Thoughts On: August 2018

30/08/2018

The Possessed: Part II - Insane Melodrama

Quick Thoughts: The Possessed (Бесы, 1871-2)

A return to Dostoevsky's novel.


I have just finished part 2 of Dostoevsky's The Possessed. Where part 1 focused on Mr. Verkhovensky and Mrs. Stavrogin's quire relationship, part 2 focuses on their grown sons, Peter Verkhovensky and Nikolai Stavrogin. Their respective mother and father have seriously fallen apart, yet this effects not the two sons. They are not friends, but are bound to one another due to previous meetings in Petersburg. (They are now in their home town with their parents). Part 1 establishes a petty drama in the upper class of our small town that is seemingly typical and unending; it is one of the elders attempting to fit in and climb up the local social hierarchy. In part 2, forces from the younger generations that are wrapped up in progressive ideals yet contain frightening spite and nihilism begin to infect the town. There are leaflets floating about, there is trouble brewing, there are strange faces and new ideas from other provinces. Our first part simultaneously distracts us and shows how the elders have been distracted from this growing problem. In the meanwhile, whilst trouble brews and then begins to erupt in the finale of the second part, Nikolai Stavrogin faces his own troubles. He brings to town with him history as an officer in the Russian army. Whilst he was away in Petersburg, rumours suggest that he was hanging around with the wrong crowds, and is quite possibly insane. Flares of this rumoured insanity have burnt many faces in town--Stavrogin having bitten noses and engaged in other absurd, violent acts, toward himself and others. Below this insanity in Stavrogin, however, is a conflict and a secret - something to do with his having married a 'crazy' woman who now lives in town.

I cannot provide adequate detail of the plot without writing a very lengthy post. Alas, what part 2 encapsulates is a subtle and tentative formulation of a question that I, coincidentally and recently, saw raised in the film, In Cold Blood. This is a 1967 picture adapted from Truman Capote's novel of the same name--a book I have not read, and a film I have little that is nice to say about. Overlooking questions of quality, the story presented by the film felt to me to be a simple and melodramatic distillation of what The Possessed so far seems to be. (My mentioning of melodrama is not to imply that Dostoevsky's novel is not melodramatic--it very much so is at many points). In Cold Blood raises a question of insanity and nihilism - what is the difference, and does it matter, in murderous creatures? Stavrogin himself embodies this sentiment, for we can never know if he is pained by some trauma or is in full control of his senses. Through an expository chapter that originally was struck from Dostoevsky's novel, we come to know that Stavrogin witnessed and caused a terrible tragedy. Alas, we still can never decipher if he is possessed by the consequent trauma or now wiser to his own evil--which he consciously embraces. Thus, we return to the conflict between insanity and nihilism, between traumatisation and vindictiveness. If we briefly mention Peter, we have a lost soul, either stupid or evil--extremely so in either case. Little more needs to be said about this rat.

I feel incapable of speaking about this thematic contrast at greater length as there is very little that is resolute and clear in part 2. Dostoevsky's manner of revealing information is rather difficult. He keeps the reader a step or two, at least, behind the characters in each bubble of drama. It is rare that we can foresee drama unless we are told specifically that something bad will happen, and even still it is very difficult to judge what will go wrong and how. Much of this can be attributed to the rather erratic and undecided nature of all of our characters, but, it is simultaneously very clear that Dostoevsky is very careful with what he wants us to know and when. Brewing within me is then a feeling that a re-read would reveal more than the initial experience. Alas, in many chapters I have come to question Dostoevsky's ability to visualise character and drama. Not being a very avid reader of fiction, I haven't got a developed ability to see a story as I read it--even when I read a lot as a young teen I never really bothered to do this, I felt a character and that was enough. I find it next to impossible to contrive an accurate vision of our main characters, but I can get a feel for a few of them - though this shifts considerably when I remember Dostoevsky's actual description of their being. Alas, there are far too many minor characters in this novel who I can't even try to visualise and, worse, do not get a feeling from or sense of. Another issue I have been finding, especially in the latter part of part 2, is that, when conflict intensifies, Dostoevsky's melodrama becomes too absurd. It is then either his characters, who stamp their feet, scream and stare at each other in silence for minutes at a time, that are ridiculous, or it is his management of drama on the page that is. It is hard to tell either way. However, I get a very strong feeling that, if the book was transposed directly onto film, this would be one of the most ridiculous, satirical comedies ever made.

Bringing things towards a cluttered, abrupt end, I must say that I look forward to seeing this book conclude for closure and, hopefully, some clarification. Though I have heard it said, I cannot say that this is a masterpiece so far.







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29/08/2018

Hans In Luck - Too Stupid To Be Wise?

Thoughts On: Hans In Luck

A look at a Brothers Grimm folktale.


Hans In Luck is a brilliant short story, a German folktale, recorded by the Brothers Grimm. It follows a boy, Hans, who has been working for 7 years (possibly as a serf), and wants to go home to his mother. His master pays him with a large lump of silver bigger than his head and sends him on his way. As he trudges home with the heavy piece of metal, he sees a man riding a horse. Wishing to have the speed and comfort that the horseman possess, he trades his silver for the steed. He rides it too fast, however, and is thrown off. A farmer passes by with a cow to find the dazed Hans. Envying the farmer's ease in leading the cow, Hans trades the horse, happy to have an animal that can give him milk. As he comes closer to his home village, Hans grows hungry. He spends the last of his money on food and beer before moving on. On the move, he remains thirsty, so he attempts to milk his cow, but nothing will come of it. The cow kicks Hans in the head, knocking him out. He comes to, woken by a butcher, who, after an exchange of dialogue, trades the cow for a pig. Soon after he ends up trading the pig for a goose, convinced by a passerby that the pig was stolen and he may get in trouble. Almost home, he runs into a scissor-grinder with a stone wheel and tells him of his luck in getting the goose. The grinder trades the stone for the goose, convincing Hans that he can make money as a grinder himself. Hans, right near his home, sees a lake and takes a drink, hauling the large stone with him. As he quenches his thirst, the stone slides into the water and sinks. Free of the heavy stone, Hans is overjoyed. He returns home to his mother.

This is a fascinating short story because it is one likely told to children. The brilliance of the story would emerge from trying to explain its moral. And so I ask you to ponder a moment: What is the message given?

Any assertion given here would be hinged upon a judgement of value. And this may be why it is hard to conceive of the moral of this story. Hans is initially given a lump of silver for 7 years work. Is the value of the silver equal to the value of the 7 years work? This is not a question I can answer. Alas, we are told that the silver is bigger than Hans' head, and so it seems it is implied that he is given something of great value. Or is the silver merely symbolic of Han's own ignorance? Is it not that the silver is bigger than Hans' head, but that the silver is too large for Hans to understand (with his head)? I think this is certainly the case with me.

With this lump of ambiguous value, Hans leaves his toil to return home. He swaps this for a variety of animals, eventually a rock, out of ease and necessity. The value judgements we have to make remain somewhat ambiguous. Is a goose better than a horse? Is a goose better than a horse in Hans' hands? For one, Hans doesn't seem very able to ride it, two, he may not have the space to keep it, three, he may not have the monetary capacity to feed it. Maybe the horse is too much hassle. Or maybe Hans is just lazy. This question can be asked with a comparison between each animal/object with the same interrogative outcome.

We cannot make a true distinction here between laziness and wisdom for it is much too difficult to step into Hans' shoes, into his world, and judge the true value of trade. Are we then to assume that Hans knows better than us or not?

If anything, I believe that the only real indicator of value comes from Hans' journey. He leaves his work to return home to his mother. Why? Is it because he wants to visit her, to take care of her? Is it because he can't bear being a serf? Is it because he can't be bothered to work anymore, because he wants someone to take care of him? Hans' ambiguous motivation is key. If the return to his mother is valiant, then the story has an entirely different meaning than if the return to the mother is symbolically Oedipal. If this is a story of a man-child who cares not to burden himself with anything anymore and only wants to return to a mother who will care for him, then this seems to be a story about the false-wisdom of the weak and lazy. Hans, if he is such a character, sees not the value in silver, horses, cows, etc, because the only value he holds is of numbness; of not bearing the responsibility of a job, of carry a heavy load, learning how to ride a horse, set up a business, etc. Alas, we can take the same conclusion and perceive it in a positive light.

