Thoughts On: July 2018

31/07/2018

Singin' In The Rain - The Function Of The Number In A Musical

Thoughts On: Singin' In The Rain (1952) & Other Musicals

A look at the place and purpose of musical numbers with the musical narrative.


One of the most fascinating genres of all cinema, I find, is the musical, for it is likely one of the most complex and, its individual films, some of the most difficult to construct. A musical, especially in Indian cinema, is, contrary to the genre's title, not characterised by just music. The musical is almost always a conglomeration of multiple genres; it is in Indian cinema that we find the most genres collide in 'masala films'. So, whilst the foundation of a musical is song, mapped over this is so often dance, action, romance and more.

Much could be explored in regards to the presence of multiple genres inside what is supposedly one genre, the musical, but, what fascinates me more today is the foundation of the musical. What I would then like to explore today is the place of musical number in the musical.

It seems self-evident that there are two kinds of musical numbers, those that do and do not help tell and progress the story. This is a very common notion in the criticism and analysis of musicals. It can be formulated at such: certain numbers fall into the diegesis of the general narrative whilst others temporarily form a new diegetic space, an extradiegesis. This is, in a way, just a more complicated way of saying that certain musical numbers help progress the story and others do not. However, if we take a while to pick this idea apart, this idea of musicals numbers that either form their own diegesis or fit into the already existing one, we can find some interesting ground.

Diegesis is a confusing concept when we try to define it. It emerges from ancient Greek and means 'narration' or 'narrative'. Greeks, such as Plato, drew a distinction between diegesis and mimesis. Mimesis means representation or imitation. It, like diegetic, has come to mean something beyond a basic definition. However, fundamentally, we can think of mimesis as acting and diegesis as narration. To tell a story diegetically, one would use narration: "Jeff was one day hungry, so he decided to make lunch". To tell a story mimetically, one would use action alone; we would simply see Jeff indicate he is hungry and then make lunch. The difference between diegetic and mimetic storytelling is that, in the case of memisis (acting), story emerges from within a constructed space, whilst, in the case of diegesis (narration), story is told from above, outside of a constructed space.

It seems that, as these terms have descended through the ages and been translated and reconceptualised, they have come to mean something more complicated. Mimesis is generally thought of abstractly in the field of literary theory; it is conceptualised as a philosophy of art as an imitation of life. We reserve the idea of drama for acting and have taken the process of acting (mimesis) and held it over the formation of art more generally. Diegesis, on the other hand, has stopped meaning narration. In fact, in the field of film criticism, the meaning of this word has been inversed. Instead of describing narration, i.e something that exists beyond the story being told, diegetic describes the story itself, the narrative. Thus, everything that is on screen and apart of the space of a given story is diegetic. In this sense, Jeff making his sandwich on screen is apart of the diegesis. However, the narration of this process would be non-diegetic as the narration does not naturally come from Jeff's kitchen.

The film Blazing Saddles is a particularly interesting one in regards to its toying with the meaning of diegetic and diegesis. Blazing Saddles is a spoof Western about a black man who becomes one of the very first sheriffs in the Old West. Take a look at this clip that first shows Bart as the newly appointed black sheriff:


What is diegetic and non-diegetic in this scene? The joke/gimmick is that it's impossible to really determine. Let us take the obvious example of the music to dissect briefly. As we first see Bart in his uniform and on his horse, we hear anachronistic jazz music that is to be associated with black American culture - thus stereotype is shattered. Bart's outfit further breaks stereotype, replacing the expected sheriff garb with a stylised, 'pimped out' suite meant to emphasise and supportively play with the appropriation of what we'd consider a white man's role by a black man. The jazz supports this tongue and cheek appropriation, but from this resonance, arguably, comes a cheapness. This is to suggest that Brooks (director) does the obvious in not only making a sheriff dress 'black', but also in giving him a theme tune that is equally 'black'. He reverses this association, however, and pokes fun at this stereotype-breaking (but nonetheless highly stereotypical) harmony by putting a full jazz orchestra in the middle of the desert.

The appearance of the orchestra reveals that the music that seemed non-diegetic (not part of the actual world) to actually be diegetic; thus, the jazz band is taken out of a recording studio that is never acknowledged on film and put in the actual desert with the hero. However, in featuring the jazz band in the desert, does Brooks really make the sound diegetic, or does he entirely transform the space and thus create a new diegesis? Does Brooks make a joke separate from the actual story (the diegesis) or can this joke be considered to be apart of the story?

Before answering these questions, it is important to realise the end of the story. After his introduction, the black sheriff has to defend a small town against bandits. However, the crooked official who sent the black sheriff to the town also sent the bandits; he did this so he could drive everyone out and profit from the railroad that is to be built through it. As the final showdown between the bandits and the town plays through, we suddenly cut to the studio in which the Western is being shot. We then get this scene:


The finale of this movie is entirely summed up by this chaos. Brooks makes a postmodern spoof Western about Westerns that not only plays with the old genre tropes, but re-creates a vision of the world in which these films were created. Thus, the Western set is connected to a 30s musical set. However, is the reality beyond the Western the 1930s? Or is it the 70s (when Blazing Saddles was actually made)?

We are not supposed to care about this, rather, it is the recognition that there is no defined and real space, no diegesis, that is supposed to make this funny. I don't think this smart-ass anarchy is particularly funny, but Blazing Saddles remains an interesting deconstruction of the rules of what is diegetic and non-diegetic, of what is a true story space and what is merely apart of a much wider contrivance.

It is with Blazing Saddles that we find an extreme contrast and confusion of diegetic and non-diegetic. But, traditionally, it is very obvious what is and is not apart of the diegesis. Let us then look at this clip from a classical Western:


What we see on screen, John Wayne giving the girl to her family, is the story: it is the diegesis. However, the music that plays on top of this is not in the world even though it seems like it could be of it: it is non-diegetic. And this is despite the fact that the music is commenting on the diegetic space, essentially telling John Wayne to ride away. Alas, because the non-diegetic music and diegetic space are perceived by the viewer, and constructed in a way to do this, they form the greater cinematic space, a meta-diegesis if you'd have it.

The difference between this scene from The Searchers and Blazing Saddles is that the entire cinematic space, the meta-diegesis, of The Searches is confined; we understand that the world is wholly contrived for the purpose of conveying the story - even with flares of information that are not from the world of the story. In Blazing Saddles, there is no confinement of the general narrative. The story then has no distinctive diegetic base, nothing that we can point to sand say this is the story and its space. Instead, the story spreads, very literally, beyond the fourth wall, beyond the screen and out into something approximating the real world with endless self-consciousness. Traditionally, the audience and the artist are a narrative's only links to reality (the artist to a far lesser degree). (For more on this topic, click here). But, what Brooks does, and what filmmakers rarely do, is give the diegetic space autonomy and consciousness to connect itself to the world and not have a true diegesis.

The two examples we have just looked at demonstrate the boundaries of diegesis in the traditional and spoof film; a spoof film has no strict diegesis to speak of whilst the traditional narrative is very confined. The musical is fascinating because it often has a diegetic space, but it is of a slightly autonomous nature. As described previously, musical numbers can inject into the general diegesis of a narrative a separate diegesis that remains connected, thus becoming self-conscious to some degree.

To conceptualise this, we can think of a narrative to be akin to a cell.


A cell, contains a nucleus, mitochondria, robisomes and more floating in cytoplasm. These structures help the cell function: the nucleus contains DNA that is copied. Ribosomes take this copy of DNA and turn it into protein. This protein is whisked out of the cell and used to fuel other parts of the body. Mitochondria keep this process going, giving fuel to the structures that make this protein from DNA, and thus the body stays alive.

A narrative is similar to this in that drama (conflict) is manifested by action and turned into information (meaning, entertainment) by characters before being exported out of the cinematic space to the audience. Structure and supportive characters/villains, fuel the construction of conflict and its transformation into meaning/entertainment. This all occurs in the equivalent of cell cytoplasm: the liquid in which everything floats in a cell. A narrative's cytoplasm is its diegetic space: is the frame of a screen and story.

Whilst a narrative constructs its meaning and entertainment, it must be noted that 'the cell' receives material from the outside. This extracellular material that is accepted into the cell, the narrative, is its non-diegetic components: a musical score, narration and various other sound effects being the most typical materials welcomed. And so this is how the cell/narrative functions: it creates its own materials with extracellular support.

Cells, every now and then, do more than just produce proteins that are released. At times, they cultivate a large mass of material that forms a bud.


