The (Empty) Agony Of (Empty) Defeat: Nymphomaniac Vol. I/Vol. II

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The infernal hurricane, which never rests,

Hurtles the spirits onwards in its rapine,

Whirling them round, and smiting, it molests them.

 

When they arrive before the precipice,

There are the shrieks, the plaints, and the laments,

There they blaspheme the puissance divine.

 

I understood that unto such a torment,

The carnal malefactors were condemned,

Who reason subjugate to appetite.

(Dante’s Inferno, Canto V, Lines 31-39, Longfellow Translation)

This is the section in Dante’s Inferno where Dante visits the 2nd circle of hell, the circle where those who have sinned according to lust, given in to earthly delights of a sexual nature at some point during their time on Earth, and are thus condemned to be buffeted about eternally by endless winds, never-ceasing to stop, to die down, to rest is possibly the best term.

So too is the nymphomaniac in question, Joe. Her odyssey is enshrined in that experience, of eternal restlessness.

And 5 and a half hours later, as the credits rolled on the Director’s Cut of Nymphomaniac Vol. I and Vol. II, I wondered why the hell anyone had ever thought this film was a good idea.

This is my first Lars Von Trier film, and so it certainly could be said that I went in at the deep end on this, as I did with a similar experience with Werner Herzog, where I started with Fitzcarraldo. The difference being, the idea that Lars Von Trier is truly respected as an auteur director fills me with frustration. It is best not to judge an entire director’s worth on one film he makes, so instead I shall judge the films worth, and come to the conclusion of “In what in hell’s name possessed Von Trier to make such a crucifyingly dull film?”.

How is it that a film with such room to breathe, 5 and a half solid hours, 330 minutes of running time (for reference, Lawrence of Arabia runs for 3 hours and 48 minutes, while as Mark Kermode consistently quotes, 2001: A Space Odyssey takes 2 hours and 40 minutes to ‘chart the dawn of our civilisation to the birth of a new one’) manages to ultimately say nothing at all? Nymphomaniac is plagued by images, ideas, thought patterns, allegories, poorly arranged ideological arguments, tangents which spiral off into the ether, and somehow, under all that weight of provocation, it manages to crush every single morsel of interest flat, spreading the film with a thick layer of numbing cream.

The film is seemingly designed as an endurance test, as Von Trier imagines a woman who embodies the epitome of depravity, both morally and physically. She is designed as the ultimate individual rebel, a woman who craves nothing more than her sexual desires to be slated whatever the cost (even abandoning her child at night to go see her S&M master, played very excellently by Jamie Bell). He pits her experiences, sinking into the inky depths of depravement, as she fucks just about anything, manipulates and ruins people’s lives just for the chase of chance, against the lonely asexual (ha) Seligman, who constantly rationalises and tries to defend her actions, to ‘see the good in her’ while Joe continues to beg for judgement, continually unravelling her story. The film limps back and forth between Joe’s life and this ‘battlefield’, as Seligman  contextualises and draws allegorical parallels between Joe’s actions and historical events or actions. He compares her journey on a train with a friend to see who can fuck the most guys to the art of fly-fishing. Their discussion on the differences of the East and Western styles of Christianity segues into one of her segments. The Fibonacci sequence appears in relation to a time where Jerome (played by Shia LaBoeuf) fucks her in a humiliating fashion.

The problem with this, is its ultimately bullshit.

I shall return to this later on, because it requires a thorough dissection, but for now, let’s deal with the basics of it all. The performances by and large, are dreadful. They literally inspire dread, because I was dreading the next time I saw many of them on-screen. Almost universally, the performances retain this incredible sense of lifelessness, of walking corpses who offer nothing. I am foolish enough to ask only for sympathetic or relatable characters, but I look for characters who just aren’t boring, who aren’t full of ash. Singular criticism must be singled out for Stacy Martin, who plays the young version of Joe, taking up most of Vol. I, whose lackluster abilities defy description.  Paint drying would find her boring. Whether it is her or her direction, the two combined managed to create the effect of waiting for the mountains to move in front of your very eyes. Every single scene is visibly hampered by the corpse Von Trier drags around with him, as his Joe fails to arouse anything, she simply exists outside a realm of humanity. Shia LaBoeuf is just odd. Everyone else is like a retreated turtle, nothing but shell, no life visible. Bar two.

Uma Thurman turns up for an oddly exciting cameo, as 2 hours in finally a character turns up who even manages to rouse some basic human emotion. In fact her entire scene highlights this feeling to ludicrous parody levels, as her portrayal of restrained menace and hysteria connects like a punch under the effect of sleeping pills. Naturally, she disappears after 5 minutes and we slip back into slumber. The other performance is that of Jamie Bell, who alongside this entire arc, Chapter 6: “The Eastern and Western Church (The Silent Duck) ” comes to embody the only portion of the film which is salvageable. Even among rubbish, gold can be found. He’s the only character who has any depth, and alongside Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Joe, they manage to undergo a tough arduous journey into the extremities of human sexuality, pain and pleasure and the risks someone will take simply to feel.

The film also contends itself with being set in a timeless, non-specific location, which doesn’t hurt the film, but also doesn’t help it either. The cinematography, the kino-eye of the film is myopic, barely able to capture the events unfolding with any sense of importance. The grey tones of the film help only to devoid the eye of any involvement, any stimulation, which lead it to be almost completely looked at, not watched. You stare at a foggy window, which refuses to allow you to see anything you can recognise. The music does that excruciatingly annoying Michael Haneke trick of playing short fragments of music constantly cut off, only done to disorient, a condescending and extremely patronising film skill. And finally of course, the real grey elephant in this slightly less grey room, the editing.

Who. On. Earth. Allowed. This. Film. To. Be. 5. Hours. And. 30. Minutes. I have not seen it, but the cut version is still 3 hours too long. This film in its state is nothing short of unwatchable, and either the editors thought it was a good idea which frustrates me furiously, as the stretch of time involved in this is unbearably indulgent, or Von Trier thought he was write and exercised control over the edit, which is a sign of auteur decadence not seen since Dennis Hopper decided to edit Easy Rider by himself. Luckily his film was salvaged by people not insane. Nymphomaniac was not so lucky.

