Woodstock & Cinema: Scrapbook Thoughts (Vol. 2) – ‘Woodstock Generation’

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To understand what’s happened at Woodstock, it’s important to look at what came after, what came before.

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Gimme Shelter (1970, Dirs. Albert & David Maylses and Charlotte Zwerin) is a look at the festival which dealt a death blow to the spirit of the Sixties, only months after Woodstock ’69. The Rolling Stones are shown in their total fuck up of the infamous Altamont Speedway free gig, where violence and rioting led in part to the death of Meredith Hunter, a black man involved in an altercation with the Hell’s Angels (who were providing security to the event). Jerry Garcia’s (Grateful Dead band leader) face drops when he learns that Jefferson Airplane’s lead guitarist got knocked out, which is a sight to behold.

It is heavily laced with the implications of the recklessness and drug-corrupted spirit of Rock & Roll superstars at the time. Mick Jagger’s face is reflected back through the lens as he watches the footage on camera of the fan being stabbed. His bare void of expression, as he struggles to accept the reality of what happened. It’s a hard film to stand in front of, the live footage of a crowd in chaos nauseating as the Stones and other groups try to keep the crowd under control. Everyone is fired out, exhausting their cylinders between intensive tour schedules and drug addictions; it’s a sad vision balanced with earlier interesting footage of them touring the US. Still as much of a firecracker, to this day.

Monterey Pop (1968, Dir D.A Pennebaker) is a welcome step back in time, almost ironic that I saw these festivals in this order. Woodstock (1970, Dir. Michael Wadleigh) is a film defining a generation of teenage idealism, but Monterey Pop lays down the foundations of musicians who performed there. Janis Joplin, The Who, Jimi Hendrix and more got a lot of exposure from the festival, organised by John Dorris of The Mamas and The Papas, alongside festival producer Lou Adler and more. The focus here is ultimately what drives the movement of people to Bethel, N.Y; the performers who play their instruments to others. This footage is about the San Fransisco community who grew a lot of this movement. People who spoke with their instruments & voices, with more verve and feeling than some people do in their entire lives. All their tools and words. It had a performance which made me spontaneously cry in joy,

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There’s been a lot to think about since starting this Woodstock project. My expanse, the horizons of what I’ve been looking at, are much wider now. Moving beyond Woodstock, has allowed me to notice the reverberations the festival sent out across the American musical landscape.

For all the ink spilled on Woodstock its’ cultural impact was not infinite, and certainly not indefinite. The unique confluence of events which had led the festival; the performers, the documentary and more into a state of celebrated existence, was still just a drop in the cultural ocean. With rock music’s major debt to rhythm & blues, soul music and more, it’s important to note the impact (or lack thereof) on the African-American community at the time of the festival, and also the attempt to create their own Woodstock-type event 7 years later in Watts LA, That’s first, in WattStax (1973, Dir. Mel Stuart), but not chronologically first. Summer of Soul documents the Harlem Cultural Festival happening months before Woodstock (June 29th – August 24th 1969). Hundreds of thousands of black people turn up to see some of the most ecclectic artists of all time. Sly & The Family Stone had to have the Black Panthers do security for his gig because the NYPD refused to provide security because the expectation for the show was expected to be too crazy.

Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson dives into the Harlem Cultural Festival, reflecting how music as a whole is developing at the time, Sly & The Family Stone is maybe the only act who crossed both festivals. Here was my first experience last year with concert filmmaking, and the film does a tremendous amount of grace in restoring a piece of neglected history. The film does work to make its’ history appear more ‘lost’ than in reality, but filmmakers do what they need to make a convincing cinematic experience. Woodstock manipulates its’ chronology, and it can be important to recognise the power of singing as a performance first and foremost. Music can cross so many boundaries, and the organisation of these radically free festivals pre walkie talkie set ups, just organising by hand and voice and power. It can be hard to quantify that.