We can see in this picture of a budding yeast cell that there is a point in this process where one cell becomes two attached cells, connected by an internal cytoplasm. In a film such as Blazing Saddles, what occurs is that one cell, one diegetic space, gives birth to a multitude of other cells and spaces via budding. The only way to understand this narrative is then to zoom out of the cell and have a meta-viewing of events and thus see a conglomeration of narrative cells. In musicals, however, there forms a bud that does not always become severed from the main cell. This bud is the musical number.

The musical number described as a bud implies that it is born of the narrative, but separate from it. Not entirely detached, however, it shares the diegetic fluid in which the primary drama exists. With such a conceptualisation, it is easily accepted that the musical number is extradiegetic, is an attachment to the story, not entirely connected or separated.

It must be noted at this moment that not all musicals utilise musical numbers. There is an operatic mode of the cinematic musical that sees all of the dialogue sung and accompanied by music. In films such as this, an example being The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, there is no classical musical number; there is no bud that sprouts out of an original cell. With that said, we can begin to look at the common musical and its musical numbers.

In my estimation, musical numbers bud from the narrative with one of two processes. The bud is either made by 'the cell' by constructing specific materials for it alone, or, it constructs new materials that are distributed throughout the entire cytoplasm. In our allegory, we have to assume that the new cell that forms a bud is different from the original cell; we mean this formally as the musical number is different from the traditional cinematic space as suddenly everyone is singing and dancing unrealistically. To build this bud, material different from that which exists in the original cell must be contrived. As we have already suggested, this new material can either be confined to the new bud alone, or, some may remain in the original bud.

What we are suggesting with this allegory is simple: some musical numbers are further separated from a narrative they emerge from because they are made up of their own diegetic material, whereas other musical numbers remain closer linked to the original narrative and even change its composition in coming into existence. We come, here, all the way back to the assertion that some musical numbers affect the story whilst others just exist by its side. However, with our exploration of diegesis and our conceptualisation of narrative as a cell, this simple assertion becomes more complicated and precise.

Let us now expand with a look at some examples. We shall start with an expected, classical example of the musical: Singin' In The Rain. This is a film about silent movie stars who have to make talking pictures for the first time. Two central characters are a movie star couple. They've always hated each other, but were always associated with one another on the silent screen. As the talkies come in, the leading man falls in love with a new actress whilst struggling to make films with his old co-star. This story forms the main diegesis with support from exradiegetic musical numbers.

In one famous sequence, The Good Morning sequence, the leading man, his friend and his love interest decide they will make the terrible romantic talky he has just starred in into a musical (hence, save it). The day, or rather morning, then seems to be a good one:


The motivation for this song is a new idea. However, the function of the song is to express the emotions of the characters. The music and dance is the means of expressing emotion and thus this is slightly separate from the original narrative, but it is nonetheless helping to build character. It is then an important part of the narrative as it preempts the realisation that the plan may fail because of Gene Kelly's (Don Lockwood's) co-star, Lina. This musical sequence is then slightly transformative of the main diegesis as it impacts the story in general through character by making a mini-narrative out of their emotion. We find a similar outcome of the titular song:


Here, the musical number is an expression of how Gene Kelly's character feels: he has surely fallen in love. It then transforms the diegesis of the film as it emphasises the presence of love and romance. This musical number does this despite not effecting the plot; in the musical number Gene Kelly is not arrested, nor does he fall ill, and so this does effect anything beyond this moment, it merely emphasises a feeling. This number is then not highly transformative as its impact on the diegesis it steps out of is not literal, it is only felt in our conception of character.

With our next number, we go to further back in the narrative to a point at which Gene Kelly's character lacks the motivation to act in film. His friend, however, is there to help:


Because this is such a distracted and elongated number, it is very easily suggested that this has nothing to do with the general narrative and its diegesis; thus it forms its own extradiegetic space divorced from the original diegesis. This is not very true, however. This musical number presents the core theme of the narrative and supplies its underlying meaning. It then rationalises that role of the actor is to do what he does best, which is act, and in acting, in having the show go on, he entertains. This idea maps onto Don Lockwood's relationship with Cathy. He forces the show to go on the only way he can: by being himself. Instead of living a lie with Lina, the actor, somewhat ironically, has to start living the truth. And this sentiment is born in this sequence. Thus, it impacts the diegesis of the narrative by emphasising theme.

Our next example is a number that is not very well attached to the diegesis of the narrative. Whilst Don Lockwood struggles to learn how to speak for the talkies, there is this moment:


This number is seemingly motivated by nothing other than the film's yearning for spectacle, entertainment and music. Spectacle of this sort always plays a part in the motivation for a song to start in Singin' In The Rain - this is why each song is only slightly transformative; the songs are only so necessary. (The film wouldn't work without the songs, however - and not just because it'd be boring, but because it'd be less expressive).

A need for spectacle creates the most separate musical 'buds' that stick out of a narrative like a rather sore thumb. It is because we recognise that these numbers are there for spectacle alone that we can so easily criticise them and musicals more generally. If the story is subservient to the music, why have a story? It is the attachment of the musical number's diegesis with the narrative diegesis that puts them on equal playing fields and justifies the musical's existence.

One could argue that the musical died and struggles to be revived because of music videos. Why make a whole movie just to shoot a few music videos when we have (and have for decades now) the technology and platforms to just watch music videos? As a side-note, Indian musicals seem to thrive, not necessarily because they balance narrative with musical number, but because the music industry and film industry are so deeply connected. In most other countries there is no such relationship and so the musical has been allowed to die away whilst (for this among many other reasons) it remains a strong part of Indian cinema.

That said, let us move on to the penultimate example of a musical number from Singin' In The Rain. Here, we are going to be shown the new footage that has been shot for the terrible film that Don Lockwood is trying to save. This is the second of two numbers we are shown consecutively:


As brilliant as these two numbers are, they simply fill up time with spectacle; the spectacle is maybe self-justifying, but it could have linked with the narrative, in terms of theme and meaning, more coherently. Because this number comes about opportunistically, it is non-diegetic or entirely extradiegetic: it is a musical within a musical, an off-shoot of the plot, but has almost nothing to do with the original story.

What we then see presented by Singin' In The Rain is an array of musical numbers that each are linked to the main diegesis of the story differently. Some numbers impact the space through theme, other through character, some through tone, but almost all have a strong basis in spectacle. There is only one particular number that progresses the plot whilst juggling character and genre. It is with You Were Meant For Me that Cathy and Lockwood come together...


This is heavily linked to the main diegesis of Singin' In The Rain and is one of the most directly transformative numbers in the film because it literally moves the plot along - there are a few other partially musical moments, but they are not necessarily full-blown numbers, that also progress the plot (such as the You Are My Luck Star moment). So, it is having looked at the rather diverse array of numbers and their functions from Singin' In The Rain that we start to grip how musical numbers can impact diegesis as well as formulate their own space in a musical.

It is having established some good ground with Singin' In The Rain that I'd like to take a look at a few other numbers from other films to question function beyond attachment to the main diegesis of a narrative. We then start with a scene from Shall We Dance In Which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers have to pretend to be married, but do not get along:


This number flows away from the main diegetic space by seeing dialogue overtaken by song, which is overtaken by dance. The plot is then progressed in this number before theme and character are given a bump. In such, we see the two characters conflict yet dance together, harmonise over their disharmony - such being the fundamental idea of the film. From this there further emerges spectacle. And so its with this number that we can take a moment to emphasise the place of spectacle in the musical.

Most musical numbers are put in place so that something dazzles the audience; in Old Hollywood cinema, what dazzled in the best musicals was the skill of the performers - this is a rarity these days. Having said that, spectacle is not in and of itself meaningless. As we see with in Shall We Dance, spectacle allows the filmmakers to package a huge chunk of the narrative into a highly expressive extradiegesis. That is to say that the bud that the musical number forms is a concentrated version of the main cell. This can be seen in most great musical numbers. Whether they progress story or not, they will almost always aim to summarise and emphasise a particular moment. We see this in the abrupt musical moment from 500 Days of Summer:


The burst into song and dance is a statement made by the director: he uses the musical number impressionistically to show how the world can change around us when we fall in love. This is done in many movies. However, its function is to take a section of the narrative and condense it into a concentrate of all the emotion we are wanted to feel from a certain phase of the narrative.

We see musical numbers fail and become rather cheap spectacle when they do not encapsulate or express a section of narrative. This can be seen the film film Ishq. This is about two rich kids who fall in love with poorer kids despite their fathers' hatred for lower castes. Late in this narrative, we jump into this song, and it has very little to do with anything:


Here we have just one example of spectacle for spectacle's sake. This number fails because it does not attempt to transform the plot, theme or characters, nor does it try to express the spirit of a section of the narrative. Alas, this brings us to another function of the musical number. Whilst it so often has us step outside of a moment it can also (and sometimes simultaneously) push us into it. We have referenced this already with our mention of songs that express character or emotion, but let us look at a number from Dil Se. (Lyric translation here).


