Parasite (2019)

Parasite

It’s a rare time in my life when I’m catching movies as they’re coming out. Truth be told I struggle to keep up with releases, and am often catching the talked about films much later when the hype has died down. But Parasite (Dir. Bong Joon-ho, 2019) is still very much boiling away in the current cultural melting pot, at least where I am. From the outside the world has seemingly “woken up” to the import of Korean cinema, or at the very least from a few select and eccentric male auteurs. One of cinema’s best abilities has always been its ability to cross transnational boundaries, the image tells a story (with the aid of translation) which I can understand, a person who doesn’t know the language of Korean. And Parasite is another example of that, but what else is resonating in Parasite to make it bubble away in the focus of the cultural eye?

Well the easy answer is a lot, because Parasite is a very good film.


Often I’ll deconstruct a film when I write these, wanting to separate its elements, to analyse and focus on what gives them (for me) both meaning and excellence. And while I could give the same treatment to Parasite, it’s more interesting to me right now to try and contemplate on what Parasite wants to communicate to us. What story is Parasite trying to tell, why? Why does Bong Joon-ho open this cinematic portal to us? I think in an age where media is more accessible than ever, and media consumption only increases, it is easier than ever to only engage with film from an entertainment perspective. Even for those who love and enjoy cinema for more than it’s purely spectacle inducing qualities, the stars and the special effects and etc, it is harder than ever to pay homage to or even contemplate what movies can truly do. Maybe it’s elitist to say, but with distractions more rife than ever I know I find it difficult in between life, in between laziness and in between the lows to find time to pay attention to cinema.

Maybe Bong Joon-ho agrees with me, or disagrees, or doesn’t care. The director’s words are an authority, but to run to him for the answers and/or for the “proper” meaning or reasons Parasite exists is a mistake. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t listen to him, he’s a gifted visionary and probably has a lot of wisdom under his belt. But also art has always been a conversation between artists and the world around them, and to grow a film experience is only one part, while its’ absorption and digestion by an audience is another.  Film’s are constructed experiences and perspectives, and they have more than enough dimensions to accomodate how you see them, not just how the director does. A horse can be taken to water, but it cannot be made to drink.

So what grows out of Parasite? A vision of a home, a vision of shelter. A vision of family, a vision of animals. A vision of turmoil, a vision of the soil of the Earth. Our family, or at the least one Bong Joon-ho asks us to gravitate towards, is a family which lives in an environment, in the layers of the world that surround us too. They try to get employment, they manipulate a wealthier, “classier” family into siphoning their money towards them, feeding off of the world around them. The different tribes and insects of the environment act and react towards each other, circling and twisting and attacking and defending. The home space begins to take on definitions beyond it’s surface. The walls contain characters from each other, allowing developments such as when the son Ki-Woo (Choi Woo-shik) can begin flirting with Da-hye (Jung Ji-so). Hiding places begin to reveal themselves in plain sight, as the architecture of the building itself is explored by the families. The environments of our lives contain these structures, we all have our houses and they all have their spots that we may or may not know about. Our vision only lets us see so much, and we’ll never know the full extent of our shelter’s and their collective experiences.

So is this what resonates with us? After all humans enjoy watching other humans, and it is not hard to see the conflicts unfolding in Parasite and understand, relate to or even empathise with any and all of the characters in the film at any particular point. The terrarium they live in, which we observe with patience and an ability beyond our usual bounds, is one where we can see ourselves in it. Our yearnings for family, stability, the complex and shifting layers of social communication we build up over time with the people around us. The parasites of this world make up the fabric of it, and we become draped in their mind’s clothes. As the environment’s fabric becomes stressed, torn and ripped apart, so too does our relations to them. Change comes to all, but the twisting and unexpected changes which come to fruition through the house resonate with us because they are reflective of the unanticipated consequences of real life, of discovering secrets in the unknown which can’t be put back in their boxes.

