Kino-Pravda Docs: #5 – The Act of Killing

The Act of Killing

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?


The Act Of Killing (2013, Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, Anonymous) is one of those documentaries where its reputation precedes it. It’s a film which I’ve been considering for the site for a long time, mainly due to its content matter. Films can be many things, but more often than not they deal with the imaginary, the fictional, the made up. To hold the camera up as a mirror to the world rather than create a new one is not a choice which is pursued often. Documentaries on the whole craft narratives, piecing them together from the interviews and facts. It’s a far smaller niche for the film to fall into portraiture, to allow the interviewees themselves to tell their own stories, with as much subjectivity as possible. The human brain is continually reprinting its own memories, misremembering and imagining scenarios which fill in the gaps between our experiences of what “actually” happened.  It’s not hard to make the analogy that our brains work like micro-editing suites, constantly cutting and re-directing our own experiences to make them fall into the shape that we are happy with.

So what Joshua Oppenheimer did is turn that outwards, to allow the interviewees’ memories and their imaginations drive external recreations of the events in the real world. And the interviewees just so happen to be part of Indonesia’s dark blood soaked history. The men filmed in this documentary are executioners, who are hailed as national heroes. Anwar Congo and his compatriots are responsible for untold deaths, and they live in a world where they are praised, respected and secretly feared for it.  Oppenheimer gives them the opportunity to recreate their finest achievements, to show the audience how they killed hundreds of people, with themselves playing all the parts, both victims and perpetrators. They walk in the shoes of themselves from the past, and the victims they killed.

Why is this is a “Kino-Pravda” documentary? What truth does this show us that the real world cannot?

There’s a long running conflict in everyone, which contains how the world is and how the world should be. I believe every person deep down wants to re-model the world in some way according to their own desires. The strangeness of this film is to see what happens when the world is re-modelled alongside desires which I found to be alien to me. The actions they recreate in the image of film genres they liked, the gangster movie, the western etc. are actions that at once I would condone in real life and yet necessarily see as normal in films. If the number of people killed on-screen in all films was totalled up and put in front of me, I would probably balk. Witnessing these people take their inspirations from art and apply it to their real world, to mimic the ways these actors killed their on screen counterparts, is deeply disturbing.

What’s more disturbing is being witness to this darker side of the world.  The basic assumption that goes through human experience is that good acts are rewarded and bad acts are punished, in some way. Whether through hell or reincarnation or just the penal system, we always believe in some sort of assessment of acts, judgement. But when the judgement is inverted, the whole film acts as this strange perversion of what we deem justice, and these men walk around in reality being praised for the acts we’d condemn. If it was a fictional piece, you’d call it a black comedy. But there’s no humour to be found in this world because it’s real.  Because there’s no distance between the imagination, there’s no safety net of it only being a story, a play, a movie. The film is a historical record of a dangerous inverted world. One which continues to create horror.

It’s a deeply reflective and absorbing document, because it pushes you to grapple with something which can’t be resolved easily, which reveals how strange and how bizarre the truth can really be. Not only that, but it plumbs the depths of those uglier characteristics we might often keep suppressed. We see the opulence of these death squad warriors, the rich landscapes and environments they possess for themselves. We see the admiration and clamor they raise for themselves. We see that even those who are in control are still restrained by fear, over their image, over their attitudes, over the words they say. Everyone is restrained by the system, and in their very unique way the perpetrators do not come away unscathed.

The film refuses easy answers. It allows the subjects to speak for themselves, it doesn’t conform to the narrative expectations we’ve assumed over countless stories. There is no grandiose repentance, no reckoning with the moral complexities of their actions. Only Anwar shows any signs of reckoning, but the dark seas within him fail to find any resolution we might find satisfying. But then what this film does is not satisfying. The entire experience is anything but pleasant or entertaining.  But the film is so hard to bear, nearly three hours long in its Director’s Cut, and you simultaneously understand why people desire escapist, easy to consume stories but also the pain of people not confronting the real world around them.

The whole world is a continual blend of art and life integrating and mixing with each other, and the events which inspired this film are from both. By foregoing any rigid definitions, to only tell the facts or only tell the stories, Oppenheimer made a film which pushes the world around it in some form to confronting the darker side of human nature.  There are so many films that have been made to be enjoyed, but not everything on this world is enjoyable, or even those things which are can often not be “good” in the moral sense. The word that really captures it is “vision”, a word which means “something seen in the imagination or in the supernatural”, but whose Latin root is in the word “videre”.

It means to see.

-Alex

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Kino-Pravda Docs: #5 – The Act of Killing

Hard Boiled – Violent Extravagance and Extravagant Violence

Hard Boiled

I do my best to be open to as much cinema as I can. Nevertheless, I feel like I’m naturally more drawn to cinema which confronts parts of the human condition, however well it pulls off the result. Every film has some part of that, since films are constructed almost always by humans for humans. However the range of depth found in cinema has often lead me to a particular fragment, one which often confronts the viewer with challenges and complexity and often painful experiences. You don’t have to look further than my post on László Nemes Son of Saul to get some sense of what gets written about on here.

But what about cinema of spectacle? What about cinema which doesn’t ask you to grapple with its themes and its content, which asks you to jump on board and just ride, its twist and turns in its plot rather than in its existential themes or morally grey characters. What about films which don’t ask to reinvent the wheel, merely to make one which rolls incredibly well? Hard Boiled (1992, Dir. John Woo) is that film. Cinema is not just art, its entertainment. Trying to hack off either one of its branches does a disservice to what cinema can do. But enough waxing lyrical about cinema, what about the film?


It’s difficult to apply words to Hard Boiled, since what makes it so special is precisely what can’t be described through words. Describing the unbelievably choreographed shoot-outs and stunt sequences, (most of which are still stunning to this day) many rewind worthy moments occur, particularly a scene where cop Tequila bursts out from the wall of a morgue in motion on a steel tray, before landing on a steel bed which rolls forward (all this while spraying bullets and gunning down triads) simply don’t do justice to the visual impact of actually watching these sequences unfold. The complete mastery of smooth graceful motion and construction of extravagant action sequences is Woo’s signature trademark throughout his films, and its dazzling at points.

