Thoughts On: September 2018

30/09/2018

End Of The Week Shorts #77



Today's short: The Pervert's Guide To Cinema (2006), Jaws (1975), Russel Howard: Recalibrate (2017), Meshes Of The Afternoon (1943), Burn After Reading (2008), Fargo (1996), A Serious Man (2009)



More than brilliant and simply too thought-provoking, The Pervert's Guide to Cinema is Slavoj Zizek's presentation of a Freudian theory of cinema. He deals with pleasure, desire and reality; cinema as an art that can reveal the reality in fantasy, that which is too deeply intertwined with our dark desires to be recognised bare-faced. Though Zizek's application of psychoanalysis is initially predictable, his actual analysis is spectacular, always going a step further than you anticipate. And the sheer honesty and passion with which this is presented makes this quite impossible not to respect. Alas, I think this is limited and builds an incomplete picture of cinema (though it does well in analysis a particular kind of cinema - that of Hitchcock, Tarkovsky, Lynch, etc). Zizek often seems on the edge of Jungian analysis that would threaten to shatter his Freudian prepositions, and so this didn't feel fully conclusive, rather, a mere perspective of film. Before I begin to ramble, however, I'll end knowing I have to watch this a few more times before being able to fully grapple with it. Recommended to all.



I can't imagine that there will ever be a need for another shark movie. Jaws accidentally, subtly, brilliantly, does it all.

Whilst I would call this a classic before a masterpiece, the most masterful element of this film is the direction; the use of visual and editorial ambiguity, long shots and a busy frame that internally builds tension via sound design make for an unnaturally mature and complex approach to what should be a stupid exploitation film. The sophisticated direction that Spielberg, as most will know, developed mostly because of technically difficulties with his sharks, allows him to build a prototypically meaningful 'monster film'. This is then, very ambiguously so, about a monster that calls a man to responsibility, to heroism, to action performed with faith in ones ability to confront malevolence in the world as opposed to naive faith in an unconditional Eden. Without specificity, I don't think this narrative formulates a commentary, instead, just is this looming set of highly affecting themes that attack the senses thanks to the fact that they are brought to the screen unspeakably well. Always a joy to re-watch.



Not bad. Some good laughs to be had here, but you won't be rolling on the ground for an hour. Howard's ludicrous and loud comedy has an interesting conflict between cheekiness and obscenity, his stage presence so often uplifting some rather dark comedy. Whilst the darkness in some of his jokes/true stories isn't always as funny as he seemingly recalls it as, this is where his best work is found. Again, not bad.



Infinitely fascinating, Meshes of the Afternoon is a film I can and have watched dozens of times and always feel like I'm approaching something new each time - and simply for the fact that it is so dense and ambiguous; that it dares you to formulate a narrative of your own. Today, I'll hazard to say that this is about a woman who loses her self - not herself, but her self - in a man and so can only perceive herself as a reflection of him. She must then wake herself up, reclaim her femininity (as symbolised by a flower) and... I'm not sure what else.

What struck me about this today was also the fact that it is a Tarkovsky-esque sculpture in time that re-defines the idea in my mind. Of course, Deren is playing with loops of time, but space doesn't seem to exist here. The only tangible element of this is the fact that it is a film; thus, the form, the celluloid, within which this is wrapped, is the sculpture: no space, just time. A masterpiece.



A brilliantly and typically Coen bros. movie, Burn After Reading is just as much enjoyable as it is subtly thought-provoking. In essence, this is a film about not recognising one's significance in the world - it is also about stupidity and ridiculous aspirations. What brings about an intoxicating sense of the uncanny in this film is the serious treatment of ludicrous melodrama. The result of this is a feeling that everything that occurs within this story is too insane to have been made up - that this must be based on a true story (the Coen bros. have played this trick before with Fargo, and this is almost as convincing). This is the greatest compliment that you can pay to the tremendous, yet nonetheless light, character-work, all of which is focused on persona and personality, not depth, arc and symbolism. The end product is then a mesmerising dip into a world of chaos, perfectly tuned and honed for the screen and irresistibly likeable.



Down the Coen bros. hole I decided to go today, and could there be a better film to follow Burn After Reading?

Fargo is essentially the original telling of Burn After Reading. Both films are about intent, action and consequence; they are about a desperate fool who unknowingly awakens the devil - danger, chaos, evil and darkness beyond their measure - and cannot put him to rest. (No Country For Old Men is also about exactly this). Where we primarily take the side of the foolish adventurers in Burn After Reading, Fargo has us empathise with law over anarchism. This is then far more subtle with its dark comedy, far less intense with its melodrama, but nonetheless just as affecting to the senses and the mind. I have seen this countless times, but today this felt particularly brilliant. I think the Coen bros. are rising up the ranks of my abstract favourite directors list.



Masterful. A Serious Man is probably the Coen bros' most tonally whole and narratively/thematically/structurally complex film to date. Very much so about a man who wants answers to the unanswerable, this brilliantly captures a genuine feeling of existential loss without putting aside levity and the Coen bros' typically subtle and ironic absurdisms. Furthermore, this brings us into a dismal world without sentimentality, without a plea for empathy and understanding, instead, retains a respectful distance from which we are made to ponder coincidence and atrophy. A Serious Man then has us ask how we are to confront the violently unknowable in life, how we are to appear to be more than a mere joke before the world and its trials. Can such a conundrum even be confronted? What are the implications of us failing or succeeding to rise up to this? Here is the heart of the film, but we are dared to say so much more.






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Crazy Rich Asians - Something Familiar

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28/09/2018

Crazy Rich Asians - Something Familiar

Thoughts On: Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

A young Asian-American woman flies off to Singapore to meet her boyfriends family for the first time - unbeknownst to her, they are incredibly wealthy.


I did not go into Crazy Rich Asians with high expectations; I didn't really know what to expect apart from something light and most probably mediocre. What I got was strangely familiar. Crazy Rich Asians essentially feels like a typhlodramatised, an Americanised or Hollywood-ified, 80/90s Bollywood film - a semi-realist, less melodramatic version of DDLJ (Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge). Quickly recognising this, I knew this would be a film that saw two lovers meet and one partner's family disprove of the other (for reasons concerning religion, caste or race). The couple would fight to be together, but all would come to a point at which the protagonist, the lower class, or otherwise 'other', lover, would have to choose to betray familial traditions inherent to a collectivist ethos or lose their lover. In making the right decision, in choosing to sacrifice their love, something would happen before the protagonist: the parents would have a sudden realisation of sorts, and the two lovers would be brought together and live happily ever after; the fundamental message implying that when sacrifice, truth and love coalesce, one formulates one of the strongest of social structures possible that even tradition cannot break (at least in the ideal world).

If you have seen Crazy Rich Asians, you may think I am describing this film specifically. If you are familiar with Indian cinema, however, you are highly aware that what I have just described is a classical narrative that has been put to film without too much alteration hundreds and thousands of times. Being a fan of Shah Rukh Khan movies, I don't despise the recycling of this archetypal, Mughal-e-Azam-esque narrative. It was fascinating to see a prominent Hollywood film, one that is clearly trying to make a statement, to globalise its cinema, imitate the most dominant form of Asian cinema: Bollywood. I would be further fascinated to know if director Jon M. Chu consciously constructed a narrative of this sort, or if it naturally emerged out of him trying to genuinely tell a 'Singaporean', 'Asian-American', 'Asian' or 'Eastern' story (from his interviews, this seems to be the case), and if he is familiar with Bollywood cinema.