If Hans refuses to judge value with anything apart from his senses and non-logistic, alien intuition, he may be flowing with the tides of life and fate. With an optimistic kind of nihilism, Hans assumes not that he can know the future or the potential in anything but opportunity itself and is always happy with what he is given. Opportunity to Hans is a door life opens for you. Why not walk through it? With this ethic, Hans does what the universe commands in the most rudimentary sense, and so blindly follows fate, refusing to be wise, only fate's fool (which is an oxymoronic kind of wisdom in and of itself). His return to his mother may then be a symbolic return to the epicentre of his being in the universe.

Here we have two conflicting morals of this story, both of which suggest that Hans is simply too stupid to be wise. In one sense, Hans is too stupid to know the value and gravity of his mistakes and laziness. In another sense, Hans accepts that he is stupid in the larger scope of life and so relinquishes all ability to be wise, but nonetheless acts with profundity and meaning. The correct conclusion is the question and game proposed by this narrative. I, personally, think Hans is lazy - yet, maybe this says far more about me than it does this story. So, I leave things open to you. What is the nature of Hans' stupidity in your opinion?






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27/08/2018

The Hunger Games - Impressionism: Why Book Adaptations Fail

Thoughts On: The Hunger Games (2012)

In a society set up in economic districts that must send tributes to a tournament in which they must fight to the death, a young woman volunteers to save her sister.


The Hunger Games series is quite unquestionably one of the strongest of the young adult novel adaptations that were uncannily popular between approximately 2007 and 2015 and still have some punch and place today. I always assumed that this series was rather good, having only ever seen each film once. Today, not only did I re-watch the first Hunger Games, but I watched it far closer than I have watched any film in the series. Immediately I was taken aback by the rather shoddy direction and editing - which is at its worst in the first act. We are introduced to the characters, world and story, rather jarringly. The cuts are systematic, fast and very abrupt, they shove us from jittery hand-held shot to jittery hand-held like a bad music video. The coverage, also, is overbearing; too many shots and set-ups are crammed into rather basic, quiet scenes, unsettling them, giving them unnecessary pace and buzz that only ever feels amateurish, never intentional and purposeful.

This unsatisfactory direction calms as the narrative continues and the set-pieces demand far more careful planning. The structure of the film and the editing still remains questionable, however. Alas, let us stop to question the narrative.

As much dystopian sci-fi does, this attempts to speak on tyranny, government and inequality. We cannot judge the quality of the commentary in the first film considering that there are 3 more to come, and in spite of the fact that this narrative is rather self-enclosing. However, what does stand out from this film is its continual emphasis of an audience, of the fact that the games are televised and that, only through lies, can our characters survive. Not only does this say something quite cutting about media, creation, story and character, but it also complexifies the general commentary on governmental tyranny in a way that I don't remember the other films doing. With reference to our characters having to not only satisfy sponsors, but also the world watching them, we are made to see that it is everyone in this society who lives a lie and indulges the spectacle that blinds them to their own misery. The question asked by the relationship sold to everyone is then, why? Why does it take a romantic, sentimental lie for humans to be seen as human?

We cannot delve too deeply into the subtext of this film as it certainly feels incomplete - which is a critique, but not one that I'd stress too much because it exists in a series. What I would like to touch on in more detail, however, is how the technical failures in the direction impact the story of the Hunger Games more generally.

The commentary in the provided narrative provides little to speak on. The characters are all rather flat - apart from Katniss, who gives this narrative thematic weight with her presence as an archetype of mercy. The plot is rather transparent and heavily contrived; this is emphasised with the weak fight choreography that leans hard on the cliche of a bad guy talking to a victim they are about to kill so that time and the day are saved. There are also plot holes and a lack of depth given to the constructed world. Lastly, the dialogue, particularly as it becomes a window into characters, is grating and quite clearly the product of a novel - which is to say it is written to be read, not necessarily spoken, the difference being huge.

All of these faults in the script are made to glare on screen because of the loud, bumbling direction. What this film doesn't, in essence, understand is why many book adaptations fail. Books have the space and time to look into a world and characters with explicit exposition. We will then hear a character's thoughts and have described to us the inner workings of a time, place, world or mechanism of any sort. Novels are not required to be direct in this respect; metaphor and subtlety often add a quality and class to a novel. Alas, in cinema, the medium has very different requirement and very different expectations. Films do not necessarily have the time and space for the exposition that is found in books. Whilst one may just narrate a story to us in a film, this often adds no quality and class to it. The beauty and purpose of film is its central visual nature; sound and more are slightly peripheral in the art as it is the moving image that, above all else, distinguishes and makes attractive cinema and the cinematic story. With a book transposed to screen, it is often too easy to find the heart of a novel's story lost in between the frames of a film; where is the intimacy, the depth, the detail?

It is Jean Epstein who formulated and captured some of the best techniques of overcoming the gap between cinema and other mediums such as the novel. It is both in his writings on photogénie and his films, such as The Fall of the House of Usher, that Epstein developed a cinematic concept of impressionism that sought to raise cinema to the level of other arts. What Epstein essentially managed to do was recognise that the heart of a novel can be lost in between the frames of a film. From here he did not despair and nor did he try to put the novel in the frame as so many directors do with narration and more - Epstein couldn't really do this in the silent film era. So, instead of fishing for the heart of a book in between the frames, Epstein put a window upon the abyss. It is with impressionism and photogénie - morally enhancing material/shots in a film - that Epstein asked us to hear the inner thoughts of a character that were on a page. Whilst his camera patiently watched faces and time slowly dance its path, abstract words of humanity then emerge from Epstein's celluloid. This is impressionism. This is photogénie.

The failure of The Hunger Games lies not in its neglect of impressionism. There are many sequences in which we attempt to tap into a character's perspective, to see as they do. However, this impressionism has a way of becoming spectacle-driven expressionism in this film. That is to say that the world and humanity of characters is not necessarily impressed upon the audience. Instead, the world and characters are expressed inside the frame. Spectacle motivates a movement from impressionism to expressionism as it makes the communication louder. So, instead of Katniss' state of mind being impressed through silence - a successful application of impressionism that is used at a few points - we often find ourselves seeing the world skewed from her perspective; special effects form the world, do not impress it upon us, and thus we have something approaching expressionism of a particularly direct and unimaginative nature.

It is because the film is so eagerly paced, because the direction is so loud and the script so upfront, that a true impressionistic logic is not allowed to naturally exude from the frames. The heart of characters and their world are then masked by needless dialogue, needless cuts, needless exposition and contrived conflict. Calmer, quieter, with greater patience, this film could have used impressionism to seek photogénie that would tell the story that the words on the pages of the books did, yet without all the ink.

In general, I find it to be true that movies adapted from books based on world and character often fail because their impressionistic techniques--if any are utilised--do not allow the interior spaces that books can present directly to be explored autonomously by the audience with the screen as a window into the tangible unknowable. Books based heavily on action and spectacle alongside character and world - Lord of the Rings is a good example, yet so are many good comic book movies - hold the potential for the basic Hollywood treatment, and so not every book adaptation yearns the artistic brush strokes of a silent-era impressionist. Alas, I leave things open to you. What do you think of the impressionism in The Hunger Games? Does the book translate to the screen?







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26/08/2018

End Of The Week Shorts #72



Today's shorts: mother! (2017), The Red Circle (1970), The Russian Revolution (2017), Inside Einstein's Mind (2015), Nightcrawler (2014), Extreme Animal Attacks (2003), To All The Boy's I've Loved Before (2018)



Upon seeing this for the first time, I was very critical. I thought the first hour was bad, pretentious even, but that the second half was masterful. I feel I got a good grip of what the film was attempting to say, however.

