Studio Ghibli (1/2)

 

Studio Ghibli CoverStudio Ghibli

“What you show in a movie is one hundred per cent of the reality that you impose on the audience. They cannot imagine anything else, so you have to balance everything.”

This is a quote from Mathieu Kassovitz, being interviewed about his seminal 1995 film La Haine in the latest edition of Sight and Sound (May 2020). He was making a point about the characters in his film, but the quote stuck with me as I made my way through the entirety of Studio Ghibli’s feature filmography, alongside three significant documentary releases related to the studio (these are Isao Takahata’s The Story of Yanagawa’s Canals, Mami Sunada’s The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness and Akira Miki & Hidekazu Sato’s Isao Takahata and His Tale of Princess Kaguya).

Animation is an art form which demands a surrender to it, both in it’s making and it’s reception. There is a single scene in Pom Poko (1993, Dir. Isao Takahata) where the tanuki/raccoon-dogs are watching the television, and some tempura prawns are dropped into a frying pan. This is the only moment in their fictional works which is a scene captured from real life. Every other frame, every other character, every other motion and movement and atmosphere and tone, is a created work of animation, be it hand-drawn or computer generated. The realities of these works are ones which have sprung to life from drawings, designed by a small army of artists over several decades. They have animated life into these frames, into these scenes, into these stories. They have asked you to surrender to worlds which are vividly not real, and often delightfully surreal. The works are not constrained by the limitations of the physical world around them; every image is malleable and designed in a way few directors and designers could ever have control over.

So when you can have anything to show, what do you see?


 

Of course, infinite possibilities do not make a film. It is the very narrowing and precise decision making which leads to these sculpted pieces of artwork. To fashion a world, a place, a story out of thousands of blank pages and frames with no lead shed, no ink spilt on them. Studio Ghibli’s roots are firmly grown in Japanese soil, in an industry which uniquely supports the release of animated entertainment in which is allowed a much greater tonal range of emotional and intellectual maturity. It’s founders, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata (alongside producer Toshio Suzuki) had already been long at work in Japan’s animation industry before the studio’s creation. Both had intertwined, maturing careers and both were becoming grounded in the artistic visions they were looking to express through their work.

With Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984, Dir. Hayao Miyazaki), the groundwork and more importantly the financial capital existed to create the studio itself. The ideas then developed from the funding, alongside significant (and stressful) delays of Takahata’s documentary mentioned above, before Castle in the Sky (1985, Dir. Miyazaki) became the first official release of the company to save Miyazaki from going bankrupt. What would then follow would be a path which continues to stretch forward today as Miyazaki continues to work on a new film (scheduled for release in the coming years), twisting and winding through some of the most breath-taking animation ever put forth into cinema. Throughout the scenes in Sunada’s loving documentary, all three founders express their understanding in how the others shaped this future they drew up together, how this studio which came to define their artistic legacies has been caught in the feedback loops of each other’s impressions on one another, and their impossible imaginations.

Studio Ghibli Hayao Miyazaki

It is easy to mythologise the Ghibli story, especially as their creativity swirls with abandon through the threads of each and every work. At least to the outside world, what spins at its’ phantasmagorical core is the works of Hayao Miyazaki, perhaps the most recognisable face aside from Totoro associated with the company. Here lies a backbone of dazzling and fantastical animation, of invented worlds dripping with cel-animated detail. The characters are filled with a sense of dynamism in their environments, often enhanced by the intricate and elaborate vehicles they use to get around.

True, most of these vehicles are aerial in nature, and Miyazaki spends a great amount of time and care detailing the fluid motions of characters cutting, gliding and arcing through brilliant blue skies. From Nausicaa’s sleek glider to the WWII-esque planes of Porco Rosso to the dazzling flight of Haku the dragon in Spirited Away, the image and pursuit of flight courses through the skies of his works. But the animated motion spills all over the earth too; in the castle jankily grumbling along in Howl’s Moving Castle to the little put-put of Sosuke’s toy boat in Ponyo, there is a respect and richness in depicting the ways characters move from place to place. Filtering anything from action set-pieces to deep meditative reflections on the nature of flight à la The Wind Rises, the magic of movement and motion drives through the frames. Miyazaki has even said himself, what is animation without movement?