WattStax is a direct from the old testament style of American 70s new wave recording, of the Stax records free concert. Two years after Altamont obliterates the white hippie movement, Mel Stuart puts onscreen Reverend Jesse Jackson who performs one of the most powerful speeches in cinema history. The music here is distinctly 70s, tickets at one dollar each for an incredible array of talent. When people storm the field to dance to Rufus Thomas’s ‘Funky Chicken’, its’ excitement and freedom is stacked alongside The Emotions gospel performance of ‘Peace Be Still’ which is genuinely soul-wrenching; people having metaphysical convulsions in the church. It’s a beautiful if uneven portrait of soul in America at the time, still alive with passion as Isaac Hayes mounts the stage in a gold chain vest (with the drip) performing soul classics that roar across the sky in fire.

Richard Pryor narrates a long walk through the black experience that ducks and weaves between topics with searing fierceness, his intricate comedy maybe softer now, but at the time must have really exposed people to the black lens, the black vision. Power, unity. WattStax is an expression of that, “I Am, Somebody”.

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[On A Film About Jimi Hendrix] “The reason Warner Bros. made the film,” Boyd said, “was because of the record company, because Mo Ostin [chairman of the board of WB Records] was in favor of the project. But Warner Bros. films didn’t interfere or censor the film in any way, and when the film opened at the UA Westwood they were stunned by the business.” (It set a house record, $46,000 in two weeks.)

-Hendrix plays Delta blues for sure – only the Delta may have been on Mars.

Tony Glover, Rolling Stone

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Documents. I’m thinking a lot about documents, documentaries. I’ve seen a lot of films now in search of Woodstock ideals; exploring multiple musicians and alternative festivals. I’m tired of watching endless processions of sonic experimentation, mass gatherings, artistic synthesising. I’ve been on a solid tear watching film after film, and I’ll try sum up what I’ve seen so far.

The Last Waltz (1978, Dir. Martin Scorcese), Janis Joplin: Little Girl Blue (2015, Dir. Amy Berg) & A Film About Jimi Hendrix (1973, Dirs. Joe Boyd, John Head and Gary Weis) were the first three documentaries. Here I started at the end, with The Band‘s final farewell performance in 1973, directed by Martin Scorcese (Woodstock editing alumni now risen) expressing how everyone at the time is saying farewell to the ideals of the Woodstock generation. Althought the concert is self-congratulatory, a lot of it is earned in how real the music is, symphonies of rock n’ roll and and a whole artistic tribe onstage.

Janis Joplin: Little Girl Blue is a American modernist documentary, archival footage mixed with talking heads on her artistry The interviews are the main thing I remember from it, a particularly shocking sequence where Janis was voted ‘Ugliest Man’ in her university town/fraternity society,near ruining her self confidence of painful note. Footage of her before her untimely end is particularly harrowing, but each time she’s on screen she’s a vision of a beautiful talent. Still it’s a tapestry of powerful material about her.

A Film About Jimi Hendrix is a different beast, gentle interviews with the people who knew Jimi closely shortly after he died. Although Noel Redding (1/3 of The Jimi Hendrix Experience, his defining band), refused to be interviewed for the film for moral reasons (quoted in the article above), it is a nonetheless frighteningly frank conversation with the people around him who supported his rise to fame and witnessed him fall off the side of a cliff. Performances, wild.

The original Rolling Stone article declared that Woodstock was never actually officially declared a ‘disaster area’ by N.Y Governor Rockefeller, and it made me think about the disaster areas left in the wake of these positive, successful artistic expressions.

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These direct accounts from Woodstock are filled with positive recollections of the mud, the swamp of the environment. These films do wonders in expressing the collective mud of the counterculture at the time, detailing various Woodstock-era projects and festivals. Jimi Hendrix: Electric Church (2015, Dir. John McDermott) hits the Atlanta Pop Festival, where Jimi played in front of 500,000 Americans in a performance which is maybe the best I’ve ever seen of his, even if it doesn’t have the raw power of his Woodstock set. Watching this and Janis (1974, Dir. Howard Alk) was like watching two virtuosos endlessly explore their own inner rhythms and patterns; Jimi a master of guitar and Janis a master of voice.