So much of this film’s style is alien to Western sensibilities, and yet so much better for it. The cinematography is bold and distinctive, and events are replayed from multiple different angles so you can see the carnage from all angles. It’s jazzy score, considerably more dated 25 years on (at the time of writing) still showcases such an unconventional choice in the MTV music video generation. It’s locations are vast complex spaces filled with different traps and scenes which play out simultaneously, and the film relishes showing you every little point of interest. And when the colour of orange explosions is not filling your entire vision, there’s still so much going on onscreen that it’s difficult to think of a time when the compositions were ever dull or flat. It may be relentless gun violence and fetishism for nearly two hours (which is not for everyone, including myself), but you’d be hard-pressed to not admire Woo’s commitment to providing a film which sucker punches you into noticing it’s there.

It seems almost a mistake to focus on the story, since a cynical viewer could easily see the plot of the film as nothing more than a simple vehicle to drive us from fantastical action sequence to action sequence.  But to ignore that side of the world is also to make a mistake, since the characters of Hard Boiled and their borderline massacres are committed with the weight of the moral world on their shoulders. Both Tequila (Chow Yun-Fat) and Alan (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai)  are cops, enforcers of law and order, vengeful angels of society who stop the demons from taking over.

More than that, they are humans with desires, dreams, problems large and small. For all its unrelenting shoot-outs, a significant portion of the film is dedicated to Tequila and Alan’s friendship, to Tequila and Madam’s (his girlfriend) relationship issues. Even its infamously climactic hospital sequence devotes a lot of time to the issue of getting the babies out of harm’s way. These aren’t just mindless robots with no drives beyond constant one upping each other on how spectacularly they can kill each other. They may be the equivalent of mythological heroes, pulling off feats that no earthly human could achieve (Alan after getting shot in the back with a shotgun blast, still manages to pull off his part in an elaborate yacht shoot-out), but even they must have things we can relate to.

There are already a million essays sitting out there about what a masterpiece of the action genre this is, online or in books. Scott Tobias’s excellent article manages to reinforce the differences which I view this film in, in a CGI drenched world. What makes Hard Boiled pack its shotgun punch is the fact that it’s a continuous stream of elaborate real special effects. When the film released, CGI was still in its infancy and this film 20 years later still makes the case for doing things without digital painters. It’s a celluloid spectacle which is impossible to re-create with digital technology, because even if you could create that film now in an animation suite, without ever filming a single image, you would never be able to fix it in the audience’s mind that what they were watching was real. The reason why so much of the film works, is because the stunts have to be seen to be believed, but make no mistake that the stunts really were done by real people. Bikes exploded on fire in mid-air with a real rider on top of them.

I mean you just can’t make that in a computer. These little machines are incredible, but they can’t do everything. The weightlessness of destruction found in Marvel and DC’s big budget superhero movies, where cities, even entire worlds are continually razed and then replaced or reconstructed manages to lose that feeling of meaningful action this film captures. The violence and extravagance in the film may reach delirious qualities, as bullet after bullet skims across the screen, but every figure shot and every piece of scenery which explodes actually does so directly, mainly because its being shot at. As much as there is going on, Woo’s expertise is in the fact that it’s all so easy to follow.

Hard Boiled is a film where every element reacts to the persona of a director who wants the film to be enjoyed on all levels. Taken at surface level, it’s a hell of an action film. If you want to take the interpretations deeper, exploring the content and sub-conscious of the film’s themes, you can. But it wears its heart on its sleeve, it’s bloody, violent heart on its sleeve covered with gunpowder. Call me soft, but there’s something very human about that.

-Alex

P.S. Don’t watch the English dub. Eeesh.

Hard Boiled – Violent Extravagance and Extravagant Violence

Toxic Dreams of Hollywood: Mulholland Drive and Maps To The Stars

MulhollandandMaps

There’s something a little schizophrenic about cinema. We take our experiences and influences from the world around us, past present or imagined future and form them into a captured space, a captured time one that is displaced from the actual space and time its occurring in. The film set in Hollywood is not actually the detective’s office, the space ship, the 18th century manor. And when we move into most films (i.e not the avant-garde experimental works) we move into a realm where the words, the performances the details and look of the world that we’re meant to take as being real, sometimes more than reality itself, have all been meticulously designed, written and rewritten, rehearsed and tweaked and refined and sculpted into a sensuous orchestra of sound and image that wants you, desires you to be taken in by it.

And for the cinema goers, those Hollywood dreams mean we watch people perform these highly polished and preened versions of ourselves and who we might wish to be, we watch the regular everyman (or less often woman) snatched out of their existence, usually humdrum and quaint in a way we slightly shamefully relate to. And we watch as they are vaulted upwards, their talents are required or recognised in a way the real world rarely if ever brings to us. Luke Skywalker goes from shooting womp rats in his T-16, destined for a life of obscurity on a desert planet, to the fighter of the greatest evil the galaxy has ever seen. And only he can do it, his special privileged genes mean no one else can take his place. He’s not expendable, and more importantly he’s the only one who can succeed where everyone else will fail. Darth Vader would not be killed halfway through by a stray Rebel laser.

Exceptions to my overgeneralisation are overwhelming, and I’m grateful for it. Hundreds, thousands of films which don’t follow that structure, of focusing only on the extraordinary. But that’s where film can often find its greatest power, its simplest power because everyone deep down wants to be somebody. In a book called The Importance of Living by Lin Yutang, there’s a phrase in it which talks about how the temptation for riches and wealth is not as hard to overcome as the temptation to be important, to have status or just simply be remembered.