Here’s a scene in the film, one of the weakest in my opinion. Context is this is right after Joe literally ( I do mean literally) abortions herself. It’s a verb in this context. She performs an abortion on herself.

[SCENE IS GONE FROM YOUTUBE, YOU’LL JUST HAVE TO WATCH THE FILM. OR DON’T. PLEASE.]

The clip isn’t in its entirety, but the argument Seligman makes, the one of so called “rational society” is we cannot talk about abortions because biology is icky, and Joe chastises him for being a hypocrite.

*ahem*

I challenge you to find any act of biology which on some level isn’t gross. Whether it’s the messiness of sex, the literal millions of mites living in your eyebrows, the dead skin cells which cover your body, teeth rotting, animals killing each other, female spiders consuming their males during sex, the fact that a fox has barbs on its penis to stop the female fox from escaping copulation, excretion of human waster, god I could go on. Go with Cronenberg on this, all humans are just fleshy meat sacs. Seligman’s “cowardice” wanting to know the facts of abortion is a cheap set up for Von Trier to act like he’s scored a point over the stupid intellectuals who pretend they know everything.

And my god does this film reek of anti-intellectualism, of anti-moralism, of anti anything which is nothing less than the raw primeval truths of Joe’s experiences. No line of dialogue is written by accident, and there are plenty of barbs laying in wait. He lines up anyone who takes a stance as a fool or an idiot, Joe humiliates the other nymphomaniacs at the Sex Addicts Anonmyous, while Von Trier sets the leader up as a cheap shell to take pot shots at, as she is written to be basically a moron. Anyone who expresses conventional control, control by gender dynamics (the way the girls humiliate boys who try to seduce them, declaring war on traditional love, the general ripping on religion), control by conventional power structures (an office boss who forces her to go recovery, the clinical psychologist she needs to see for her abortion), control by conventional familial duties (Jerome puts the guilt on her). It’s not just that these methods are subjugated to the desire for sex, it’s not just Dante’s circle of Lust. It’s that they are actively derided, attacked and made fun of. It’s not enough for Joe to reject these structures, she has to make herself superior to them. Maybe its the intention of the film, but its a callous and bullshit one if that’s an ideological slant its pushing.

What does Lars Von Trier want with this? What is the truth, even if it is the absence of truth behind this film? Who did he make it for? If he made it as a form of personal catharsis, good for him. But the film is just so horribly indulgent it hurts. Von Trier is not a subversive filmmaker. These films are designed to shock, to provoke, but the only people who would seek these works out are those already experienced in these areas. Nymphomaniac is not designed to be watched by average Joe on the street, it’s designed to be watched by the kind of people who find themselves bored with the mainstream, look for work which indulges their pretensions of just by showcasing depravity and uncovering the rock of the human psyche, that by looking at the underside underneath, we can somehow take part in that holy communion. And that’s a land for people who are ultimately dissatisfied with themselves, with people who are unhappy with their own identities and the perceived identities of those around them. Why else would they be so desperate to jump into this mud pool, declaring it a work of excellence, ready with their academic spears to dissect it according to X thinker, or Y term (An example over this overreaching can be found here).

Perhaps this is why many reacted so harshly to its ending. In short, after Joe lays her tale bare, she confesses that she feels hope and possibly redemption and has found a friend in Seligman.Seligman puts her to bed, then comes in to rape her, and she shoots him and leaves.

The same people who were so quick then to laud this work, are also quick to turn on it at this point, as the final cruelty of this joke self-destructs any chance the film had at constructing…well anything. All of the pre-supposed superiority of watching the film, of having Von Trier explain in exposition each idea he wants you to associate with the film, so you can immediately construct links he wants you to follow, finally reach the unexpected dead-end of the tracks, as Von Trier pulls the rug out from under you, and shuts the doors tight on his kingdom of nihilism, of the idea that at the end of the day, we’re all just cunts (apologies for the strong word, but its appropriate, considering how often the film refers to it.) It’s in that case a good example of post-modernism, whatever the hell that even really refers to any more, it deconstructs everything, and lands itself in the realm of nothing but cheap ironic tricks and ‘cool’ nihilism. I hate nihilists. They’re prone to being incredibly boring.

It’s a final provocation, Seligman’s last scene, and maybe I’m superior in saying it, but it didn’t get to me. In fact nothing got to me, beside the above mentioned good parts of the film. It was in the point of Joe enduring the Cat O’ Nine Tails, of her suffering creating meaning in true existential form, as she finally rediscovered her orgasm, that I managed to find something to connect to in the film. And that flash in the pan quickly vanished, because the rest of the film is so desperately needy, so gaudy as it practically screams “LOOK AT ME, JUDGE ME JUDGE ME”, that it failed to arouse anything in me. My friend felt sorry for her, his girlfriend condemned her, and I ultimately couldn’t conjure up any feelings on the matter at all. A cynic would say I wouldn’t give her the satisfaction of judging her, but I’ll defend it and say I simply didn’t care. I just didn’t care. The entire theatrics of the film, the showboating and self aggrandisement and bullshit philosophy, all are masquerades for what is a hollow statement of self-expression. Our resident nymphomaniac was left unsatisfied, and my fate was worse than that. I simply was not put in a position to be left either in satisfaction or dissatisfaction, simply confusion. Confusion as to why anyone thought it was a good idea to tell this story at all. There’s a reason Dante didn’t spend the rest of Inferno in the 2nd circle, and that’s because there’s far more interesting matters at hand. It’s sin is that for it’s all posturing, it’s just unforgivably boring, and that is my judgement.

I have no more thoughts on the matter. I will however persevere in the future to watch more of Von Trier’s work.

-Alex

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The (Empty) Agony Of (Empty) Defeat: Nymphomaniac Vol. I/Vol. II

Kino Pravda Docs: #3 – Dreamcatcher

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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?

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“SURVIVOR FOUNDED • SURVIVOR FOCUSED • SURVIVOR LED”

(The Dreamcatcher Foundation’s Motto on their website, which can be found here http://thedreamcatcherfoundation.org/).