But there is also a stunning array of characters which move through his pieces, creating the movement and motion of fiction. Characters caught in deep, torn rifts in their societies like Nausicaa and Ashitaka in Princess Mononoke, characters which strive to ride the currents of war into a better future for us all, even as they shoulder the psychological and physical sacrifices which come with it. We have characters wrapped in innocence unravelling into worlds which create external dangers and internal existential anxieties. Chihiro must navigate a bizarre and serpentine spirit-space in Spirited Away, rapidly coming to terms with a dream world with a dream logic.

In more muted ways, Miyazaki explores the lingering edges of adult life. In Porco Rosso, the melancholy ghosts of love, war and existence lurk beneath a shiny, more playful surface. In Kiki’s Delivery Service, Kiki’s witch powers vanish in a period of absence which sends her into a deep inward and existential crisis, as the abilities which helped defined her are no longer there to support her, to give her definition and meaning to her own self. Even the relatively innocent world of My Neighbor Totoro lurks the very real dangers of any child exploring unmonitored by the secure eyes of adults, it’s frames filled with an emotional resonance and care that few films ask us to entertain. And while his films are renowned for their rich and three-dimensional female protagonists, his curious grab bag of reluctant and sometimes haunted dreamers, boyish adventurers and staunch idealists fills his male characters with a depth and sensitivity which remains in some way uniquely his.

Regardless of gender, his worlds and their inhabitants navigate spaces rich in dynamic motion, waves of ideas crashing against the boundaries of the screen like Ponyo running on the cascading tsunami. The worlds of his films stretch and expand to accommodate multi-layered landscapes overflowing with layers of tone and atmosphere. In Princess Mononoke, Irontown is given a range of scenes to flesh out and enrich its inhabitants and their position in the world, with ethical complications only enhancing the moral tone of the film, not diminishing it. Or on a structural level, Howl’s castle becomes a shifting magic box throughout the film, the space and the body continually reinventing itself inside and out. It entertains the viewer through lively animation but it possesses an emotional growth as well, as the castle which has been Sophie’s home (and ours) evolves, rises and disintegrates with time. If anything, the spaces of Miyazaki’s films are navigated by adventurous and complicated explorers, brimming with the tensions of childlike innocence against the knife-like edges of an adult world cutting through the mist.

Miyazaki’s visions of the world have come to define the public perception of a business and artistic endeavour which was not always destined to succeed. The working ethos mentioned had always been “If this one succeeds, we’ll make another one. If it sinks, we’ll just close down.” The production of the some 144,000 frames and additional work of Princess Mononoke in 1997 was the most expensive anime feature production ever at that time, and it would have sent the studio into ruin if it had not succeeded, and was nearly the end of Miyazaki’s career after he announced his decision to retire after its’ release (he did not). This was some 12 years after the studio was founded, and here they still are on a knife edge of a nexus between artistic vision, cultural impact and financial concerns. Miyazaki’s work runs a gauntlet of visceral and illuminating tonal ranges. His unbridled joy, his deep rooted pessimism, his harmonious connection to nature and his troubled connection to humankind.

To try and truly sum up what makes his work so rich and vibrant is a fool’s errand. His work is a visual forest, filled with colossal trees of emotion and soaring aerial displays of character, motion, the lifeblood of animation. Perhaps you might get lost in this forest. Perhaps you might find what you were looking for.

– Alex

 

Studio Ghibli (1/2)

Honey Boy (2019)

Honey Boy

There’s a saying, “better to be a dog in peace time, than a human in times of war.” From a Chinese author in 1627, Feng Menglong, it speaks of the troubles which assail our species during our existence on Earth. Apparently the roots of this phrase got tangled throughout time and cultures, and the British imported it to attribute a new phrase to its’ roots and created a supposed curse; “May you live in interesting times”. The irony is meant to break out through its’ delivery, supposedly condemning it’s subject to a life filled with the conflicts we supposedly wish to avoid in order to achieve or maintain happiness in life.