He doesn’t agree we should deny that ambition, and neither do I. But ambitions are double-edged swords, the very things which lay in our hearts, burning in our chests at our core can consume us, make us hollow husks consumed by our relentless desire to achieve these goals. And so in a world filled with people who make their living inhabiting other people, who live in a world where they do their best to inhabit a different one, who are the type of people to be attracted to that world and what happens to them? More importantly, why do their dreams get so corrupted by the reality of their world?

Mulholland Drive (2001, Dir. David Lynch) and Maps To The Stars (2014, Dir. David Cronenberg) both have a response to this, and it’s perhaps important to note that these two long revered cult directors (both David’s) have for all their merits been considered outsiders in the highest echelons of the film world. They are cinematic artists, but they are not cinematic businessmen. And yet that put them both in a position to deliver stunningly different but strikingly cutting accounts of the plague in those stars we lionise so much.

WARNING: IT’S ABOUT TO GET VERY SURREAL.


DREAMS

In a film so surreal and entangling, it seems rather counterintuitive to start talking about Mulholland Drive‘s links with reality. It would be a lot easier to talk about Lynch and the subconscious, how his films which purposefully wrestle with not fitting neatly together should best be appropriately attached to one psychological schema or another. This character is a manifestation of this idea, this character’s psychological split represents this idea coming into collision with reality etc. I’m not going to pursue that, other people more knowledgeable in their fields can provide you with those analyses. For me, Mulholland Drive will always occupy this space which grates against its separation and segmenting. There’s no clear indicators as to what’s his version of reality you’re meant to buy into. Sure you can make cases for some parts being “real”, some parts being “dreams or fantasies” but the whole thing blends into such a writhing singular beast that it’s hard to tell where one bit ends and one bit begins, and it was made that way on purpose. A film is a dream, not a copy of the world. It can be close or it can be far away, but those who get so wrapped up in it can end up being ruined by it.

So what am I saying? Well Mulholland Drive‘s is a film where its characters are haunted by their fantasies which haunt them, fantasies of dreamed grandeur and stardom, of nightmarish ghosts and strange conspiracies, of possibly imagined mysteries and possibly “real” kindled romances.  Wrapped in murky illusory shrouds, the people who inhabit the world of Mulholland Drive are illusions and stereotypes which develop along dark and mysterious paths. One of Naomi Watts characters’ Betty, is a “small town girl with big dreams” of becoming a Hollywood actress. Her wooden acting is just a mask for her powerful scene stealing, scene making abilities. Her naiveté and stereotypical “pure wholesomeness” mask her subconscious desire for Rita. Her entire performance is one side of a coin, the other of the broken disillusioned actress Diane.  On the flip side, Laura Harring’s dual performance, one of the amnesic loving fantasy of Rita, the other of the painful achingly cruel fantasy of Camilla, point to an item in this world of near fetishistic obsession, one which torments as much as it brings pleasure.

Beyond this, it’s a realm of bizarre shaded sketches of conspiratorial figures, of actors whose role is not clear to the audience. Figures which populate this strange surreal landscape of movie-making, of the “dream factory”. The whole of the setting literally starts to personify that name, swallowing up its cast in this fractured, distorted dream factory.

What kind of world is this, and who are these people? They’re all on desperate searches, for their dream career, explanations, revenge. They’re all people who play roles, who transform themselves, bend to the wills of those around them and expect the world to do the same for them. And this sun-soaked swamp which swallows them up, is one which presents nothing tangible for the characters to grasp onto. The very form of the film even challenges them, with its sequence of events which seem to occur with no clear beginning or end, scenes matching each other but diverging on different paths. The land of dreams is one which is literally that, one which has no anchor for anyone to grab onto. Entire characters, storylines, scenes and worlds vanish, get morphed and transfigured in the film.

In a world so devoid of all the ropes which tether us to our reality,  how can anyone expect not to be driven mad?

REALITY

Stacking up against Mulholland Drive, it’s strange to talk about Maps To The Stars as being the sane, rational film in this comparison, namely because the film is anything but. In its own fascinating and brutally clinical fashion, Maps To The Stars is just as disorienting, creepy, numbly horrifying and spends a great deal of time blurring the inner psyches of its characters (which are becoming dangerously unhinged) and the “real” world around them.

You could say this is a more in focus look at the world of Hollywood. Although Mullholland Drive is set in Los Angeles, its hard separation from any landscape we might encounter in the real world makes it difficult to bring it down to Earth. Maps To The Stars though, shows what happens when you bring the magnifying glass close to the mud. You see a lot of dirt.

The dreams and desires of its cast are so perverted by the world they live in, that it’s horror of the world it’s looking at lays in its silence, in the lack of noise people make over actions and events a less exposed person might find at least, emotionally difficult. From child deaths to 13-year-old drug habits to cynically motivated publicity stunts involving a dying girl, everything in their world is channeled to serve their own self-interest, to help promote their brand. Every action becomes reconstituted as a transaction which takes place, sex is just a way of getting a part, jobs are just a way to climb the ladder while eating shit, the glamour of the exteriors’ fail to hide the sickly shallow, vapid personalities they express in pissing contests with each other.  Cronenberg and his cinematographer Peter Suschitzky (the Star Wars talk was relevant earlier, since he shot Empire Strikes back, 1980 Dir. Irvin Kerschner) look upon this world like you might look at insects in a glass box. He never makes the mistake of putting us in their shoes. Because their shoes are either empty or filled with shit.

What kind of world is this, and who are these people? These people are haunted piranhas, who would devour each other if they could. The only characters who engender emotion are those who are visibly tormented, either by ghosts as Havanna Segrand (Julianne Moore) is tormented by her dead mother who was a cult cinema hero, and Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird) is tormented by a dead girl who tricks him into strangling his child co-star, or Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska) who is Benjie’s sister, who is humiliated and physically assaulted by her father (John Cusack) and humiliated again by Havanna. She responds by bashing Havanna’s face in with an award and committing suicide in an incestuous marriage ceremony with her brother, one which had set of the chain of events which led to her original separation.