That said, the positives of this film come from its narrative arc, which, as said, is a replica of the archetypal Bollywood romance. The meaning that then emerges from a depiction of a character who finds strength before denial, who remains genuine and composed before spite and is more than prepared to act with the highest dignity, morality and self-respect when faced with utmost adversity, is the selling point of this film. This is not particularly good, however, for, whilst it manages to get down on the page a strong, archetypal narrative arc, it does not tell it in a particularly unique, exciting or insightful manner. The side-characters are then flat, the main characters are only slightly interesting, the comedy is mediocre, the script is ok and the direction is satisfactory. Underlying this film is also a somewhat distasteful, exploitative spectacle; Asia conceptually used as a base attraction. This renders all hints of cultural curiosity about this film, all the facts and insights we are given into Singaporean culture, rather inane and childish; the audience spoken down upon, the glitz and glamour of rich Asians used to beckon us into the contrived drama.

Ultimately, I am then very sceptical about Crazy Rich Asians as the 'ground-breaking' and 'culturally important' film it is being sold as and is seemingly assuming it is. Much like many other efforts to make films centralised around female empowerment and liberal inclusivity, this feels disingenuous. I always feel that we'll only be able to judge these films soberly in at least 20 years, but, being too conscious of the context in which this has been made, this feels mediocre at best, pretentious at worst to me. What are your thoughts, however?







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26/09/2018

Gerald's Game - Eclipse

Thoughts On: Gerald's Game (2017)

A wife is chained to a bed when her husband dies of a heart attack during an intimate moment.


Whilst the title is somewhat unsuiting, Gerald's Game is a rather excellent film. More a character study than a horror or a thriller, or even a survival film, Gerald's Game deals with a fundamental and tormenting rift between one woman's conception of her male counterparts in life and her egoic self. As most will know, this is about a middle-aged woman in a deteriorating marriage who, when her and husband try to spice up their relationship with handcuffs, is left tethered to a bed once he has a heart attack.

The thematic conflict underlying this drama concerns our main character's, Jessie's, past: she was sexually abused as a child by her father and so has found herself with a partner who bounds her to silence like her father did. Her partner is not her core conflict. Rather, it is something within her that saw change after being abused, something that saw her cultivate and then stay in a bad relationship. This difficult to describe inner conflict is symbolised by an eclipse. (Jessie was abused on the day of an eclipse). This solar event, of course, sees the moon move across the sun, blotting it out. Symbolically, one can see this event to be attached to a Jungian syzygy, a Logos and Eros. The sun, in such a case, would be light, would be the Taoist yang; that which makes unambiguous life, that which illuminates existence. Traditionally, the sun and Logos is linked to the masculine. Conversely, the moon and Eros are linked to the female; yin, darkness and chaos of a fertile character. Staying in this Jungian realm of psychoanalysis, we can infer that the sun and moon come to embody archetypes in the psyche of Jessie. When the moon moves over the sun, Eros comes to suffocate Logos. This would mean that a force in human nature that bonds (Eros) would overcome a force in human nature that distinguishes (Logos). This symbolic and elemental act is transposed onto reality. Instead of speaking (an act attached to the symbolic masculine), instead of splitting her family apart with the truth after she is abused, Jessie then stays silent and keeps all in the dark and quiet where all may remain the same (a negative act that is symbolically feminine). What is so damaging about this imitation of Logos and Eros in Jessie is the fact that her father becomes an embodiment of masculinity that is silencing, that is abusive, that uses 'light' for evil and to exploit darkness and unknowing. Furthermore, Jessie's mother becomes an embodiment of an inert Eros--Jessie doesn't feel loved by her and can never identify strength with her mother. So, whilst Jessie is possessed by Eros, her conception of both Eros and Logos as archetypes (her mother and father; anima and animus) become corrupted.

In the same respect that the an unknown and dark moon covered the sun, a twisted and dehumanised mode of femininity ultimately covers Jessie's true self. Instead of having a balance between masculine and feminine within herself, she can be seen to imitate feminine over masculine too often, and a version of femininity that is not matured and genuine. We see this with the fact that Jessie knows her husband has been doing something behind her back, but decides to let her insight (the light with which she sees) be eclipsed by darkness and a will to sustain the marriage. There is something coincidental and tragic about this conflict between masculine and feminine in Jessie, too. The first tragic conflict came via abuse; it was not Jessie's personal imagoes of masculine and feminine that caused this conflict, rather, it was her father. There is a more subtle coincidental tragedy in the film, however. Seeing a stray dog, Jessie opts to help him, to imitate Eros in bonding with nature. However, the dog betrays her. As she is trapped on the bed, the dog enters the house and begins eating her husband - and even tries to eat her. So, coincidentally, her 'feminine' act of helping the dog, which was opposed to her husband's 'masculine' refusal to help it, came back to, literally, bite her. Such reveals something symbolically tragic; a gendering kind of fate having something against Jessie.

This Jungian symbology breeds drama that essentially wants to see Jessie walk under the sun. That is to say, Jessie must re-work her conception of femininity and re-establish a bond with her own masculinity; this will see the moon cease to shadow the sun and a natural cycle between day and night emerge. And such, it is important to note, is the final image of the film. Whilst the eclipse is our primary recurrent image, Jessie ultimately wants to escape this and does so when she can walk away from us at the end of the film under a brightly shining sun. And we think her to be more powerful in this moment, we think of her not as a man, but as having embodied the masculine element of the universe that pierces darkness. Her walking away is then a symbolically masculine act that demonstrates a reconciliation with Logos. It is important to also recognise how Jessie also aligns herself with the feminine, however. The feminine is darkness and night, which is ruled by the moon. Jessie is haunted at night by a man who she says is made of moonlight. Her mastering of femininity comes with her confrontation of this moonlight, of the man who she gave her wedding ring to, he who hides within himself her father and husband, which is to say that this entity is the distorted sense femininity that saw Jessie live in silence with an evil father and terrible husband. Eros is re-defined with Jessie's out-reach to young girls like herself. As she councils other abused girls, she imitates Eros above all else, but also uses Logos, her speech, to evoke the truth once she has welcomed girls into a safe place.

The Jungian underpinnings of this narrative, or rather, the elements of this narrative that are attached to male and female and can be best understood through Jung, are, I believe, its strongest elements. There is a conflict between reality and fantasy that isn't always handled well, however. For example, this film could have done well in not making the man made of moonlight into an actual criminal in the real world. He serves his purpose without having this double-character, both symbolic and literal.

This dichotomy of the literal and the fantastical plagues much of Gerald's Game, usually creating a tension between realist exposition and surreal symbolism. We this this most in the bedroom scenes where Jessie's projection of herself and her husband emerge and begin talking to her. These figures can be best understood via a merging of Jung and Freud. They are then archetypes or imagoes of herself and her husband, but their character is very conscious. We could then associate them with the Freudian superego as they constantly play the role of being over-conscious, doubtful, over-analytical and even paranoid. This is more true of Jessie's projection of her husband - her projection of herself forces her to introspect. Whilst we are using Freudian terminology, we could also think of the dog that is slowly eating Jessie's husband to be an embodiment of id - base desire.

These three characters are, in a complicated way that I haven't fully understood, bound to the thematic exploration of masculine and feminine. The projection of the husband is self-consciously and obviously a piggish man. This is not the true husband, rather, it is the truth that Jessie unconsciously sees in him; she did not know her husband, but can think of him only as a pig. Her projection of herself is her own known/unknown strength and ability. This projection embodies a balance between masculine and feminine, Logos and Eros, and so is an ideal persona that Jessie must come to imitate and then transcend - and eventually she does just this. The dog, which is the most complicated figure is an encapsulation of id. It also has a dark character, and so may also be thought of as the Jungian shadow - it is hard to be precise in suggesting this, however. The dog is said to be masculine: all of the corrupt and evil men that Jessie has ever known. However, he is also said to be innocent and genderless; he is just an animal that is doing what he must to survive. It is hard to know exactly what this dog represents and how it effects the cinematic space as a symbol. I sense, however, that the dog embodies a conundrum; he is the bitterness of nature that calls out for a feminine hand. The dog is then the coincidence and tragedy that betrays Jessie's femininity personified. Simultaneously, however, the dog is a reminder that the world is not kind, that gender in many senses is built to be betrayed, to be challenged at the very least. After all, we are not singularly the Jungian archetypes of male and female, just like we aren't our Freudian mother and father. The true person is an individual bound to these objects and concepts, but nonetheless autonomous. The dog as fate confronts gender, confronts Jessie's yearning to associate him with all men, yet also dares one to see the raw drives in nature and humanity, dares Jessie to see humanity in acts of darkness. It is only in overcoming the dog that Jessie overcomes the torment of masculine forces around her and comes to accept and transcend the base destruction, the shadow, of humanity as to confront it. (If I were to be objective, I would say that this symbolic set of actions is not dramatised and presented very well; the dog lacking a coherent effect on the narrative). This act of overcoming the corrupt masculine archetype and accepting nature is what Jessie repeats in understanding that her father was evil--human and her father, but evil nonetheless--and moving past him. The final step of this, which we have discussed, is peeling the feminine protection she hides this truth in; is seeing the man made of moonlight as a feminine skin hiding the corrupt men in her life.