Dreamcatcher is a 2015 documentary by Kim Longinotto, about former prostitute Brenda Myers-Powell, who runs the Dreamcatcher Foundation. The aim of the charity is as follows (citing their website)

“The Dreamcatcher Foundation fights to end human trafficking in Chicago. Our not-for-profit organization works to prevent the sexual exploitation of at-risk youth and helps current prostitutes find confidence and stability beyond the limitations of their current lifestyle. The Dreamcatcher Foundation fosters confidence, courage, independence, and inner strength within young people in disadvantaged areas. Our harm reduction approach allows Chicago’s most disenfranchised young women take advantage of all of the mentoring services we offer and improve their lives through education, empowerment, and prevention.”

It’s very easy to read that paragraph and assume you understand exactly what the foundation is about. But lying behind it, is a timeless abyss of pain, sadness, degradation of the body and the spirit, and suffering. Everyone who appears in the documentary has been touched by this dark blanket, which coats and envelops their experiences since birth (some before). Babies born with crack in their system, abusive parents raised by abusive parents, sexual coercion and rape, abandonment of everyone and everything near and dear to you, including your children. The kind of stuff people not on the bottom rungs of society could only have nightmares about. The kind of stories that would make you wake up in the night in fear of your well fed, well-loved children falling prey to the “beasts of society”.

But as the film crystallizes, it becomes evidently clear that stories are the product of a much sadder fate, a lack of support, a lack of compassion, and a lack of care. The real catalyst of this comes, during an interview with a reformed/retired pimp, Homer who used to be best friends with Brenda’s pimp. As he muses on the trials that he endured as a kid which led to his distorted view of the world, he sums it all up by saying (paraphrasing) “No child is ever born a pimp.”

This is the real tragedy that lays at the heart of everyone’s story in this film, that somewhere along the line in their lives, they were failed by those who were supposed to protect them. The brutal waves of poor nurturing tumble from generation to generation, as we listen to young girls who explain they’ve been raped and molested and their parents did nothing or didn’t believe them, only to talk to those very same mothers and listen to the same stories come out of their mouths. Physical abuse which descends like a waterfall through families, filtering down from grandfather, to father to son, a son who becomes numb to abuse and sees it as the normal way of the world. The kids are not alright, and the adults are nowhere to be seen.

The way I’m writing it sounds like the film is very moralistic, but it is completely the opposite, it doesn’t demonise anyone. I am not familiar at all with Kim Longinotto’s previous work, but the film goes to great lengths to listen, in true cinema verité style, rather than dictate or present a certain case or understanding of the events. It is compassionate filmmaking, giving a voice to those voiceless, those trapped in silence for so long, because no one wants to listen, no one cares, or actively wants them to keep shtum. The camera floats in the world, no awkward air as people pretend to ignore the camera in regular documentary style, we are instead given a portrait, a window of honesty. These people do not perform for the camera, the camera is merely recording events in the most honest way it can. There’s no right or wrong way to solve the problem, the film and Brenda don’t have time to posture on what is the morally right stance on prostitution, because they’re too busy dealing with just acknowledging the silent pain these people carry with them. You’ve got to deal with the most serious injuries first.

Luckily, nothing is incurable, and Brenda  puts her entire being into promoting something these vulnerable girls and women lack, self-love, and self security. Girls who blame themselves for their rapes, who loathe themselves for being coerced into an untenable rock and hard place of poverty and slightly less poverty by being a prostitute. These women who pass through the frame are so broken, many not more than children. It comes as a shock to them, when they have taken on so much, far beyond what they should have, to relinquish their guilt and self-loathing, simply put, to be allowed to love themselves, to understand that it really isn’t their fault. It isn’t their fault that broken homes and poor social care damage the ones we seek to instinctively protect, the children. And those children grow up, and create more broken homes, like the tide coming in.

But this tide isn’t inevitable. Because what it takes to stem or change the flow of that tide is things we often take for granted. People who care for us, the basic human rights of shelter and food, a little self-love, and the expectation to not suffer violent abuses from those around us. Because the abusers often have experiences of abuse themselves, victims and perpetrators at the same time. Brenda recalls this in discussion with Homer, as she explains how she used to bring girls in to her pimp at times simply out of spite, just so he could fuck them instead of her. It’s easy to be cruel, but it takes so much effort to be kind. To be open, to be vulnerable and forgiving of life’s harshest, unjust realities.

It would also be a glaring omission to skim over the fact that almost everyone she deals with is Black. Inequality in America is still inexorably linked to race (as it is here in the UK) and the film opens up the world to someone who might have no direct experience of the black and/or female experience in this way, which is nothing short of a great social service, because anything that allows racial boundaries to be breached, crossed and simply dissolved is doing good, especially as the film goes to great lengths to show how the suffering, and the joy these women can experience is universal.

Brenda had two daughters by the time she was 16. She now helps other girl’s try not to land in the same position she was in. A girl she cares for Tameka, who is 15, becomes pregnant. The cycle continues, but it is not the same cycle, because there is Brenda, a vulnerable strong woman who cares, a woman who is strong because she is vulnerable and thus relatable. She truly has been through what these girls are going through, and so her words, her feelings are lent the authenticity and respect that most social workers could only dream of. Because when we suffer,  we look for support from people who we think have been through the same thing.

She helps to heal the part of us we often ignore, the spirit. Maybe she’s not catching dreams yet, but she’s taking the edge off of the living nightmares.

You must care and love before you can initiate positive change. She’s helping build a better future. Which I also noted in my “Black Panthers: Vanguards Of The Revolution” essay. I’ll leave you with this video essay which might help to explain this link.

-Alex

If you liked this, follow us on twitter here. For the rest of  the “Kino-Pravda Docs” series, click here.