This is probably my favourite musical number ever put to film. And the reason for this is its ability to step inside a character and foreshadow a possible narrative to come. This is then the first musical number that comes early on in Dil Se. Shahrukh Khan's character sees a girl he likes at a train station and tries to buy her tea - tries to grab her attention in any way he can. She, however, brushes him off and then leaves on her train before taking the tea he buys. He watches her train go and we step inside his head to see his imagining of the two dancing as they travel, walking in the shade of love.

Most of the songs in Dil Se drive into characters' imaginations to not only capture the feeling of a previous scene, but to express this feeling through a character's perception. A good example of a particularly surreal number in which colour and location play a significant role comes later in the narrative. This moment is about love that should not be, but just might manifest. Unbeknownst to Khan's character, he has fallen in love with a terrorist and she for him. This number encapsulates the passion they feel for one another despite their differences. (Lyric translation here).


The kind of expression seen in Dil Se is particularly brilliant as it is subtly transforming the space by delving into character and providing insight. However, it is more common to see characters express themselves in a slightly more operatic mode. A good example of this comes from Sweeney Todd, which is a film about a barber who wants to kill an evil judge who betrayed him and a woman who, fruitlessly, falls in love with him:


Here is a great example of characters telling us how they feel and what they plan, revealing the subtext of the narrative and foreshadowing character and narrative arcs to come. The mode of storytelling here is less complicated than that seen in Dil Se, but it is not too dissimilar in its function. In such, we are given insight into how characters feel, and mapped over this is lyric, poetic spectacle.

Forms of insight are multitudinous, but the two key types of musical number that transform the main diegesis of a narrative do so by exploring character or theme. We have already seen examples of characters being explored so let us take one final look at a musical number. This is from Swades and it is a moment where the plot stops so that our main character can explore the developing ideas of the narrative. Thus he sings about meaning, giving insight into theme, and the potential of children beyond their assigned castes. (Lyric translation here).


What we may determine at this point is that there are two key modes of musical numbers that transform the cinematic space. On one hand, spectacle is the source of transformation, which is to say that affection through music is the function of a musical number. In these circumstances, information we already have is condensed and highlighted. Another mode of the transformative number introduces new information with insight. This is what we see in Dil Se, Sweeney Todd and more: we are given new information and insight (concerning characters, theme and more) that transforms the diegesis. We can label these two modes the transformative spectacular mode and the transformative insightful mode; one mode steps back from the narrative and the other steps into it. That said, let it be emphasised that numbers can easily contain insight and spectacle.

Much more could be analysed in regards to the musical number's impact on diegesis and drama, but we will conclude having established that musical numbers are often extradiegetic. The best extradiegetic spaces, however, are transformative, and so they change the story they step away from. And the purpose of us exploring this is to be able to judge musicals critically, with specificity and an eye that sees the musical elements as narrative components, not just attachments of fun.

So, before we end, I want to leave things open to you. What do you think about the function of musical numbers? How do some of your favourite songs on film impact the general narrative?







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Deadpool 2 - Using Structural Dead Space

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30/07/2018

Deadpool 2 - Using Structural Dead Space

Thoughts On: Deadpool 2 (2018)

Deadpool searches for a reason to live after his girlfriend is killed.


Deadpool 2 is a pretty good time. Yet for all it does well, watching this film feels a little like watching fighter who endlessly talks a whole lot of shit win a questionable split decision after a mediocre fight. Simply put, this chokes just a little bit on all the money it puts where its mouth is. What Deadpool has that no other superhero film does is the freedom to be coarse and, in addition to this (Logan was also R-rated), it doesn't have to take itself seriously. These two things are what no other superhero film has. However, it spends too much time being self-relfexive and not enough time exploring the dead space that other films overlook.

One of my favourite moments in any superhero movie comes from Spiderman 2: the elevator scene...


This is such a brilliant moment because the writer, Alvin Sargent, must have looked at his plot and saw a gap in between two important beats. It is the elevator scene that is sandwiched between the hero's initial fall into despair and his so-called 'dark night of the soul', a period before the sprint towards the big fight in which he is stuck in the maelstrom of his internal conflicts. Instead of cutting from expected scene to expected scene - Spidey falling, realising his powers are lost and then waking up the next morning to question what this means on the edge of his bed - we take a moment to pause and ask how Spidey gets home, and further ask how it feels to be in Spidey's suit.

Deadpool is rife with moments in which structural dead space is turned into an opportunity to ask unasked questions - and this is where most of the comedy is found. One example of this would be us getting to know how Pool's limbs grow back; the catalysts to some of the most brilliant jokes in both Deadpool 1 and 2. It is the fact that the Deadpool films can use their self-reflexivity and R-rating to ask questions and seek comedic moments such as these that I think these films appear so special. There is quite a difference between Spiderman 2 and Deadpool 2, however.

Occasionally, we are allowed to peer into the dead space that rests between key structural beats in Spiderman 2. Never, however, does the film become distracted by this practice. In fact, it is through its asking of often unasked questions that Spiderman 2 finds unique moments to access the heart of its character. Think, then, of Peter delivering pizzas and emerging from a closet. The sequence around this moment raises the theme of imbalance in Peter/Spidey's life; the two intersect, but can't seem to find harmony. So, just like Spidey doesn't manage to save Peter's day and deliver the pizzas on time, it is Peter who ruins Spidey's abilities in this film with his anxiety. The moment in which Peter emerges form the closet to deliver the pizzas does not necessarily help express this idea (it would be translated without the comedic moment), but, it does give it a sense of character in highlighting the awkward line that separates Peter and Spidey.

With that said, not only are the explorations of dead space used for the sake of character as well as comedy, but the expected beats and the serious drama that emerges from Spiderman 2 is genuine and earnest. And this is the dividing line between the two Deadpool films and the first two Spiderman films. Deadpool masturbates with its self-reflexivity and fetishises dead space. At its worst, this then feels forced and try-too-hard in its search for meta-comedy. A more pervasive problem lies in the structure and character of the two Deadpool films. Each sells itself as highly aware of cliche, but doesn't necessarily provide anything much better than the classical, expected beats. And is it not the height of pretence to utilise cliched, lazy writing, call it out as such, yet leave it as is?

Deadpool works best when it announces something such as "CGI fight" and then delivers a pretty good one - the fight is not mind-shattering and could have been better, but it's pretty awesome. However, on the page, Deadpool falls short when it announces that it will be a movie about love or family, but doesn't provide a particularly compelling narrative that utilises those themes. And such brings us back to the fighter who talks shit endlessly and claims he is the greatest in the world, yet wins a boring split-decision. Ali's poems were nothing without his actions in the ring.

This is my primary criticism of Deadpool 2. I do not think that it would have benefited from seeking the tone that Spiderman 2 manages to conjure. Some of the more gleeful moments to be had when watching this come from its violent anarchy; for instance, the parachuting scene, which had me laughing most, and which wouldn't work in a Spiderman film. Without relinquishing its obnoxious self-consciousness and its on-off refusal to commit to genuine plot beats, I believe that Deadpool could be more earnest and could find more heart in its characters through a play with dead space and unasked questions. That said I'll end by noting that, like quite a few others, my favourite reference that this film makes is to Swades - it could have chosen a better song and used Yeh Tara Woh Tara instead of Yun Hi Chala Chal Rahi, as the former is about the value of children, as is Deadpool 2 - alas, everything during after that cab ride is golden. Imperfect, but worth the watch.


29/07/2018

End Of The Week Shorts #68



Today's shorts: Swades (2004), The Secret Life Of Pets (2016), Iliza Shlesinger: Elder Millennial (2018), Bill Burr: I'm Sorry You Feel That Way (2014), Tom Segura: Disgraceful (2018), A Knight's Tale (2001), The Satanic Rites Of Dracula (1973), Love Streams (1984)



In one word: beautiful.

Swades is a film about a boy born in India, who has been in America for 12 years, about to return home. In such, this is a film about the impact you can make in the world. It sees a man aim high and hit high, but not find his target. This story is brought to life with unimaginable heart and character, and this is off of the back of the narrative's own sentiments, little else. What I mean to suggest in this is that the music and sound design are not particular stand-outs in this film - in fact, the musical elements are so often at odds with the predominantly realistic aesthetic. Furthermore, the realism brings down the melodrama and spectacle, which strips rather raw the human notions made by the narrative. This film then confronts so much, and whilst it is not formally perfect, does not falter in expressing truth. More can be said, but all I want to do is urge you see this. Highly recommended.