If this reads as convoluted, it’s because it is. In this hermetically sterile world, these people almost operate like a virus, incestuous (metaphorically and literally) breeding with each other and clawing the flesh from each other in an attempt to maintain control. No act, no crime is too big not to be swept under the rug or spun by a PR doctor. And the world they live in? One which enables them, even encourages them. The money sent their way is gargantuan, enabling them to live in worlds divorced from the common reality of most people’s everyday life. Their sterile kingly estates, no matter how luxurious and pristine, trap them in with their own ugliness, their own trauma, their own mind numbing boredom.

In a world where everyone is devoid of what makes human experience meaningful, how can anyone not expect to be driven mad?


HOLLYWOOD

There’s a lot going on under the surface, you don’t need two surreal films by two cult directors to tell you that. But for a world which can turn its lens to every part of the world and beyond, where people can dress up as kings and queens and Zygons and big robots hitting other big robots and orcs and elves and policemen and thieves and on and on and on and on it goes, never-ending the amount of roles to inhabit, of other people’s skin to wear, why does the world that produces these images of our reality seem so ugly underneath? Cinema is the most vain bitch of all the arts, and a tradition which started with Billy Wilder’s seminal classic, Sunset Boulevard (1950) of exposing that dark underbelly that lies beneath cinema’s Mt. Olympus is more alive than ever. Film rarely has enough daring to challenge the people behind the finished product, and maybe it’s why both films you find yourself schizophrenically entranced and repulsed, bored and yet still paying attention, confused and yet disturbingly clear.

After all, you’ve got to be a bit mad to spend your life re-making reality. To spend years performing to a black box, only for people to sit in a dark room and watch things which never really happened. Crazier still to love it.

Sunset-Boulevard-1950-Wallpapers-2

-Alex

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Toxic Dreams of Hollywood: Mulholland Drive and Maps To The Stars

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 : Humour, Spectacle and Humans

Guardians OF The Galaxy Vol. 2

It’s getting more and more difficult to imagine a time when sci-fi was seriously uncool. Not just slightly still uncool as it is to be obsessed with it, but in the it was something to be kept hidden from the world. It’s very ironic that of all the places that could have become synonymous with nerd culture, the stereotype that grew was in the basement. Even now as its exposed in the light of mainstream culture, with Hollywood’s biggest actors signing themselves up to play aliens and goblins and all sorts, it still retains some of its outsider, underground status. The biggest tentpole film of the year comes from an obscure run of Marvel comics which would have remained hidden in basements if it had not been resurrected.

Movies can often reflect the times you live in as well as the culture it came from. The ironic, sarcastic, self-deprecating and misaligned heroes of the first film, Guardians of the Galaxy (2014, Dir. James Gunn) are very much a reflection of today. It’s difficult to imagine Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and the Joker bickering like children at the dinner table, clever remarks and funny one liners matched only by characters trying to explain their unspoken romance with references to Cheers, a live-action US sitcom from the 80s. We carry our cultures with us, and in 30 years a new generation will understand these techniques even less. And while its impossible to say that any one person was responsible for what was in this film, it’s important to note its mix and remix of timeless themes and time specific aspects (songs, jokes) is what makes this series work.

One of the brutal facts involved in this sequel’s judgement is the fact that people are already in on the jokes this time. A large unspoken part of why people talk about the law of diminishing returns when it comes to returning to a franchise or story is because the director can’t get away with as much as when he’s introducing the world for the first time. This is why the jokes maybe fall a little flatter this time, why as I sat in the cinema I could predict a few of the one-liners a couple of seconds before they land. Humour always lands hardest when the balanced scales between the audience and the director/joke-teller are weighted heavily towards the latter. When you’ve already got a whole film’s worth of previous material in your memory, the film has to stretch much harder to ring laughs out of an audience who have, to put it bluntly, seen it all before.

That’s not to completely let Vol. 2 completely off the hook though. A style needs to constantly evolve to remain fresh and interesting. The first time you hear a joke its funny. The second time round its less so. A couple more times and it becomes downright aggravating. Even being ironic gets annoying, and Vol. 2 suffers from a constant struggle of trying to undercut itself in an attempt to balance its humour with drama. Honestly on multiple occasions I was trying to decipher whether a scene was meant to be serious or a soon to be joke, and only with the help of its dramatic orchestral score (not its 70s/80s jams) can you actually orient yourself and figure out whether a scene’s meant to be funny or not. It’s sad I guess that the film is being crushed under the weight of its own previous success, much like Joss Whedon experienced with his Avengers Assemble (2012)/Avengers:Age of Ultron (2015) projects. Lightning can’t strike in the same place twice.

So what’s left? Well there’s a serious amount of spectacle going on here. This is really the highest level of money in filmmaking, and as a result no expense is spared. The world is as fully realised as can be, the relentlessly good CGI covering for any of the practical sets and worlds built, all of which no detail or expense is spared. Really the set pieces in this film remind me of video games and their boss fights, worlds which simply up until now would be too inhumanly expensive to even attempt recreating on film. It’s strength also lies in its ability to actually have colour, to make it more of a fantasy and pull itself away from the brown-grey colour palette of “gritty realism”. It’s world feels tangible at time, and as a result a lot of its more technical parts can rely on tried and tested classic methods to get its point across, when its production design is doing most of the work for it. You won’t find any experimental editing or cinematography here, but then if you’re looking for that you’ve come to the wrong film.

So while its humour takes a beating and its spectacle is only a backdrop, what holds it in place? Well I found it in its core, the same place which made the first one catalyse so well; it’s characters. The film really stretches its legs in this department, and manages to keep its spectacle playing second fiddle to the character’s and their relationships. It’s coincidental that in a film where it’s villain is literally a giant brain, its primary concern and what keeps it focused is what goes on in the heart. From its ramshackle family dynamics, ranging from the explosive to the intimate,both of which don’t feel mawkish or cringe at all, to the introduction of a character who is an empath (can feel other people’s feelings) Mantis (Pom Klementieff). In all of the monumental CGI spectacle, Vol. 2 never loses sight of the grounding it desperately needs in just what these character’s feel, about themselves and about each other.