But first, Festival Express (2003, Dirs. Bob Smeaton & Frank Cvitanovich), a record of the Canadian train tour across Toronto, Calagary, Winnipeg and other cities, weeks onboard of musicians jamming together in a ultimately unprofitable venture. Alongside the Avandáro festival in Mexico in 1971 and other Latin American festivals, Electric Church and Festival Express chronicle musical and tribal explorations into the wider cultural landscape, physically as the music traveled to different parts of the continent. Canadian students protested and rioted that the concerts should be free, causing panic and low attendance at the stadiums where musicians were scheduled to perform. Jerry Garcia sets up a free stage to get 6,000 protestors off the of the venue in a move which ultimately reflects bravely but sadly on a world now filled with extortionate ticket prices.

There’s performances on the train from Rick Danko (of The Band), Garcia and co., Joplin, Buddy Guy, even Woodstock bizarros Sha Na Na come back for a brief appearance, their appearance like an odd relic on the horizon of rock n roll’s decline from the top of the sun. Janis then, is such a deep return to that sun setting, as Hendrix’s ‘Electric Church‘ was quietened upon his death. Janis Joplin would die only weeks after her appearance on the Festival Express tour, all the films beginning to reflect off each other in delicate ways like that. Electric Church compares Atlanta to being maybe even bigger than Woodstock, while at the end of Festival Express someone declares it better than Woodstock due to being able to jam with the musicians for so long.

Still even Janis, filled with absolutely touching moments of footage only captured when she was alive (giving the film a mysterious presence of vitality) returns to Woodstock. Performance footage I’ve never seen before of ‘Can’t Turn You Loose’ is again crazy, actually enhanced by the context provided by Amy Berg’s later documentary referenced above. Janis here is on full display in her ability to carry the weight of her own pain, alongside the demonstrated talent and recklessness that accompanied being a rockstar. The footage collected is searing enough to understand why it’s a base for all other future Joplin-related material.

It’s honestly quite amusing that Ayn Rand gave a lecture about how the Woodstock generation represented the end of the ‘Dionysian’ spectrum of infantile passivity and madness. In positing the Space Race gathering of over a million, self sufficient families and spectators in witnessing an extreme achievement of supposed ‘rational thinking’, I feel she misses several key details. Already amusingly touched upon in Summer of Soul, the Moon Landing represented very little to poorer underfunded communities on the ground. Also, that this rational pursuit of lunar exploration and search for exterior space, reflects back across the counterculture’s collective need for interior space, psychedelic space.

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This has taken a long time, to get here. My final part of this Volume is dedicated to artists who impacted and were impacted by Woodstock, the final pieces in a puzzle in understanding the culture of the Sixties. Bob Dylan, captured here in glittering impact in Don’t Look Back (1967, Dir. D.A Pennebaker) is then explored by now artistic savant Martin Scorcese in No Direction Home (2005, Dir. Scorcese).

Meanwhile, The Grateful Dead Movie (1977, Dir. Jerry Garcia & Leon Gast) is Garcia’s own mixed attempt at capturing The Deads cult-like vision in producing a touring, travelling musical circus and spiritual sanctuary, for decades. Long Strange Trip (2017, Dir. Amir Bar-Lev ((with Exec. Producers Scorcese & Justin Kreutzmann, son of Mickey Hart & The Grateful Dead filmmaker)) chronicles that psychedelic vision across the seas of time, as the band contended with fame, rampant drug use, cult-esque worship, and a continuing back and forth with musics’ pre-established rules and distribution methods. Bob Dylan has catalogs of bootleg material to his name, even creating the first ‘gold standard’ in bootleg material. The Grateful Dead on the other hand, revolutionised broadcasting material when countless fans recorded live performances, cheaply copied and distributed them in local areas to an ever increasing number of fans, trading recordings like Pokemon cards.

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Dylan makes me restless. The whole processing of writing about him seems like a fool’s errand, because of how connected he is to his art being whatever it can be in the moment. Dont Look Back (deliberately spelt without apostrophe) is a erudite, cinema-vérité styled embarking on a career beginning to get distorted by mass fame and recognition. The film is his tour, his endless becoming as an artist performing to crowds who are just desperate to listen. It is a work which connects Pennebaker indefinitely to the music scene, for good reason.