Film engages in a double edged trick. It is not real, but it is often designed to ‘feel real’. The easiest metaphor to make is that it is a parasite, feeding off our dreams and imaginations and bringing them into existence. We relate to the constructed mock-ups of humanity, in a terrarium we watch imagined characters play out imagined conflicts. We judge, align, pick and choose where we are in relation to the world of the film, grounding ourselves in a vision of humanity enclosed away from our interaction. Maybe that is just the resonance we get out of films, maybe it isn’t really all that deep. Maybe Parasite bubbles briefly in the cultural consciousness because it’s a film about people and people are interested in people.

But then being a parasite, or being a human, or being anything inbetween isn’t summed up by just an easy word. Parasite’s frames show us that the experience of life, on every level through whatever structures we pass through, spend time in, are played out on a landscape which is far more complicated than we could ever understand, and all we can hope to do is navigate it well enough to survive, feed and hope for better times. I don’t think I could ever properly answer what’s happening to make Parasite the centre of attention now, but at the very least I can try to do justice to what I can see emanating from the film, what kind of resonance it wants to evoke in the final piece of the cinema experience.

You watching it.

-Alex

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Parasite (2019)

Mr. Nobody (2009)

Mr Nobody

It’s hard not to give up, with life I think. I felt that, as Jared Leto delivered a couple of lines about how the universe extends through entropy and the atoms of the world continue on a trend of disorder and disappation. Growing through time means more experiences, more ups and more downs. More edges to fall off, dead ends to get stuck in, whirlpools of life which you had not prepared for. The metaphor in Mr. Nobody (2009, Dir. Jaco Van Dormael) is life on tracks, different paths. Their intersections, their parallels, their different destination and journeys along the way. Life dances with increasing complexity each day, and it’s design pushes you into spaces and times that unravel around you dizzyingly. If you can hold on, you can. So you do.

But is that really it?


Sometimes we look up to the skies, and think. The reason we don’t do this all the time someone once told me, was so we could avoid being eaten by sabertooth tigers. There are no sabertooths now, but we still don’t stay in that state of contemplation today. Should we? Mr Nobody, concerns a man at the end of his life, in a future where death has been put on pause. Except for Nemo Nobody, a 118 year old man who is remembering his life. Except for the fact that he’s remembering possible versions of his life, experienced from the point of the present, when the human element of choice allows more than one outcome to happen. Which way does he go? Every way. Routes unfold along separate tracks simultaneously, and Nemo is along for every ride in a different form. His life is malleable, changed by the circumstances of chance.

Nemo has a lot of time to think, and several metaphorical sabertooth tigers to confront. It’s something of a cerebral house of mirrors, Leto’s performance reflected and transforming in the moment, across different lives and different experiences. Leto shifts like a true chameleon in a role which is akin to water, Nemo fills up whatever space and time contains him, taking on elements of their form. We’re asked to see Nemo in a perspective which cuts across our usual viewing senses, not to relate to him as a singular entity, but to relate to him in whatever adaptation his life has taken across multiple streams. Actions in childhood affect our older selves, which affect our oldest selves. The consequences are often unclear, distant, only revealed with time and reflection and even then maybe not. But the water of Nemo’s character fills the shape of the film itself, and we are asked to push beyond our normal understanding of time to see with greater clarity, the way life happens.

Nemo has big worlds to think in as well. The environments of the Earth (and beyond) fill up the screen, with VFX work which really blew me away. The visual aesthetic of the film is woven deep into the film in general. The cinematography is varied and dense, the codes of each world cinematically helping us to form understandings of different worlds. If “life is a playground or nothing”, then the artistic construction of the film lives up to it, as it plays effortlessly with different cinematographic styles. It’s music spills over at times, and gently accompanies at others. The stylistic expressions follow those possibilities, ebbing and flowing and evolving with where Nemo is, who Nemo is, when Nemo is. There is breadth and power in variety, and Van Dormael knew that when he stitched together the pieces of Mr. Nobody. 

Is there a great resounding answer I need to write here, to prove to myself and you the reader about the worth of what the film has to say? Life is there to make of it what you will, and holding onto its dizzying turns is a complicated procedure. Mr. Nobody wants you to know what life could mean, and it pushes through the very fabric of our understanding of the world to do so. It splits open the human experience in a way only the imagination can do, to show us the possible fruits growing at its core. But it’s a film, 2 and a half hours of a day which turns into a week into a year etc. Life is communicated through art. But life isn’t lived through art, it’s reflected by it. Art is our hall of mirrors, our water to fill up the forms of our lives. The reflections you see, only you can make peace with them. Van Dormael offers a path, one that doesn’t have to be taken. To him, they are all meaningful, whichever one is taken.What is important is that paths can be taken, life can be lived.