Disclaimer: I did not watch this in full - I couldn't be bothered.

Having seen a good hour or so of this, I can't see many real virtues. The animation is kind of nice and the direction does manage to successfully produce some fleetingly immersive spectacle, but these elements are not integrated well into the narrative or general characterisation. For example, Kevin Hart as the bunny then feels like Kevin Hart screaming into a mic whilst a dissociated, ill-designed bunny moves about on screen. The end result speaks volumes about the rest of the narrative: tone-deaf, cliched nonsense. There is no harmony about this film, no sense of coherence manifested between the script and animation, nothing particularly inspired, and nothing anyone seems to have really put particular effort into. People tried and succeeded in making a basic kids' film. Not worth the time.



Considering how many laughs there are to be had here, and the intensity of them, I have to say this is excellent. I've liked all of Schlesinger's specials, but the integration of politics over the last few is... eh. Politics remains in Elder Millennial, and none of the commentary is particularly profound (some of it rather insipid), but, what matters most is that the focus on comedy often outweighs the ideological babble. It is even fascinating to see intellectually, let's say loose, premises give way to some pretty gut-busting comedy. This is an ode to Schlesinger's stage presence, her developed ability to jump between evolved voices and personas, as well as her timing and writing. It is through the annoying hashtags that appear on screen and the uninspiring ideological talk that there then shines a comedian that is still well-worth watching. I look forward to the next special. Recommended.

P.S. The intro to this special is one of the very worst openings I've seen in a modern stand-up special. It's not as bad as the shit that would appear before some 80s comedy specials, but that ship joke is a... something.



One of my absolute favourite stand-up specials ever - maybe even my favourite. Burr is perpetually on fire for more than an hour; his premises simple yet brilliant, his timing perfect, his character endlessly interesting and his act-outs on a whole other level to anything I've ever seen. There are just too many great bits in this to count: the helicopter sequence, the what did you think they thought bit, the dive into religion, the break-in bit, the turbulence bit... All of these bits I know and have heard/seen many times, but they still have me giggling like a fool. And still, yours goes quack-quack, mine goes quack-a-fuckin'-QUACK is one of the funniest things that has ever hit my ears. This is just my kind of comedy. I couldn't love this more.



The laughs aren't huge, but this is consistently funny. Segura, as always, is a breath of fresh air, creating comedy out of simplicity and basic observations. No grand social commentary, a few pokes at forbidden language, but everything is confined to his own world and translated through story. A good watch for character and insight above all else. Recommended.



Truth of any character exists far above. Where this 'above' is is so often measured not by distance, but by the density of cloud and strife that must be trudged through as to ascend to said truth. This is the story of great heroes, and it is presented incredibly by A Knight's Tale.

As much a fundamental and classical piece of storytelling as it is a study in anachronism, A Knight's Tale is daring in its exploration of the emotions we all know shall exude from a tale of heroism. It cares not for rules, only truth, and truth is felt; as is the depth of this narrative. The script, then, is the central star of this movie, but it cannot be overlooked how wonderfully this is performed and how brilliantly comedy arises from minor character interactions. Maybe not perfect (maybe a touch too long and lacking a romantic thread as good as each other thread), A Knight's Tale is a must-see. Originally unoriginal and a truth blast.



The Satanic Rites of Dracula (a.k.a Count Dracula and his Vampire Brides) is a trashy 70s horror movie from Hammer. It combines the basic Dracula narrative that has been recycled into the ground with the 70s detective film as well as the occult exploitation horror. What is probably most interesting about this film is how it is so absurdly inharmonious in terms of its mixed genreisms yet so strangely familiar.

In the end, however, this is directed with some flavour and energy, but is written and acted terrible. The action absolutely sucks and this is in no way atmospheric or at all scary. As trash goes, this does not wallow at the bottom of the pile, but it's certainly not worth watching.



A film about dysfunction and irrationality in love, Love Streams is structurally and dramatologically chaotic in an uncannily earnest way as it searches for order in a fray and sense in uncertainty. Exploring masculine and feminine manifestations of pathologised love, Cassavates drives deep into his impenetrable characters, constructing a dichotomy between an overbearing mother and a neglectful father who seem to balance one another out without changing inside themselves. Like cold and hot water that cannot mix, this couple is frightening to the senses. And a key element of this affection is the narrative's expression of faulted humanity as a call for love, and the general reflection of love as glue that gums up the cracks in our being.

In total, this is rather dumbfounding. It has not struck me as much as A Woman Under The Influence, but holds a similar, uncanny draw. Recommended.





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28/07/2018

Blog News


As was foreshadowed a few days ago, a few things on the blog have changed. The alterations I have made are very minimal. I have added a new page, Beyond Film, that collects all of the posts that explore books, paintings, plays, etc. I will further classify and sort out this page when I have more posts to work with. Beyond that, the film lists have been cleaned up, and I have decided against listing the short reviews (posted at the end of the week) individually. Recent End Of The Week Shorts then appear on the film list as such...

      

... and will continue to do so. I have not extracted all the links to individual EOTWS posts as this seems unnecessary (and would be incredibly time-consuming). That said, the creation of the Beyond Film page means that I will be committing to the exploration of art beyond cinema, and so you can look forward to further dives into the books, plays, music that I come into contact with. Thanks for reading.




27/07/2018

Theeb - Spheres Of Influence

Quick Thoughts: Theeb (ذيب‎, 2014)


Made by Naji Abu Nowar, this is the Jordanian film of the series.


Beautifully shot in the deserts of Jordan, rife with verisimilitude and realism, Theeb uses a simple plot to explore a complicated coming of age in a young Bedouin (a nomadic Arab people) boy. Set in the Middle East during WWI as the Arabs revolt against the ruling (Turkish) Ottoman Empire, this, like Hollywood Westerns and its multitudinous derivatives, is concerned with times lost and times changing. The railway and the train are central, modern archetypes that encapsulate such a thematic base. This then follows, not cowboys, but another dying class of peoples: pilgrim guides who used to help travellers navigate through the deserts to reach Mecca before the train cut across it. A group of these guides is approached by an Englishman colluding with Arab revolutionaries against the Ottomans (his goal most likely being the systematic destabilisation of the Ottoman Empire, who were allied with the Axis powers: Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria). The elder brother of our main character, Theeb, is sent to guide the Englishman to his meeting point with revolutionaries. Theeb follows them, however. It is here that certain character-traits bound to unity, brotherhood and honour arise to conflict against a more abstract sense of duty connected to the nation beyond him - and such is a common characteristic of Westerns.

So often in Westerns a small town, a group of cowboys, outlaws or nomads are in (sometimes unseen) combat with a larger province, a near city or the government. This force arises in Theeb as political combat via the Arab Revolution and WWI. It is the conflict of these two spheres that so often sees characters move between them. As in most Westerns, what arises from our character crossing the boundaries between the smaller and larger spheres is an exploration of the common denominators of the two spheres' values and conflicts. In a Western such as My Darling Clementine, we find the smaller sphere embodied by a family of cowboys. When their herd of cows is stolen and their youngest brother killed, they are forced to integrate into the closest town. In doing so, the eldest becomes its link with the nation more generally by becoming a face of the law: the town marshal. What follows our characters along this journey between the two spheres (between an older, nomadic existence and a modern, civilised existence) is crime. Thus, what unites the two modes of existence is a search for the outlaws who stole their cattle and killed their brother. Alas, what our main character manages in making his transition is a form of ascendance. He then takes the values that a hard nomadic life teaches a cowboy and applies it to marshalling as to clean up the town and, eventually, seek justice for his brother. Thus, the new and the old, the simple and the complicated, the nomadic and the civilised, are reconciled.

Theeb feels like a Western, not just because of its aesthetic and world, but because it follows a very similar structure and utilises very similar themes. In such, our smaller sphere of nomads meets a larger sphere of a nation-wide and world-wide political conflict. In moving between these two spheres, Theeb must apply the values that his nomadic lifestyle has embedded into him as to survive, to seek out justice and, to a degree, right a wrong in the larger sphere.

I am being very careful with what I reveal with this film as I do not want to spoil it. Rather, I urge you to see yourself how this is structurally akin to older Westerns from the 1940s despite being immersed in a Arabic cultural and historical context. If you have seen this film already, however, what do you think of Theeb's relationship with the likes of My Darling Clementine?

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The Fantastic - The Limits Of Interpretation: What Is A True Allegory?

