun, Patriot and 300...


... aren't explicitly pro-war to the extent of being propaganda, but they do not have the same characteristics as Platoon, Full Metal Jacket or Apocalypse Now. So, when we discuss the modes of war films today, we are only talking about the kind of war film that means to demonstrate its 'horrors'. To keep this obvious, we will refer to these movies as, for a lack of a better term, 'horror-war' films.

Starting with Saving Private Ryan, we have the first class of horror-war film: the physical. The visceral impact of Saving Private Ryan is in the gory realism; the limbs blown of, soldiers drowned, friends murdered and bloodshed splayed. The gore is not there to make the movie fun, but, as should be obvious, convey the true danger and calamity inherent to a war zone. Saving Private Ryan then fits into the physical mode of the horror-war film because the horror is tangible and we see it occur to people.

The next mode is the conceptual. Apocalypse Now is a masterful example of this as it is not really about soldiers, guns, enemies and explosions, much rather, it is about the concepts of war; those being imperialism, power, murder, existentialism, solipsism, humanity, morality... etc. This is probably the rarest kind of war movie as capturing the concepts of battle is incredibly difficult. Coppola manages to do this with archetypal figures in Willard and Kurtz. With these individuals, he explores men as Gods and men as humans - a complex subject we've previously delved into. So, what makes this a conceptual horror-war film are the archetypal aspects that provide commentary on wider ideas of war.

The third mode of horror-war is psychological. We've discussed Full Metal Jacket twice already and so I won't drone on about it too much, but Kubrick conveys the horrors of war through the effects it has on an individual in this story. He does this with an appeal to Jungian theories of collective and personal unconsciousness and ultimately constructs a narrative around the concept of a mind under the pressure of war.

Before moving onto the final mode of horror-war, it has to be said that these modes rarely appear singularly in movies. For example, if we look to Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket, we can see that they both hold conceptual and psychological elements to them with their appeal to wider ideas of war as well as the idea of a soldier. That noted, we can comfortably move onto the final mode...

The fourth mode of horror-war is emotional. We see this in movies like Platoon that don't just show blood and guts, that don't just use soldiers as archetypes or minds in heads, but reactionary humans that feel frustration, fear, doubt, melancholy and isolation. The key to this mode is said idea of 'reaction'. These movies aren't so much about war and violence, but what it reflects in people and the manner in which they express themselves.

As the title of this post should make obvious, this fourth mode and Platoon are our focus for today. This is because I find Platoon to be the most impactful experience of war on film for the way in which character is so central to the telling of the story. This isn't to say that it is the best war film in my opinion - in fact, I don't think I have an opinion on exactly which movie is the best - all I mean to suggest here is that Platoon is much more visceral and resonant than Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket because there is a distance at which we're held in these movies. And in comparison to Platoon, you even feel this in Saving Private Ryan; whilst there are glimpses of raw, complex emotion, there simply isn't that same sense of truth in Saving Private Ryan as there is in Platoon. This must be down to the directors because, whilst Spielberg, like Kubrick and Coppola, is an undeniable master of cinema who clearly has a great interest in war, he did not serve in the military like Stone did. And you feel this in their movies. Saving Private Ryan has an observational, recollective and distanced perspective on what it means to fight in war. Platoon has an immediacy and incite into the personal life and perception of a soldier that almost no other narrative war movie does. This, in regard to experiencing a movie, leaves Platoon as one of the most poignant horror-war films because 'horror' is an emotion. You can think of horror as a tank hurtling toward you...

... you can think of horror as the confrontation of an immense moral and philosophical structure...

... or you can even think of horror as a tyrant screaming at you...

... but, horror is best thought of as a face:

What lies beneath these features is a multi-faceted feeling of torment, one that we have, by this point, seen beaten into Chris for months on end. There are two primary means by which this has built within him. The first is socially and the second is personally, and we see this represented by the two men that Chris ends up considering his fathers, Elias and Barnes...

Many see these two figures as Jesus and Satan, and this iconic image certainly enforces this idea:

However, this would leave you to consider this movie as a singularly moral look at a soldier's position in war. There are certainly elements of moral questioning when considering the massacre and constant fight to do the right thing throughout this film, but when considering the emotional horrors of war, seeing these two figures in another light will leave us with a more nuanced view of this film's themes.

So, starting with Elias, we see a figure that attempts to nurture and care for Chris. It's from him that camaraderie finds its way into this narrative, but quickly turns poisoned. As is said by Chris, this movie is not so much about a fight between armies, but a 'civil war' in a platoon of men. This is what encapsulates the social contortion and pressure Chris is put under throughout the film; he came to Vietnam to become 'anonymous' and be like his father and grandfather before him who fought in their own wars. However, sat in the bush, Chris is continually forced to question the purpose of war as a collective endeavour. After all, to him, it seems that no one wants to be helped and no one really wants to help others either...

This of course implies the immense political underbelly of the Cold and Vietnam War, but, more simply, the lack of society, community or togetherness in war. And this is certainly the element of Platoon that has it be so poignant; there are no true sides in this war, there is no escape, there is no anonymity. This simpler idea of war as 'us and them' dies with Elias and is never restored for Chris.

With the murder of Elias, Chris is then left, primarily, under the pressure of Barnes - he begins to define war and battle to him. And in such, there is a narrative shift towards an overwhelmingly isolated and individual perspective of battle. Like Barnes, everyone eventually takes an every-man-for-himself stance and this makes war crushingly formidable.

There is no better way to demonstrate this than this look of complete loss that we see on O'Neill's face in the end of the movie. In fact, this is the single most impactful shot of the movie to me as the hell that O'Neill has only just escaped - cowardly/sensibly so - is seemingly never going to end. What I see in O'Neill's eyes here is then his perceived future. He knows this war will be the death of him - if not literally then certainly spiritually. O'Neill, like Chris, will never be the same after this war and this is because he's made to see the blind enormity of the collective human existence and endeavour.

It's realising that you are alone in a war zone, as each and every man seems to be in the final battle, that you recognise just how weak you are and how overwhelmingly chaotic a body of hundreds, thousands, even millions and billions, of people are. There is very little that groups of hundreds and thousands can do to profoundly effect the world - yet this is what war is. War is small pockets of people trying to change the world, and such explains its devastating and hugely confounding effect on people.

Seeing war in this manner, try to imagine what it means to be an isolated cog in this network. Again, the only way to truly paint this picture would be with a face...

But, what we cannot forget at this point is the catalyst for this situation: the archetypal Sargent Barnes.

The heartlessness and self-centric inhumanity that Barnes represents exposes war as truly terrifying for the fact that you have to rely on the men 'on your side' in face of those who oppose you. What we then see, through Chris, is war as a struggle between societal collectivism and personal individuality. Ultimately, the pressure and pain of this battle is concluded with the pseudo-catharsis that Chris feels having destroyed the poison that initially corrupted his platoon.

This is the final thematic note of Platoon; escape and catharsis. From the very beginning men hate their situation and just want out, but, for most, this is granted far too late.

It's here, in the very end, that Chris realises that there is no real escape from war and that his fight between societal collectivism and personal individuality is never going to be over. He will carry his experience of war and people as isolated cogs in a system they do not understand, only resent, with him for the rest of his life - including when he has to serve in the army again as a commander or Sargent of sorts. This is the emotional horror of war; it is to face this future and question your purpose and position as a person.

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Full Metal Jacket - The Commanding Voice

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