Upon re-watching this today, I experienced a completely different movie. From start to end, I was drawn in and entirely invested. I cannot now fault this movie. Everything is perfect. What I understood in seeing this for the first time has only been deepened. Yet, I also see so much more attached to this narrative - too much even. I have seen an entirely different film today, and I dare to say it is a solid masterpiece that compresses strains of the bible into a chaotic narrative witnessed not by a male force, but a female force. I cannot expand upon or clarify what this has punched me with, but this might just be Aronofsky's best work. Damn.



Maybe it's because I'm not French enough, but I do not understand the significance that is given to this film. For a long time, Le Samourai was the only Melville film I had seen, and I was taken by its patient character study. I next saw Army of Shadows, not particularly liking it, but more than understanding how Melville's subtle, casually realistic approach to crime and the dark underbelly of society gains notoriety. Melville's style remains bluntly understated in The Red Circle, yet there is no historical or characterlogical base for the film. The drama is sapped dry. We are made to watch a heartless version of Rififi. The greatest praise I could give this is that it ever so slightly feels like a Kieslowski film about coincidence and chance in crime - yet without the mysterious sense of magic. Alas, without the magic Kieslowski's lens searches for with great intrigue, this is left rather drab. In total, an exercise of a particular style I find no enjoyment and very little substance in.



An average, run-of-the-mill documentary. A construct of talking heads, paintings, drawings and found footage, this skates through the demise of the Romanov Dynasty and end with the rise of the Bolsheviks in Russia. Formally this does nothing special, but it does well to provide a general and brief introductory narrative to Russian history around the turn of the 20th century. It is paced rather quickly, sensationalised a little, is choppy in its editing of interviews and questionable in its use of its material (found footage especially - which is often used confusingly and inaccurately). Alas, this is a satisfactory glance into history that kept my focus.




Quite a few years ago, I was addicted to these American science/physics documentaries. So, though I know much of the surface level information that these programmes recycle, seeing this today was a weird mix of nostalgia and re-enlightenment.

What this does, and what other's like it often fail to do, in the first 30 minutes or so, is push visual exposition without unending cheese and cliche. In such, the best part of this is its impressionistic exploration of key thought experiments that formed the basis of Einstein's general and special theory of relativity. This is harmlessly romanticised and not put the scope or context of his other contributions - such as that on photoelectricity - alas, this inspires much thought and is, above all, very lucid. Recommended.



Very much so a film about product, business and work detached from ethic and morality, Nightcrawler is simultaneously fascinating and horrifying. One of the most striking contradictions about this film is Lou's apparent search for purpose and meaning, a "why" to help him accomplish any how that may get in his way. Lou presents himself as if he has full grasp of his why, but acts nihilistically; as if there is no why to be found in his life. This, to me, speaks to the kinds of young entrepreneurs and business people in the modern world, consumed by aphorisms and self-help, but emptied of personally cultivated meaning, that go fourth into life blinded to all, but with shades whose lenses have false eyes painted on them, or that reflect a great deal more than they will ever see--than they ever care to see. The ultimate question of this narrative concerns an audience, however. How is it that we produce and indulge these people? Who is to blame?



I haven't tried to sit through one of these soft-core exploitation films in quite a while.

Though the animal attack documentary and TV shows were made completely redundant soon after this was released due to the internet and YouTube, animal attack videos have to be the longest-surviving form of the exploitation film. The exploitation horror film, ever since the 70s, has only really sought to be ridiculous; sexploitation films, since the 80s and 90s, just became raunchy, teenage comedies; all else has become cult, so-bad-its-good nonsense. There must be something about the animal attack video that rests in our DNA. As bad and awkward as this is, I just can't help the fact that I want to see the crocodile death spin a guy's hand off at least 7 times in a row. For that I'll tolerate the horrible voice-over and weird interviews. It is what it is: trash.



This is more ridiculous to me than it could be to anyone else, alas, 'teenager makes a lot of stupid mistakes' movies either deeply frustrate me or shake my innards with anxiety. To All The Boy's I've Loved Before left me wrought with anxiety - almost profoundly so. So not a fun cinematic experience, but maybe an affecting one. The reason underlying my almost unbearable discomfort whilst watching this film stems from the fact that I pretty much avoided to make the stupid mistakes that these movies say we all make. It is cognitive dissonance, myself being torn between indifference, a sense that I'm far too weird, yet also a feeling of doom in my own life, that catalyse this overbearing conundrum. Self-indulgently or sadistically, I have to say I appreciate this movie most for putting me through such stress. Objectively I have to say that this is written and directed mediocrely, but performed nicely. That said, there's not much I could be objective about with this. In the end, more a personal therapy session than a film for me, I think I can say I kind of like this.





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25/08/2018

The Two Principals Of Narrative - Formal Music Part II

Thoughts On: Todorov's The Two Principals of Narrative (1971)

A continued analysis of structuralism via Todorov's famous essay on narrative.


In the introductory part of this essay, we explored structuralism and Propp. We leave that now to look at The Two Principals of Narrative specifically to see how Todorov's structuralism is different to Propp's.

Todorov sets the foundation of his theory on narrative with Propp's work. It is implicit in Todorov's writing that he does not find Propp's start and end, his second 0 and second 60, the introduction and return, at all satisfactory. His major contribution to structuralist narrative theory is his proposition of a new start and end that is symbolic and non-specific. To get to that, we have to understand some of his initial implications. Alas, we must preface that The Two Principals of Narrative is not technically, in my opinion, a good essay. It meanders through many ideas, especially in its first half, that are quickly abandoned and never integrated into a cohesive system. So, though there is great depth in some of Todorov's ideas, he has no system or structural whole to speak of. What is then often presented as "Todorov's theory of narrative" is a mere extrapolation from one paragraph of his essay that doesn't even capture the essence of the essay title's meaning. That said, let us explore some of Todorov's initial ideas.

The fundamental assertion that Todorov makes is that narratives move; they are change. Therefore, a state must exist and from it must come action. Todorov then posits that there is a difference between fiction and narrative; fiction can be thought of as mere description, whereas narratives have within them change and action. His first formula is then as follows: condition leads to consequence, leads to implication. Todorov gives this formula when speaking of one specific story and does not explore it, so we cannot know if he thinks that this can be applied generally. However, from his assumption that narratives must move from a 'state' to 'action' comes an idea that the initial state has within itself potential for transformation. Thus, there is not just a state of being, but a condition of being--the difference being that a condition is not necessarily thought of as stable whilst 'state' feels stable and without time. A condition may then be Lara being lonely and in need of love. From the condition comes a consequence, which is to say, the nature of the initial state catalyses an event or actions. So, because Lara is lonely and looking for love (her condition), she eventually attracts romance as a consequence. She may have then dressed up and gone to a party. From the consequence comes possibility: implication. Maybe Lara went to secret party in a mansion where everyone wears masks. The consequence of the romance she finds here has implications. Maybe the man whom she attracts is rich, as implied by the mansion, but maybe he is also hiding something, as implied by the masks. What we see here is a cycle that all narratives can be thought to be made of: there is a condition of sorts that, because of its nature, leads to consequences of action; because of the nature or parameters of that consequential action, there is an implication of more conflict to come that puts the story into a new state or condition that, itself, will breed consequences.