No Direction Home is more alive for me, if only because of how great the scope is. Scorcese clears through the direction of a man who’s presence was continually expected of at Woodstock, his ghost lurking over the whole show as people thought this mythic presence would come to play. His son was in hospital at the time of Woodstock, but Scorcese’s scorching documentary about this 1961-1966 folk/rock and roll hybrid run, and the presence behind lyrics which are blessed with grace and unfolding is fantastic. Here the whole career of a man who not only mastered instruments, but positively expanding new genres with almost lacksidaisical focus is a true mystery. His lyrics just sculpt around a moment, and the film crashes through audience’s booing, people desperately trying to understand him, pull him towards a political path he seems relatively uninterested in pursuing.

I don’t know what that means for artists, other than his path is his own. And the melodies, textures and refusal to conform to any shape other than what’s required of the moment is really critical for being a great artist, to write a song such as ‘Like A Rolling Stone’.

Live Performance, Manchester, 1965, during the famed ‘Electrical Sets’.


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The Grateful Dead Movie is where things get heavier, because The Dead, ghoulish and playful as they are, weren’t the haunting presence at Woodstock that Bob Dylan was. They actually played the original festival, in a set which both electrocuted them and put the audience to sleep with a 50 minute version of one of their songs late into Saturday/Sunday early morning. Bob Weir said that they spent 20 years making up for their poor performance at Woodstock, and their lost performance (existing in partial video footage) is a sad reminder of what can happen when you miss an opportunity to be embraced by those paying attention. Mutliple fans and commenters however refer to the band’s own journey which took them taking a sort of ‘portable Woodstock‘ to towns and cities for decades after, which is a presence and burden that Dylan deliberately tried to shrug off. Here, is Garcia’s vision for their last performances in 1974, or so they thought.

Opening with an animation sequence which supposedly cost half the entire rest of the movie, the film is a surrealist surfboard through the interior of Garcia’s music tribe, a minimal amount of interview material is made up for with images of the Statue of Liberty in the zany acid-soaked apocalypse, before moving onto endless scenes of deeply tranced-out audience members. The film has some really disorienting and hallucinatory nitrous scenes, fans in their own universe in the interior of the venue, not even near the stage. Some great performances, some annoying endless performances (a lot of patience is needed or being completely tripped out helps appreciate the finer points of their psychedelia way of playing). I like them though, and the film is a heart-warming tribute to an artistic project which at the time had built from a phenomenal small district success in Haight-Ashbury 1967 up to then 74-77, during the 3 years of challengable production which split the band in various ways during hiatus (they ended up performing again by the time the film came out).

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Oh, the guy selling hot-dogs who loves Sha Na Na and thinks The Grateful Dead are too loud, love him what a guy.

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Long Strange Trip then, is a final cavernous account of the success, but sometimes demoralising weight of the entire Grateful Dead project. Over nearly 4 hours, the film lays out in often thorough detail the ins and outs of an artistic project which survived long after Woodstock Nation generation had return back to humble mortal reality. The Dead were on a reckless fun spree with abandon for years in a peace project of art, music, and mind expansion. After doing The Acid Tests across America with Ken Kesey and just performing for trippers at random, their band philosophy became like that of fingers all connected to a hand, each performing individually but connected at the core. This led to a revolutionary approach to touring musichood and stardom, not as a famous edited performer group repeating the same identical melodies; but as a continually evolving, continually growing, continually changing live touring peformative entity.

This then carries the project into the scope of music’s technological revolution, as 10-15 years after both Janis Joplin & Jimi Hendrix have passed away, The Dead are riding the wave of bootleggers trading their tapes at the height of their popularity during 1984-90, as Reagan clamps down on the free festival spirit which birthed and sustained many of these movements. It is sad to see their success clamour for more, endlessly more, and how the band had to keep giving into that momentum. They refused to play Altamont after the reports of the violence, but by the 80s & 90s reports of violence, deaths and unruly followers had begun to marr the entire spirit of the red and blue skull. The Wall of Sound’s history is chronicled in detail, postively exploring at times how the band could be at the forefront of sonic experimentation as artists. They hired The Rolling Stones previous manager, a British fellow by the name of Sam who cuts through the bullshit of the hippie cult with reckless aplomb. Jaggedly successful, but held back by certain leaderless qualities of the entire group.