Having delved quite deeply into the Freudian elements of this film, we have neglected our initial point. Though these projections, the dog, Jessie and Gerald's double, are functional symbols, the words they speak and the words that are spoken about them too often solidify and explain the meaning of their place and presence. Through expositional dialogue, the cinematic space of Gerald's Game takes on an uncanny character that cannot balance the fantastic and the real. Without so much exposition and a little more ambiguity, the best realistic scenes and the best surreal scenes would have complimented each other better. The incredibly real moment where Jessie escapes the handcuffs with the glass - which was more than hard to watch - would have then sat well next to visions of a blood red eclipse. This would be thanks to a subtle symbolic act of Jessie using sanitary pads to bandage her wound; the idea of a period and escape from the chains ambiguously yet expressively bound, indicating Jessie's step into a second puberty, a second phase of maturation. Let us end both analysis and criticism here, however.

In total, Gerald's Game is not perfect, but it is a brilliant film that is mentally and emotionally affecting in a variety of ways. Thanks to Jake for the recommendation. I recommend this to anyone who hasn't yet seen it.







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Medium Cool - In Search Of Cassavetes

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24/09/2018

Medium Cool - In Search Of Cassavetes

Thoughts On: Medium Cool (1969)

A news cameraman falls into a relationship whilst political and ideological structures in Chicago seem to be exploding.


Medium Cool is not a particularly good film, but it is clearly trying to do something of significance and make an impact in a rapidly changing cinematic industry, and, to a good degree, this is a success in such a respect. Following a reporter who falls for a single mother from the south during the summer of 1968 (a concentrated time of huge political upheaval across the world), this sometimes viscerally explores many key socio-political topics from civil rights, to revolution, to freedom of the press, the function of the press, the nuclear family, gender roles, racial divides, economic divides, etc. In many senses Medium Cool is a loose narrative collage of major liberal talking-points. It does not benefit too much from this.

The 60s, I cannot help feeling looking back as someone born in the 90s, was an important time that is often romanticised, yet, when looked at objectively and somewhat closely (as you arguably can in this film) were also chaotic and terribly pretentious - much like all times, I imagine, but with heightening factors adding emphasis in certain places. This translates to cinema rather unambiguously. With the explosion of a particularly political cinema (especially in experimental and independent forms) across the world in the 60s comes, in essence, young people who think they have all the answers to the world's issues becoming 'auteurs' - a term that gives stature and authority to a figure who does not necessarily earn it and can all too easily wear it on their sleeve after learning a few new words and gathering a crowd of students around themselves. One can argue this to be the case most easily in France with the French New Wave and figures such as Godard. I do not mean to reduce all filmmaking from the 60s and all that is attached in some way to auteur theory to pretence, but, there is a distinguishable set of films, a particularly political, 'unconventional' and 'rebellious' form of cinema, that consciously sits in a sphere that, maybe ironically, cannot recognise its own pretence - or is stubbornly proud of it (it can be hard to tell at times).

Medium Cool exists in this genre of film to some degree. This is not a self-aggrandising exploitation film, an obnoxious effort from cinema novo or another Third Cinema movement, nor is it an experimental, raving, very French, political manifesto. However, I could not help instantly seeing this to be an unsubtle, second-rate imitation of a John Cassavetes' picture - and not one of his best. The reason for this lies in the film's manifestation of tuphlodrama (more on this here) via formal trickery. Cassavetes and many alike generate off-beat performances and action through awkward editing that is too short in places, too elongated in others. Without invisible cinematic language and montage, a Cassavetes feels chaotic and dangerous; and the performances, whether they be subtle, brilliant or not, are always made to feel genuine--almost violently so. And that is maybe the best way one could describe the drama in Cassavetes films: subtle, yet violently real. The mastery Cassavetes exhibits in, especially, A Woman Under The Influence, is hinged upon an initial contrivance of an uncanny and uncouth feeling around the drama brought about via editing, cinematic language, pacing, sound design and the structuring of the narrative that soon gives way. The form of Cassavetes films is not the epicentre of the experience: the narrative, or, more so, the characters are. Cassavetes then guides our eye to see the world around his characters in one way (these techniques could be considered rather expressionist), but quickly allows his characters to step through and maintain the fore. We then start a film such as A Woman Under The Influence feeling almost offended that Cassavetes is putting such a world onto film in such a way, but, by the end of the film, we lament not Cassavetes' excruciatingly awkward presentation of mental disorders, instead, we accept the world as real and empathise with those within to the extent that your chest feels as if it may cave in. Such defines Cassavetes' mastery, and such is missing from Medium Cool.

Medium Cool focuses on form, but really has nothing to do with its narrative and nothing to say with its characters. The characters are loose archetypes seemingly typical of a more conventional Hollywood mode of filmmaking. This then very quickly boils down to a film about a rough, young, reluctant hero, a tortured and abandoned kid and a naive mother who is trying her best. There is no real complication about these characters and so they feel vaguely familiar, but not at all interesting. The mother, by the end, becomes a shell of a European art-cinema wandering female - we see this figure best represented in the cinema of Antonioni and played by Monica Vitti. That, quite bluntly, is all that could be said about character.

The greatest failure of Medium Cool is the fact that all is constructed around an attempt to self-reflexively clash the world of documentary and narrative, à la cinema verite. This then sees its characters wander into protests and rallies to literally represent the small sphere of family colliding with the wider political turmoil and, further, demonstrate a divide between the past (rural, traditional American life in the South) and the present. Because there is no subtlety in this transition between documentary and narrative modes, because the 'real-world' sequences are so awkwardly forced into the very loose plot, this cinema verite-esque mode of filmmaking feels spectacle-driven and the sequences in which it is used like set-pieces. Whilst there is then a certain uncanniness and force (maybe not a violence, this is not that impactful) about this, there is no subtlety, no complex characters and narrative meaning allowed to emerge through the form; and so this this falls flat--a lite and unimpressive Cassavetes-esque film. Furthermore, there is an air of distasteful propaganda about this film as the sequences that are meant to be 'real' only feel staged, and even if parts were not, the sound-design is almost certainly contrived, and so police officers and crowds are made to say things and make noises that they seemingly did not - the reality of protests grossly embellished so director, Haskell Wexler, can push an ideological point. This lack of genuity is another horrible mark on this film, which adds to its pretence and invalidates what little is said in the narrative.

Described above is all that makes this a pretty bad film. However, enveloping all is a robust and aggressive attempt at bringing something new to the screen with idiosyncratic cinematic language and themes that seemingly formulate a New Hollywood checklist. It is for this that Medium Cool is worth studying as a good exemplar of a film from the late 60s. And so, this is where I end. Whilst Medium Cool may not hold up today, its worth lies in its yearning to embody and represent a time. With that in mind, what do you think of this as a New Hollywood picture?