The messed up ensemble family dynamic was and always has been Guardians strongest pillar to stand on, and credit to James Gunn for managing to stay mostly on that track. I always rated the first installment of this series as the best thing to come out of the MCU, since it’s the film that’s least concerned with the “super” part of superheroes. As this film shows, it’s difficult to care about gods unless they’re human. I mean, its shiny aspects of irony and nostalgia and flashy soundtrack may stick out more, but it’s the very human heart which keeps the film from completely disintegrating into a very colorful vibrant mess. It’s strange watching it, because the film itself seems pulled in so many different directions it can be disorienting and overwhelming at times; family drama, heady concept film, mindless popcorn fodder, cheesy 80s mining of nostalgia, operatic violence and low-brow brutish humour. It really is a reflection of the times we live, of remix culture, the obsession with the 80s (which I’m still not on board with). witty bantering and CGI dream worlds.

I’m not saying its a perfect film. But it’s a film that reminds me why I go to the cinema. It was a film I got lost in, both ironically and un-ironically. Even in its weaker moments, its something to enjoy, cinema which does its best to make its audience actually enjoy themselves. It’s power lies in its ability to not take itself too seriously, and while not everything lands, does it really matter? Like your family, not every moment with them is the best or worst in your world. The point is that they’re there around you, their presence and their personalities more than enough comfort in what would otherwise be the empty black void of space.

-Alex

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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 : Humour, Spectacle and Humans

The Handmaiden: Shifting Exotic Sands

The Handmaiden

WARNING: The following blog post, like the film itself deals with some very frank and explicit mature themes, sexual and non-sexual and please be noted of that before reading on.

There’s a saying about buses. You wait and wait for the bus which never arrives, and then suddenly two or three or all of them come at once. It’s not Shakespeare, but it constantly resurfaces in my mind. While I try to look at every film on its own terms, I find it humourous than in my life, I should have experienced two films concerned with lesbianism, BDSM themes, and the undercutting of audience expectations in such a short space of time, the first being The Duke Of Burgundy (2014, Dir. Peter Strickland) and now The Handmaiden (2017, Dir. Park Chan-Wook). Of course they’re not two sides of the same coin, but I find the parallel too relevant to pass up.

The Handmaiden is lots of things, most of them shrouded in shadows until they’re suddenly brought out into the light. Primarily, it’s an adaptation of the 2002 novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters. Taken from its original setting in Victoria era England, it’s replanted in 1930’s colonial Korea under Japanese rule. It gains much from this, allowing the director to fuse his own culture into the film’s DNA, melding quite literally its English heritage and its Asiatic influence into every part of the film. Most prominently in the mansion which the characters inhabit for half of the film, as the English style manor, (which echoes the Manderley estate found in Rebecca (1940, Dir. Alfred Hitchcock)) literally has a Japanese inspired wing attached to its side. This, alongside with far more subtle and delicate introductions, shows how impressively a story can be transported across the artistic and cultural boundaries we might unconsciously draw when placing a work into a particular time, a particular history.

One thing The Handmaiden might be is not necessarily timeless, but certainly in that place where it becomes a lot harder to keep track of. It’s world is isolated, enclosed in itself. You could imagine months, years passing in its languid flow and barely noticing. It’s characters are so interested in each other, that everything else falls away beyond their own commitments and desires to each other, or against each other. It’s world is one of suffocating isolated beauty and cruelty in equal measures, like an alluring but poisonous flower.

Another thing The Handmaiden might be is profoundly intelligent, for better and for worse. I find it wryly amusing that in a blog whose name literally means truth, it should be so concerned with a film which is based on so many levels of intimate deception. But the genuine pleasure of watching (more on that later) the film is mainly involved in its careful intricate layers being revealed to you, as your expectations are constantly conned, the nature of the hustle like playing cards with someone using a stacked deck. You may feel cheated at times, furious you have been taken in so completely, but its a tribute to the film’s quiet entrancing power.

One thing The Handmaiden could be is incredibly sensitive, both in its eroticism and its handling of its themes. It’s world is muted and dreamy, and its’ two main inhabitants, the Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) and the Handmaiden Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) find that fragile blooming of love in a nest of vipers, which Park Chan-Wook displays most intensely in moments small and large. In small moments, a delicate tooth filing while the Lady bathes (much weirder in text form than in the imagery) and in large moments, in intense erotically charged sex scenes. The scenes probably will provoke strong analysis’s  from those who love to politicise film and its makers, but I believe you’ll be hard pressed to discover more genuine and more sensitively crafted scenes of intimacy in film that are this uncovered and open. Furthermore while they’re arguably crafted in a voyeuristic way for the camera, this is integral to that key aspect of cinema, of watching without being seen, all of us Peeping Tom’s and voyeuristically taking part in their relationship, just as the men surrounding them try to do.

The thing The Handmaiden could be about is those power dynamics which take place in those hidden secret realms of men and women, those dark corners where perversions and desires grow in our hearts, which can turn them black and twist and distort those around us to places we don’t even let ourselves imagine, much less speak out loud to each other. It’s opulence, its exquisite surroundings, its beautiful landscapes and obsessively fetishised clothing hide such ugliness underneath, an ugliness which lies in the revelry of pain and the inflicting of it, on themselves or others. Those power dynamics of darkness twist round these characters, and its only through outmaneuvering the black hearts, not by appealing to their better nature that our main protagonists can allow themselves the freedom and the ability to allow something light to grow from their darkness. It’s power dynamics feel horribly real because good doesn’t triumph through its own virtue, it triumphs because it’s guarded, kept secret, kept hidden while its murderers are pitted against each other.

I can’t be completely sure about anything in The Handmaiden, it would be missing the point of the film. What I can say is Park Chan-Wook’s work is elaborately and intricately well crafted, it’s subject matter both emotionally and intellectually strong and twisting and at each level its style is unique and entrancing, even if it might not be to everyone’s taste. There’s a lot of truth in that, even if I can’t be 100% sure of it.