Because The Dead, for all their ego-dissolving spiritual roots in the pure pursuit of music, becomes soured by heaven falling from the sky, fans becoming obsessive and inducing reclusive behaviour for the band. Unwanted gigantic crowds, arguments about Hell’s Angels being present and serious drug use begins to soak through the edges of the timeline; the frame. The whole frame of the band begins to sag under the weight of its’ glorious celebration of a communal other-society, draining Warner Bros. (and later their own) financial situation by supporting entire teams of staff and families through the project. They party without talking to each other honestly. Which keeps them tied to the project, for founders Garcia and Pigpen until their painfully sad deaths.

The artistic performances end up near endless, and two things drive the health of members to decline. Ron ‘Pig Pen’ McKernan passes away due to alcohol abuse related conditions in 1973, which is covered in touching detail. Garcia’s passing is ultimately more haunting, his entire presence radiating throughout the entire band’s life like a huge sun of love, he described the band ‘as a little patch of flowers growing in a clearing in the forest’ for God’s sake. The whole project is a much more intense vision of what happened to the Woodstock ideals as the few who did carry a torch genuinely kept it lit. You don’t need to take into account the individual success or failure of any one resonant strain of the band, it was a phenomenon which even for those bizarre hundreds and thousands lifted them out of a kind of mass sleeping even temporarily. The Deadheads are the ultimate fans, proto-religious converts of a wave that wanted to believe in the pure release of expression above all else, in a mandala of people (a deaf section where people listened to the vibrations through balloons and had a sign language interpreter for Jerry’s lyrics, for example).

A really touching moment is when Jerry late in life said to his then wife “I could just live off of the ice cream money you know” (referring to Ben & Jerry’s flavour ‘Cherry Garcia’, released in Feb, 15th 1987). But ‘Death Don’t Have No Mercy’ and he comes for everyone in this land. The last footage of Garcia playing on stage is haunting, a shadowed husk hunched over his guitar performing the echo of a once great noble dream. I’m glad the band managed to be such bizarre countercultural successes, outliving and lasting many of their more famous and more respected peers. Perhaps then this is all there is to say for now, on the Woodstock generation. I feel like I have a much greater understanding of how such a gathering could have manifested, a thorough and ongoing obsession with ruminating on the soul of America, entertainment, and music.

-Alex

Stay tuned for the final Vol. 3, where I’ll bring my understanding up to what happened after the initial festival; the re-occurences, the organised festivals of ’94 & ’99 and the various fiascos that followed, and its’ eventual place in the world now. Alongside some other offcuts.

Woodstock & Cinema: Scrapbook Thoughts (Vol. 2) – ‘Woodstock Generation’

Woodstock & Cinema: Scrapbook Thoughts (Vol. 1)

In April 2022, I decided to embark on a journey to watch the cinematic material currently related to Woodstock Festival (founded by Woodstock Ventures), specifically the first event in August 15th, 16,th, 17th and 18th August 1969, Bethel NY. This is a scrapbook of cinema thoughts and understanding related to all materials Woodstock; documentaries, feature films, tv specials, as well as random thoughts about interviews and other pieces on the festival. Nearly half a million people attended over 3 Days of Love, Peace & Music in what was at both a nationally declared disaster area and at the same time one of the wildest gathering of musicians and creative talent in the 20th century, in protest of the Vietnam War and in search of peace. My thoughts on the cinematic visions of the films are below.