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23/09/2018

End Of The Week Shorts #76



Today's shorts: The Artist (2011), Shadow of the Vampire (2000), Black God, White Devil (1964), Solo: A Star Wars Movie (2018), Thor: Ragnarok (2017), Avengers: Infinity War (2018), Krrish (2006), The Surrounding Game (2016), Apex: The Story of the Hypercar (2016)



I'm torn. In many ways, The Artist merely feels pretentious and inane. Why make a silent film about the death of silent films, about the virtues of talking pictures? Why, furthermore, hash out a version of Singin' In The Rain that ultimately only wishes it could be Singin' In The Rain? Lastly, why make this look like a silent film when the cinematic language used is primarily that of a classical, 40s Hollywood film? More questions could be asked, but I will not dwell on them. This is a somewhat fun picture. The melodramatic Hollywood dream of a narrative feels out-dated and far too naive, however. This leaves everything feeling ever so cheap, but this has its moments of sincerity - I believe these emerge primarily from the brilliant score in the latter half of the film. I was disappointed that this wasn't just the dream sequence in which sound starts to make its way into the silent film star's life - which make for a fantastic film. Alas, this was just somewhat disappointing, but I can't say I was expecting much.



Shadow of the Vampire takes a concept that induces a slight roll of the eyes - what if a director of a vampire film actually hired a vampire? - and maps this onto a fictionalised 'making-of' of Murnau's Nosferatu. Seen in a simple light, this is a rather silly film whose melodrama is cheap and acting (especially in regards to the facial expressions) is absurd. It can then be difficult to know whether we are to laugh or reel away from Malkovich's and Dafoe's performances. The deeper weaknesses of this film concerns the structure and management of character. In short, this feels incredibly rushed and takes no time to really question its characters and their conflicts, despite the fact that it speaks of vampires and Bram Stoker's Dracula in terms of deep character study (which, unfortunately, is not executed here). There is then contrivance of a particularly damaging nature in what is essentially a film trying to be about sadism; the true vampire as a sadist; a director as a sadist. I know not why this then tries to speak of Murnau as a blood-sucking demon, but, all together, this didn't work.



Black God, White Devil tells story about a man too human to become the Devil for the sake of God. Rocha's world around this man is one in which all is presided over by corrupt systems that essentially force 'heroes' to become villains so they may attain the hope of achieving their greater ideals. This world is too broken for righteousness; God is lost in darkness and the Devil glares down from up above like the sun. Our main character cannot submit to evil, cannot access goodness, can only wander with reckless naivety, flipping all unity he once had into disarray and dragging his wife along the journey with him. Rocha presents this story with a realistic gaze that, jarringly, looks upon exuberant, contrived melodrama, the ultimate effect being a constant reminder that the camera, seemingly, cannot see truth; that truth emerges only from becoming conscious of a lie - such, poignantly, being the message provided by the story.



A second short review after a day of thinking about the film a little more...

I still think this is a horribly mediocre film weighed down by an almost fetishistic obsession with itself, Star Wars more generally and the tropes that come along with a Star Wars film (cliched dialogue masquerading as snarky banter, robot humour, an annoying CGI side-kick thing, etc). What has stuck in my mind, however, is the direction of Chewy's action scenes. They aren't terribly executed, but they felt strange--uncannily violent. I'm not squeamish or uptight when it comes to violence, but, if any character is changed by this film, I feel that Chewy is - and this is simply for the unmelodramatic, spectacle driven and rather brutal action (sometimes horror film-esque) sequences. All else about this film has pretty much fallen from memory. I dread to think of a sequel to this.



Pretty excellent. The Thor side of the Marvel universe has its issues - many of them, I feel, are derivative of Marvel's so-so re-branding of Norse myth (which has a more cohesive sense of character, symbology and narrative). All the major faults, especially in the scripts, of the first two Thor films are pretty much eradicated in Ragnarok, however. The characters we want to know about, the action we hope to see, are all centralised--and there are many surprises in addition to this. The tone is light and intense, and the direction/writing never cheapens or exacerbates this approach. This was less interesting in regards to story and slightly less funny on a second watch, but I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed sitting down and watching Ragnarok with family as seeing this with others really does make for a more complete and engaging film. Not wanting the action scenes to stop and yearning the final act to be stretched about by at least 15 more minutes, I was locked into this and am glad to have re-watched it.



My cinematic diet is being filled with sugar, fat and too many blockbusters. I consider myself lucky to have only been able to sit through about half of this again today.

Infinity War, after watching Thor: Ragnarock, is a little like trudging through mud, which is to say that it is hard adjusting to the constant, rather blunt, jumps in tone, the profuse plot and the scattered focus of a film that simply has to do too much - and you know when a film is trying to do too much when you have to spend an age explaining one detail to someone who missed only 2 movies in the whole entire MCU. After an hour of only caring to pay full attention to scenes not featuring Vision, Strange, Cap and Wanda--even Stark to some degree--I was glad to step away from this. The greatest joy I can derive from Infinity War--Marvel films in general--is being able to watch it with young siblings who go nuts for fragmentary moments when Spider-Man jumps on screen or when Hulk starts to smash.



Because I honestly do not know where to begin I won't try to pull together a review that even describes this movie. This is so ludicrously bad that I am at a complete loss for words. See this and you will know what I mean.



The Surrounding Game is a documentary on Go in the modern world with particular focus on the development of the game/sport/art/practice in America as well as the first American professional Go players. Being less about the game and more about a few of the young people who aspire to be professionals, this is an awkward documentary --yet in a rather earnest way. The Surrounding Game is then just as much about an ancient game played in a modern world as it is about a teenager's/young adult's queer and indecisive existence.

Without the distance and grandeur that other documentaries focused on professional sports of some sorts, this is down to earth and amateurishly personal. Quite a few oxymorons could be used to describe this documentary, but all would be used to describe something ultimately pleasant and somewhat insightful - not a bad watch.



This promises to treat the chassis of million dollar cars like sumptuous women, to bathe these impossible constructs in angelic light and surround them in neon, watch them glide in slow motion, blister along tarmac, soar through the smoke of seething tires and glimmer in the sun like technological titans... and it does not disappoint - how could it manage to do so?

Beyond providing the expected spectacle, Apex is a fascinating documentary that gives ample insight into the world of hypercar manufacturing, briefly studying Ferrari, Koenigsegg, Pagani, Porsche and McLaren respectively. This study is wrapped up in a question of the purpose and place of the hypercar: why do these ludicrous monsters that no one can afford matter at all? The answer is satisfactory: these are the future, today. And so though everyone in this documentary is on the verge of soiling their pants, this has some oomph and depth. Well worth seeing whether you care about cars or not.






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Solo: A Star Wars Story - The Star Wars Genre?

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20/09/2018

Solo: A Star Wars Story - The Star Wars Genre?

Thoughts On: Solo: A Star Wars Movie (2018)

The story of how Han became Solo...


Solo is a deeply mediocre film, almost unforgivably so. 'Star Wars' has become a genre unto itself by now. We can think of this technically by considering genre to be that which underlies a story and links it to other art; those qualities of a story which make it determinable, categorisable and recognisable in regards to other works. Star Wars has become its own genre because the films in said series are so deeply intertwined--in spirit and form, not just because they exist in the same world. Each Star Wars film is a product and descendent, categorically, of the original that has, by virtue of its originality, left no extraneous roots for each new film to grow from. That is to say that it is incredibly difficult--pointless maybe--to compare, for example, Solo, to an average action, adventure or sci-fi film. It seems only feasible to speak of it as a Star Wars film, and this, it seems, is its primarily and maybe singular genre. This situation is not necessarily a success of filmmaking for the Star Wars franchise as the emergence of the Star Wars genre and its cultivation/continuation is foundationally worrying.