-Alex

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The Handmaiden: Shifting Exotic Sands

The Deer Hunter: Lost and Found

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I definitely have something to say about this film. I’m 100% sure of it. I’m not entirely sure of what I have to say on it, but it has definitely provoked me into thought.

The Deer Hunter (1978, Dir. Michael Cimino) is a landmark film, regardless of the opinion surrounding it. It stands in that pantheon of 70s films made by the New Hollywood era filmmakers which was not only an international phenomenon at the time of release (among other things, happened to find out it was my grandmother’s favourite film), but it has transcended its space-time to be one of those films that you just “have to see” if you love cinema.

So what do I have to say about it that’s not been said already? Well with the passing of Michael Cimino still in recent memory, I wanted to examine what has made the film endure and what made it capture the hearts and minds of people so successfully in the first place.

The Deer Hunter follows a small group of friends in a steelworks town in Pennsylvania, all of them from a Russian American background. We’re guided through they’re world, from its opening in the steel mill itself, their downtime in the bar, a long illustrious wedding sequence (which I think must be the greatest one ever filmed), and more. I’d like to say we inhabit this world more than anything, because we spend time with all of these characters, who put the plot on the back-burner to allow us time to actually see who they are in the context of this world. We watch them in their loud moments, in happy moments and angry moments. The three dimensionality of everyone involved is paramount to the world,  and it helps to capture that feeling of life when there is no “supporting cast”, just people. It’s unbelievable how well this film manages to observe “mirth”, that warm joyous feeling of spending time celebrating with the one’s you love and know, even if they can’t keep it together for very long.

It’s this world then, this world of people who have strong faults but are not evil, that feels so close to our own and by spending so much time in it you become entrenched in their humanity. So when the film jarringly cuts to Vietnam, and we bear witness to the extensively stark scenes of Russian roulette, it hits hard just how terrifying the situation is. I found it very interesting how restrained the cinematography is in this sequence, as I feel the scenes are so intense that naturally the cinematography could have been ramped up to 11 to match it, but instead its quite restrained, allowing the performances to take center stage.

When we return from Vietnam there are no grand confrontations. I think what elevates the film in its highest points is its very absence of conventional dramatics. Mike (Robert DeNiro) and Linda (Meryl Streep) growing closer together is not a torrid love affair against all odds, it’s this quiet intimate desire for closeness that speaks to the unsaid loneliness and isolation in both of them. Mike comes back to the world fundamentally changed, evoking an experience that almost every veteran must have faced returning to civilian life. That disconnect between what you see, what you live through in wartime and how to adjust to those around you who just can’t understand. Mike’s desire to save his friends, Steven (John Savage) who’s been left with only one arm in a mobilised wheelchair and Nick (Christopher Walken) who went AWOL in Vietnam, is the one thing which cements the two periods of his life and what pushes him to return.

In the climax of the film then, the piece most ripe for dramatic confrontation, we find instead this muted, desperate pleading to save his friend. With the cinematic history of films set in the Vietnam war, the likes of the hellish Platoon (1986, Dir. Oliver Stone) and the nightmarish Apocalypse Now (1979, Dir. Francis Ford Coppola) it is strange to see a film that is so interested in rescues, in salvaging anything left rather than the hellish destruction of it all. The forces of evil in the film is the nature of war and the other side, and it’s not hard to imagine something similar happening in the camps of the Americans treating the North Vietnamese POW’s. It’s final scene, the ambiguity lending itself to those wanting to wield it as a weapon to condemn the film for being pro/anti-American is ironic to see considering the follow history of extremely anti-war films that Oliver Stone would build his career on.

But all I’ve done so far is just recount its narrative. So why did the film itself capture the imagination so powerfully, not an escapism blockbuster like we experience today but a thoughtful, emotional reckoning with American history of the time? I really can’t say for sure. Robert DeNiro’s presence must have been a massive draw, but according to my mother it was “the film which people who didn’t go to the movies went to see”. So what drew them in?

I’ll never know, I can only look at why it deserved such attention. Cinema’s history is filled to the brim with the exceptional, the out of the ordinary, the piece of gold among the rocks. What makes The Deer Hunter so very compelling is these actors are doing their best to play real people, people you imagine being on your level. When you watch someone like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca (1942, Dir. Michael Curtiz) you wish you could be friends with him. When you watch Robert DeNiro in The Deer Hunter you feel like you are friends with him. No one is idolised in the film, no one escapes the ravages both minor and major of war. And the film is not a piece of propaganda either, even though it was held up as one by both sides. For a film so mired in the politics of the time, its focus lies on the human costs and interactions. It evokes an experience that most drafted men in America must have experienced, going off to fight a war they had little to no say in. From the ground, the politics of it all seems very far away, and I believe this must have resonated strongly.

It’s also a far more emotionally sensitive film that what had defined the American New Wave at the time. All the main characters are good guys, and I found it easy to imagine that before the war the Vietcong shown in the film could have inhabited the same space. The violence corrupts men, like an infection, and through Nick it consumes him. Under the strain of the psychological trauma, the heroin to numb the pain, its easy to see how someone can truly lose themselves so far they can’t be brought back.

I like The Deer Hunter because it’s an epic of people on a small-scale. It’s really about people, and that’s the most interesting topic out there. It’s about the long internal struggles we have with ourselves, often within us in the silence of our souls. I guess it’s a film that at its core, everyone can relate to, and that’s what makes a lie, a film filled with actors and staged action, feel honest. That’s what makes it hold the truth.

My mother told me when she saw the film in a cinema in Switzerland, behind her was a Asian couple, possibly Vietnamese, and the woman cried through the whole film. Then when they left the cinema, my mother and her partner went to dinner at a restaurant and the Asian couple also happened to be there, and she couldn’t stop crying through the whole dinner. She could have been crying for multiple reasons, for the films political views or for the noted poor treatment and one-dimensionality of the Vietnamese people, I’ll never know why she was crying. I just like to believe she was crying because it was sad.