This is a beautifully elegant formulation. Todorov speaks of narrative as a series of conditions that intrinsically lead to action in his introduction. Alas, he wipes this away as to re-articulate it. From this point, he moves to Propp and suggests that you do not need to identify all of his 31 functions to recognise that Russian folktales are themselves narratives. In defence of Propp, he never tried to suggest this. He wanted to find all of the non-divisible elements of the Russian folktale; he did not want to find the non-divisible elements of narrative itself. Alas, this is what Todorov wants to do. In doing so, he develops his famous formula by reducing the key narrative that Propp breaks down, The Swan-geese, into 5, not 31, beats. He then suggests the following:
Analysing The Swan-geese in this way [in placing its functions into a hierarchy, representing only what is necessary], we arrive at the following result: this story includes five indispensable elements-1) the situation of equilibrium at the beginning 2) the breakdown of the situation by the kidnapping of the boy 3) the girl's recognition of the loss of equilibrium 4) the successful search for the boy 5) the re-establishment of the initial equilibrium, the return to the father's house.
It is exactly these 5 beats that are given as "Todorov's narrative theory". It is not at all accurate to suggest that this is his whole theory - I would argue that he doesn't have a cohesive one, he certainly doesn't write that way. Alas, it is these five beats that seem to naturally emerge from the previous formulation of conditionconsequence and implication. Let us list them:

Initial Equilibrium
Breakdown of Equilibrium
Recognition of Lost Equilibrium
Search for New Equilibrium
Establishment of New Equilibrium

This, in my view, is a weak reduction of the condition, consequence, implication formulation because these 5 steps do not inherently suggest that narratives are change. With his initial 'equilibrium', Todorov implies no reason for there to be a 'breakdown', no reason for that to be 'recognised', no reason for a 'search', and no reason why a 'new equilibrium' would be established. We can only infer here that the motivational force for the change between these five states is given by the writer/storyteller. Within condition, consequence, implication, we can only infer that story moves itself. What is more true? Is story self-motivating or is it motivated? In my estimation, there is no absolute. These two modes distinguish two different kinds of storytelling, on one hand, we have the kind of story that likely centralises character or theme, and thus feels self-motivated, but on the other, we have the kind of story that is centred on plot and so feels contrived and motivated by exterior forces: the writer.

With that said, the 5 Steps of Equilibrium better explain narrative as a whole. Condition, consequence and implication form a cycle without an end. So, whilst the formulation better explains the start of a story and the precise incremental movements that make up every scene and act, it explains the truth of the infinite story, not the manner in which a storyteller must manage it. The successes of the Equilibrium formulation lies in its ability to set about a very clear start and end - precise parameters - within which narratives exist. This formula suggests that narrative is a movement between states of equilibrium, that it is not just change, but change with direction.

It is from here that Todorov comes upon his Two Principals of Narrative. Motivating a movement between equilibrium is succession and transformation. Here Todorov highlights the fact that narratives do not just move forward from one place to another, but vary in their direction. Succession is movement; transformation is changing direction. To fully embrace the previous metaphor, the combination of succession and transformation is how narratives do not just move away from the initial equilibrium, how they do not just walk around the world and find their way back to the same place they left. If a narrative was only successive, if it only moved forward, it would not feel like anything changed for the narrative would only manage to rediscover its equilibrium. This is what Todorov speaks of when referencing description not counting as story. If one decides to tell a story about Jeff sitting down, they could create a successive narrative that describes that place in time, could describe everything about Jeff and his room, but wouldn't see a change in his equilibrious state of sitting. Alas, with transformative action, the narrative could change direction and find a new equilibrium to land on, leaving us feeling like there was a change, that what we read or saw was more than description - was, in fact, a story. If Jeff then decided to paint his house, we would come closer to a traditional narrative, but, if he decided to leave his house and become a hero before returning, we would have a true classical narrative.

It is at this point where it must be highlighted that all of this is only very loosely implied by Todorov - one of more crucial weakness of this work. To see how succession and transformation at all link to equilibrium, one must then read between many lines. What Todorov does for most of his essay is explore the implications of his succession, transformation formulation without paying any attention to its significance and how he even came upon the formulation.

What is established in the remainder of The Two Principals of Narrative is a somewhat confusing, slightly redundant proposal of 3 types of narratives. To formulate the first two types, Todorov suggests that there are two types of transformation: negation and modal transformation. Negation is not given a satisfactory definition, but we are told that it is the kind of transformation that sees one state contradicted. Someone may then start a narrative sad, but emerge happy. This is negation. Modal transformation is a more complex term given a more complex description, but it essentially implies active transformation. Someone wants to be have something and they get it. This is modal transformation. What is implied in this part of the essay is that Todorov is describing the different types of initial equilibrium and new equilibrium--the different ways of reaching each respective state--in narratives. What he is distinguishing with negation and modal transformation, however, only confuses this idea. With modal transformation, we are told that a character enforces change, that they determine the new equilibrium. We would assume that the inverse of this would be a character not deciding. Todorov speaks of this and defines this kind of transformation as suppositional. This is found in stories where we are told the end in the introduction. However, he leaves this hanging in the air. What he says with negation is confusing. It bears no conceptual relation to modal transformation and it does not map a movement from initial equilibrium to new equilibrium. Negation only suggest that there will be a new equilibrium, that the start will be different from the end.

Alas, Todorov suggests that when succession and negation come together, there emerges mythological narratives. When succession and modal transformation come together, there emerges gnoseological narratives. What mythological narratives are, we are never told; they are descried as simple, however. Gnoseological narratives on the other hand are, rather incongruously, described as narratives in which characters seek knowledge, as 'narratives of apprenticeship'. It is hard to conclude anything of substance from this.

Finally, Todorov picks up Propp again and identifies one element of narrative that he emphasises: repetition. In many narratives, a character finds themselves in the same situation multiple times; a character may need help, but refuses it from three separate people on three separate occasions. In the end, they learn something and must retrace their steps, for example, taking help from those three people. For some reason, Todorov decides to make this a third type of narrative that he labels ideological. He suggests that the repetition enforces rules, and so defines this type of narrative as building a set of rules by which characters must live.

This final assertion is the straw that breaks the camels back. But, as Todorov's theory falls apart, he abruptly ends. Maybe it is our expectation that Todorov will produce a theory of narrative that makes his essay fail. As it is, it only opens up a conversation - yet, it does so without focus or concise thought.

What must be concluded is then that Todorov fails to confront the major structuralist conundrum in the realm of narrative. He manages to provide some convincing possibilities for the quanta of story with his theory of condition, consequence, implication and equilibrium. These seem satisfactory as elements akin to rhythm and notation in music, but, when they are attempted to be elaborated upon, shown to build the art of narrative, shown to build melodies, verses, chorus, solos and more, they fail. Propp's functions are not satisfactory equivalents to notes or rhythm as they are so specific to the Russian folktale and do not engage the concept of narrative too well. However, the functions operate well in their own realm.

We can ultimately conclude that the structuralist assertions of both Propp and Todorov do not reveal narrative to be as strictly formalised as music. The question I then leave concerns the point of seeking this depth of formal coherence in narrative. Can it be done? Can narrative be structurally equated to music? Furthermore, why should this be attempted?

Before you go, I urge you read Todorov's essay for yourself. Furthermore, I will again recommend Propp's Morphology of the Folktale and this website.







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The Two Principals Of Narrative - Formal Music Part I

Thoughts On: Structuralist Narrative Theory via Propp & Todorov

An exploration of approaches to literature via their component parts.


The Two Principals of Narrative is often held as a central, foundational text of narrative theory. It is an essay by Tzvetan Todorov, whose book, The Fantastic, we have explored before. In this essay, Todorov uses a structuralist approach to narrative; he seeks to understand story and narrative, its general body, through its formal being and its component parts. The essence of this narrative is hinged upon Vladimir Propp's Morphology of the Folktale - which we have also explored.

Propp sought to identify, what we might call today, the major beats of the Russian folktale's plot. He calls the central happenings and events that appear in (as is implied) all Russian folktales, functions. Alas, we shall think of 'function' as 'beat' for now as the more modern term leads us down some interesting paths.