Genres flourish because the prototypical genre narrative that underlies all that can be categorised as, for example, a romance, is either profoundly truthful or revelatory. Furthermore, a million romances can be weaved over a thousand years due to the genre's elemental base, its abstractness and ambiguity that allows for a myriad of narrative forms. Genres come and go, rise and die off or somehow come to play themselves out and tell their last tale--the whole tale--often because their ambiguity and fundamental meaning become exhausted. This, it seems, is what happened to the American Western. The Western takes the fundamental hero narrative and specifies it, gives it a context and certain key themes (a conflict between past and present as just one example), and so therefore confines it. One could argue that it is because the hero's tale is limited by the Western that the possibilities within the genre and the range of its narrative forms are also limited; the hero's tale can be told endlessly, but the Western narrative is not necessarily timeless - film history speaks for itself in this regard.

The danger, or rather, fault, of Star Wars becoming its own genre of film is two-fold. Firstly, how profound is the prototypical narrative? Objectively, one could say much about the force, about the dichotomy of good and evil typical of Star Wars that is hinged upon familial relations. Alas, whilst the basic Star Wars narrative deals with a dark and light side, a father and a son, two parts of a whole that have become fractured but will become whole, there are further melodramatic and spectacle-driven constructs around this which cheapen and have come to overwhelm the prototypical narrative. Looking, then, at the evolution of the basic Star Wars narrative, we see a definite disavowal from an exploration of good and bad, and especially of familial relations, and an emphasis on humour, side-characters, plot and spectacle. The new Star Wars films, The Last Jedi especially, also attempts to integrate a classical vision of the world, one which is based upon family and romance, into itself, but simultaneously exists in a social context which would rather distort what you might call old dogma and binaries--and it suffers for this. The Star Wars films can then easily be seen to be disavowing one of their key elements, seeking to embody a Pixar-ian vision of family (one which sees many differing individuals form what you might call a unique family). I will not attempt to engage any of this subject matter, instead, I merely mean to outline the ways in which the fundamental Star Wars narrative is being lost in the new films and was made a mockery of in the prequels. What does this mean for the Star Wars genre? It seems to be killing itself off.

If we return to the idea that the original Star Wars films attempted to cultivate a profound and symbolically affecting narrative at this point, we can too easily become confused. Where has this profundity gone? Was it ever there? If the modern Star Wars films essentially disregard the logic and meaning in the prototypical Star Wars narrative--if the modern Star Wars narrative is interested more in disenchanted groups and special individuals as opposed to familial binaries that billow up a cultural network--then what is there to be said of truth in the Star Wars narrative? It seems that truth is still being searched for. And whilst this is not necessarily bad if we consider the Star Wars films to be a mere succession of filmic products, it is damaging to the Star Wars genre. If there is no fundamental  logic that is engaged in all incarnations of a genre's prototypical narrative, then the genre begins to fracture. This is why the most basic genres, such as romance, have their sub-genres. Star Wars, in my perspective, is too limited of a genre - there are only 10 films - to begin fracturing; the fissures between the narratives only implies that something is wrong to me.

Second to this issue of truth and meaning in regards to the Star Wars genre is an issue of formal ambiguity and flexibility. Whilst the Star Wars films are failing to send and build a cohesive message, they all assume the very same conventions and incredibly similar plot forms. This is the reverse of what you'd hope for a flourishing genre; in all hope, the narrative form would change across films as to shine new light on some deeper meaning motivating the existence of the genre. With Star Wars, the narrative form is pretty much so replicated, or is incredibly trope ridden and exhaustively self-reflexive, whilst the subtext meanders about blindly. In short, the Star Wars genre, as it is, has nothing in particular to say and has nothing new to show us.

Solo feels like an awful symptom of this diseased and dying genre. Whilst one could speak about the poor dialogue, the abundance of plot holes and the shockingly poor handling of character, these are not the most damning failures of the film. What makes Solo unforgivably mediocre is its desire to placate its audience by throwing a plot at them, which is pitifully subservient to unimaginative spectacle, that takes them from an unknown point A to a known point B without ever showing us anything new. In short, we know who Han Solo is, and one of the key facts about him that we are all very familiar with is that he is in the original Star Wars films. This means that he is not going to die in a prequel. With this being painfully obvious, why does this film use its plot to wander between action set-pieces that assume that we, the audience, don't essentially think of Han Solo as invincible? Why should we care about how close Han comes to death if we know he won't die? Why must this be a constant focus? Are we supposed to be excited about the fact that Han Solo--who is definitely not going to die--came close to death?

How idiotic the framing of this narrative is. Why focus on plot and spectacle when we know where the plot must end up and that the spectacle has limitations? It is painfully clear that the purpose--if there even is one--of telling a Solo story is to reveal parts of his character which we have not yet been privy to and to cultivate wider meaning in the Star Wars universe through this. Are we ever provided details of interest that reveal a new face of Han Solo, that change the Star Wars universe? No. We are given facts via plot devices that essentially de-brief us on, for example, how Chewy and Solo met. Even the prequels do a better job of exploring how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader than this does exploring how Han becomes Han Solo. The prequels then understood-- better than Solo--that what an audience is really looking for in a story which has a known end is new layers of meaning: Why do Chewy and Solo meet? What are the consequences of their meeting? The only detail provided here is in the form of a terrible romance that leads to a revolution; Han Solo loves a girl and inadvertently begins many revolutions in his quest to be with her.

In this, there seems to be an attempt to provide some new meaning and logic to the Star Wars genre in Solo. This is found in the film's exploration of betrayal and love; trust. These ideas are loosely connected to family, good and evil, but never is anything of cohesivity and substance conjured in this film. Therefore, this appears to be subtextually distracted. Solo adds little to the grand Star Wars narrative by way of symbology or character; who Solo is in the original Star Wars films is not changed, is not given more depth by this film. And such should have been its sole purpose.

In total, I can only say that Solo is grindingly purposeless and stupidly lacking in intention. If this is one of the most expensive films ever made, I'd like to know where the money went. I turn to you, however: What do you think of Solo? What do you think of Star Wars as a genre and of the franchise's future?







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Pinch Me - Happy Apathy In The Hyper-Normal

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19/09/2018

Pinch Me - Happy Apathy In The Hyper-Normal

Thoughts On: Pinch Me (2000) by Barenaked Ladies

A look at a pop rock song's tonal meaning.


I've never been a huge Barenaked Ladies fan. I only know two of their songs. The first I heard and liked came from Digimon: The Movie. As a kid, I watched that movie endlessly, but, I don't suspect that anyone who was not young in the in the early 2000s would be very familiar with it. In short, Digimon was a show about Pokémon on the internet, or in a digital realm - digital monsters that young kids would battle and go on adventures with. I have not seen the film in well over a decade, so I won't suggest anyone watch it with high expectations. Alas, there are quite a few montage sequences in the film that are hinged upon pop rock/punk songs. One of my favourites comes early on and uses a Barenaked Ladies song...


It was probably One Week's mere association with this film that made me like it so much--that and this sequence cultivated a nice tone, light and comedic, in a landscape somewhat typical of cartoons of this era, but nonetheless whole. One Week gives the montage energy and a rather silly sense of romance which resonates with our main character's conundrum (trying/not trying to talk to a girl he has a crush on over email). This movie is, of course, an American cut of a Japanese anime. It is more than just a dubbed version of an anime, however, as this brings together three medium-length short films into one feature-length film through an awful lot of editing and cutting. That explains the bad dubbing - which, I have to admit, I can easily look past through my nostalgic gaze - and, possibly (I have not seen the original Japanese films), the use of music and montage.