Art is not going to be around forever, or maybe it is. We’re not going to be around forever, or maybe we are. The answers are what we seek, but we don’t live in answers. Most of our lives are spent searching for them, so that’s where we spend most of our perspectives. I know I’ve gone off on a tangent, but life can cope with that. Life copes with tangents, with edges and dead ends and whirlpools and whatever else is here in the playground. The variety of it all overwhelms any one particular answer, one particular life. Questions about life can only get you so far, answers can only get you so far. Thinking about life can only get you so far. What is meaningful is that life got us anywhere at all. And the sooner I can make peace with my reflection, the sooner I can get back to avoiding those sabertooth tigers. “If you never make a choice, anything is possible” goes the tagline for the film. Well, I’ll try make anything happen then.

-Alex

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Mr. Nobody (2009)

Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

Phantom of the Paradise

Things have been quiet on the site for a long time now. Life does it’s own thing. Here however, is a guest review from a very good friend of mine, @henryatthemovies.


With the lush colours, mad story, blend of soulful ballads and adrenaline boosting rock ‘n roll; it certainly can be said that Brian De Palma gave the Phantom of the Opera story a bump of coke and dressed it up in flares and a sequin cape. The 70’s re-contextualisation of Gaston Leroux’s original 1910 novel transforms the gothic mystery novel into a commentary on the music industry of the time, with a healthy mix of Faust and The Picture of Dorian Gray to bring a supernatural spin on the idea of selling your soul for rock and roll. Its’ inception came from De Palma hearing The Beatles ‘A Day in the Life’ transformed into elevator music; sad how this beautiful song had been turned into soulless corporate background music. This was the genesis of this crazy commentary on the 70’s rock scene and filled it with sexual manipulation, back stabbing and musical neutering.

A lowly songwriter, Winslow Leach, has his music stolen by the mysterious record producer Swan and is thrown in prison. After an accident leaves him disfigured, he becomes the thorn in Swan’s side as he tries to champion the talent of the timid singer, Phoenix. That’s the setup but it’s a plot that’s brimming with so much. Things get crazier as it goes on, the unpredictability of a plot that reaches an insane conclusion that feels suited to the film. It’s a very free adaptation of Leroux’s novel, taking a good portion from the 1943 Universal remake. De Palma isn’t bound to the source material; he adds so much to the story, using that base as a jumping board for his own creativity.

It still has echoes of the Phantom novel with the mysterious hermit dispatching an ostentatious singer and replacing them with his own unknown, timid muse. The Faustian aspects allows for critiques on the music industry; Winslow signs a contract in his own blood and there is a later Satanic twist involving Swan. There is not a single scene that drags, they all entertain and work in the grand scheme of things. My favourite is the ‘Upholstery’ car bomb sequence where De Palma pays tribute to the legendary opening sequence of Touch of Evil but with split-screen. The tension builds up off-stage as we witness the first of the Phantom’s sabotage attempts that builds uneasiness in the audience as one of the Juicy Fruits becomes paranoid about a ticking noise. Behind the scenes we see the exploitative nature of the music business hidden behind the fun music and bright colours.

I often hear comparisons between this film and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, both being rock and roll centred musicals with plain, normal characters thrust into a realm of freakishness. The two were also failures upon release but found new life as midnight cult movies, though Phantom beat Rocky Horror to the cinema by a year. Another fun connection is that Jessica Harper (Phoenix) played Janet in the sequel to Rocky HorrorShock Treatment (1981). Rocky Horror’s two leads, Brad and Janet, are very normal people who get sucked into the world of the mad scientist Dr Frank N Furter. Phoenix is the closest we get to a normal character in this film; our ‘hero’ Winslow shows from the beginning that he is unstable and can teeter between rationality and irrationality.