Honey Boy (2019, Dir. Alma Har’el) manifests that saying, the whole film runs like an explanation of that phrase, as we traverse through an autobiographical forest of Shia LaBoeuf’s early childhood, handled by Noah Jupe and Lucas Hedges as young and older Shia respectively, while Shia himself embodies and plays the role of his father. The trees talk in this forest, and they have a lot to say.


 

We do pay a price for the sins of our fathers in this life. They actions of our ancestors tumble and unfold across this Earth and have been doing so for generations, and especially as we grow as young and impressionable children, we take stock and absorb the actions of our parents (if we have them). Their actions mark us, mold us, scar us both mentally and physically. As a child, you are bonded to your parent, your carer, your protector and mentor in a large and vertiginious world. You cannot navigate the real world space as a child, you need a support to lean on. But a child does not choose their support, or any of the associated bindings that come with it. Human beings cascade through life crashing against it’s shores, and sometimes those shores result in new humans that they are now attached to. Interesting times manifest as a growing little child, orbiting around you and whatever deitritus you’ve picked up along the way.

The parent-child bond whips its’ own way throughout life, and hell hath no fury like telling a parent how to raise their kid properly.  But it’s universal that children are impressed upon by their adults, especially their parents. Where Honey Boy swerves into its’ own lane is the uniqueness of the source material, since Shia LaBoeuf’s own twisting childhood was intertwined with his exposure to the world as a fictional son in the eyes of millions, through his career as a Disney child star and actor. For those young enough to have grown up with that experience, the story activates layers of meaning which other stories can’t spin around. His fictional presence in a disney-fied familial setting was impressed into our own minds as children, a heavily Americanised and sanitised setting, that work he did was sustained and fed the abusive real childhood that he went through and which is now the basis of another fictionalised story.  Honey Boy’s existence springs from a well where the boundaries of fiction and real life are much thinner, and so the work takes on a peculiar sense of being as it unfolds.

It is nasty to watch a child grow up in a world that you can see isn’t right to them. But it is also the lot of many a child across the world. Har’el can see this, and makes sure that Honey Boy doesn’t get away with washing down and cleaning up the ugly growths of LaBoeuf’s childhood. Even among the mechanised, well-lit and well ordered sets of film workers, LaBoeuf’s childhood slips in betweens the cracks of alcoholism, separated parents, and emotional and psychological issues which crash straight through any semblance of normality. There’s a particularly caustic scene where Otis (the moniker for LaBoeuf in the film) has to relay a conversation back and forth between his father and his mother on the phone, being exposed to the vitriol and the content of a fight which doesn’t need to be channeled through him. It’s moments like these which slowly eat away at the fragile stability of a child’s world, the kind which leads to problems down the line.

And so it goes, as Otis spends part of his adult life going through therapy as part of a rehabilitation program, trying to stitch back together some of these psychic wounds which were left open. The process in the film is one of remembering, an act which can be traumatic in and of itself. The impressions that are left on us by our parents fit their shape, not ours and that conscious readjustment is rarely smooth. It is painful to see, because it is painful to bear. The two timelines of the films allow an understanding across time of how the weight of our parental conflicts affects us throughout our life, not just in the moment they happened in.

So too do the fantasies, as one of the most crushing moments arrives as Otis sits in a filmed version of a family dynamic, a nurturing father giving guidance to his son. It echoes the footage I must have seen of LaBoeuf growing up, footage that I must have absorbed at the time of how a father and son should talk in the Disney-fied world. And it is hard to know that that fantasy which echoed the illusion of a genuine family which I as a child probably yearned for, was an illusion which carried sharper spikes for it’s performers. The conflicts and ideas of our childhood spill like oil across the rest of our lives, and it is their sticky residue which come back to haunt us.