A friend of mine, who also liked this film and the song because of its place and humour, found and turned me onto Pinch Me - the only other Barenaked Ladies song I know. It is only recently that I began to remember all of this having come upon an old playlist of songs which randomly played Pinch Me. It has been at least a few weeks since I found the song again, and I'm still listening to it, so, in an effort to continue exploring art outside of film on the blog, we're going to talk about it today. First off, however, here it is:


Pulling me into this song is its embodiment of laziness of the most inconsequential character. In fact, you could argue that this song defines a feeling of existential detachment rather perfectly. Not only do the rolling guitar riffs, the rather frail, distracted and quiet vocals and hushed (but nonetheless rather active) drums give this song a strong meandering rhythm, but so do the lyrics:

It's the perfect time of year
Somewhere far away from here
I feel fine enough, I guess
Considering everything's a mess
There's a restaurant down the street
Where hungry people like to eat
I could walk but I'll just drive
It's colder than it looks outside
[Chorus] 
Like a dream you try to remember but it's gone
(Pinch me) Then you try to scream but it only comes out as a yawn
(I'm still asleep) When you try to see the world, beyond your front door
(Please God) Take your time, is the way I rhyme gonna make you smile
(Tell me) When you realize that a guy my size might take a while
(I'm still asleep) Just to try to figure out what all this is for

It's the perfect time of day
To throw all your cares away
Put the sprinkler on the lawn
And run through with my gym shorts on
Take a drink right from the hose
And change into some dryer clothes
Climb the stairs up to my room
Sleep away the afternoon 
[Chorus] 
Like a dream you try to remember but it's gone
(Pinch me) Then you try to scream but it only comes out as a yawn
(I'm still asleep) When you try to see the world, beyond your front door
(Please God) Take your time, is the way I rhyme gonna make you smile
(Tell me) When you realize that a guy my size might take a while
(I'm still asleep) Just to try to figure out what all this is for

Pinch me, pinch me, cause I'm still asleep
Please God tell me that I'm still asleep

On an evening such as this
It's hard to tell if I exist

If I pack the car and leave this town
Who'll notice that I'm not around
I could hide out under there
I just made you say "underwear"
I could leave but I'll just stay
All my stuff's here anyway
[Chorus] 
Like a dream you try to remember but it's gone
(Pinch me) Then you try to scream but it only comes out as a yawn
(I'm still asleep) When you try to see the world, beyond your front door
(Please God) Take your time, is the way I rhyme gonna make you smile
(Tell me) When you realize that a guy my size might take a while
(I'm still asleep) Just to try to figure out what all this is for
Try to figure out what all this is for

(Pinch me) (I'm still asleep) Try to see the world beyond your front door
(Pinch me) (I'm still asleep) Try to figure out what all this is for

The lyrics here tell a story distractedly, using redundancy of an ironic character ("It's the perfect time of year... somewhere far away from here, "There's a restaurant down the street... where hungry people like to eat", "I could walk... but I'll just drive", etc) to cultivate an apathy that is not melancholic, rather, humanly comedic. There is also a rather effective lack of punctuation in these lyrics too - especially as they are sung. Statements then seem like half-questions, all sentences ending in ellipses that either roll into a non-sequitur or onto nothing. For example, are we being told in the end that we should "try to figure out what all this is for"? Is the character saying this to himself, or is the lack of a pronoun revealing only the inevitable nothing and inaction that will follow his empty thoughts?

In the lyrics and instrumentation, there is an overall sense of positive apathy. I like the album version of this song most due to the fade out guitar solo that solidifies a feeling of uncanny levity; of life carrying one away on a small float that you only lounge upon. And it is here where we come to the heart of this song as a definition of existential detachment or an embodiment of surreal laziness. The title of this song is, of course Pinch Me--a call to be woken up--and such a sentiment is subtly centralised; our main character feels he does not exist, he can so easily forget that fact, and so needs some kind of sensation to remind him of at least an illusion of reality. (Such themes seem to reveal this song to be pop-punk at heart with its central nihilism detracted of energy and fury as opposed to energised - as we'd find in more classical punk rock, the kind of which was re-branded by the likes of Blink 182, Sum 41 and Avril Lavigne at the turn of the century). This call to be awoken - Pinch Me - is a really rather poignant and affecting one--likely the reason why I find this song stuck in my head. It conjures and is bound to a sensation of losing touch with reality, being so deeply immersed in routine and oneself that one becomes numb. This numbness is not shocking, is not upsetting, does not cause a problem; it is slightly inebriating, unbelievable and, as said, surreal. The idea provided by this song and the feeling it instils within its listener is then based up existing in the hyper-normal or the super-quotidian.

In my mind, this song then has me cycle back to those days of waking up early in the morning or sitting at home on the weekend and watching Digimon. As a child, one essentially plays in the hyper-normal space; everything around you is structured and, usually, taken care of, but you move into this sphere of being via your imagination and become a dinosaur hunter, a pirate or something equally childish to invigorate life into a state of what you might call just existing. A young child around 6 or 7 doesn't have any real issues; no money problems to think about, no work to attend, no pressing homework to do, no food to cook and put on the table, no girlfriend or boyfriend, no family to take care of, no schedule to organise, no life to sort out. To a content 7 year old, what is pretty much just... is. You exist in a world of minimal consequence. An adult would find it hard to exist in this world. This is firstly because they'd have to find a backdoor into it; have to find a way out of work and responsibility so they could just sit at home and watch cartoons. Alas, even if an adult finds themselves in this space--and we've likely all seen this ourselves--they need help: drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, something addictive, chemically distracting and likely self-destructive, to sustain them. I think this has much to do with the fact that part of growing up is forgetting how to play.

I think now of Spielberg's Hook, which is essentially about finding that 'inner child' and learning how to play again. The most poignant element of the film, however, is the ending. (I assume that you've seen the film). When Peter wakes up in the real world again, there is a subtle implication that all was a dream, that Peter spent a drunken night out in the snow; and, indeed, he still seems rather drunk or high on something when he meets his children again. And so, though we know Peter changes at the end of the film, I always felt as though Peter would either bounce back a little--become more serious and adult-like--or cause a disaster; a kid falling out of a window maybe. This sober vision of the melodramatic end Spielberg builds is based around the conundrum of an adult truly playing like a child. Is this possible? Is this desirable?

In my opinion, an adult cannot, and should not want to, play like a child. Without the imagination, most adults chase chemical pathways towards the anaesthetising hyper-normal world. Beyond this, the kind of play an adult engages is so often simulated and remembered; it is mimetic. When an adult is not off their face in some capacity, and still wants to play, they'll begin to ruminate on or imitate true kid-play. They do this with art so often, art of a nostalgic, naive and almost lazy character. Melodramatic movies with happy endings usually provide this adult meta-play; allow us to pretend, from an observational distance, that all is well in the world for instance, or that we we are a dinosaur hunter, a pirate or a hero for an hour or so. Furthermore, so, I feel, does the song Pinch Me.

Pinch Me uses its tone and lyrics to imitate child's play, to speak of an adult existing uncannily in a child's realm of the hyper-normal. There are moments in the song where things do become a little too childish ("I just made you say underwear"), but the general effect of this piece of music is an induced reminder of play from the, or in the, adult world. When we watch the music video for the song, this becomes all the more obvious:


The story here is a basic work-place melodrama. Everyone hates their job, but are forced to play a game and pretend they love it. It is because the workers are forced to play a childish game that they are upset; they, as adults, are unable to truly play after all. Nonetheless, the singing of this song allows the characters within to look at the reality of their world (to the "thumbs down") and start playing a meta-game of art. This game is a rumination on laziness, detachment and unreality, and it is danced to. Of course, this music video is not a masterpiece (I find its story unrelated to the lyrics and it to be rather inane), but it does well to dramatise this sensation of pretending, of playing yet not playing a game, of moving into the boring nature of life and existing not just through apathy, not via drugs, but by an adult version of child's play: art.

With all of that said, I'll leave things open to you. Do you like Pinch Me or the movies mentioned? Are there any other songs/films that you think speak to the ideas we have been exploring?







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Planet Earth II - The Two Forms Of Spectacle: Is Planet Earth A Documentary?

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18/09/2018

Blog News



For a while, we were experimenting with two versions of the Thoughts On blog, one here on Blogger and the other on WordPress (both had the very same content, though the blogs were organised differently). As I am not a fan of WordPress, its formatting and general interface, this experiment soon became a redundant practice. I have not shut down the WordPress blog, but have, for quite some time now, stopped posting there. This is not significant news for any followers of this blog, but the decision is now final: WordPress has been abandoned.