They’re really the only two main characters with any positive traits even though Winslow does resort to murdering people and violently disrupting the goings on at the Paradise. Winslow is a great anti-hero who can be both sympathetic and terrifying in the same scene. Finley’s bug eyes lend him a rather scary look that served him well in De Palma’s Sisters (1973) as it does here but it’s the dark avian look of the Phantom costume with the silver teeth that creates a menacing and iconic look. The bird look also pairs with Swan Songs dead bird logo – Swan has destroyed the songbird but this one rose up against him. Great work by costume designer Rosanna Norton and Finley for their aesthetic.

Up against Bill Finley as Leach is singer-songwriter Paul Williams as Swan. It’s genius casting having this embodiment of music scumbaggery being portrayed by a 5ft 2 soft-spoken, mop headed pianist known for writing songs for the Muppets (among others). It gives Swan an unassuming demeanour that hides his true malevolence. Originally called Spectre (in a not so subtle nod to producing superstar Phil Spector), we don’t see his face when we are first introduced to him, we only see who he is at the orgy scene. Discussing Winslow with Philbin, the faceless producer here begins to plot how to take Winslow’s pop cantata and manipulate it into something that suits the clean-cut Juicy Fruits. Gerrit Graham as glam rocker Beef is a part of Swan’s mutilation of Winslow’s music and is played with outlandish brilliance (his lip syncing not included). The glam rocker is this version’s Carlotta from Opera and his story beats are similar to her own, with an added ‘electrifying’ finale. A memorable moment between Beef and the Phantom is a drawn out homage to Psycho’s iconic shower scene with it’s own twist on the payoff. The glam rocker is a juxtaposition to the soft spoken Jessica Harper as Phoenix, who Winslow deems to be the only one who should sing his music. While not the most interesting character in the film, Harper makes up for it with her wonderful musical numbers and she is a strong actress.

Not only did Paul Williams take on the role of Swan, he was also responsible for the film’s fantastic score; writing the songs as well as lending his voice to ‘Faust’ and the ending song ‘The Hell of It.’ Due to the inclusion of the genre shifting Juicy Fruits/Beach Bums/The Undead, Williams proves his excellent song writing skills by managing to create three separate songs in different styles: doo-wop, surf and glam rock. ‘Faust’ is transformed from a soulful section of Winslow’s pop cantata into the superficial (yet incredibly fun) ‘Upholstery,’ replacing deeper emotions for a surface level summer romance with girls and cars – very reminiscent of early tracks from the Beach Boys. There are two songs that also share similar traits: ‘Life at Last’ and ‘Old Souls.’ The bombastic ‘Life at Last’ is performed by Beef with unashamed brashness and flamboyancy whilst Phoenix’s rendition of ‘Old Souls’ becomes a ballad that gives the song an emotional edge rather than a sexual slant. ‘Goodbye Eddie, Goodbye’ opens the film and it’s an upbeat doo-wop tribute about a rock star who kills himself so his album sells in order to help out his ill sister. An incredibly strong start for the soundtrack but it never falters afterwards, the songs only get better and better.

De Palma’s Phantom is a wonderfully delirious trip delivered in his trademark 70’s style with loud colours, split screen and crash zooms galore. The zany film is backed up with an incredibly strong soundtrack provided by one of the greatest songwriters of all time, each one as strong as the other. The often sad stereotype of dishonesty in the world of music is exaggerated with voice control and satanic pacts, but also among the flashiness is a glimmer of hope for the struggling artist to come out on top of it all. Certainly one of De Palma’s best and should be mandatory viewing for any fan of cult cinema. Check it out.

-Henry


 

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-Alex

Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

Kino-Pravda Docs: #9 – Hale County This Morning, This Evening

hale_county_this_morning_this_evening

Our eyes see very little and very badly – so people dreamed up the microscope to let them see invisible phenomena; they invented the telescope…now they have perfected the cinecamera to penetrate more deeply into he visible world, to explore and record visual phenomena so that what is happening now, which will have to be taken account of in the future, is not forgotten.