May you live in interesting times is what I hear throughout the film, bouncing off it’s surfaces. The lives of these characters, based off of the lives of these real people, are cannonballs hurtling through the sides of ships, splintering fragments of war everywhere. James, Otis’s father, explodes again and again detonating over his son’s psyche, and the consequences lash against them both. But through the most violent and turbulent times, the bond which binds the two carries throughout time, interesting or not. There is a reckoning by the end of the film, and the happiness which lurks in the daydreams and fantasies of our lives is replaced by a contentment with the interesting times we occupy, because they are all we have.

-Alex

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Honey Boy (2019)

The Divided Self: Enemy (2013) & The Double (2013)

Enemy and The Double

Its difficult to keep track of all the fragments of your personality. The older you get and the more experience you accrue, it all eventually mounts up; like layers of discarded masks picked up as and when you need them. It’s easy to see a unified version of yourself at a glance, all contained inside your fleshy shell. You can look in the mirror and see who you are now, take it all in and keep your memories like photographs, clothes in a closet that you never wear again but still live there.

It makes sense then, that fiction is used as an avenue to explore something interesting: yourself. Or rather, fiction can manifest those sides of your personality that you no longer have access to, the sides you keep desperately repressed, the sides that lurk just out of your vision waiting for the chance to become a reality. The masks slip and tumble off our faces, first a grin and then a grimace. Our personalities can be frankensteined collages of the faces we’ve worn and will come to wear, and it’s this subject which swirls at the core of both Enemy (2013, Dir. Denis Villeneuve) and The Double (2013, Dir. Richard Ayoade).

The churning dark currents of our identities, when they’re acrobatically examined by the lens of fiction, what do they reveal?


 

Enemy has the tone of an opium dream. Silent, brief moments of clarity punctuate a strung out rhythm of asymmetric beats and scenes. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Adam Bell, a man who upon watching a rented film, discovers and tracks down a man who looks just like him, Anthony Claire (played by Jake Gyllenhaal). The two men are identical in looks, but their personalities are apart. The morbid curiosity to stare into the eyes of someone who looks as you do propels Adam into an entanglement with a mirrored image which acts independently of your whims, your movements. The film unfolds in jagged, mellow, spiralling bends as their lives start to entangle. Anthony forces Adam to give him a romantic getaway with his girlfriend, looking into eyes which look exactly the same while they demand something different.

Except the opium dream seems to disentegrate through your fingers. Adam’s dreams themselves start to blur into his waking reality, and the nature of the divided men begins to collapse in on itself. The two self’s of the film distort into a more subterreanean realm, that of the fractured mind of a singular person. As the film’s legs begin to stretch over your mind, you are guided towards the understanding of how Adam and Anthony are the identity of a singular man over time, that is being warped into the framework of two separate figures. The film, like a klein bottle, holds both possibilities in it’s construction of the external nature of the two of them, and the internal nature of the two men merely being two different masks that have been slipped on and off in time.

The story, boiling away with intensity, spills over the top, oil-slick and messy and staining your understanding of what’s happening. Literally and symbolically, Adam/Anthony’s greatest enemy’s are themselves/is himself. His changing and splintering identity becomes divorced from merely an internal voice in his head, it becomes a real conflict which pushes and punishes himself through the brief window into his life we can see. It feels almost delirious, as the web keeps spinning around all the characters involved in the film, the hollow yellows of the film’s cinematography keeping you company as this shifting mass of identity conflicts churns mysteriously at the film’s heart.

Enemy’s answers to navigating identity are like magic tricks which are never explained, their secrets unknown and left to silence. The film’s nature finally collapses into a merging of it all, the fictions and the realities of the world are one and the same, and the mysterious entanglements of the web spun around you prevent you from ever being able to separate which is which. The divided self here merges into all that it can be, a unified discord of chaos.


 

The Double has the tone of a fever dream. Relentless and spiky stacatto rhythms drill into the world around you, only rarely giving way to moments of quiet, gentle melancholy. Jesse Eisenberg plays Simon James, a quiet and nearly anonymous employee at a dystopian data processing centre, who one day is confronted with his doppelganger (and brand new employee), James Simon. The two men are identical in looks, but their personalities are apart. James is a shadow version of Simon, a Machiavellian reimagining of Simon’s meek and long-suffering existence. His mirror image (acting independently) can only exacerbate the deep-rooted insecurities and foibles lurking in Simon’s head and heart, and the amoral heart which drives James forwards soon turns towards more sour ends. The serrated cuts they make to each other lives start to bleed, and their entanglement quickly becomes a fight of moral and mortal proportions.