'Beat' comes from the world of music. Unlike any other art form, music has deeply--profoundly--unifying structural qualities that are inherent to its formulation. Music is built with notes and tempo/rhythm. Notes are a fascinating phenomena as they are the 12 wavelengths that all music is built upon (this is especially true in traditional Western music). The 12 notes are: A, A#/, B, C, C#/, D, D#/, E, F, F#/, G, G#/. What we see here are 7 notes (A, B, C, D, E, F, G) and 5 sharps(#) or flats(/) (A#/, C#/, D#/, F#/, G#/). (The difference between sharps and flats is almost null; you call a medial tone 'flat' or 'sharp' depending on ascent or descent; thus, if you go up a scale, you will hit A, A#, B, but, if you descend, you hit B, A/, A; there is no difference in sound, only in language). If you listen to a whole band pay, the drums, guitar, singers, bassist--everyone--will be using these 12 notes together, and this is how music is made. Music is formalised further, however, with scales. Scales must be thought of as patterns built out of jumps between notes. Thus, they are made of tones and semitones. A tone is a jump over one note, a semitone is a jump to the next. A scale is completed when you can jump across the 12 notes cyclically. Alas, this can only be demonstrated visually. Here is our 12 notes in order.

A A#/ B C C#/ D D#/ E F F#/ G G#/ 

A scale is made when you can start on one note and move across all of the rest to get back to it, leaving whatever gaps you decide. Let us then put two sets of notes next to one another and then move across them with a pre-decided pattern.

A A#/ B C C#/ D D#/ E F F#/ G G#/ A A#/ B C C#/ D D#/ E F F#/ G G#/ 

Here we have two octaves, two sets of the 12 notes available to us. We will jump across them with this order: Tone, Tone, Semitone, Tone, Tone, Tone, Semitone. This means that we will start on one note, jump up a tone (meaning skip the next note) or jump up a tone (go to the next note) as the pattern dictates. We will start on A and follow this TTSTTTS order:

A A#/ B C C#/ D D#/ E F F#/ G G#/ A A#/ B C C#/ D D#/ E F F#/ G G#/ 

If you study this briefly, you will see that we have followed the predetermined order of jumps (of semitones and tones) to create a pattern that can be repeated cyclically. The predetermined order (TTSTTTS) is a scale. This particular pattern, this particular combination of tones and semitones, is the Major Scale. Because we started the pattern on A, what we see represented in red is the A Major Scale:

A B C#/ D E F#/ G#/

We can start the Major Scale pattern at any point. Let us start this time at C so that we have the notes of a C Major Scale:

C C#/ D D#/ E F F#/ G G#/ A A#/ B C C#/ D D#/ E F F#/ G G#/ A A#/ B

It just so happens that if you start the TTSTTTS pattern at C, you will only hit non-sharp, or non-flat, notes. Thus, this is the C Major Scale:

A B C D E F G

If a band is playing in C Major, the only notes that will be played throughout the entire song (or as long as they play in this scale) will be A B C D E F and G. The keyboardist will then only hit the white keys, never the black flat or sharp keys:


The guitarist has a slightly more complex job. They have to know where all the notes on a guitar are and must only ever play A B C D E F and G. They learn how to do this with specific patterns that I will not delve into.


I open this talk on narrative with a somewhat unnecessary explanation of notates and musical theory to provide incite on how formalised music is. To play a song, you will decide on a scale, for example, the C Major Scale, and you decide a tempo, for example 120 beats per minute. This means you will only ever play A B C D E F and G in time with a back beat or click that sounds, uniformly, twice every second. Here is an example of a song in C Major played at 120 bpm:


With the same scale, but a different pace, a slower bpm, we have this song:


And here is yet another song, still in C Major, but with a faster bpm:


What we can begin to understand in greater depth now is the great diversity that emerges from a rather strict, inescapable system or form in the world of music. And it is understanding this that we can now look to other arts and begin to understand the application of structuralism in, for example, cinema and literature.

Does literature have the equivalent of musical notes? One could easily argue, yes: it is the alphabet of any given language, this is what unifies all literature. Alas, letters are difficult to equate to notes for the fact that they are so much more dexterous. A song can easily be built with 3 notes, or 3 chords. I'm sure it would be pretty much impossible to write a full-length novel with only 24 letters. Furthermore, when letters come together to form words, they gain rather strict, lucid meanings. The meaning of a chord, or a string of notes, is not at all as apparent. After all, how many dictionaries for chords and notes have you come across? Because music has a far simpler semiotic (meaning-based) foundation than literature, its complexity and beauty often comes from layering; using three notes to create a chord, a new note, or 50 different instruments playing slightly different sets of notes as to form an orchestra. Literature on the other hand works successively; it just keeps using more words to build a greater whole. It is not likely that you will find success by printing two books on top of one another. It is possible to juxtapose two different stories to create something approaching a literary orchestration, but it is all too clear that strings of words cannot operate like strings of notes for the simple fact that we can only read one word at a time whereas we can hear multiple notes at once.

Let us now ask if cinema has the equivalent to musical notes. Some may argue that cinema does: the different shot types that build cinematic language - close-up, long-shot, dolly, establishing shot, etc. Alas, cinema is not just a camera moving in space. Cinema is made up of acting, choreography, music, literature, sculpture and more. These separate arts conglomerate to make cinema. Each has its formal quanta - if it can be found. Music then has its notes, literature its letters, acting, in terms of speech, has its phonemes, choreography has... sculpture has... here we run into trouble. Is there a true equivalent to musical notes in all art, in cinema? I can't find a way to say yes.

What I have just mapped out is the reason why structural approaches to narrative mediums such as literature and, more so, cinema can be so fruitless. In the world of music, structuralism is relatively easy; you can speak of a song's note structure, its beats per minute, its tone, pitch and more, and understand the whole from these component parts. When one tries to find the component parts of narrative, they can speak of the alphabet and grammatical rules, but the semiotic complexity and massive successive accumulation of words makes this seem like a rather inane task. Maybe there is value in mapping out all the grammatical techniques a book uses in order and comparing them to others on mass. I doubt this, however. Furthermore, I am not inclined to find out.

Because it is not practical to use the obvious quanta of literature to analyse a book, structuralists operate in a more abstract realm of 'narrative' and have to identify or invent new quanta. This brings us all the way back to beats. Beats, whilst they do not describe something such as notes in music, do describe something such as rhythm.

The foundation of rhythm in music is bpm; it is the division of a period of time, a minute, into equal parts. By dividing 60 seconds by a number, you have a consistent pace. If you were to play at 120 beats per second, you then play 2 beats a second. Alas, songs are not made out of continuous thumping. Rhythm is complexified by skipped beats, or breaks, and emphasis. It is not unnecessary to delve into time signatures and more here, however, as we have already made the point that music is far more strictly formalised than other arts with our exploration of notes and scales. Suffice to say then that, whilst music has very strict rhythmic techniques, narratives can be perceived as having somewhat loose rhythmic rules.

We now come to Propp again. Propp approaches folktale narratives as if they are whole sequences existent in the imagination. Where music deals with time, narrative deals with an imagined space in which communication occurs. So, where music divides units of time, such as a minute, Propp divides units of communication, of story. He establishes 4 major phases or spheres of narrative. They are as follows:

Introduction
Body of Story
Donor Sequence
Hero's Return

Within these four phases are 31 functions or beats. Propp's parameters of narrative are the start of the introduction and the completion of the return; this is his second 0 and second 60. The 31 functions are the bpm by which this journey is divided. It is slightly misleading to refer to these as bpm as the functions do not divide a narrative equally and uniformly, but, nonetheless, they do divide the narrative. These 31 functions then become accents of a time signature in music. As a song plays, we can count out its rhythm with "one-and-two-and". This is how you count quarter notes, "one" and "two" being emphasised. You can likewise count out triplets as such: "one-and-a-two-and-a". The "one" and "two" are what Propp identifies with his functions - again, what we in the modern day often call beats. These are the constant subdivisions that are found in all narrative. What fills the spaces between these beats, the "and" or "and-a", is how narratives find spaces in which they can differentiate; between the functions are then character, setting, theme and more. This is Propp's attempt, and it is a rather valiant one, at structurally breaking down narrative as it appears in the Russian folktale. Alas, it is not perfect.