—Provisional Instructions to Kino-Eye Groups, Dziga Vertov, 1926

Working mainly during the 1920s, Vertov promoted the concept of kino-pravda, or film-truth, through his newsreel series. His driving vision was to capture fragments of actuality which, when organized together, showed a deeper truth which could not be seen with the naked eye.

—Wikipedia Entry on ‘Kino Pravda’

In this series, which will run sporadically and when the material presents itself, I will cover documentaries which eschew the traditional forms of documentary style in favour of a more abstract (but not necessarily poetic) presentation of its subject matter, which seems to speak on a greater level than the sum of its parts.

All sorted?


Documentaries are not always the easiest things to watch. They look at the world in a different way, often a more reflective way and as is the case with RaMell Ross’s documentary feature, Hale County This Morning, This Evening, documentaries can create experiential rides which aren’t bound by the laws of common film practice. There is no conventional narrative or conventional narration, it’s a documentary which is not bound by the constraints of stories or the usual guided tour structure documentaries often follow. Hale County decides instead to connect the world of Hale County, Alabama to anyone who watches, through the space, the time and the inhabitants of it.

Ross’s camera orbits around certain people more than others; we follow Daniel Collins who is at Selma University on a scholarship for basketball, and his mother Mary Collins who has spent a large part of her life at the catfish plant which is the area’s largest employer. We spend time with Latrenda ‘Boosie’ Ash, and Quincy Bryant, a couple who endure life’s volatile rhythms while trying to raise their children. We meet Tomeko Elliott, Bert Williams & Nathaniel Davis, basketball players who’s moments in front of the camera resonate long after their image dissapates off screen. And there is the voluminous other faces and people of Hale County, figures which orbit in the backgrounds of images, in the soundscapes which ride along, who are just as important and rich in life to the camera’s eyes and ears as anyone else in the film.

And when the film is not accompanying the figures of Hale County’s space and time, it focuses on the place itself. Time-lapse photography of road bends, of basketball nets against the overwhelming night sky, of the animals, buildings,landscapes and the delicate, complicated images of life which have been given existence, and bottled by RaMell Ross to be witnessed. Life is presented how it often occurs, without commentary. As the smoke from a tire fire rises through the sunlight and treetops, the silence of the sequence provokes you to think, to see a reflection of life thrown back at you and to inspire (no doubt) multiple interpretations, multiple avenues of thought. The film’s imagery provokes thought, but it does not tell you what to think about. RaMell’s faith in the pure cinematic effect is breathtaking at times, as life’s various moments do more to inspire reflection and understanding than many many pieces of art I’ve seen.

But it is not just an ambigious force, unknown and left to the audience to mould it into whatever they want to see. RaMell weaves images together, physically impossible images which evoke a spirtiual understanding. At one point, Kyrie Bryant, a young child is having a bath and ends up holding the moon in her hands. I’m not clever enough to see what RaMell Ross was probably trying to evoke with it, but the experience and composition of frames such as these reach for a connection with the world, and with nature that goes beyond our normal understanding. Or as the smoke continues to rise from the tire fire, we are audio witnesses to a conversation RaMell has off camera with another man, explicitly discussing his intentions to grow a greater understanding of the black image through the use of photos and cinema. Hale County has an orbit (to use the film’s terminology) but it is a multifaceted one, concerned with a human experience as much as a black experience, and plenty more beyond that.

More and more as I get older, I realise that what you choose to put in front of the camera is where filmmakers stand. And it is important to be reminded that life is worth capturing, worth understanding, and worth showing to the world. A lot of Hale County’s worth stems from the sheer sincerity, respect and genuine love Ross possesses for the life of this world. That place of understanding drives what RaMell chooses to capture, and how it is captured. Life’s turmoil and life’s hope are presented in a way which reflects reality in a much closer way, without fictional order and dramatic hysterics. And in moving past that facade, he allows us to see Hale County and its residents, its space, its time in a way which resonates much closer to all of our lives. And that is worth championing. Because our nights and days are not infinite, but our experiences  of the world are, and our connections to them only continue to grow.