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So this is the only bit written after watching the first documentary. It is a revelation, a world of performers falling off the sheer edge of heaven. In sound they find release, reprise, and the foundations of communication. The performers are metal, built from a bunch of hippies and absolute free folk. Things which prevent peace are released in a sphere of mud, music, meltdowns. The power felt watching Hendrix, Santana, Joplin, Sly & The Family Stone, Ten Years After, Arlo Guthrie, Joe Cocker, Richie Havens, all these crazy crazy musicians just shredding in the arena. The camera is boiling with images of musicians in trances, the body on display in a way to accomodate all the shit of physically being in a officially declared ‘disaster area’. Founder Michael Lang said “I didn’t drink from any bottle I hadn’t opened myself” because of how food and drink at the fesitval had become laced with chemicals. The edge of infinity, in a culture of peace, for just three days is one of the boldest cinema experiences I’ve ever watched.

I saw the film over several days actually, the first film in a very long time I’ve split up into multiple viewings. Like a festival, this project is in those moments not at gigs, resting, sleeping, getting food. Talking to people, seeing who they are, why they would even go there. Hippies are enshrined in memory now, their potential in amber now, not flowering in youth. Being a hippie is old, I think I’m old. The people debating the worth and cost of such a colossal undertaking of distressed teenagers is worth recognising, the cop who supports the kids, the community members arguing on camera furious at the local distress.

Like an absolute diamond encased in a director’s cut version, the world of this film (with seven editors, Thelma Schoonmaker and Martin Scorcese among them) it represents a shining vision of human frames glittering across the screen in their thousands. It’s been a long time since I’ve been touched by a film’s hope for the future, however sentimental that may sound in the 2020s of sharp hyper capitalism. But I enjoyed myself, I had fun. Rip it up, have a ball.

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To know that Woodstock, the film, is responsible for reviving the massive financial losses the festival incurred, is something of an even greater achievement. The fact that it is one of the most radically documented films regarding music impact culture, and revolutionary spirit is an even greater one.

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It’s hard finding time to write for this. I don’t usually try a fragmented style, I want my focus on these subjects to have as much clarity as possible. Woodstock ’69 is already growing and evolving in my memory as I watch two further films on the subject. Michael Wadleigh’s seminal doc is from inside the very beating heart of the festival itself, it’s eyes roaming the festival in search of the next great revelation of meaning through experience. It is a delicate canvas dragged through the mud of those days, the spirit churning at its’ centre. And now I find myself with films from further out of the sphere, ‘Woodstock: Three Days That Defined A Generation’ (2019, Dir. Barak Goodman) and ‘Woodstock Revisited’ (2009, Dir. David McDonald).

These are films that are falling from the same tree, rippling like waves against cavern walls. The festival experience is applied through different lenses. That of historical broadcasting (Goodman’s film is a PBS funded documentary), and intricately styled memoir and recollections (McDonald’s documentary is highly experimental by televisual standards). But streams flow back into rivers, and both films are doing their best to understand and venerate an event which changed the face of the Earth.

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It was raining toads when we played. The rain was part of our nightmare. The other part was our sound man, who decided that the ground situation on the stage was all wrong. It took him about two hours to change it, which held up the show. He finally got it set the way he wanted it, but every time I touched my instrument, I got a shock. The stage was wet, and the electricity was coming through me. I was conducting! Touching my guitar and the microphone was nearly fatal. There was a great big blue spark about the size of a baseball, and I got lifted off my feet and sent back eight or 10 feet to my amplifier.

-Bob Weir, Grateful Dead Guitarist, Rolling Stone

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I am reading about Jefferson Airplane, Saturday’s star act, who didn’t take the stage until 8:00AM Sunday morning. Country Joe Farm said when he heard Jimi Hendrix play the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ that the guitar “would never be the same ever again.” Joan Baez performed six months pregnant with her husband in prison, she recalls with breeziness. A hurricane of spirit, 500,000 people listening to music. It’s hard to capture the fragments of this mosaic. In David McDonald’s film, he explores in depth the artistic community of utopian communes which preceded Woodstock’s happening; the actual town itself.