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24/07/2018

The Fantastic - The Limits Of Interpretation: What Is A True Allegory?

Thoughts On: The Fantastic (Le Fantastique, 1973)

A question of truth and the interpretation of truth in narratives through Todorov's theory of genre.


I am currently reading Tzvetan Todorov's fascinating book, The Fantastic. This, like Morphology of the Folktale, which we discussed recently, is a structuralist work that seeks to investigate art (literature) via classification. It does not concern itself with a particularly broad topic, but rather specifies a very distinct genre termed "the fantastic". This is a genre of literature that is, in essence, concerned with, and immersed in, uncertainty. When both a character and a reader are submerged in events that cannot be rationalised with or fully accepted as a supernatural occurrence, the fantastic emerges as a precarious position of unknowing.

A cinematic example of the fantastic (from my understanding of the genre) would be Eraserhead. To very briefly provide an overview of this film, Eraserhead follows a man, Henry, in a desolate industrial world. He has impregnated his girlfriend and it has been delivered prematurely. This is no normal baby, however; it is seemingly a spawn of E.T and a worm, its body wrapped tightly in fabric so that we never see anything apart from its alien head. Henry and his girlfriend, Mary, try to take care of the baby, but Mary cannot take the pressure and Henry's mind and will start to wander as he dreams of a girl in the radiator and the woman across the way. Henry and the baby seem to become at enemies after Mary breaks and leaves, and in a surreal set of sequences, both seem to lose their heads - Henry's brains turned into the eraser on a tip of a pencil.

This narrative is clearly surreal, but there is never a point at which we are certain that what we are watching is akin to a horror film. Furthermore, never is there a point at which Henry indicates that he knows what is going on in his surreal world. In many horror films, a ghost is accepted as a ghost; we step into the rules of a given world and operate under them. In Eraserhead, a monster is not a monster; there are no given rules of the cinematic space in which we feel comfortable operating within: this is not a genre film understood through others like it. Simultaneously, however, Eraserhead never has a final explanation that reduces the surreal elements to rational representations or sparks of reality. This is seen in a film such as Psycho; we may think about ghosts or demons whilst watching the film unfold, and a murder investigated, but all is revealed to be based in character psychology by the end of the narrative: Norman Bates is his murderous mother, it is not her ghost that is killing people. There is no explanation of this sort in Eraserhead. In such, we are never shown that everything that has occurred is simply a dream of Henry's.

At this point, the argument for Eraserhead occupying the genre of the fantastic is rather compelling. It can be strengthened, however, with a recognition of the fact that this is an almost impossible narrative to reason with. Seemingly obviously, this film has something to do with fatherhood and motherhood. However, it cannot be described as a pure allegory as never can you unambiguously assert that any image is a definite representation of something rational and objective. We are then dared to assert that the creature that Henry tries to care for is his baby; this symbolically seems obvious, but never can we reach a space of definitive rationalisation. In tandem with this, we are never allowed to fully believe that this is just a random set of events unfurling from the mind of David Lynch and put onto celluloid for inexplicable absurdist pleasure. Thus, this film mediates between rationalisation and literalism; it is apart of the fantastic, unambiguously ambiguously and endlessly uncertain.

This, I hope, provides insight into the basics of Todorov's book. What makes this such a fascinating read, however, is not just its broader ideas, but the intricacies of its definitions. Early on in his investigation Todorov quotes Northrop Frye thusly:

Literature, like mathematics, is a language, and a language in itself represents no truth, though it may provide the means for expressing a number of them.

This is a devilishly enthralling statement - one I believe I agree with. The basis of this assertion is that reality is different from representations of reality. Reality is truth. This is a very tricky assertion that could be philosophised over endlessly, but we shall leave it be as an attempt at suggesting that there is a basis of objectivity that we can call truth. So, again reality is truth. If reality contains truth then we can think of it to be a window of sorts. On one side of this window is truth, on the other side is ourselves. Why we are on one side and truth on the other seems to be a fault of our conscious nature. And what we, as conscious beings, so often perceive when we gaze towards reality is a glassy fog - which is to say that the glass that is reality is clouded and non-transparent. When we look up at the stars, we may then perceive that they are a few hundred miles away, unable to conceive of light years no matter how much we repeat the term to ourselves. It is maths that takes a cloth to the glass of reality and has us see through clearly. Math, not the human eye, reveals the truth that stars are however many light years away. However, just because math reveals the truth embedded in reality, it doesn't mean that math is truth. Math is a window to truth, it is a language as Frye says, and language does not manifest reality, it rather describes and organises it. We cannot then literally speak truth; we cannot say "I have a gold horse" and see one manifest before us; this is not how language works, language is not truth itself. This remains the case when we say that we have a hand; though our language expresses truth, it is not truth itself; it is not because we can speak that there is truth and reality, rather, truth and reality exists independent of our recognition of it.

This is what I believe Frye means to capture with his line 'a language in itself represents no truth, though it may provide the means for expressing a number of them'. Frye's use of 'represents' complicates his sentence. He rather should have used 'embodies' or something synonymous. After all, what is the difference between 'represent' and 'express'; the semantic debate is a difficult one. The difference between 'embody' and 'express' is clear. So let us reduce his statement to something of maximal clarity: language is not truth, though it may express it.

If we map this idea onto art, we can see it to be equal to math. Art can demystify reality. But, just because art can act as a tool of revealing truth, we cannot call art truth itself. Art is like a portal placed onto the world; once it is placed down, the truths borne of the earth may emerge. Art, on the other hand, does not cultivate and produce truth.

This may be, to some, a somewhat radical assertion. It is all too easy to turn to political doctrines and suggest that these not only are the truth, but that these are created truths. A system of governance does not then just exist in human culture; infrastructures must be built around government that allow it to develop and evolve. Laws, furthermore, must be written, and they must be written for the first time, they are not picked from fields like daisies. This introduces a conundrum. Art is also created, and we may assert that there are original creations, which means that art is cultivated and borne of the human mind - which runs contrary to the belief that art cannot produce truth.

This logic, whilst devious, is not entirely coherent. Let us turn back to law. It is true that law is written, and that laws are written for the first time, and that, furthermore, laws express truth. However, let us follow this line of thought: we can determine, to a degree, the kind of reality in which we exist in through ignorance. What this meas is that we may choose to be, or may just find ourselves in the position where we simply are, blind to truth. Furthermore, we can call our limited conception of 'everything' reality, when, in actual fact, further reality exists beyond current knowledge, which means further truth is to be discovered. The writing of laws for the first time represents the discovery of, or rather, adaptation and integration of, truth, not the creation of it. And, following this, it seems that a system of governance may inherently exist in human culture, waiting to be implemented. So, again, it remains true that truth cannot be created; it can only be discovered, therefore, it can only ever be expressed, never embodied by a linguistic structure.

We can go further into this concept of art as an expression of truth, not an embodiment, with the concept of art as mimesis. With mimesis meaning imitation, we can find that the concept runs in contradiction with our basic assertion. Art as mimesis implies that art represents and re-represents reality. One could argue from this point that art and reality can become confused, especially if the reflection is a successful one. And I believe this to be true. For instance, if we turn back to Eraserhead, we have a narrative that can arouse within us a feeling of fear and anxiety that equals the fear and anxiety a first-time parent feels. Whether or not this is true or could be measured and verified is unknown to me, but, if we entertain that the two experiences may be comparable, we can see that, with humans as the vessel of interpretation, we can define reality. That is to say that we might not be able to distinguish, with our senses, the difference between what is on film and what forms objective reality. And if this is the case, what is the different between the representation and reality?

This may seem like a silly question when we compare a surreal film about a monster to the act of parenting, but, the argument becomes far more difficult when we deal with the transcendent and the abstract. What is the difference between looking up at the sky and pondering the universe and witnessing the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey? When we look up at the sky and feel enormously small and lost, we are forced to interpret the unknown. The same is true of the end of 2001. (Forgive me for not detailing this ending closely). When reality is fundamentally unknown to us, how do we distinguish the representation from the clouded real? It is in such a context that representation and reality are very hard to distinguish and the concept of art as mimesis its most difficult to reconcile with our assertion that art is not real, is not truth.

It is under such conditions that we are forced to question the validity of our view of reality itself. When we look up at the stars, can we say we see reality if we do not understand fully what we see? Maybe we can assert, as with math, that there is a reality to what we see, just that our eyes cannot possess it. This justifies why truth is behind reality. And this is such an important note to make in regards to art. Math does not deal with the transcendent, art so often does. What this means is that math is reliable, and so can be seen to objectively and quantitatively reveal the truth. Art on the other hand never fully demystifies reality. No matter how truthful a movie about love may then appear, it cannot be considered a scientific classification of the phenomenon. Because objective truth always remains at bay of art, truth retains a transcendent quality, which is to say it always exists beyond the clouded glass, accessed briefly in faith and in faith alone. If anything, art allows us to close our eyes and reach through the glass wall that is reality and feel truth ever so briefly. We have no means of proving what occurred, but we have faith in the fact that we came into contact with truth.