-Alex

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Kino-Pravda Docs: #9 – Hale County This Morning, This Evening

Kids (1995)

Kids

Kids get old. And kids get complicated. Children grow into older beings, they change over the course of life and develop. Into what? Whatever makes them, moulds them. The experiences they gather impress themselves on them; the conversations, the actions, the dreams and lies and everything else in between. All the time they spend moving through their own cities and their own social connections, it builds up like the pages of a book, one after another.

Kids (1995, Dir. Larry Clark) has gotten old. And the impression Kids leaves, it’s legacy, is still just as complicated and ambigious as before. Kids is not the unknown debut it used to be, it comes to any new generation with a different understanding of the one which existed with it in 1995. All the impressions it’s made on those who watched it, those who were inspired by it and revolted by it, its’ legacy which has built it up into a cult film have left their marks on the minds who’ve witnessed it.


It will always be complicated to talk about Kids, if only because its subject matter will always be provocative. Built into the film’s DNA is the idea of exposing a world which for most parents, and most of society, is invisible. It’s the filmic equivalent of turning over the rock to expose the underground world of creatures beneath it, to show what was previously hidden. It follows its characters through the streets of New York in a way which is rarely portrayed by glamorous, conventional cinematography. It spends time on the streets, not just to shoot B-roll or to exterior shots of faceless skyscrapers. Larry Clark’s background in street photography no doubt pushed this ethos from the beginning, but the camera work of Eric Edwards and Clark together is motion picture photography, it’s interested in how the figures in its landscape, move, act, see and communicate. It’s handheld, docu-drama/cinema vérité aesthetic pushes you to see the city from the kids’ level, bringing their perspective into focus and ramping up its intensity.

Because being a kid, especially in the world of Kids, is intense. The stories of Telly, of Casper, of Jenny, Darcy, Ruby, and every other figure which moves through the story, are stories which reflect the blurred, ambigious lines of the darker stories of a lot of kids growing up. A lot of stories have passed through my head, stories of friends and friends of friends, of people I’ve never met before. Stories of kids being exposed to things they shouldn’t do, doing things they have been told not to, exposing themselves to parts of life they are supposedly too young for. Harmony Korine went on record saying besides the AIDS storyline, pretty much everything in the film was events he’d seen happen. The questions and ramifications of Kids authenticity have caused debate and even the production of a new documentary by one of the cast members, but what Kids shows to those who have experiences which resonate with it, is a reflection of the stormy seas kids sail in their journeys of growing up.

The power of placing certain events in frame, certain stories, certain stylistic choices, is what makes up cinema. Watching Kids, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by its most pitch-dark moments. It is unrelentingly strung out, and the film often feels like a warped spiral downwards, as the haze of murky actions, murky behaviours, and murky consciences continues to bleed into your head too. Seemingly too young for self-awareness, the kids continue to charge forward not just with the recklessness of youth, but with a fiery combustibleness that often burns the people around them. But their lives are left darkly unreflected upon (save the ominous last line), the conventions of cinema do not twist around the story to make an audience feel satisfied that ‘justice was served’. Real life, all it’s ugly thorns and painful experiences are often left unrepented for, unexamined. For Kids to do justice to that world, to even lay any claim to authentic roots, it portrayed those events as the kids would handle them, whatever the cost.

I don’t have much more to say about Kids, simply because Kids does not have a lot to say. It is a film which shows, which spends time showing you what the lives of people you’ve never even met are like. The experiences of life are often disordered, chaotic, fragmented and more dangerous than we’d ever like to imagine, especially for our children. Humanity’s precious children, the little babes in our beds, grow into a world and take their place in it. Kids is far more honest about that world than so many coming-of-age tales, it bleeds through the cracks of society’s walls. It condenses the experiences on the fringes of young adulthood into an hour and a half of spiralling, fragmented faces and warped moralities. The lives, the experiences, the possible horrors of what it can mean to be a kid are kept here as a cinematic record.

Because kids get old, and they forget what being a kid was like. As an adult, the urge to nostalgise your childhood, to romanticise it and cleave from your memory all the unholy relics and thorns that actually being a kid can experience. Life may not be as high-octane, as chaotic and cruel as the life of the kids in Kids, but if you can’t see any part of yourself and the child you were in any of their faces, any of their smiles or their tears, you’re denying the life you once lived, thorns and all.