Kino Pravda Docs: #3 – Dreamcatcher

Cinema Of The Gods: X-Men Apocalypse

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This is certainly a peculiar year for the superhero genre. Batman Vs. Superman seems to have been a spectacular misfire. Everyone jumped for joy over Captain America: Civil War, but it left me rather cold and ineffectual by the end (see here for my thoughts). And now X-Men Apocalypse arrives, with an oddly muted procession, as critics tear into it for being overstuffed, overfilled, overlong, everything ramped up to 11 at the expense of any coherence really. Many are also using this as a jumping off point to attack Bryan Singer, the director of X-Men, X2/X-Men 2, co wrote and co produced X-Men: First Class, and directed X-Men: Days Of Future Past. The man who helmed the foundations  that were laid to our current superhero saturated film world, is being torn asunder as the wolves claim his skills are failing in what appears to be a flabby, mess of a superhero film.

Naturally, I disagree.

My time with X-Men Apocalypse was one of genuine delight. In fact I think it is easily the best superhero film I’ve seen in a very long time. Just bluntly, it lives up to its title. Unlike so many of its genre fare, since it is set up about the apocalypse, its scenes of gratuitous destruction and havoc are entirely justified, giving the setting of the story. I’m not a fan of disaster porn, and if this classifies, it’s easily the most high concept, highly intelligent disaster porn to come around in a while.

Two things occur which influence my judgement. One, I have seen all the previous X-Men films, a feat which helps to explain what the hell is going on, because unlike the self-contained stories found in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where the links are rarely sequential and usually tangential, this film simply doesn’t make much sense if you this is the point you jump into the water. Two, the film harkens to an incredibly ancient trope, one which is being impounded in favour of nitty-gritty realism a la Civil War.

This film is about myths. More importantly, it’s about Gods. Plural.

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The final thing influencing my thoughts on the film is that in college I studied The Iliad, and it wasn’t hard to see the rich line of history present in this work, even if no one else did (seems unlikely).

In the Western world of modernity, God has become entirely synonymous with a monotheistic, Christian God. Before Christianity became the dominant force in the ring however, the practice of pantheism was everywhere, of believing in a multitude of Gods, often symbolising different aspects of the human experience, stretching from the Celtic and Wiccan traditions in the UK, to Ancient Greece and later Ancient Rome, to the Far East where both Hinduism and Japanese Shintoism are still actively practiced today (please note: I’m massively oversimplifying and generalising pantheism and paganism to make this point, to look into more detail on these subjects please look elsewhere).

The X-Men may not be worshipped like Gods (although superheroes certainly are venerated today), but they act like the Gods of mythology. They clash, brawl, love and most importantly, are NOT omnipotent. They are simply the strongest. The Greek God’s spend their time fighting the Trojan War, they do not sit above it, impassive observers, they change and manipulate and are part of the events that unfold, they do not exist outside them.

The X-Men in this film come to fight Apocalypse (played by Oscar Isaacs) in a cataclysm. And what I really liked about it, is that unlike Civil War or Avengers (take your pick of either), not every hero is treated equally. Not every hero is giving the same amount of screen time, the same chance to shine, simply because not all of them are worthy of it.

An analogy to that is in The Iliad, an epic which contains hundreds of characters, but an extremely large portion of the epic is focused on Achilleus, why? Because his story is simply the one which is being told and thus the other characters serve the story. It’s an older structure of telling stories, not of letting plot take a back burner while we’re exposed to witty banter and kooky group hijinks, but a structural style of allowing the important figures to take the stage. Fans of the X-Men franchise have complained of the overfilled film, literally brimming with characters who show up for a few seconds here, a few lines here (Olivia Munn’s Psylocke falls victim to this) and apparently this is enough to deem criticism, simply because each character is not three-dimensional, fully developed etc. Why is that not done? Because it would be an exhausting, 8 and a half hour movie at least if you tried to set every hero involved on an equal plane.

Not every hero deserves to be set on an equal plane, but every hero is needed. In fact its a very true and powerful image of warfare, that everyone contributes to the war effort, and the very highest of us can’t succeed without the help of others.

This is best exemplified in the final scene of Apocalypse’s destruction (spoilers). Apocalypse is attacked by Storm, Cyclops, Magneto and probably some other names, while Xavier fights him inside his mind, and Jean Grey finally finishes him off.  Jean Grey’s powerful, killing blast is the most powerful force, but it is still dependent on the very thing which sets them apart. A team of individuals who work with the same aim. This is the same thing which motivates The Avengers, but the difference here is that the fractures which plague the X-Men are deep philosophical crucibles of thought, and allow allegiances to shift and re-form. What does the genetic difference of the mutants mean for how they’re treated? Can they establish peace with a fundamentally different being? The ideas which divide The Avengers are egos and hastily formed ridiculous ideological differences which are so farcical it just doesn’t really hold the same, relatable yet superhuman depth that the moral dilemma of being a mutant holds.

I mean, look, the reasons I enjoy this film are incredibly high concept. I’m pretty sure I could easily throw it off as popcorn fodder (as Mark Kermode does here) and just simply throw off its density as an overcluttered, messy piece. But I don’t think it submits to that fatigue other superhero films often fall to, simply because it proportionally relates the importance of the character to the story to the amount of screen time, character depth and character development each person is given on-screen.

And personally I think it works. I think it’s a richly textured piece in terms of its universe and its story, and not trapped in the gaudy “HEY LOOK ITS THE 60s/70s” vibe the first two films had going on, where they had to recontextualise historical events just so the X-Men could fit in. The Gods fighting, using our world as a staging ground for their conflicts, is an archetype as old as time, and an incredibly powerful one at that Because we can see ourselves in them, something primordial, and we can latch onto the characters/personalities that we identify with, the traits we exemplify and wish to project onto the world.

And that’s what God’s do, they give us a vent for our ideas about who we should be.

(Minor notes: I enjoy watching films where the characters have genuine moral stances, rather than just reacting in a relativistic way to the world around them, so that might explain why I liked this one. I think Oscar Isaacs was good and so was his character, Quicksilver was once again the highlight of the film and his time stopping scene genuinely made me laugh out loud in public, and Olivia Munn distracted my teenage brain every time she appeared on-screen. It’s low-brow, but you gotta embrace the high and the low.)