With that said let us return to mimesis. Mimesis reveals not that art is equal to reality. However, mimesis reveals the means through which art attaches itself to reality. Replication in this sense, mimesis itself, becomes the tool through which truth is accessed (in faith). Let us map this onto Eraserhead. Lynch, in some form, imitates some shades and contortion of reality with his film. He may, we could suggest, be representing multiple shades or perspectives of reality at once - which is why the film is so indefinite and apart of the fantastic. Nonetheless, though Lynch may be creating an original work, he is not creating new truth. We have discussed this already in regards to law. Law is discovered, much like Eraserhead was by Lynch. Where it was found is in (behind the glass of) reality - and we know this because we can feel through the film and find truth, and truth is, ultimately, only a property of reality. Herein we find the magic of art as mimesis. Art, as it is both created and consumed, can bypass reality to express its truths; it does not have to concern itself with unclouding the glass of reality, but can rather temporarily create a hole that we can reach through with our eyes closed. However, how do we know truth, true truth, is ever found?

This is quite possibly impossible to answer. Alas, let us attempt to go as deep as we can through our conceptualisation. Below mimesis, in my estimation, is something approximating Tao. The Taoists have a profoundly brilliant idea of a Way of all being. This Way cannot be known, but it can be aligned with. And this is the only answer I can conceive of as a response to us being able to know if truth is, itself, true. A philosophy of Tao implies that Tao is within us, that truth is within us. To operate correctly is to live in alignment with Tao, with truth. Therefore, truth is accessed through proper mimesis; by being our true selves. How do we know when mimesis is correct? I can only suppose that it is a feeling justified collectively, amongst us all, and simultaneously within our individual selves. Truth is true when we know it to be; if this is not the case then nothing may as well be the case. I can better specify this final assertion, but let us not stop here and get lost.

To crawl out of this conceptual hole we have dug, let us find another quote from Todorov that is in direct communication with Frye's earlier remark:

... literature is not representative in the same sense that certain sentences of every day speech are representative, for literature does not refer (in the strict sense of the verb) to anything outside itself.

This is another devilishly fascinating assertion (an assertion Todorov adopts, in part, from Frye). Let us pause for a moment to question what Todorov is saying here. The crux of this assertion is found in the last section: 'literature does not refer...to anything outside itself'. This is one of the most fundamental truths of all art. Art is a manifestation, and everything within its confines is contrived. This means that a film can only ever be based on true events. This is definitely true in fiction, but there is an endless debate in the realm of documentary concerning the recording of truth that we shall not fall into right now. What we shall then assert is that documentary is not a strict art, more so a craft, the difference being that art is created and a craft moulded, hence truth is discovered via contrivance by art whilst it is presented via investigation by documentary. To take a step back, however. All fiction is contrived, so even if a film is about historical reality, it must always re-represent this. As a result, though it imitates truth and reality, it does not embody it. Furthermore, because truth is not embodied, rather imitated, what is referred to in the art is not the reality, but rather, the representation of the reality.

Let us look for an example in Saving Private Ryan. This is a film about WWII, which happened. It also contains events within it, such as the Invasion of Normandy, which happened. These events are all true and real. However, what is put to film is a representation of what was real. And what is referred to in the film, and what is commented on, is the representation, not reality. Spielberg then does not take real footage of the landings at Normandy and discuss it, he rather recreates footage, however realistically, and comments on that. His references to WWII are then inextricably references to his idea of WWII.

This set of assertions does not mean that there is no truth in Saving Private Ryan - we have already discussed this. Truth is accessed with the film becoming a portal through reality. This set of assertions is concerned with how commentary is formed. Spielberg does not speak of reality; he shows a perspective of reality and speaks on this. Because he does this through film, it is the film that both creates a version of reality and then speaks about itself. What we see here, then, is art only ever being able to refer to itself; only ever being able to frame a vision of reality before referring to that as to produce commentary (which itself may express truths of reality).

Herein, we see the distinction between art and something such as a horse race. A commentator's job when calling a horse race is to translate facts. They so often provide opinions in addition to this, but what is centralised are the facts. A commentator will then say that Horse 3 is ahead of Horse 4. This can be measured objectively and so the commentary can be seen to be referring to reality. Art stages the horse race which it comments on. So, even though a commentator in a film may say that Horse 3 is ahead of Horse 4, they will only be referring to what has been written in the script, to something predetermined and already apart of the art.

It could be argued that there are rare cases in which art refers to something outside of itself. We find an example in documentary and its blend into narrative. Here, a real horse race can be filmed as objective fact and commented upon. It could be argued in this case that the documentary is referring to something outside itself - but does that make it art or a craft? (Something that can be discussed elsewhere). But, we can nonetheless sustain that fiction always alters and recreates the reality it means to imitate and so can only refer to itself and its own process of mimesis, nothing else.

The implication of this line of thought has us turn away from questioning what art is and towards a question of how we use art. We have surmised already that art allows us to access truth. However, how do we express this truth once we have come into contact with it? To re-frame this question: how do we provide our own interpretation of truth and of art that is valid?

This is a daunting question that is inadvertently posed by Todorov as he discusses allegory in regards to the fantastic. The implication that art can only ever refer to itself emphasises above all else the impossibility of inherent reality in a narrative. That is to say that, a narrative can never strictly be about the real world because it can only be about itself. In one sense, this is a liberating expression. This is then an argument against an assertion such as 'all art is politics'. If art is a manifestation of imagination, then it can only refer to imagination itself; this is what we truly mean by 'art can only refer to itself'; it can only refer to its origins. And the fundamental origin of art is not politics or ideology, rather, it is creation itself: imagination. However, this is where we find ourselves trapped. If art can only be related to itself and its origins in creation, how can we speak of it?

It is here where we must accept that we have to create art out of art in our analysis of it; interpretation an art of recycling - or is it a craft? The difficulty of interpretation is the impossibility of speaking of the true process of creating art. No one understands this fully, and it cannot be documented wholly or objectively. After all, how do you collect and record every thought that goes into first coming upon an idea for a story and then manifesting it? Because this is impossible, true analysis is also impossible - almost.

Though art can only fundamentally refer to itself, within the inevitable self-referral, an artist does draw from the real world, does attempt to refer to it. This is the most fascinating case with allegories. Allegories come from sustained metaphor. To take Todorov's quotation of Quintilian: 'a continuous metaphor develops into allegory'. An example of allegory in cinema can be seen in The Incredible Shrinking Man:

A businessman on holiday comes into contact with a strange mist. Over the following months he starts to notice that his clothes do not fit, and ever more rapidly it becomes apparent that he is shrinking. All too soon, he is the size of a doll in a doll house. His estranged wife one day leaves him at home to run an errand, and the house cat attacks him. Returning home, the wife believes her husband to be killed. In truth, he has been cast down into the cellar, and is trapped here. The man spends the rest of the film attempting to survive in this supersized world, to escape and find his wife. In the end, he fails, but comes upon the realisation that "to God, there is no zero".

The allegory drawn here is clear. The mist, as we are told at one point in the narrative, is nuclear. The man shrinking as a consequence of coming into contact with nuclear technology seems to be a clear allegory for fear in the new nuclear age of the 1950s. And so it is the looming Cold War that not only shrinks the man, but makes his everyday problems so much larger. What we see here is one minor metaphor sustained and transformed until our main character realises that life always remains difficult, that it is not the magnitude of the world that impacts suffering, but the perspective we can take of it. To see the world as suddenly so much more dangerous induces further suffering. The truth is, however, that, from an omniscient perspective, there is no zero, no end to how small or big things can get; life is life, life is suffering, this always remains true despite its size.

The allegory drawn here seems very obvious. Though this may be the case, we can take a step back and question the accuracy and veracity of our reading. Our interpretation, after all, refers to an understanding of reality (or at least, something beyond the art) whilst art can only refer to art. Questions that then seem paramount concern what the artist intended: is our interpretation theirs? How do we know the director meant to say this? However, is this a redundant question?