Through Propp, it seems that there is no way to fully formalise narrative, to speak of its structure like we may speak of music's. It is in the next post that we then ask if Todorov's revision and attempt at structuralising narrative brings narrative any closer to music.








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The Young Girls Of Rochefort - The Art-Musical

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22/08/2018

The Young Girls Of Rochefort - The Art-Musical

Thoughts On: The Young Girls of Rochefort (Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, 1967)

A fair comes to a town whose heart seems to be aching.


The Young Girls of Rochefort is a French musical made by Jacques Demy. Demy is known as one of the faces of the French New Wave, however, what puts him and his films into this movement is not as clear as what, for example, places Godard and his films in the New Wave. Demy's most famous films made during the New Wave were his musicals, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and this, The Young Girls of Rochefort. It is not necessarily because he made musicals that Demy is not easily associated with a New Wave aesthetic - Godard also made a musical, A Woman Is A Woman. Alas, Godard's musical was very different. And herein lies the aesthetic distinction of the New Wave artists. Godard, Rivette and Truffaut are considered to form the Right Bank to Demy and Varda's Left Bank of the French New Wave. The Right Bank artists were more famous, were the writers for Cahiers du Cinéma. They seemed to have existed in a far more strict artistic space, and this translate into their films. Godard especially demonstrates a rather relentless and unforgiving assassination of cinematic rules in search of new language. Demy, on the other hand, only plays with the established rules of cinema, for example, taking on the Hollywood musical and manipulating it to his own tastes. Where Godard then creates an experimental musical of sorts within A Woman Is A Woman, Demy creates an art-musical in The Young Girls of Rochefort. The difference should be implicit.

What is most interesting about Demy's musicals is their tone. One sees how much this differs from the American musical within The Young Girls of Rochefort during sequences featuring Gene Kelly. Though he fits into the narrative satisfactorily, he has a very clearly loud and emphatic style; his hands splayed, elbows still, body posture open, his facial expressions indicating that he belts out emotion. Compare this to Deneuve and co's subtle and very understated jazz-infused style of song and dance, and there emerges the key difference between Demy's and the classical Hollywood musical.

There are draw-backs and successes of Demy's style. By intentionally giving his film an intellectual tone by referring great art and artists, using jazz, and casually constructing characters with wit and--for lack of a better term--your stereotypical New Wave Frenchness, Demy transforms the nature of his melodrama and romanticism. In short, he asks us to take it seriously, to ponder upon it instead of be pulled into it - the reverse being the case in classical Hollywood musicals. In seeing an array of characters meander about town and sing about their life styles, their yearning and their passions, we aren't really allowed to step into characters, but are asked to understand the atmosphere in which they exist. It is through this that we come to understand that Demy wants to depict a place where everyone yearns love, where everyone is so close to it, has lost it, and desires more from life; rather literally, everyone is singing the same tune. It is with romantic melodrama that Demy makes this point, seemingly insisting that love is one of the crucial, foundational wants infused into a society. Let us not extrapolate too far, however.

The downfall of the art-musical comes with the feeling of distance, furthermore, a feeling of slight pretence. American musicals often use spectacle to emphasise emotion and character. Demy's art-musical uses spectacle as an artistic technique it seems. Songs tied to character are then poetic soliloquies of sorts, operatic in nature. Dances do nothing but allow for the choreographers and, sometimes, the camera, to shine. Musical numbers, as we have discussed before, can do more than this. Personally, I find the best musical numbers to be those that use spectacle whilst deepening our understanding of tone or character, those that go inside a moment and reveal something new, that profoundly yet subtly transform the narrative diegesis. Demy's numbers, especially those that allow characters to express themselves, are transformative. However, they feel merely expositional for the lack of emotion and affection that exudes from then. Again, the issue here comes down to distance. We are not allowed to access the heart and emotions of characters, they sing and dance, yet their chests remain closed. Hence, a sense of pretence arises in my view - which left this only an ok film to me.

If anyone is interested in seeing this film, I would warn that it may entirely change the way in which you see La La Land. I was told before seeing Chazelle's musical that it was inspired by Demy's style, but had only seen The Umbrellas of Cherbourg at that point. Having seen The Young Girls of Rochefort, Chazelle seems to have, in one sense, bastardised Demy's style, yet in another, improved it. Chazelle tries to integrate character and meaning into his narrative to a greater degree than Demy - within La La Land the Hollywood music conflicts against the art-musical. Alas, La La Land has depreciated in my view since I first saw it. Furthermore, I don't think it had a particularly strong base in the cinema of Demy. Alas, these are just my thoughts. Have you seen the musicals we have talked about today? What are your thoughts?






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The Ballad Of Narayama - Life, Time-Honoured

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21/08/2018

The Ballad Of Narayama - Life, Time-Honoured

Quick Thoughts: The Ballad Of Narayama (楢山節考, 1958)

In a village where it is customary to be left on a mountain top to die when you hit 70, an elderly woman watches her last days approach.


The Ballad Of Narayama is a fascinating film made by Shichirō Fukazawa in 1958. It is centred on a small village near mountains filled with rather awful young people. The family we focus on is made up of an elderly grandmother, her eldest son, who has lost his wife, and further younger generations. The grandmother is near death's doorstep and wants to conform to the village tradition of obasute. This is a Japanese tradition that appears in much folklore (it is not, however, believed that this was ever a prevalent tradition in the real world) of a child abandoning their elderly parent in a remote location to die. Obasute is framed by this narrative as an honourable decision and a chance to be righteous in death before the gods. This is why the grandmother, who is to be 70 soon, wants to be taken to the top of mount Narayama and left to die. However, the younger villagers are shown berrading and abusing their elders, one old man in particular who does not want to die. His family think him dishonourable and want him gone--rather literally. They refuse to give him food and leave him to scrounge off others whilst still forcing him to work their fields - they even try to tie him up and abandon him forcibly. Young village children, including the grandmother's grandchild, also abuse her. They mock her and call her a devil for still having many of her teeth at 69. This gets to her so badly that she knocks them out as to preserve her honour in the village and before the gods. Meanwhile, her grandchild, like the family of the old man clinging to his life, moans about how long his grandmother has been alive and wants her gone so that he and his pregnant girlfriend can essentially eat more rice.

This is, quite clearly, a narrative that sees its characters pulled between what is honourable and what is right before tradition. The grandmother believes herself a burden on the already struggling family, and so is happy to leave. Her oldest son, however, is tormented by the idea that she is not only going to be murdered, but that he will be the one to do it - how could that be right? This narrative seems so significant because it emerges from a post WWII Japan. It is during the war era that Japanese culture was perceived, and in many respects operated, without surrender--at any cost. Much more information can be derived from this Dan Carlin podcast on this subject, but, life and honour both in The Ballad of Narayama and in the war-time zeitgeist of Japan formed a clear hierarchy: honour and duty first, your life second. Shichirō Fukazawa's film seemingly wants to confront this conception, to not only question if this hierarchy is correct, but also expose the corruption in such a system. It is through the eldest son that tradition is then framed as inhuman, or, at the very least, devastatingly brutal. And it is with the young villagers who abuse their elders as if one day they will not be old themselves that corruption in this honour over life system is revealed.

Alas, there is never a definite conclusion given on the presented conflicts. Instead, what is emphasised above all else with elements of kabuki theatre is the shortness of life, its periodical, cyclical degradation of soul and spirit - which is only fully realised when it is much too late. With some brilliant direction, play with set transitions, music and lighting, this melancholic film asks its characters and audience to understand time's impact on space, to understand the world before they try to wrestle with life and honour. For this, I highly recommend this. However, if you have seen The Ballad Of Narayama, what are your thoughts?






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Tomb Raider - Objective & Subjective Drama

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20/08/2018

Tomb Raider - Objective & Subjective Drama

Thoughts On: Tomb Raider (2018)

A rich adventure's daughter, who has disavowed all of his wealth, investigates his disappearance.