-Alex

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Cinema Of The Gods: X-Men Apocalypse

A Fatal(e) Excursion: Hanging Out With Film Noir

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I recently decided to venture into providing myself with a cinematic education, simply by watching films. Unsure of where to start, I decided to choose the nebula of film noir. I can’t say why I decided to pick this genre, maybe its my overall fondness for the genre, maybe it was because I had just seen Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, maybe it was because it seems to represent the first significant shift in the entire shift American cinema since the introduction of sound. Perhaps a mix of all three, but the legacy of this genre still lives on, permeating like a virulent strain in the collective conscience of the cine-literate, one of the few genres to have given birth to a ‘neo’ form of itself (neo-noir). It’s knowledge imparts itself on two of my favourite works, Blade Runner and the Japanese Anime Cowboy Bebop. Maybe its simply that its sensibilities, its aura and feel, seem to be absolutely essential to the make up of cinema since then.

So I watched these 11 films for research, in no particular order:

-Gilda                                                                                  -The Maltese Falcon

-The Big Sleep                                                                   -Gun Crazy

– Sweet Smell of Success                                                 -Double Indemnity

-The Postman Always Rings Twice                             – Strangers On A Train

-Sorry, Wrong Number                                                    -The Killers  

-Touch of Evil

Plus four I did not see specifically for this matter, a while ago:

The Lady From Shanghai                                            – The Third Man

Sunset Boulevard                                                           – Notorious

So with that, I’m just going to try and expound on what I learned, listened to and felt whilst I immersed myself in film noir.

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THE INHABITANTS

It’s tough to describe the archetypes of film noir, simply because the characters that populate them are simply so vast and varied. Take the femme fatale, perhaps the most famous contribution to the canon of cinematic text, the raw, firey seductress who entices, entraps, ensnares the protagonist, induces the burgeoning evil laying in the heart of the man by sheer overwhelming sexual desire. On two occasions in the films I saw, the trope/archetype was used to its fullest extent, in Gun Crazy (see here) and in The Killers (see here). In fact, the prime example of this character is Kitty Collins, Ava Gardner’s character in The Killers.

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She’s a temptress, a manipulator, a woman who inflames the passions of the macho men around her, one would perhaps even say caniving, as she ruthlessly manipulates the men around her to find the best deal, and the film condemns and ultimately punishes her, as we watch her plead with her dying husband to falsely absolve her of her crimes so she can get off scott free, and all the characters grinning with perverse enjoyment as she gets her comeuppance, like all woman do in film noir, right, case closed?

Well not really. Most of them are far more complex, and maneuver their ways through the ordeals very differently. I did an earlier post on Gilda and “Sorry, Wrong Number” , but the fate and portrayals of the woman vary wildly. It’s tough to talk about film noir without at least mentioning its internalised misogyny, where female characters are routinely punished or saved, always at the hands of their male perpetrators. But I’d like to put a strike through the idea that because of this, women in these films play second fiddle and are sidelined in favour of the male characters. Honestly the discussions related to the gender politics on this issue are covered in far greater depth elsewhere, and so I’ll move on.

So let’s talk about the men then, always the central characters in these stories. Well the men are the salt of the earth, and they spend their time sparring and fighting with the rich, the crooked and the scum, of all classes. In Sweet Smell of Success, Tony Curtis plays a bottom feeding press agent looking for a good story. In The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, Humphrey Bogart plays a private eye. In Double Indemnity, Fred McMurray plays an insurance salesman while in The Postman Always Rings Twice, John Garfield is simply a drifter, looking for work. Everyone inhabits the roles of the middlemen, the invisible cogs in the machines of the world, men with desperate ambition or wry, jaded world-weariness. Simply put, they were the birth of the post war man, when propaganda films were no longer need to keep morale up, they spoke of the world-weary, to the world weary.They were not good people, but then they often found themselves entangled in webs of villany and treachery, and were forced from innocuous beginnings (being enraptured by the femme fatale usually) into far darker territory.

But to deny their own natures would be disingenuous to the elements at play. They too, are driven by “vaulting ambition” to shocking, calculated acts of murder.I think perhaps, the only two exceptions to this are Carol Reed’s The Third Man, which is primarily about the search for Harry Lime, and unpicking his unscrupulous web rather than the web of the protagonist, and Gun Crazy, where the man is fully exploited by the woman’s more masculine ambition. If anything, the most brutal example of their own nature is in Sweet Smell of Success, as Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) engineers the downfall of a musician who is dating his boss’s sister, the boss (J.J Hunsecker)  played by the singularly terrifying and malevolent Burt Lancaster, in a role that perhaps shows his greatest acting performance. The men are ruthless, controlling, terrifying and insecure at the same time, occupying a schizophrenic spectrum which turns them into monsters.

In fact only the films with Humphrey Bogart, The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, does our protagonist manage to avoid becoming a monster, or becoming ruthlessly scarred by the events. Yes, in those two films, Bogart is simply such a gigantic figure that his personality fills the space where the character is, and so we watch, smooth talking, confident and secure Bogart maneuver his way throughout labyrinthine stories with all the confidence of someone who knows he can’t fail. In fact, those films essentially become about the mysteries that surround the characters, rather than the characters themselves. He plays both roles with immeasurable dexterity, his wit and his words filling the void where guns and physical violence would fill in today post-Hays Code film time.  In fact, I think I experienced the shadow of what men would have felt watching him in the time the films came out, simply because he embodies this style of rough around the edges suaveness that is impossible to replicate, only pay homage to (as Godard did).

THE STYLE

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There’s two sections to this, because I feel the second section is worth exploring. The first will be about general stylistic observations of film noir, the second will be about the meshing of auteur directors (Hitchcock, Mackendrick and Welles) bringing their own succinct style to the film noir genre, and how this fusion affects the style.

FILM NOIR IN GENERAL

The aesthetics of film noir are too numerous, intricate and sprawling for me to properly delve into in a professional way, especially since the expertise expounded on this style by numerous writers both online and off. But, I must venture forth.