As Todorov points out, art (literature) can be endlessly interpreted. But, he nonetheless sustains that there are a finite amount of allegorical forms: obvious allegory, illusory allegory, indirect allegory and hesitating allegory. Each of these forms define a relationship between the author and reader: obvious allegory concerns an author with clear intentions and an understanding reader, whilst hesitating allegory concerns an unsure author whose reader cannot guess their intentions (this is the case with a film such as Eraserhead; not even Lynch knows what this film is about). These different forms imply that a truthful analysis of an allegory requires agreement between what the artist thinks his intentions are and what intentions the reader recognises.

This, I certainly sense, is a valid way to judge the limits of interpretation; if the disagreement between text, reader and author is apparent, the validity of interpretation is weak. Let it be emphasised here that there are three elements that judge whether or not interpretation is valid; the author, the reader, and also the text. The author knows what they meant (to a degree), a reader may be able to tell the author something that they don't know about themselves, and a text only knows itself. The manner in which these three entities must agree is difficult to delineate, but it should appear clearer with specific study.

That said, I am interested in the text being a window onto a reality that neither the author or reader can access. This brings us down our look into mimesis and then finally Tao. The conclusion we may then draw on the ultimately validity of any interpretation concerns the true allegory. With art in its purest form, it allows us to grip truth. To be able to speak of this truth, we must align ourselves with the ambiguous Way. The limits of interpretation are then seemingly not so strict. Whilst we may not speak truthful interpretation into existence, we can speak of the essence of truth and become a hard-line to faithful truth ourselves. So, whilst our capabilities to interpret are infinite, our ability to express truth is not. True interpretation is found when art resonates against art and fundamental truth becomes ever more true. Truth is within us, and it is only by expressing that truth that we can come to know if we understand what we know. Hence, the importance of communication; hence, the fundamental basis of all art must be defined as communicative. The true test of truth is then the friction of expression. We have asserted that truth can be expressed by art, but we will conclude that true truth can only ever be recognised via the friction, difficulty and conflict that the process of mimesis, expression and reception induces.







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23/07/2018

Kwaidan - The Limitations Of Anthology Horror

Thoughts On: Kwaidan (怪談, 1965)


Made by Masaki Kobayashi, this is the Japanese film of the series.


Kwaidan, meaning "ghost stories", is a collection of four folktales, which makes this an anthology film. Each experience I've had with anthology horror films has not been particularly good. Having only seen the likes of Tales of the Crypt or the 1963's Black Sabbath, anthology horror has then become synonymous with cheapness and cinematic trash in my mind. Realising that Kwaidan fell into this loose genre of film, sceptically, I watched this in search of structural self-justification. That is to say that there doesn't seem to be an entirely convincing argument for the existence of the anthology film; so often they seem to be means of collecting odds, of selecting multiple directors, actors, scripts, etc. in the hope that at least one works for the audience. Beyond this, anthology horrors, or anthology films in general, do not seem to have much purpose as there is never a real attempt to build a larger narrative through a few select shorts. It is without this, at least thematic, coherence, that I find little reason in watching them, but nonetheless hoped that Kwaidan may provide some reasoning.

In short, I do not think that Kwaidan is structurally self-justifying. Each of the four shorts could have been extended into stand-alone features and, furthermore, would have benefited from more time in which to develop characters and ponder upon the often fascinating narrative conundrums that characters find themselves in. That said, it should be emphasised that Kwaidan is not trashy like the mentioned exploitation horrors, Tales of the Crypt and Black Sabbath. One marker of this is that many have lauded this film since its release for its aesthetic beauty, and it is indeed true that this is shot with many complex camera movements and (well executed, but maybe not impressive) camera tricks that are uplifted by the elegant pace of the edit, the controlled, yet emphatic lighting, colour schemes and cinematography, and the always precise mise en scène. Presiding over each of the four narratives is then a distinct style given by Kobayashi. What unifies these films aesthetically, however, doesn't strictly concern the camera work, cinematography or editing. Instead, it is the sound and set design as well as narrative voice that cultivate a sustained tone and atmosphere which is contrived and melodramatic, but not always negatively so.

There are many instances throughout Kwaidan in which the sound-montage breaks continuity in an attempt to suspend the viewer in the emotion (the horror) of the silent, objective space within the frame. At maximal points of terror, we will then see characters fall down, scream and even break walls, but hear no consequential sounds. This is witnessed during the first short:

A swordsman leaves his devoted wife because he cannot bear the poverty in which they exist. He marries into a rich family, but finds himself with a cold and selfish wife. The swordsman spends years in the miserable relationship before returning to his old home, which, due to neglect has become overgrown with shrubbery and overcome by weather. Within the home, he finds his old wife, who has not aged a day, and reconciles with her, apologising and being accepted into her arms as he lists all the features of hers that he has missed so much (her eyes, cheeks, lips and hair). The two eventually fall asleep, yet, when the swordsman awakes, he finds that underneath his ex-wife's clothes and hair is only a skeleton, which continues to haunt him no matter his attempts at escape.

It is during the swordsman's frenzied and futile attempt to escape the bones of his first wife that the sound-montage deteriorates and we see him scramble, scream and break through walls without hearing what our eyes tell us we should be. Why Kobayashi does this seems self-evident, but, the execution is not particularly successful. In sucking all sound from his cinematic space, Kobayashi impressionistically paints it in shades of panic. After all, it is when we are panicked that sensory information seems to break down and become singular; for example, if it is a thought that bothers us, we can be blind to all else, if it is an image that possesses us, we can be deaf to everything. It is actually something of a cliche to represent this on film. Consider then that there is a character/characters in a car and the sound becomes a heavy focus - for instance, a couple starts arguing loudly, or someone sits in silent contemplation, or someone sits in buzzing frustration - we instinctively know that they are probably going to hit by another car. Two examples I could provide come from No Country For Old Men and Whiplash.

It is in the end of No Country For Old Men that we, along with the villain of the narrative, Anton, sit in silence in a car. Anton has just left the house of the woman who was in love with the man he has been chasing the entire movie and has finally caught and killed. He threatened her with death in the house, flipping a coin, asking her to choose heads or tails as to decide her ambiguous fate. She refused to call. Whilst we sit in the car with Anton as he drives away from the house, the quite sound design forces contemplation into the atmosphere. We do not know if he killed the woman, and we cannot tell if he (uncharacteristically) placed his will above chance, the coin flip, and killed the woman without her calling heads or tails. But, the silence is sustained too long and it becomes obvious that--BANG. Another car drives into the side of his.


Around the mid-point of Whiplash, our main character, a first-year jazz student, Andrew, is given the opportunity to play with his school band in a competition as the core drummer. This is a big step towards Andrew's dream of being 'a great' and he cannot miss it for he knows that his tyrannical teacher will ruin him if he is not on time. All is going well until his bus breaks down, so Andrew decides to rent a car and rush to the venue. He arrives a little late, but, after a confrontation with his teacher in which he fights to still play, he realises that he has lost his drums sticks: he left them in the car rental place. He has to run back outside, drive back, the clock ticking, convince the owners to open the closing shop, get the sticks and drive back. On the way, however, he gets a call from one of the musicians, saying that everyone is already on stage. The relatively long shot allows us to realise the fast jazz underneath his screaming voice. The sound becomes a vacuum-like force when Andrew throws his phone down, and all too soon we know what will--BANG. He's side-swiped.


In each of these examples, and there are many more like them, we see sound and space interact to create a swell of emotion that suddenly becomes focused. The focus is the director/editor telling us something is wrong and so we are suspended in a state of frenzy and unknowing before very quickly, maybe abruptly which will lead to a jump scare, realising why we were, for example, panicked. As a slight side-note, this doesn't only work in a context of panic or terror, and this effect doesn't only require silence. We can see this in Step Brothers.

Two men-children, forty year old step-brothers whose respective mother and father have recently married one another, have been causing havoc in the home in which the four live together. The absurdly troublesome pair are told to move out and sort their lives out. The step-brothers initially hated one another, but have become the best of friends, and together have decided to embark on a business venture in which they will build an entertainment company (whatever that means). Their first endeavour for this company is to make a music video, and to do this they write a rap song titled "Boats 'N Hoes". They then steal their father/step-father's boat (his prized possession; he wants to retire and sail around the world) and hire a few women to shoot their rap video. We are shown this video at a party celebrating the step-father's birthday. This is where the sound design takes over: the loud music, the presentation given the the brothers, the obnoxious comments made by people at the dinner table, the horrified remarks made by the father, the ridiculous reactions of others, all coalesce into a comedic cacophony before--BANG. The boat crashes.