Though I can say that Roar Uthaug's Tomb Raider was surprisingly good, it isn't a particularly special film; certainly above-average as a video game movie, but only by virtue of the fact that it seems to delve only into the cinematic, story-based elements of the games, which ultimately leaves this a pretty traditional action-adventure film. Furthermore, this is not very far removed from the Angelina Jolie Tomb Raider films. This is especially true in terms of the structure. The Jolie films all start with fun and games that are eventually interrupted by a call to action catalysed by a man - a father or a love interest of some kind - as attached to ancient ruins. These ancient ruins take Lara off to a different country where she encounters bad guys, but eventually has to side with them before, in a final climax, there is a huge conflict and all is sorted out. Uthaug's Tomb Raider follows this basic formula with very minor alterations and the expected dressing up (a unique selection of location, myth, ruins, etc). This leaves the narrative predictable, but this is not necessarily a bad thing.

The Tomb Raider narrative seems to be an incarnation of the hero's journey centred around a confrontation of masculine forces. It is then typical of the kind of narrative seen in, for example, Clash of the Titans. These kind of films are very much so about confronting male and female forces, both the positive and negative. (You can read about Clash of the Titans here). Tomb Raider is descendent of this basic narrative in that her father represents her central inner-conflict and motivation. In following this imago, this image of perfection that she holds of her father, Lara comes upon dangerous and evil men. Her task here is to wield the dangerous and to defeat the evil. Before this, however, she must exist as they do; this is why the 'co-operation with the bad guy' element of the plot seems so inevitable. It is having mastered the masculine domains she enters that Lara Croft can impose her moral fortitude by confronting ancient masculine/feminine archetypes (the ruins that she so often has to investigate). These ruins are tied up in her own interior conflict with her father, and in overcoming and mastering this domain, she takes an individuating step of the hero. So, in total, each Tomb Raider film deals with Lara Croft overcoming a subtle Freudian drama connected to her childhood and father by travelling along a Jungian narrative spruced up by a lot of Hollywood flash. It is fascinating, however, to step back and see how these narratives developed in the video games - and were played primarily by boys. From this perspective, Lara becomes an imago herself, a female archetype in the gamer's head, and thus the narrative becomes a more complex one about female and male forces balancing when in search of one another. Alas, let us not get lost in this line of thought.

It is rather obvious that, though these narratives have an arguably complex symbolic base, they are not executed particularly well. The problem with all of the Tomb Raider films is symptomatic of a central misunderstanding and miscomprehension of what they are fundamentally trying to achieve. Though all of the films are intrinsically constructed upon this confrontation of the masculine imago, the drama is consumed by objectivity and rather blind to subjectivity.

I have talked at great length about the objective and subjective in cinema. So far, however, we have only covered this concept in regards to impressionism, expressionism, surrealism and realism. These are modes or approaches to cinema, and they can be characterised as objective and subjective as to describe the way in which characters are constructed. To construct a character with impressionism, the camera and story seeks to pull life out of them and bind this to the audience. To use impressionism objectively, characters become objects on screen, which is to say they become caricatures, archetypes or symbols - depending on their complexity. These characters are defined not by an illusion of humanity and free will (of subjective being), but are instead defined by the constructs around and within them; they clearly serve a writer.

It must be emphasised that we are dealing with mode, and also form, when speaking of objective/subjective impressionism, expressionism, etc. Mode concerns philosophy and approach; what a writer means to achieve in their script. Form concerns physical representation; what is on screen and how it gets there. Objective impressionism is bound to mode in that it is a way of approaching story. It is also linked to form as objective impressionism is manifested with the camera. Alas, what is missing in this conception of the objective and subjective is the fundamental basis of representation: drama. It is in drama that we find the fundamental meaning of any story. For a film to be manifested, its drama must formulate the foundation. The writer's approach manipulates the abstract representation and directions of the drama. The form manifests drama on the screen, attempting to provide the correct frame through which to see it. After this, the work is becoming art, and in becoming art, it must take on a genre, which is to say, it must have an established relation to all other literature. This does not necessarily provide a map of how a film is chronologically made, but this is the hierarchy of structural attributes that all films have. At their heart, all films are drama, forming their skeleton is mode, the form is their skin and musculature, genre is clothing. Let us nonetheless turn back to drama.

Dividing the heart of a film is a line between the objective and subjective, which is to say that drama can, itself, bear a subjective and objective quality. Drama, in turn, subjective and objective drama, concerns not necessarily character, but the life force of narrative; it is that which gives the spaces and frames of cinema time. To conceptualise of drama's objective and subjective faces, we must stress that it is the abstract motivation for story about which we speak. For this abstract motivation to be subjective it must be embedded with a sense of universal life: the universe's life. We speak now in great abstractions, but, if we follow the idea that drama is imitative of life, we must ask where life emerges from. We do not know. Yet, both science and the most central philosophies of humanity operate with the assumption that there are rules around us derivative of being beyond space and time, but are themselves space and time too. In religious doctrine, the rules and logic of the universe often exist in the domain of a god or universal omnipotence such as Tao; these are both transcendent of, yet intrinsic to, the universe. In science, one may ask a question of physical law. Did the laws of physics create the universe, did they pre-exist it, did they emerge simultaneously, did physical law follow the birth of the universe? I, of course, cannot answer this question, and it seems that scientists cannot definitively do so either. Physical law seems simultaneously intrinsic and transcendent; it both is the universe and it is beyond it. It is this dichotomy of intrinsic and transcendent that characterises life itself; life is an existent force within us and beyond us; life is the universe, life is also beyond the universe. To imitate this life with drama, we would have to imitate both its transcendent and its intrinsic qualities. Objective drama deals with the intrinsic and subjective the transcendent. So, when we suggest that subjective drama mimetically embodies universal life, we speak of art attempting to project the central rules of the universe's being as they remain in the abstract and beyond ourselves. Objective drama is left dealing with what is obvious, what is before ourselves, and so the rules of reality that are tangible and intrinsic to logic.

All becomes very clear with an example. In Tomb Raider, there are two major elements of drama. There is Lara's conflict with her father, and then there is her literal journey, which includes many fights, chases, traps, puzzles, etc. Her conflict with her father deals with a confrontation of the universal masculine, of archetypes that exist in transcendent spaces. Her fights and chases occur in basic physical spaces of an intrinsic quality. The subjective drama is in the themes, whereas the objective drama is the action and adventure. (It is important to briefly note that action can be transcendent and theme can be objective; the nature of this assertion will become apparent as we go on, but we shall save the particularities for another time).

Tomb Raider's central issue does not concern its objective drama. The realism and verisimilitude of Tomb Raider's physical character drama (fights, chases, etc) is its greatest strength. I enjoyed most the fight scenes for they capture desperation, a palpable feeling of fighting for one's life and a truthful fighting style - all without leaning too hard on contrivance. The integration of mixed martial arts techniques into the fight choreography as well as the writer's ability to embed into Lara weaknesses, yet have her overcome personal fault, secure a minor narrative. So, though the drama in the fight scenes very much so deals with rules of a very objective class, they do open up onto subjective themes ever so slightly. We see this with the arc that stretches across the fight scenes to see Lara become a smarter fighter; the notion developed here being one of fighting from within, fighting with reason and purpose beyond yourself, not just for grit and a game of confined self-development. Somewhat humorously, this is symbolically represented in a final fight with Lara's father killing herself to save her and the world, yet Lara going on to carry fourth his moral fortitude by defeating the evil masculine character--by punching him in the dick and then the throat, taking away his masculinity and his humanity. Humorous symbolism aside, the technicality, and so the spectacle, of the fights isn't outstanding - this is more true of the chase scenes - and so they don't make for masterful set-pieces, but are certainly impressive and absorbing as well as the deepest sources of characterisation that the film cultivates.