-Alex

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Kids (1995)

Midsommar (2019)

midsommar_ver4

Pagan cults in Horror filmmaking are one of those specific niches that very few people have nailed, there are only maybe two or three films which have remained staples in the canon whilst body horror or ghost stories have many variations. Pagan horror remains indebted to The Wicker Man (1973, Dir. Robin Hardy) and possibly Witchfinder General (1968, Dir. Michael Reeves). With Midsommar, Ari Aster and his cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski have created a vision of hell on earth bathed in sunshine and psychedelic imagery that will stick in the mind long past its first viewing.

Much like his last film Hereditary, Aster ties all the events of the film to a tragedy that happens in the first act and from there things spiral out into disturbingly strange territory. Dani (Florence Pugh) and her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) are on the rocks following this tragedy, and a trip to Sweden to visit one of Christian’s friends’ mysterious Swedish commune, and witness their Midsummer festival presents a chance for them to get away and possibly start afresh. This is of course a bad idea that we as viewers are intensely aware of as soon as we see the white robes and overly smiley faces of the members of the Hårga. I will let the film reveal the events that happen with the Hårga in Halsingland, as it is important to experience what they do first hand, just as the characters do. It is safe to say though that your initial impressions of these pagan oddballs are correct, and things go downhill quite drastically by the end of their trip.

Midsommar is an ambitiously long film running at over two and a half hours long, but the visuals alone were enough to carry the film to another plane for me. It is not a snappy, fast paced, shock a minute film, but this is clearly a conscious choice by Aster. He is ambitious in his focus on horror storytelling and has obviously set out to create a lethargic rhythm to the film which will draw you in and challenge you. The film is probably closer in tone to Gaspar Noe’s Climax (2018) than a conventional horror narrative. There is more story at play here, but the tone and pacing help mirror the disorientation of the central characters to you, pulling you in whilst not being sure what is happening.

The fact that you can stick with the film as easily as you can is in a large part in testament to the cinematography and vivid colour of the film. The film is beautiful at points, with Halsingland’s green grass and beaming blue sky contrasting with the creeping horror on screen. There has clearly been a concerted effort to make the experience of watching the film as visually pleasing as possible, despite many people in my screening having to look away when the Hårga really let rip in their pagan ceremonies. The natural beauty of the setting and the strangeness of the events which take place within it make the feeling of increasing dread even more palpable. A strange unease comes over you when you see such disturbing things happen in full daylight, Aster gives you nowhere to hide and you see every element of whatever horror he is showing you. There are multiple moments throughout the film where Aster employs the same dead eyed long shots of his characters going through hell that he used in Hereditary, not giving the viewer a chance to escape from the emotions within the scene. The film even harks back to Bergman at points; it’s hard to imagine a character being named Ingmar is unintentional. Think Wicker Man (the original obviously), mixed with Climax and maybe a little bit of the human angst in The Virgin Spring (1960, Dir. Ingmar Bergman) and this is quite close to what you get.

Leaving the film on first viewing I wasn’t quite sure what I made of it, however having sat with it in my head for a while now I can appreciate just how original an experience I felt it was. If you go into this film expecting to be terrified from beginning to end you could be pretty disappointed. The thrill for me came from Midsommar’s slowly unravelling sanity, until Aster finally releases the tension and the Hårga are shown for their true colours. Of course, there is much to be drawn in terms of meaning from the events on screen, especially about the film and its relation to theories about toxic masculinity and relationships in the modern world. However, for me I just really enjoyed the darkness Aster conjured in broad Swedish daylight, and the slowly building power of its images.

-Ed

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Midsommar (2019)

Kino-Pravda Docs: #8 – Three Identical Strangers

Three Identical Strangers

Our eyes see very little and very badly – so people dreamed up the microscope to let them see invisible phenomena; they invented the telescope…now they have perfected the cinecamera to penetrate more deeply into he visible world, to explore and record visual phenomena so that what is happening now, which will have to be taken account of in the future, is not forgotten.