17/09/2018

Planet Earth II - The Two Forms Of Spectacle: Is Planet Earth A Documentary?

Thoughts On: Planet Earth II (2016) & Spectacle in Documentaries

A brief look at the 'truth' presented in Planet Earth II.


It is rare that I actively think of and engage documentaries on animals and nature as actual documentaries. Why this is seems to have much to do with their place on TV and their forming a genre themselves. Alas, this has always felt most true, with me, when watching David Attenborough documentaries. The BBC, in partnership with Attenborough, have developed a very distinct style and approach to the nature/animal documentary. The ethos of this mode is narrative-based with inflections of true life (documentation) used primarily to generate drama. We see this best with hunt scenes - many of which are found across Planet Earth II, one example being from the episode that explores deserts and a pride of lions within it.


Fact is used to frame the hunt of this sequence, facts concerning the seasons and biodiversity--but much of the work in this regards falls on the visuals which masterfully capture the unforgiving aridity and vastness of a desert. This framing of a sequence via fact does not necessarily have much to do with an exploration of truth in nature, rather, it provides the on-coming story dramatic weight and stakes. Hunts then begin, and we follow through them somewhat chronologically; with editing that momentarily breaks chronology to foreshadow or explain the goings on - how the pride of lions is cutting off escape routes and leading the giraffe they chase towards the alpha female, upon which the success of the hunt is solely pinned. Herein there is an abstraction from 'the moment'. This abstraction leaves all pre-decided; because of the writing of the V.O, there is no illusion: we know that Attenbourough has seen this footage before and that this part of the documentary has been perfectly structured for maximum dramatic effect and then written about.

What typifies much of Planet Earth II is exactly this search for drama that sacrifices the raw presentation of truth for an entertaining and heightened vision of the world that is so attractive and intriguing because what occurs is 'real'. Alas, there comes a point that is easily identified by anyone who studies documentary and watches them for more than mere consumption's sake, where truth becomes belittled by the obvious framing and heightening of 'real-world drama'. This point, or line, is crossed, in my opinion, when all seems pre-decided or inevitable.

Planet Earth II doesn't see all of its major sequences bogged down by such pre-decision. The most famous sequence of the series is that which maintains 'the moment' (which cannot be pre-decided) best. We have likely all seen this clip before:


In this clip, we see the BBC/Attenbourough mode of documentary exemplified. First we are given the steaks and drama masked in facts: the snakes cannot see too well, so the Iguana must remain still... must keep his nerve. And then comes the hunt, whose drama is framed largely by a lot of editing, but the chronology feels very tight and true, and so this retains 'the moment'.

To praise this clip would be redundant as it has been done so many times over. I can only ask you to think of the impossibility of all within. That said, there is much to criticise here. It is very clear that truth comes after drama, and to many serious documentarists this would likely be blasphemy. In this clip, its all too clear that we do not want to know what the average iguana or snake's actual life is like, much like we rarely want to know what the average human's life is like: we are, more often than not, only ever interested in the extreme and heightened, and such explains the vast majority of all film and television. The presentation of the heightened and extreme can be truthful, but the major element of spectacle within this is not necessarily conducive of truth. This raises a very interesting conundrum that lies at the heart of Planet Earth II. Is what we are being presented truly the planet earth, or is it merely Planet Earth?

Embedded deep into cinema is a dichotomy of spectacle. The moving image, one may say, wants to be seen. It is an encapsulation of humanity coming to control nature, taking the abstract concept of time and vision and, rather literally, bottling it. We have touched on this idea before in our exploration of film history and one of the very first 'filmmakers' Eadweard Muybridge.

Muybridge was one of the very first people to be able to take photographs with glass plates at a rate fast enough to 'capture' movement. He then devised a system to take multiple pictures of single subjects such as this:


One, in the modern day, can easily transform his work into animated gifs such as this:

 

Even with just these two images, we have the encapsulation of Muybridge's standing as a 'filmmaker', 'scientist' and 'artist' (such entities he seems to have floated somewhere between). With the images of the ostrich we have a form of bottled space and time that exists with a quality of intrinsic attraction: how does an ostrich move? is what makes the study of this imagery fundamentally intriguing, after all, it is an incredibly exotic animal to a Westerner (especially one in the late-1800s), is the largest bird in the world and, frankly, is a rather alien creation. Because it can be seen, we want to see, because it has been abstracted from time, we would want to bear witness--or, at least, this is true to anyone who finds the images even somewhat spectacular or attracting. Herein, we then have one type of spectacle that is based on the inherent magic of cinema. Thus, we shall refer to this as inherent spectacle, and can define it by the subtle miracle that is the invention and being of moving imagery, which signifies humanity's control over nature.

The second kind of spectacle is seemingly a creation of a more base humanity as opposed to a higher consciousness and ingenuity. This 'base humanity' is most obviously linked to, in my estimation, survival. Any organism has two basic functions: consumption and production. These two basic functions split into, approximately, 5 fundamental actions: eating, drinking, sleeping, working, procreating. Mammals consume food and liquid so they may work as to procreate, and they sleep so, when they fail one day, they can try again the next. In all of these actions are three elements: consumption, production, preservation. In Hinduism, notably, these three basic actions are conceptualised as elemental forces of the universe via the trimurti; the trichotomy, or the three forms, of the ultimate God: Shiva (destruction), Brama (creation) and Vishnu (preservation). Spectacle in cinema often deals with an undignified triumrti of the mimetic universe. That is to say that spectacle often manifests in the form of a contrived conception of creation (love, heroism, etc), destruction (combat, deception, etc) and preservation (romance, comedy, etc). Spectacle is most apparent when these elements are used to evoke feeling above meaning. We feel because something in cinema is meaningful in my belief, but, spectacle of a certain basic character is the most direct route towards making an audience feel that, we can argue, by passes meaning--or rather, the meaning-making process--itself. So, though a knight, warrior or king may be a symbol of great meaning in works--even those that heavily utilise spectacle--such as King Arthur, A Knight's Tale and The Lord of the Rings, such figures can become empty, bastardised symbols in a work such as Bay's Transformers: The Last Knight. In Bay's film, the knight - which is often an archetype of destructive good that comes to accesses preservation via romance or heroism - is not built as the archetype it fundamentally is. Rather, meaning, the symbology of the fundamental archetype, is assumed or implied, not built in the narrative. Such defines base spectacle: the appropriation of meaning and the undignified communication of, and with, the cinematic trimurti.

Having said that we can make two brief notes. Firstly, inherent spectacle has a strong relationship with meaning-making as it is a signifier of both the form of a medium and of storytelling itself; thus, it encapsulates the purpose and philosophical ramifications of cinema existing as well as story generally and a specific story. Secondly, inherent spectacle is less spectacular - is more subtly attracting and harder to recognise and feel through - than base spectacle. Such explains my terminology: base spectacle is palpable, is sourced at the foundation of the human spirit, whereas inherent spectacle is sourced from the centre of personal and collective being - wherever that may be.

Let us take a step back. All of which we talked about in regard to base spectacle is in the images of the two women kissing. With these images Muybridge assumes an undignified, contrived and rather meaningless focus on base creation and preservation: on romance and sex. It is this that fuels the attraction, not the fundamental magic of cinema - which also engages destruction, preservation and creation in the world (such is an inevitability), but does so neutrally or, one could say, with dignity. Let us look again at our two examples of Muybridge's work:


Where cinema is born, so is spectacle. Muybridge assumed the nickname, Helios (Greek God of the Sun). This signifies his conscious position as he who controls light, space and time, with his photography. And such defines the images of the ostrich as an embodiment of inherent spectacle. Muybridge was human, however. And, though he claimed he was a scientist, he seems to have sometimes engaged his own intrigue somewhat unscientifically - some (not myself) may go as far as to call him an exploitative pervert. This idea leads one rather easily to see the base spectacle in the second piece.