To understand film noir, you have to understand two things, German Expressionism, and the pulp/crime genre. German expressionism can be summed up by watching Nosferatu (found here), Das Kabinet des Dr. Caligari (found here), and Fritz Lang’s (found here) and Metropolis. Striking visuals and extensive use of shadows. Well as for the pulp/crime genre, it is the spawn of almost every film noir script. James M. Cain wrote the novels of The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. Raymond Chandler wrote The Big Sleep (while also putting in screenwriting credits in on Double Indemnity and Strangers On A Train), Patricia Highsmith wrote the novel of Strangers On A Train, Ernest Hemmingway wrote the novel of The Killers, Lucille Fletcher wrote the original play and subsequent screenplay of Sorry, Wrong Number. Graham Greene wrote the original novel in preparation for the screenplay (which he also wrote) for The Third Man.

Yes the tendrils of literature extend far and deep into film noir, and its sprawl pops up in perhaps my favourite part, the writing. Simply put the scripts in this genre are of an impeccable nature, the dialogue forced into a position of great standing, since the Production Code at the time would not allow the kind of on-screen menace and violence that we can expect now. Instead, the writers (and by extension, the characters) are bursting with witty one liners, zingers, restrained devilishness, and a style of rapid back and forth that perhaps has never been equaled, with the absolute pinnacles laying in Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall’s back and forth in The Big Sleep, and the entire script of Sweet Smell of Success, which is easily one of the greatest writing achievements ever put forth on film. Seriously, just look at this scene:

 

Finally it would leave a gaping hole without talking about film noir being literally that, black film. Not only is it shot in black and white at a time when colour film was feasible (John Dall, star of Gun Crazy is also the star of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, released around the same time), but also everyone by extension, is shrouded in various shades of grey (literally and metaphorically). The suits, the clothes, the hearts, everything is tainted by darkness. The shadows creep all over the films.

AUTEURS IN FILM NOIR

There are four directors in this selection who exert such an indelible presence over their films in this genre, that the work I believe is ultimately warped and transformed to fit into the style of the director’s vision more closely than the rest. These four directors are:

Alfred Hitchcock – Notorious, Strangers On A Train

Orson Welles – The Lady From Shanghai, Touch of Evil

Billy Wilder – Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard

Alexander Mackendrick – Sweet Smell of Success

Now it is always a double-edged sword talking about auteurs, since it largely disregards every external collaboration and pressure put on the creator(s) of any film, but I’m only using their names as shorthand for any and all the creative visionaries behind each of these films.

Billy Wilder exhibits classic noir. In fact, I’d be hard pressed not to find any element of film noir that isn’t in either/both of those films, and would even go as far as to say they are both quintessentially noir.

Hitchcock’s films also exude his influence, providing an almost jarring disconnect from the rest of the canon of largely American influenced film noir, his sensibilities creating the same Hitchcockian style, suspense and latent building of pressure, only exacerbated by characters who are all extremely repressed, the torrents of emotion flowing underneath, only showing in sporadic moments (see the kiss in Notorious, or the fantastical finale of Strangers On A Train). Honestly his films take film noir sensibilities, rather than being film noir. Hitchcock is simply too powerful a force to ever submit to making a generic genre piece.

Likewise with Orson Welles, who’s directorial works in TLFS and Touch Of Evili can only really be described as Wellesian. Heady mixes of cinematic and character bravado are complimented by labyrinthine plots and constant tension, as opposed to suspense.

Finally Mackendrick, who’s film (alongside Welles’ Touch of Evil) was made at the tail end of film noir (Touch Of Evil is the last classically accepted film) and so only shares a tenuous connection to the genre’s staples, the film occupies such an intricate and idiosyncratic space and time, with the lilting and deftly elegant camera work, the blistering script and the phenomenal character work, it helps to mark the film distinctly, a fingerprint over the film which elevates it above genre fare to become something which utilises film noir’s elements and heightens them, elevates them to a film distinct from the trappings of genre.

The reason I wanted to expand on that is to show how film noir was both a genre, and also when utilised by the right people, became spirit like, pervading the senses of a film world without being standard fare (read: hardboiled detective stories and femme fatalies). Strangers On A Train doesn’t even have a femme fatale, neither does Touch of Evil or Sweet Smell of Success.

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CONCLUSIONS

So what did I learn from hanging out with film noir? Well I learnt that everyone is a vicious misanthrope. Besides that, I experienced simply an incredible time in motion picture history, the last hurrah of Old Hollywood before it entered the turbulent 60s and 70s. It’s a testament to the studio system, in part because it’s so unlike the studio system’s traditional image, film noir is not opulent, no sweeping epics. It’s about the nitty-gritty, about shady characters and murder mysteries. It’s about lovers who find their connection in their shared selfishness, bitterness, desperate need to escape their circumstances, no matter how seemingly good or bad they are. The love which drives the rich trophy wife of Rita Hayworth in Gilda and Glenn Ford, is the same as the love which drives hopless drifter John Garfield and small town wife Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice. And all of it is built on the shadows of humanity, the sides we try to keep hidden but motivate us beyond all rationality, our dark desires driving us forth, simply because we’re either in too deep or wish to be there. And simply put, it makes our lives into what the films used to be called, melodramas. Simply put, it adds weight to our wretched lives, as we grasp for things which we think will set us free, only for our own ruinous downfalls to occur because of that very desire.

It’s not nihilism, its tragedy. And it makes for great films, great art.

-Alex

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A Fatal(e) Excursion: Hanging Out With Film Noir

“The Child and The Toybox”: Captain America: Civil War

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As I perhaps rather meanly remarked to my sister who took me to see it, “It’s the best Avengers film yet.”

Let’s not mince any words here. No matter what is said, what is discussed or who says it, Captain America: Civil War will be a commercial and most likely critical success. 13 films in, even with the constant tinkering and refinement, there’s simply too much production investment and formulaic story-telling for any Marvel film to be anything less than average. The biggest shock at this point would be if no one went to see a Marvel movie, and it was also terrible. So with that out-of-the-way, its time to actually look under the hood and see what’s going on in here.