-Alex

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The Deer Hunter: Lost and Found

Something Old, Something New: Beauty and the Beast and Cinematic Adaptations (1946,2014,2017)

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It’s very easy when you first see a version of a story, in a theatre somewhere or a film or hearing it in an audiobook, or even just the images you conjure up in your mind when hearing or reading the story for the first time, to cement that as your concrete vision of how the story should look. The uproar that fell upon the casting choices of J.K Rowling’s stage performance of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, where the role which Emma Watson had filled for the cinematic versions of the installments of the Harry Potter series was given to a woman of colour helped to bring those deep cemented ideas of what our characters should look like out of the woodwork, in this case in a particularly unattractive way.

It is harder then, as a viewer, to detach yourself from what you think of as “your version” of the story, at least I have found this in my experience. To allow yourself to dive back into the same story over and over, often with its shape and structure morphed and tinkered with by whoever is adapting it, and continue to enjoy the version even though your reference point is a lot more deeply rooted in your head. For me, my reference point of the story of La Belle et la Bête or in English Beauty and the Beast is the 1991 Disney animated version, directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise. Of course the original reference is the 18th century novel itself, but our modern understanding of fairy tales is most widely found in our films, or so I believe.

So then I wanted to take a look at three different versions of the story and see how they brought the story to life, where they succeeded and where they might not have. Adaptation of a story is something which can bring radically unique instances of the story itself, and so by looking at these versions (the cinematic classic of 1946, the more faithful adaptation to the literary source of 2014, and the Disney live action remake of 2017 of its own animated classic), I’ll try to find what makes these films beyond their shared core, that of the love fable.

CINEMA CLASSIC (1946)

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Why do I call this one a cinema classic, what makes it so? Well, this adaptation is directed by Jean Cocteau, one of French cinema’s most distinguished auteurs and accomplished artists at a time when celluloid was beginning to really stretch its legs. Not only that, but it also starred one of the biggest names of French cinema, Jean Marais. And finally, the reasoning for it being held up as a cinema classic is because it has endured long beyond its time, the film being released one year after WWII finished, some 71 years ago on this day of writing. The first full length feature adaptation of the French story itself, this version has helped cement the legacy of Beauty and the Beast in public consciousness, and has most likely been a touchstone for every adaptation since.

So what makes up this version, this adaptation? Well it is closer to the original literary source, Belle’s troubles primarily enlarged by her surrounding family and amorous suitor as well as her stay with the Beast himself. But there are changes, permutations of it. Minor alterations, the amorous suitor himself Avenant is not in the original story, or the breaking into the glass room containing the statue of Diana. One inclusion from the story itself which deserves recognition is Belle’s sisters rubbing onions in their eyes to pretend they are weeping, something which evoked proper laughter from me.

But the story is only one part, and it is the part where the cinema has the least impetus to reveal itself. After all, the backbone is in the script, in word form. But what about what’s put in front of the camera? Well, besides the poetic language and dialogue which runs through like a rich vein, the images themselves are a haunting spectacle. In black and white, striking compositions of light shine through the castle, in near pitch-black darkness, evoking near holy imagery at some points it seems in the silence of the audio track. The setting of the castle itself is true magic, with silent human faces carved in elaborate baroque flourishes watching Belle silently, or the candelabras held by human arms lighting in tandem. It’s a testament to the skill of Cocteau that he manages to get so much out of a little, in comparison with the computer generated spectacles of the other two adaptations. Through old cinema tools, the fades and the superimpositions, the straight cuts and reversed footage, the work looks positively old-fashioned by today’s standards, but then so what? In the context of 1946, this mastery of cinematic trickery and illusion would have been breathtaking.

And while the film’s style will entrance you or irritate you, depending on your penchant for flowery elaborate French cinema, it is always interesting to see the story through the prism of the director. In this adaptation, the Beast himself is an agonised wretch “My heart is good, but I am a monster”. The pain he exhibits, though filtered through a costume which exceeds Liberace levels of extravagance, really helps to ground the nature of the story itself, of how this woman could fall in love with an animal. Josette Day as Belle is entrancing, even if her character would seem positively one-dimensional by today’s standards. And Cocteau stays true to the magical nature of the story, by having them ascend into the sky back to the Beast’s kingdom where they will rule in true happy-ever-after fashion. Through all this, it’s not hard to see why the film has endured, even if it has inevitably aged, its beauty in its cinema is undeniable.

LITERARY CLASSIC (2014)

Beauty and the Beast 2014.jpgThere are more than three adaptations of Beauty and the Beast, and they all have their own unique stamps to be placed upon the story. This adaptation, by Christophe Gans, occupies a unique space in my opinion however, due to two things; 1) it is the first adaptation of the original story written by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villenvue, rather than the abridged versions most commonly known by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont (see history here). 2) The film occupies a space in time after the Disney rewriting of the fable itself, so that the most commonly known version of the story in Western culture is the musical 1991 version. As a result, this commitment to the original story, plus its choice to film the dialogue in French can possibly seen as a committed attempt to try to recover the French sense of identity of the fable itself. However, I’m hesitant to commit to that idea, mainly because it lies outside the scope of what I write about, namely how the film adapts the story. With that said, let’s delve into this adaptation.

If there’s one stark contrast to its cinematic predecessor, the abundance of computer generated imagery in this film is such a visual reminder of the chasm which has opened up in terms of cinematic tools since the time of Jean Cocteau. Not that CGI is inherently evil or good, in fact in this film its’ abundance works to its advantage in truly ramping up the scale of its fantasy setting, the film spilling out with glorious, impossible vistas and landscapes. Even the beast himself, aided with heavy CGI, shows how far technology has come.