The fever dream never breaks.  The doppelganger is externalised fully, not a folding web of intricate identity fragments, but is a shadow version of Simon made whole. The world is indifferent to his plight. The curiosity of looking into the eyes of someone who resembles you so closely is paired with the wretched agony that no-one seems to care. Simon screams “He stole my face!”, a mask picked up by a different person, one who can be you “better” than you can. The horror is different here, because the internal identity is never questioned by Simon himself. This isn’t a matter of collecting up the salvageable pieces of who we are over time, the things we couldn’t imagine we might ever do and where our identities might take us next. Simon’s matter is that his identity is wretchedly irrelevant to the world around him, and it’s hostility is so great that he must take it upon himself to affirm it or die.

Having a double becomes a matter of cold, calculating rage, a furor which erupts only after every ounce of strength has been spent repressing it. Literally and symbolically, Simon’s greatest enemy is a version of himself which seems to have sprung from the swamps of his own unconscious, an enemy which could know him only as well as he knows himself (if not more). His doppelganger haunts him because he can expose bare how much the circumstances of Simon’s identity are not fixed by some magic framework, but they are in flux; changeable. He exposes that Simon’s identity is more of a construct than he would ever like to admit, a bitter pill to swallow which becomes unbearable. The self becomes divided to a point where it cannot be reconciled, and the shades of identity must murder one another or go mad.

The Double’s answers to navigating the murky seas of identity, are like magic tricks which are explained. The dream-like excitement and curiosity gives way to a colder, more brutal reality of sleight of hand, of deception; of being fooled. The web being weaved around Simon is not one of fog-like entrancement, of a world that cannot be known. The world becomes increasingly exact, increasingly clear about where it stands on Simon. It’s indifference only grows in focus as the story runs its course. The film’s nature doesn’t collapse in on itself, it unfolds methodically to a confrontation with itself, and requires nothing more than to kill or be killed. The divided self here separates into all that it can be: a manifestation of our own personal chaos, unified only by death.


Enemy and The Double both spin on a similar axis: a confrontation with a doppelganger, a person who looks like you. Exactly like you. They both explore what it might look like to confront yourself, someone who externally resembles you so well that you cannot tell the difference. This obvious boundary marker of who we are, what we look like, becomes tested and attacked and deeply questioned. Our identities are far more abstract, far more complicated than most of us would ever like to understand or give time to study. Films, art, fiction, they’re all ways of exploring ideas which we don’t find capable of grasping fully in the real world. The masks we have worn are many, and it’s impossible to keep track of them all.

What both films do then, is confront that thorny and stubborn issue that most of us would like to avoid looking at. Both find different outcomes, different meanings in the confrontation of a divided self, but both are transfixed by the same issues of who we are, why we are, and what does it mean to be how we are. Both stories in their own right, are a struggle with how to identify who we are when our identities are in flux. At first glance it might look gloomy, the answers offered involve include lying, repression, hallucinatory madness, manipulation, a joint suicide/murder. All that can be said is that are answers which reflect the human animal, and their exaggerated struggles of holding onto the many threads of their identities is meant to resonate with our own tangled webs, our own tangled struggles.

There are no succinct answers to questions of identity, mainly because there are no easy questions. You open a box which cannot be closed, but cannot fully ever be examined, and there are more masks to try on then you or I could ever imagine. Instead, the parallel which comes to mind, comes from Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf, a tale of a man wrestling with his own divided self. He’s told,

“Learn what is to be taken seriously, and laugh at the rest”.

And the one similarity I find most interesting between these two films, is that as both Simon and Adam reach the end of their knotted stories, both of them have the faintest smile on their faces.

-Alex

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The Divided Self: Enemy (2013) & The Double (2013)

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