I’m no huge fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (the two exceptions being Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man), and I was certainly no fan of the previous film, Captain America: The Winter Soldier.  The faux politicking, the plodding and hammy plot combined with essentially the least colorful (metaphorically) characters in the Marvel Universe (really most of the film is about guys in muted blue/greys fighting each other) did nothing to convince me of the apparent excellence of it.

This film, Civil War however is arguably the best “straight” film to have come out of the MCU. When I say straight I mean a film primarily dedicated to “action-adventure” not “action-comedy” as say Guardians or Ant-Man is. It’s plot and thematic elements are interesting enough (even though they’re the same themes found in Batman vs. Superman, which all seem to stem from Alan Moore’s Watchmen). The battle between oversight versus individual liberty is a question which can be answered pretty easily (Hint: It’s don’t let any one person have the unlimited authority to do anything they think is right), but is still fun enough to ground a movie, and give cause to the supposed “civil war”. Luckily, since the politics involved are all rather creaky, when it exhausts and abandons this train of thought (as a rated BBFC 12 superhero must do if it ever tries to ask a serious question), it falls back on the familiar ground of personal vengeance and murdered parents, something I can only describe as “The Batman” mode of storytelling. It’s the right move in comparison to The Winter Soldier, which carried its flaky politics all the way through to its flabby and weak ending (hardcore fascism is defeated by dissolving any oversight, rather than say just having an Internal Affairs department.) It’s a cliché, but that’s okay, because there are far worse things to use in films than well-known truths or devices.

So thematically, it carries easily the greatest gravitas on any Marvel film to date, simply because it turns over the one rock that all superheroes and vigilantes awkwardly face, “why do you get to act above the law and get off scott free causing collateral deaths?”. But really it all seems to be used as a way to get everyone to go globetrotting and fight each other but not really because they’re all friends. A Civil War this is not. This is essentially two friends falling out in high school, and asking their friends to take sides. The big climactic fight scene can only be explained through an allegory I am making up right now.

THE CHILD AND THE TOYBOX

The real set piece of the film, the meat of the dish so to speak, is the [spoiler] scene where Team Captain America fights Team Tony Stark. They’re fighting each other essentially with the training wheels on. Neither party wants to hurt the other, Captain America is trying to chase the real villain, Iron Man is trying to stop Captain America because he doesn’t know who the real villain is and thinks its Bucky/The Winter Soldier. So the people who like Iron Man try to stop the people who like Captain America.

When I was a child, I had many a number of toys. Superheroes, film characters, wrestlers, animals, my sister’s toys, it didn’t matter. We just had a toy box. So when I pulled toys out to play with, often I would make them fight each other. Toys from all different fictional worlds, it didn’t matter, they would all just have a big bust up. They would fight and kick and punch and slam together, rocketing around the room as they had the greatest fight ever. A good visual reference might be this old video I saw a very long time ago.

And so it went. But the thing that would happen, when I would launch my toys at each other, was that eventually they would break. And suddenly it wasn’t so much fun, because real damage had occurred to a toy I owned.

That’s essentially the mechanic every Marvel film indulges in, but this one takes it too its logical extreme. Except for the last part. All the cool characters gather to have a fight, and they all have an extremely compelling and fun to watch fight. It’s the visual externalisation of that childhood fantasy of watching all your favourite characters battle it out to see who will be the winner. Of course, like any childhood fantasy, it tells realism to promptly fuck off in the name of entertainment, and this is perhaps why the film works so well. Because its entertaining and as a result, fun. It’s witty without being incessant (the Avengers films spring to mind), it’s humour is honest and to a degree innocent, and just like a childhood fantasy, its damage is limited to essentially the least favourite character.

Don Cheadle’s (who is the second addition to the list of “Why are all the best people playing bit parts”, the first being Paul Rudd as Ant-Man in this film) character, War Machine, takes a tumble and by the end of the film we see him in physical therapy trying to learn how to walk again. The real issue of course, is that no real harm can come to the main players of this entire franchise, which is only growing increasingly larger. Each film they batter down cardboard villains whilst jeopardising the main players, and transferring the actual consequences onto foils. This is exactly the same problem that Avengers: Age Of Ultron had. Quicksilver, who is introduced in the film before promptly being killed off, is meant to be the emotional stand up, the one who reminds everyone that these superheroes exist in a real world where their actions matter. And that’s also the large thrust of Civil War. Tony Stark is upset because the events of AoU lay heavy on his shoulders, while a woman explains that a building falling on her boy during the climactic fight in AoU is somehow directly the fault of Iron Man himself, asking who will “avenge his death”.

Hell the entire villain of this film, easily the best villain Marvel films have had (while also reminding me very much of the much better villain of the Sony Marvel production X-Men 2, William Stryker) is a direct consequence of the actions of the previous consequence-less romp. His family was killed by the city drop in AoU (God just keeping up with all these happenings is exhausting).

What I’m saying is the film seems to be aware of its own dissonance, it is a film exploring the consequences of superheroes, by having them essentially have another consequence-less romp through the globe. It almost works as a self-reflexive inner retreat, as if their violence and actions suddenly become okay or just less problematic if they decide to fight each other instead of other people. That way at least they’re not directly hurting anyone (even if they destroy millions of pounds worth of property). I think in essence, the film is caught between the child mind, and the adult mind. When Tony Stark and Captain America engage in the final fight, it seems inevitable that one will kill the other, just by going too far. In fact I did think that had occurred at one point, as Captain America digs his shield into the machine that keeps Iron Man’s heart going. But no, Captain America leaves and Iron Man doesn’t chase him and they become kind of friends by the end.

There’s no toys really breaking, just a relentless thrashing of child-like play fighting that has been going on now for 13 movies. And that’s entertaining, but its incomplete. We can’t stay in paradise forever. Sooner or later, someone has to wedge some truth into this increasingly schizophrenic superhero medium, it’s only getting increasingly maddening to see. This purgatory of relentless stake raising combined with lack of meaning, forever deeming the superheroes to constantly question if the world needs them, only to face a foe they have to defeat at the expense of one person/1000 persons/a city/a planet/who knows what else, which then leads to everyone decrying them and then rinse repeat.There’s no progress, it’s the definition of insanity.