It is in all of our given examples that sound design builds tension of a certain character - it can be comedic, thrilling, interrogative, terrifying, etc. It is when the sound design erupts, when the focus it cultivates is broken, that there is a release of tension and an emotional (sometimes intellectual or interrogative - as in No Country For Old Men) outburst. This is dependent, however, on a relationship between sound and all other aspects of a cinematic space - which is to say that this effect isn't guaranteed to work unless it is orchestrated well with camera work, cinematography, acting, editing, etc. In the case of Whiplash, the speed of the car and the shot that looks out of the car window, past Andrew's face, implies an inevitable car crash. In a certain respect, the inevitability implied by the shot helps build tension, but in another respect it breaks it - all because we anticipate a car crash. In my estimation, the effect works, but rings with a cliched and predictable nature. One of the better examples of this effect working may be seen in Step Brothers; here the sound design mystifies and creates chaos before the dialogue anticipates a hurtling comedic pay-off in the boat crash.

If we return to Kwaidan and the way in which Kobayashi drains sound out of the cinematic space at the point of maximal horror, we see that he means to build panic and cultivate over many minutes a sense of terror by having a continual focus on the skeleton and the swordsman's reaction to it. However, what is missing from this sequence is either chaos or concentration of a degree that entirely captivates the senses. In Step Brothers, we are lost in the chaos, in Whiplash, we are bound by frustration, and there is assistance from both the speed of the editing and the amount of given information in both scenes. Because there is resonance, because the focus of the sound design aids in captivating and focusing the viewer's attention, the effect works. Kobayashi does not, with the speed of his edit, with his mise en scène or with the information translated, provide a counterbalance with the suspension of sound. Thus, we are not pulled into his scene, rather, left watching silent imagery rather coldly. And this occurs at many points throughout Kwaidan, giving the sound design an often cheap tone (in the third short, which focuses on a song, the sound design improves).

Such is an example of the limitations of Kobayashi's style, and thus his inability to successfully unify his four shorts, but there is one more key element of his approach. As Fellini does in the likes of Satyricon and Casanova, Kobayashi fully embraces the faux nature of his set, accepting into his cinematic space the confines which preside over a theatre production. At many points shorts then do not look like movies, but filmed plays.


With his painted backdrops in juxtaposition with seemingly real shrubbery, we are constantly made to realise that the narratives were constructed in a studio, and thus, that what we watch is not real, but a story in the process of being told. This self-reflexivity resonates across the four narratives and comes to a head in the final short, which is about incomplete folktales. This short goes as follows:

In the home of a writer, we are told that many Japanese folktales are incomplete by our narrator in V.O. He questions why this is the case; are the writers lazy? Did they come into conflict with their publishers? Did they die before finishing? Putting this aside, we are told that the following tale is an example of an incomplete text. And so we are put in a manor in which a guard sees the reflection of some unknown face in his tea. He throws many cups away before drinking the liquid that reflects the unknown man's face - almost as an act of defiance. Later that night when he paroles the ground, he comes upon a man who is in fact the person that he saw in the cup. After a confrontational exchange, the guard draws his sword and attacks, but the ghost escapes through a wall. The guard calls all the other men on duty, but no one can find the intruder - they dismiss our main character when they learn that he believes he saw a ghost. A day later, the guard cannot sleep, but is called out of his room because visitors wish to see him. These turn out to be messengers from the ghost that visited who warn him that their master will return for vengeance. The guard draws his sword and fights them. He impales all three messengers, but they do not retreat; they surround him. And this is where the tale ends. We are back in the home of a writer. His publisher comes to meet him, but is greeted by his wife; the writer is not to be found. After leading the publisher into her husband's office, the wife screams at the sight of something. What she sees, we do not know, but maybe it is a ghost or the body of her husband.

It is in this tale that the process of writing a ghost story is centralised, and so is the self-reflexive acceptance of the folktale's contrivance. The statement made here is ambiguous, but it seems to point to the audience and ask them about the purpose of retelling ghost stories, about the meaning that can be extracted out of them. Simultaneously, however, this feels like a very cheap attempt at transmitting fear across the fourth wall of the film. This is often done in terrible exploitation films that have a narrator or presenter introduce the stories, telling us to be careful ourselves as we sit in the dark or some other nonsense. This breaking of the fourth wall introduces a game to the telling of a narrative, one in which the storyteller openly tries to scare and the audience openly yearns to be scared. This is a silly game, but it has always had its place in the practice of storytelling, and so, in a certain respect, this seems to be a unifying stylistic approach in Kwaidan.

Upon reflection, we can tell now that Kobayashi does little to justify the conglomeration of these four shorts. With his sound design and general stylistic approach, he makes each short his own. And he further does this with the slightly self-reflexive tone with which each tale is told. However, in terms of technique, there is not much given to this film that unifies its separate parts. And in terms of a narrative voice, there is no coherence; in such, the narration comes off as only cliched where it clearly has a purpose of breaking the fourth wall, and needless where it does not have any clear purpose.

It is for these shortcomings and the fact that, neither through style or an overarching narrative, does Kobayashi justify his use of the anthology, that I do not think Kwaidan is a particularly good film (but, I have to note that I'm not convinced that very many good anthology horrors exist). However, there is one short within this that struck me above all else. This was titled, The Woman of the Snow:

Two woodcutters are caught in a snow storm, but find refuge in a fisherman's hut. A ghostly woman appears as the two rest. She kneels by the elderly woodcutter and breathes over him, taking his life. She approaches the younger woodcutter, but, out of pity, she spares him. Before leaving, she warns him that if he ever tells anyone of the event, she will return and kill him. The next morning the woodcutter escapes and returns to his village. Over the years, he falls in love with a beautiful woman and starts a family. The family of five live happily in their small village, the wife loved by all, though thought of as strangely young despite all of her years. On a night before a festival, the woodcutter is making sandals for his wife and children. Memories rise within him at the sight of his wife; he remembers the night that he was caught in a snow storm and the woman that almost killed him. He tells her of the event in the snowstorm, whether it be dream of reality, remarking how similar the two women look. His wife is then forced to reveal the fact that she is the woman in the snow, and is now obliged to take his life. However, for the sake of their children, she spares him again. She leaves her family, venturing into a snowstorm, warning her husband that, if her children ever have reason to complain about him, she will return and kill him. The husband leaves her sandals outside their home and they disappear.

This is a particularly beautiful tale, one with distinct structural markers of a folktale that produces a conundrum of ambiguously profound meaning. It is then quite different from the three other tales that Kobayashi presents as it contains within it romance over horror; granted, each tale is distinct, but this has a defined individual essence and general quality that the others do not hold. It is then this tale that I wish most of all was made into a feature-length film for it has within it a fascinating and expressive exploration of the feminine, the young and forgiveness.

The fundamental motif of this narrative is embedded into the repeated acts of compassion: the woman of the snow spares the innocent and those with potential. She seems to embody nature and the natural flow of life in this. In being, for example, the force that takes the life of an old man, she does not then bend the rules of nature as it is highly probable that the cold would kill the old man without her intervention. As a result, she is solidified as a personification of nature, not necessarily a spirit or aberration separate from it. What, then, does it mean for her, having saved the youth, to not only bind him to never speak of the truth but to also start a family with him?

To answer this question, it seems important to recognise that embedded in this narrative is a constant romance and naivety that almost become interchangeable. You may then ask how the woodcutter could have three children with the woman in the snow and never realise who she was. The answer to this question seems to be ignorant (blind) love and naivety. Taking a step back, we see that the woman in the snow saves the woodcutter because he is young (because he is naive, unknowing and full of potential) and has him promise to remain so. In following her wishes, in blinding himself to his own fortune and never speaking of it, the woodcutter extends his fortune indefinitely - which is exemplified by the woman in the snow marrying and starting a family with him. It is in stepping away from naivety, in remembering the snowstorm, that the man loses his wife, yet he is saved again with the promise that he sustain and preserve his children (who are also naive, unknowing and full of potential like he was).

From our perspective, this seems to be a story about fool's luck. Furthermore, it seems to be a tale about preserving what is good until it is ready to preserve good itself. Overshadowing this is a naive worship of nature as a feminine entity - that which can both destroy and create. Maybe, then, there is something to be said about being possessed by the imago, the archetype, the ideal of nature and of fortune. This would then be a story that sees a man move away from a naive worship of his own fortune before stepping away from naivety as to cultivate the fortune of his children with his own hands.

It is disappointing that this sustains a lack of specificity thanks to its length - which is why I would have liked to see Kobayashi explore this over alone 90-120 minutes. Alas, there is an honest folkloric magic about this that, with closer analysis, may hold more coherent meaning than what I imply. With that said, however, we seem to have run aground our discussion of this film. I then leave things with you. What are your thoughts on Kwaidan?

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