However, technology is one thing, and how you utilise it is another. In this adaptation, which again must be noted is the most faithful to the original (although it takes its liberties and is not a straight adaptation), the technology is used often for spectacle rather than necessity. It’s grandiose and spectacular, but ultimately it also distracts (and rightfully so) from rather muted, subdued performances. The cinematic spectacle is abundant, but feels rather hollow when put up against these rather monotone characters. It’s odd that in an adaptation of the unabridged version, the characters feel more archetypal and one-dimensional than in their alternatives. Furthermore, the spectacular imagery also hides some of the more lacking elements of cinema, its loose editing, it’s perfunctory soundtrack. What works in its favour is the settings themselves, although you can never tell when they’re real or when they’re CGI, and the costumes which take inspiration from their older counterpart, rich and extravagant.

The film speaks a lot more to the mainstream cinema of today, with action sequences in between the love story, and suffers from a severe tonal problem. In the prism of this director, the Beast (Vincent Cassel) still carries the anguish in a lesser form (“enhanced” through an unnecessary subplot) but the CGI actually hampers it, creating this constant dead lack of expression. In fact, for a film so visually expressive, all the performances seem to suffer from this. Léa Seydoux’s Belle occupies a much fiercer, more progressive role than her role might originally suggest, but really the lack of chemistry throughout all involved really has nowhere to hide. And its ending is also further cause for confusion, as it falls into the other side of the spectrum, in that the Beast comes to live with her family while she takes care of her father (André Dussolier). It seems to be completely shunning its magical aspects then, as they go off to live a simple, provincial life. It’s not necessarily bad, just very different. It just speaks to the strange mutations that a story can undergo during an adaptation.

DISNEY CLASSIC (2017)

Beauty and the Beast 2017

It’s easier to adapt fables because their simplicity lends itself well to the creation of a new version. There are not any intricate complex plot twists or power reversals, not in the same way we might find in a film such as The Godfather (1972, Dir. Francis Ford Coppola), and while you can argue that even our fables require a coherent and complex level of understanding, there is a reasons we read them to our children. They are elemental in a way that more mature stories do not immediately reveal themselves as. That, and the copyright on them is expired which makes them free rein for all.

This most recent adaptation of Beauty and the Beast then, directed by Bill Condon, occupies a space in which it must live up to the spirit of the original material, written some 200 years before, and must also live up to its own internal successor, that 1991 animated version which came during the period of Disney’s “animated renaissance” as they brought to life through hand-drawn 2D animation, various fables and folk tales which are now getting their own live-action adaptations. An intricate mess, I imagine.

This film then, is a hybrid more than any others, a delightfully musical Frankenstein of Beauty and the Beast. It strays very far from the literary source material (while also straying from its animated counterpart), Belle’s family beyond her father is non-existent, the castle is inhabited by various talking furnishings who do musical numbers (what a sentence), those characters themselves are revamped or reinvented in some ways (one with an added LGBT slant), Belle’s amorous pursuer (named Gaston) is given much more to do, and meets a much more grizzly end. The tool of CGI is also used extensively here, but much more focused on imbuing the animated furnishings with a sense of life and human personality. The castle itself occupies that similar baroque/gothic world, though in this adaptation it retains neither the haunting darkness of the 1946 version, nor the medieval stone aesthetic of the 2014 version, instead opting for a much more golden aesthetic which runs over everything.

The story itself has been warped as well, though no more than its counterparts. Beyond the characters, backstories and elements (the central rose and the spell by the witch is close to, but not identical to the source). Obviously the music shines, though that too has to fight for space under the weight of Alan Menken’s stunning original score.

So what does this film do? Well the story seems to be shaved of its rough edges, the Beast (played by Dan Stevens) is less menacing, less of an animal, less of an obsessive creeper, with most of the ugliness forced onto Gaston (Luke Evans, a current favourite of mine) who gets his just deserts. The CGI enhanced beast doesn’t suffer the same emotionally dead problems of its modern counterpart, which is a godsend. It’s more sinister undertones of the romance (Stockholm syndrome) are sanded down in favour of the humour and the spectacle, which is not a surprising choice. Belle, played here by Emma Watson, also follows the path of being a much fiercer, more combative and equal partner in this dance, and while neither central performance is perfect and without some clumsiness, the central entwining of the two is mostly pulled off. The ending finally, with its unifying musical number and dance as Belle and the Beast live in the castle ends in the middle ground between the realist ending of the 2014, and the pure fantasy of the 1946.

SO WHAT DID I FIND?

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Why did I chose Beauty and the Beast, as opposed to any other? Well obviously I saw the most recent one, which sparked it. But I’ve read and watched a lot of fables, and I find the story of looking beyond one’s appearance a greatly important one to learn, one probably partially motivated by my own insecurities and partly due to the great wisdom involved in doing so.

So in the adaptations, each maintains that core ethos, though him being rich and magic nevertheless almost always helps.  And in this way they’re the same, each adaptation spinning around this story, adding bits on and taking bits out, but always around this core story.

But they are also incredibly different in a million different ways. In all aspects of cinema, their cinematography and editing, their misé-en-scene either real or computer generated, their performances and their direction. You can look at every film and know that even though they’re telling the same story, they could never all be done by the same director. It’s a testament to the infinite little unique variations of what makes a film unique from its counterparts, either imposed through the director and his supporting crew in their choices and abilities open to them at the time (the work Cocteau would be able to carry out with today’s technology is dizzying to even think about).

What it really shows is that a work never survives completely intact through adaptation. From literary source to film, it undergoes a morphing process, as an experience which takes place solely inside your mind, the reading of the book, is transformed into an external piece to be seen. But even from cinematic adaptations, the 1991 Disney animated to its 2017 live action counterpart, it has been transformed along the way. So is there any definitive version of the story? All of them have claims, but how do you measure which one is “the” version?

Easy: You can’t. You can have more accomplished versions, but the best thing about stories is that they can be told and retold in a million different variations, but as long as you’ve still got that central ethos at the core, the world’s your oyster.

-Alex

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Something Old, Something New: Beauty and the Beast and Cinematic Adaptations (1946,2014,2017)