Roots of 19th & 20th century American utopian projects by intellectuals propelled the reality of this gathering from long before its’ manifestation in 1969. Artists had been gathering in the space for decades before, winding histories of bohemian festivals and turn of the century gatherings. The film is uncharacteristic in its’ cerebral take of a history of a local community, it’s public-access TV aesthetic really wild to visually interact with. It’s one of the only documentaries I’ve ever seen with serious frame fragmentation and multiple panelling combined with vivid psychedelic colour tinting. It’s interviews are friendly but opaque, tagged with a locals’ knowledge behind the camera of who’s who and who’s relevant. Woodstock as a cultural event the festival, resonates through a chasm of American history. But the spirit of the gathering is part of an Americana, a folklore.

It makes sense that the PBS documentary then, so heavily draws from Michael Wadleigh’s 1970 Woodstock discussed above then. Goodman’s doc is a shrine, a veneration of moments of a beating heart expanded with the context of those young enough to need some insight. A tribal memory of American spirit expanding in the sun, rays scattering out. Here the memory is viewed through the glass of an exhibition, moments of alive spirit now encased in the glass of informational viewing. There are elements of the Woodstock festival expanded on further here, Richie Havens tells a beautiful story about how “nervous he was to go on stage“, as audiences waited and festival managers waited for acts who hadn’t turned up yet. In these moments the film comes the most alive, opening the mind of the musician into the memory of their performances.

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Neil Young refused to be filmed during the festival, claiming the cameras were too distracting. There is a cascade of moments in the experience of that time which can only be reflected in those who were there. The environmental conditions prevent Ten Years After from keeping their instruments in tune. This place is just submerged in conditions, stories, experiences and moments of life which really see everything. 80 lawsuits were filed against them upon finishing, 5000 people requiring medical attention, several unfortunate deaths even (RIP the man who got crushed by a tractor). The town of Bethel, NY passed laws preventing any mass gatherings like this from occuring again.

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Creating Woodstock (2019, Dir. Mick Richards) is a vertiable feast of information on the festival, interviews abounding with anecdotes and stories of a whirlwind production force. In a deal struck with the city inspector, driving behind at 4AM to remove just painted ‘Stop Work’ orders from the city council risking arrest is just one of the many stories that really shook me. Richie Havens improvised his hit ‘Freedom’ after running out of material after being called back 5 times because no other artist’s had arrived. $1.4 million dollars in debt, bands told to ‘F.U.C.K Y.O.U’ in telegraphs while others like The Who refused to play at 6AM until they got paid in cash full. 50 serving stations double sided around 10 areas serving hundreds if not thousands of people a day, the logistics on display here . The inspector’s 15 year old daughter who ran off into the festival, and his futile search which distracted him from inspecting the sanitation of the area (causing a possible shutdown), was matched only by the wildness of having to convince artist after artist flying in on helicopters to consent to being filmed for the documentary without being paid.

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The battle for the site is laid out in much fuller detail here, the Mills farmer (who was responsible for the 2nd, unused site) was on the receiving end of death threats to prevent the hippies from tearing up the surrounding area. The investors/co-producers John P. Roberts and Joel Roseman get special veneration in their absolutely stunning personal and music business force to produce the festival, not only the crew pulling all nighters but everyone becoming exceptionally free together. Michael Lang and Artie Kornfield also get more time for their unique relationship, which allowed them to move from music recording studio dreams to event changing paradigm.

Jimi Hendrix: The Road to Woodstock (2014, Dir. Bob Smeaton) is only a supplementary addition. In the above documentary, one of the participants recounts how Jimi had flew in to the airport, hailed a ride with two random kids and was at the site in two hours somehow mysteriously. Smeaton’s documentary helps elaborate on how his backing band, Band of Gypsys (shout out Larry Lee), were not so lucky in their arrival in station wagons hours later. But his performance is a monumental zenith of guitar trance playing, and the documentary does include a performance of ‘Vilanova Junction’ and encore ‘Hey Joe’, as well as the extended performances featured in Wadleigh’s documentary. It doesn’t get to the heart of what he was doing there, but the artistry is self-evident.

Oh, and the parking lots were drenched in mud. Just a swamp of fertile farmland sinking under the weight of festivities, at one point after raining heavily on Sunday evening, weight from the crowd made the stage start sinking down the hill. Jimi Hendrix came out and shredded the morning sky, under some weathered conditions.