—Provisional Instructions to Kino-Eye Groups, Dziga Vertov, 1926

Working mainly during the 1920s, Vertov promoted the concept of kino-pravda, or film-truth, through his newsreel series. His driving vision was to capture fragments of actuality which, when organized together, showed a deeper truth which could not be seen with the naked eye.

—Wikipedia Entry on ‘Kino Pravda’

In this series, which will run sporadically and when the material presents itself, I will cover documentaries which eschew the traditional forms of documentary style in favour of a more abstract (but not necessarily poetic) presentation of its subject matter, which seems to speak on a greater level than the sum of its parts.

All sorted?


‘Fragments of actuality’.

That’s the driving force often behind documentaries, to weave together the fragments of actual life and present them to us in only a way a film can. Life weaves its own path, with no regard for anything other than what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen. It can be frustrating though, to try and map the complex nexus of life onto a couple hours of experience.

Especially with a story such as this one.

Because sometimes stories in the real world, though they may not reach the operatic heights of fiction, matter and reveal a lot more to the world, simply because they’re true. They’re true, but more importantly they need to be seen to be believed. The story of Edward Galland, David Kellman and Robert Shafran is one which should be logged in humanity’s ‘bizarre’ folder indefinitely. Three identical brothers separated at birth for reasons which rapidly are revealed to be ominous at best, who come to know and meet each other at the age of 19, before their lives take off into a media whirlwind and into a spider’s web of secrecy, pain and scientific investigations. The film circles deeper and deeper into an ethical maelstrom of human nature which eventually spins you out back into the world, drenched in the knowledge of a story which is real, and shocking.

But a documentary is not just a 1:1 representation of real life, and director Tim Wardle delicately sutures the entire story together, drafting and redrafting the story as it continues to unfold. Each interview is a Russian doll, exposing the secrets and the hidden figures lurking in the wings of the story. Archival news clips are strung together under a common narration, emphasising the audience to see what is necessary at the time, only for those same clips to be reconstituted later under a deeper layer of understanding. What is beautifully drawn out of the film’s subjects, not through any particularly intense interrogations, is the continued revelations of information becoming part of the story. The events and timeline of the case are not depersonalised, it is not a maze to be solved.

One of the reasons for this is simply because the film is so earnestly concerned with the real tragedy, the real existential story of the brothers themselves. Audiences love thrillers, and conspiracies are notoriously tantalising, but the film really only goes as far as to show how the mechanisms at work have so deeply affected and grown the colossal void or absence that being separated did to the brothers as a whole. More than anything, the film frames their experiences, their resilience and sense of loss as the centrepiece of the story. It’s documentary 101: show the humanity, whatever the form, and it pulls it off in a deeply moving, mind-boggling way.

But another reason for this, is that the film is also hampered by (and excellently shows) the process by which legal institutions and places of power protect themselves, not through any obvious displays of power, but simply by abusing the regulations and understanding of the law. The documentary process usually does its’ best to not make you aware of its inner skeleton, of all the boring record hunting and the other parts of the production process. Usually all the information is streamlined into the documentary, with some nice appealing visual aids and appealing narration. But a documentary is always limited by how much information the story and its participants will reveal, and the legal entrenchment of power and silence hurts the truth of many, many stories. So by Wardle displaying that process, that invalidation and silence and refusal to partake in the story’s necessary revelations, it takes the story and the film beyond that of a conventionally great documentary, and highlights a deeper, more disturbing truth of the world that is being reflected; that it doesn’t have to give you the answers you’re looking for.

With a story such as this it’s always best to take it with a pinch of salt anyway and not buy into it 100%, simply because it so complex, so tangled, and still open-ended. In fact Wardle does seem to encourage it, keeping the film more balanced towards to the human truths of the brother’s experience as opposed to any irresponsible speculation or hypothesis making. The indictments it makes are more delicate than damning, but the film doesn’t play down the colossal scope and weight of the story. Most importantly it speaks truth to power, it exposes the internal workings of a story too surreal not to be real, and it uses self-aware and acrobatic documentary techniques to sculpt the story into something stylistic, beyond just the straight raw material of life.

What more could you want from a documentary?

-Alex

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Kino-Pravda Docs: #8 – Three Identical Strangers