Whilst there is enjoyment to be found in the objective elements of drama in Tomb Raider, the subjective drama is lacking. To put this into words we have all heard and said before: the action scenes are good, and so watch this film for them, but there's not much to care about in regards to character and story. To take this formulation more seriously and truly ask what we're saying, we must elaborate on how and why the subjective drama is lacking.

Missing from Tomb Raider is a serious exploration and representation of who Lara's father is and what her relationship with him was like. Because we do not have a subjective understanding of the backstory - because it is objectively used in depthless flashbacks - this film has no symbolic-dramatic base, which is to say, it does not tap into those transcendent rules of the abstract universe. Because this film has no ability to capture deep, abstract, profound truth of any particular class or character, it fails in securing subjective meaning. (Better films that deal with female heroes confronting masculine archetypes are Moana, Mulan, Beauty And The Beast, Spirited Away and Amélie) .The result of Tomb Raider's depthless subjective drama is that we see not the humanity and feel not the abstract reality of the story, yet can appeal to its skewed (typholodramatic) representation of reality and the objective.

There are some elements of subjectivity in this narrative that have their effect. As said, they emerge from the fight scenes and Lara's arc through combat. The Jolie Tomb Raider films lacked this. Her character was constructed rather objectively. Thus, she mediates between a caricature and objective-archetype, catalysed into being by an imago; by a sexual, Amazonian (to reference Greek mythology) warrior woman archetype. In the language of the (Freudian) feminists, Lara Croft is objectified in the Jolie films also. She, too, is often castrated, revealed to be a man without a penis; which is to say she has a masculine shell that corrupts the inner femininity, her sexuality used a spectacle, her masculinity a novelty. In Uthaug's Tomb Raider, there is little to critique from a feminist perspective as sexuality does not come into the story, thus, Lara is not objectified by the feminist conceptualisation of the word, nor is she castrated. I would argue that masculine and feminine forces are balanced rather well and projected rather truthfully in this narrative. Alas, there is not much depth in the representation of masculine and feminine. Let us not get caught in a circle though.

To bring things towards a close, we now hopefully have a more complex, yet nonetheless revealing and clear, way of speaking and thinking of Tomb Raider's fundamental lack of material that makes us care about the story and characters. I'll then end openly. What do you think of Tomb Raider and all that we have spoken of today?








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19/08/2018

End Of The Week Shorts #71



Today's shorts: Creep (2014), The Wailing (2016), Red Desert (1964), Loving Vincent (2017), Black Swan (2010), Early Summer (1951), Demetri Martin: The Overthinker (2018), Iliza Shlesinger: Confirmed Kills (2016)



Creep is a somewhat interesting found footage horror film, but is ultimately rather inane. This is a story we have seen many times over: someone invites someone else over to their house where they are trapped and eventually killed. This is Dracula and every single on of its descendants. All Creep does differently is change the perspective of the narrative so that we see the archetypal Dracula narrative through the camera of a videographer instead of from a third person view - in fact, this is rather like Bram Stoker's original book, especially the introduction, which is told through Jonathan Harker's diary. This ultimately means that any claim to originality that this film tries to make is highly questionable. Alas, overall, this does do some things somewhat differently from other found footage movies - the character is not as dumb as they usually come (but isn't all that smart either) and the structure provides some unexpected turns. In the end though, this just doesn't work; a real phone call to police would have solved this whole mess.



Hmmmm...

The Wailing is a profoundly captivating film, one that plays with mood effortlessly, one moment a comedy, another an inciting family drama, another a crime film, and yet another a horror. On top of this, this is directed and performed to perfection. There remains a question mark over this narrative for me, however. The Wailing's overall feel is that of a folktale, yet its resolution is too blunt and plot driven to retain a classically evocative quality. So though this has lulled me into dreamy cinematic ecstasy with its form, I'm left pondering upon its content - and not necessarily in a good way. I don't see this narrative forming a cohesive whole with intention and meaning (I thought this was going to say something about a child growing up, maybe xenophobia, alas, no). Furthermore, I suspect a re-watch would reveal a plot-driven supernatural thriller; a great work of this genre, but not a masterwork of storytelling. That said, on this watch, I can only conclude that this was a brilliant experience.



Red Desert is a difficult modernist film from Antonioni. It contrasts and clashes together existential loss and a symbolic representation of the modern, industrialised world. The two do not seem to be the direct result of one another, yet one has an affect on another; the industrial word causing neurotic flares within a housewife meandering through life. It is as this wife gets mixed into her husband's work life that she loses contact with her son, who grows very ill, and, herself, starts to grow deranged. Her challenge seems to be to manage natural impulses within herself, those of a seemingly sexual nature, in spite of the outside world's alien, mechanised nature which means to encroach upon her own.

I cannot say that I was at any point struck or immersed into this narrative, its characters and its exploration of theme - which left me feeling that this was rather pretentious. But, not wanting to assume I fully understood this film, I'll end by saying that maybe a re-watch in the future will reveal more.



A touch too sentimental, wrapped up in too much plot, lacking character, lacking structural flair, Loving Vincent is riddled with problems. To continue, the acting is slightly shaky, the choice of English language/accents is ill-advised and the story constantly seems to be sprinting for an end despite the hurdles put up by the writer and their plot. On the page, this is a mediocre Citizen Kane-esque investigation of an unknown someone. Formally - and it is the form for which this is known - this is... questionable. Whilst this really rides on the fact that this is the first feature-length painted film, it was, and appears as, rather rushed. In such the rotoscoping often seems too obvious and the storyboarding unimaginative; the idea that this exists in between cinema ad fine art never seemingly truly pondered upon and played with. Directed only satisfactorily, this is not a failed experiment, but also not an overwhelming success.




Re-watching Black Swan today, I found myself with a film I understand far better now and see greater depth in. However, it has lost its sheen ever so slightly.

No longer is this as illusive or affecting as it was a few years ago. At many points, it is easy to sense that Aronofsky is writing outside of his bounds to some degree, that he is contriving a world based on cliche and assumption - that world being one of ballet and the inner workings of a prima ballerina's psyche. I'm inclined to err towards believing that the falseness of this world has much to do with intentional elements of genre and Aronofsky's attempt to showcase and, to a degree, melodramatise the darker elements of his narrative. But, though has lost a touch of its magic, I still cringe at all the body horror, so Black Swan retains some of its punch. In total, I'm happy to have re-visited this.



How easy it is to forget the mastery of an Ozu film. How easy is it to be soothingly reminded again. Early Summer exudes beauty in whispers, its story hidden within the fabric of its still cinematic spaces. A study of multiple varying characters, Early Summer sections up a family, tries to understand its individuals before exploring all of the different links that keep them one. Presiding over this is the antithesis of melancholia, which is to say that joy, not sadness, emerges without clear cause and in contrast to a certain atmosphere. This is for the fact that, the more we learn of how closely knit this family is, the clearer it becomes that they will be soon drifting apart. Such is presented as the simple nature of life, and so family itself is given a simultaneous constant and intermittent quality; forever do we have family, but only briefly do we get to act and live as one. It is from this uncanny expression of simple truth that Early Summer grips your being and shatters logic, leaving your senses stumbling and soul humming. A masterpiece.



Not bad.

A blend of one liners, commentary on pictures and musical comedy, The Overthinking is consistently amusing. It plays with the form of basic stand-up special - as many comedians are doing these days - by showing and voicing some procrastinatory thoughts from the comedian as he performs. This sometimes works, but it ultimately only adds a small something different. The most successful editing choice comes with the structure, especially the opening and closing - quite relaxed and understated, I certainly appreciated them. Overall this is not profoundly funny, but it was a good watch. Recommended.



Not brilliant.

Thought it holds some of Shlesinger's strongest comedic attributes - primarily her voices and so on - this feels drawn out and cliched. The best jokes stem from personal experience, but things become somewhat tiring when she leans on stereotype and premises that are more than within reach. Some of the worst punchlines are the ones you see coming, yet the more successful ones bend and push past expectation. So, in the end, not a thrill, but sometimes funny - probably best seen in clips.






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