If we move through all of film history, we see these two forms of spectacle remain constant. They can then very easily be identified in Planet Earth II. Let us then remind ourselves of our example:


The inherent spectacle here is found in the technology and element of chance (which has meaning and philosophical ramifications that I shall leave you to exposit with your own platitudes); not only is this space and time beautifully captured, but the space and time has a rarely unique and heightened character. Base spectacle emerges via the contrived drama, through the score, narrative framing, subtle characterisation and sound design. One may critique his clip via its over-emphasis of the non-diegetic, on that which is not within the world of the piece of film, instead is constructed upon it. Diegesis - the real world - in documentary is as close as one comes to truth on film. Base spectacle then almost inevitably emerges through any extra-diegetic material: a score, sound effects, V.O, a script, etc.

It is having made this brief exploration that we can return conclusively to our initial question of truth and spectacle in documentary. Truth and reality is a form of spectacle in documentary. However, spectacle can be built upon spectacle, truth can be presented with emphasis on contriving or heightening drama, which is where the waters of truth are muddied. It is this that begins to reveal why I, quite possibly you reading, too, do not think of programmes such as Planet Earth II as documentaries. The modal approach to the documentary made in Planet Earth is bounded in too much base spectacle so that, what is supposed to be a documentary, begins to feel heightened beyond reality and much like a narrative film. It is having made this proposition that I'll end with a question to you: Do you feel like Planet Earth II is a true (truthful even) documentary?






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16/09/2018

End Of The Week Shorts #75



Today's shorts: The Book Of Life (2014), Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans (1927), Inglorious Basterds (2009), Weird Science (1985), City Girl (1930), Ator The Fighting Eagle (1982), Kurt & Courtney (1998), Daniel Sloss: Dark (2018)



I try to avoid letting bad kids' films--or rather, films that bank on immaturity in the audience--get under my skin, but The Book of Life annoys me an awful lot.

I find no joy in saying this, but it seems to me that, in America, there are only two major, professional computer animation studios: Disney (which includes Pixar) and DreamWorks. Everything else seems to exist in a cesspool of cliche, poor writing, transparency, cheap characterisation, shockingly stupid jokes and general awkwardness in regards to everything technical. The Book of Life is not as bad as animation seen on children's television shows, but it's not much better. It seems to have envisioned a stripped down and profanely manipulative rendition of a shoddy Disney film and failed to hit its mark. Still, it revels in its grotesque and unnatural conception of a hero narrative, apparently pandering to some strange, suffocating mother archetype presiding over the brain-dead children that must be loving this film. I wish I could burn this out of my memory.



This will probably always be one of my favourite silent films--one of my favourite films, full stop. Sunrise is a synthesis of the American and European silent film, a kind of narrative poem that works in the abstract, but also appears in the literal foreground. This then operates as a Hollywood-ified Brothers Grimm-esque fairy tale about deception and murder that, instead of ending in ironic tragedy, ends happily. Simultaneously, however, Sunrise is an embodiment of harmony, its moving images ringing with romance of an elemental character that rises up from the earth and water, through the bodies and souls of humans, up through the skyline to the firmament above. Pushing through its melodrama archetypes of such rich palpability, Sunrise sees Murnau's expressionism merge with impressionism, making this one of his most technically impressive and experientially affective films. So much more could be said, but I am merely glad to have re-visited this after quite a few years. A masterwork.



My favourite part of Inglorious Basterds has always been the intro. Re-watching the first sequence alone reminded me of this and just how little I cared to sit through the rest of the film. I can't criticise the bulk of the narrative, however, because it has been quite a while since I've sat through it. The opening scene, however... perfectly performed; Waltz is so delightfully patient and ironically menacing, never overshadowing the cattle farmer played by Denis Ménochet, but allowing his subtle body language to ring out Tarantino's melodramatic Spaghetti Western-esque writing. And, having mentioned Tarantino, I think the intro of this film represents some of his best writing and direction - certainly not as iconic, but certainly less obnoxious and far more sophisticated, than the well-known sequences from Pulp Fiction, etc. Tarantino takes a back seat and lets his 'style' come through his 'insightful' commentary through dialogue concerning rats. That said, the grand take-away: now I've seen a few films from Russ Meyers, I'm not sure if I'll be able to sit through a Tarantino movie as I used to ever again.



I find it hard it believe that there could be another mainstream film out there as stupefyingly ludicrous as Weird Science. In essence, this boils down each of Hughes' classics to their basic beats and then smashes together a monstrous mess that is electrified into being by unrelenting and unabashed ridiculousness. Weird Science seems to be Hughes throwing his hands in the air after taking young adults (semi-)seriously through his melodramas and comedies and simply declaring that teenagers are laughably pathetic and unable to be helped. There is no other conclusion that can be made from this film; all of its insights and allure point at the target audience and mock. Maybe there is virtue in this; maybe it is an undecipherable satire built from the highest irony? Simultaneously, maybe not. The most entertaining thing about this film is the constant shocks you receive at how low it stoops. I remember liking this as a kid and I surely don't hate it now, but... it's a shock to the system.



Where Sunrise is a transitionary film for Murnau that signifies a movement between Europe and Hollywood, between stylised, expressionist and impressionist drama, to spectacle and character-driven melodrama, City Girl is through-and-through American. We see this in the characters and general tone, all of which are rooted in a deep understanding of genre via narrative; Murnau shows a very succinct understanding of genre via form, style and atmosphere, in the likes of Nosferatu and Faust (which signifies these films to be more 'artsy'), but, City Girl reveals itself to be a perfectly archetypal romance told wonderfully (quintessential Hollywood). In such, whilst there aren't too many surprises in the plot, the direction and pacing are absolutely phenomenal. Long has it been since I have sunk into a film so comfortably as this; the romance fits like a glove and it has been crafted masterfully. Only stating that love is a constant struggle, City Girl is simple and perfect. Highly recommended.



Ator The Fighting Eagle is an Italian rip-off, or mockbuster, of Conan The Barbarian. As you'd assume, the poster promises so much more than is delivered. What is so disappointing about Ator, however, is the sheer lack of entertainment and the abundance of awkward action wrapped up in unending ADR of the lowest quality.

The story told takes much inspiration from popular quests, such as Conan, Greek myths about Theseus, and also The Lord of the Rings. Not at all surprising, this seemingly unknowingly forces much archetypal imagery into an incoherent legend of an oppressive matriarchal society and a hero who wants to marry his not-sister. The best thing about this film are the dozens of inserted shots of a baby bear. Boring trash.



Kurt & Courtney is an investigative documentary that attempts to explore the mystery surrounding Kurt Cobain's death. This formulates, above all else, a rather nauseating experience for very many reasons: the subject matter is grim and far too easily exploited, there is an overwhelming focus on conspiracy theory and rather ludicrous, despicable at times, characters, all is mired down by an active, participatory question of truth and freedom of the press that often backfires - the audience not necessarily asking if what is caught in the lens of a camera is the truth, rather, if the presentation is truthful and genuine - etc. Kurt & Courtney then feels highly manipulative in its contrivance of a plot and pretentious in its supposed naivety. The truth this seems to access is founded in the discovery of a terrible network of friends around Kurt and the nonsense so many of them wish to indulge. I hazard to speak of this as truth, however, as there is one fundamental assumption that we are implicitly made to indulge: Kurt, himself, was a saint. He is a dark, unexplored hole in this film, and for this I have been left apathetic and exhausted.



Pretty good, but not great. The laughs come sparingly, the act-outs are poor and dry, the explanations of jokes and comedy, the prefaces, are weaved into the real joke-telling well, but are too jarring and ultimately unnecessary (as such things always are - and comedians really haven't seemed to register this in the past two years or so). The truth under the jokes, however, is what makes this work. Not bad for an hour of listening.






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