You could argue that I’ve gone down the rabbit hole too far, that I’m over-analysing what is essentially a kid’s movie, but it’s not! It’s about personal responsibility and societal oversight and the conflict of personal vendettas against law-abiding actions and government conspiracies and my god it’s not exactly a Saturday Morning Cartoon here. This is heavy stuff, so I can try to switch my childhood passive consumptive brain on, but my adult brain can’t stop prodding me awake. It’s just crazy.

Then again, so is watching 10+ people in crazy costumes pummel the crap out of each other. But it sure is fun.

Anyway in short Paul Rudd is the best thing about this movie and everyone should go watch Ant-Man.

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– Alex

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“The Child and The Toybox”: Captain America: Civil War

Son of Saul

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I’m finding it unfathomable to write about this film, in the same way the film’s subject matter deals with an unfathomably vast chasm of the human condition.

To start I guess, two words to describe the film. Visceral and muscular. Son of Saul is the directorial debut of László Nemes. It is also a film which is so intense, so utterly enveloping, that it simply makes you forget the film is itself a film, as you bear witness to a terrifying brutal reality seething into a nightmarish hell. It’s cinematic language is sparse and militant, it compounding the frame to only follow Saul himself, never to allow the audience to be separated from his perspective, never to give us the familiarity of watching the events unfolding from a God’s eye perspective.

Much has been made of this technique, chaining the audience to the perspective of Saul (Ex. here) and how astonishingly powerful its impact is, which I think reveals an unconscious prejudice any audience member expects when watching a movie.

  1. The film should not be limited to the regular human perspective (being only inside the spacetime + mind of one character)
  2. The film should be understood, both visually (in terms of clear focus and construction) and in terms of narrative (story which should be understood, characters with clear motivations).

By “chaining” the film to Saul himself, the film takes on a perspective rarely exploited by cinema, the perspective of one character throughout a larger story. Saul is privy to his own personal quest (of burying the boy he believes is his son) whilst also being a part in the group who plan to cause an uprising. This is no Shakespeare, where we move across space to see the other character’s motivations. We only infer what we can from Saul’s spatial-temporal interactions with the other people of the camp, we know they are looking for gold and valuables when he is instructed to “look for shinies.” We only know what package Saul plans to pick up, after it is revealed he lost it and it does not matter. The film is ruthless in its disregard for audience involvement in the story, which is a very good thing.

Here’s a quote from his interview with Little White Lies which helps sum up the attitude (found here)

 “I wanted to make a film about that because people tend to consider the concentration camp as either something remote and abstract or historical, not really taking place here and now. Or in a very over-aestheticised fashion. I wanted to make it harder for other people to make films in the camp because it’s so easy to go there but it should be very hard to go there. You have to have the responsibility as a filmmaker to go there and talk about it. I wanted to bring the present of it, the here and now, and not this remote point of view.”

Too often, a film doing its best to portray an accurate representation of a historical time can be diluted by the behind-the-scenes production attitudes and agendas. This is why up until this film, portrayals of the holocaust have been hampered by dramatic interpretation and expectation. A perfect example of this might be this scene from X-Men (2000):

This scene itself is created in a dramatic way, which (perhaps unconsciously) sidesteps the true nature of the reality of Auschwitz. The music swells, the violence is only implied by jostling guards, the mother howls in agony at the loss of her son. It might be seen as the “common sense + hindsight” approach to understanding a situation, and might work in this scene as follows:

Imaginary writer knows about the holocaust. Imaginary writer imagines character in concentration camp. Imaginary writer and future audience both know what lays in store for the people at the concentration camp, so the horror of the scene is amplified by dramatic irony (where we know what’s coming before the character(s) do.)

Of course, this seeps into the way the film is constructed, because we know what happened there, we expect it to play out in this fashion. But in reality, the Jews did not know what lay in wait for them at the camps. The Sonderkommando (Saul’s “unit”, who were Jews who helped shepherd the arrivals into the gas chambers, cleaned the floors, cleared the belongings etc.)  were there to guide the unsuspecting arrivals, on regular days.  This is the key difference, is that the projection of the Holocaust in X-Men takes place in an ominous, foreboding atmosphere. The rain, the mud, the gloom. One of the triumphs of the film is that it helps to replicate the reality; that the systematic and merciless extermination of the Jewish people took place on regular normal days. Not in the image of history we might recreate (one of despair, horror) but the one that probably came to pass (that of confusion, unease which then segued into dread and horror.)

This is quite obtuse, but really its portrayal of cinematic realism through art direction and cinematography is just so unlike what we’re used to in “regular cinema”, a heightened reality where we have access to multiple viewpoints and imagine things to correlate with our feelings about them, rather than how they really looked.

The final thing to be talked about is the humanity of it all. That earlier review had the tagline “Son of Saul will leave you too numb to weep.” It’s an interesting point to provoke, because we often associate tragedy with sadness, empathy, agony. But Son of Saul indulges in none of that, a blunt refusal to cede ground to the audience so that they may connect with the film, as if in some way they could relate to what’s going on, in some primordial human connection. If anything, it makes a case for just how unique the circumstances for the Sonderkommando were. The world they lived in was not one inhabited by regular humans (Saul’s last name, Auslander, means ‘alien’), it was a world of extreme inhumanity. Yet Saul’s quest is the glimmer, the spark of humanity that is never extinguished, not even under the most torturous of conditions.  Saul’s lack of expressive emotion seems alien to us, in the same way the horror’s of the concentration camps seem unimaginable as opposed to those who actually experienced them. It’s a world we can only stare into, never fully understand or translate.

If anything, the restraint expressed by both Géza Röhrig (and by extension his director, László Nemes) proves that old adage of less is more, as the only perceptible emotive act (Saul’s smile) speaks a thousand words, more than could ever be said by flashy dialogue or expressive acting.

Son of Saul is a film that could only have been made by someone who deeply cares about these events, and someone who’s commitment to portraying the story authentically (not necessarily realistically or metaphorically, but a mixture of the two) was not hindered by a filmmaker worrying about whether his audience would like his film or not. More please.

-Alex

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Son of Saul