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I’m thinking about when Creedence Clearwater Revival went on stage at 3:30AM and said the crowd looked like a scene from ‘Dante’s Inferno’, playing for one lonesome soul with a lighter. I’m thinking about the fact that Jimi Hendrix’s live performance was released in complete, in both the Wadleigh version, and an alternate ‘Second Look’ performance which is in B&W (really interesting). I’m thinking about the voluminous amounts of people on screen in further representations of Woodstock memory, history and myth.

A Walk on the Moon (1999, Dir. Tony Goldwyn) is Woodstock in the Hollywood cultural memory, it’s extension only relevant to the interpersonal dynamics of Diane Lane, Liev Schreiber and Viggo Mortensen. Woodstock here represents a spiritual freeing of the self. A sequence where Lane’s hedonistic abandon takes her into some acid-tripped revealing of her self in front of daughter Anna Paquin, putting in innings as the wild stubborn teenager. Richie Havens ‘Freedom’ is used to astonishing effect here, the very liberation of souls in the crowd. Here Woodstock is a mirage to enter through, its’ romance and spirituality colliding with characters opening up to each other. It’s not the best material, but I get it.

Taking Woodstock (2009, Dir. Ang Lee) is another sort, a far more authentic mantra of what was happening. Centred on Eliot Tiber, a kid who through being able to approve his own permit to run a music festival in the town of Bethel, NY, leveraging a simple permit with great historical consequences. He connected with Michael Lang and associates to loan his family run motel as the basis for their headquarters of operations for the festival. As thousands of hippies descended on the surrounding area to get to Max Yasgur’s farm, the entire societal architecture around them was transformed to accomodate this mass gathering of people.

A lot of good performances here, history as fiction manafactures a lot of portrayals which really try and emulate the spirit of those involved in the festival’s creation. Using Wadleigh’s technique of multiple divided screens, conversations and scenes lap over each other with finesse. Lee stages beautiful one-take long shots of those in pilgrimage, all pulled with a steady grace towards the site. It sometimes misses, sure. Moments of Eliot gathering his will are empathetic, with some real spectacular performances by his parents, Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman. Their transformations echo his, and Liev Schreiber also has a rather stunning turn as a security based sweetheart transvestite. Based on a real character she spent time protecting the Tibers from anti-festival protestors as well as Nazi-inspired youths attacking them for their Jewish heritage.

It’s important to note that the film deals with the danger of the events, though. Centred on the heart of players skirting gently around to see what happened to the people of Bethel as they experienced a mass cultural event. Tiber uncovers his sexuality, perception-distorting drugs, his family’s sad past; a lot is pushed through the main characters. Michael Lang even rides around on the horse, Jonathan Groff playing him in a strangely watchable way I can’t look away from. It ultimately rests its hands at the end of the experience, so as a film I can understand its’ mixed reviews and box office failure. The film links Woodstock’s significance to the 1968 Stonewall riots months earlier, and I appreciate the film trying to break from any one perspective so it can let the love in from the peripheries. That’s a great line.

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I didn’t watch Always Woodstock (2014, Dir. Rita Merson) because honestly it looks like a bridge too far, just awful. Love this review from The Dissolve though.

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Woodstock or Bust (2018, Dir. Leslie Bloom) is insane, even just skimming through it. Surface it’s just two girls wanting to play their music at Woodstock and trying to get there. But it’s surreal, connectedto the anti-war legacies in the bizarrest way, it shows just how far appropriation of the Woodstock spirit and iconography can go in entertainment. Pays homage to the festival’s folk roots by putting up the strangest low-budget spiritual connective tissue to the festival’s spirit . ‘Best ever bust.’ (groan).

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Peace, Love & Misunderstanding (2011, Dir. Bruce Beresford) deals with Woodstock in a way that’s both at once achingly banal but also appreciative of Woodstock spirit. It honours Jane Fonda, 60s spiritual child, Catherine Keener, Jeffery Dean Morgan (in a larger role than Taking Woodstock), Elizabeth Olsen, Nat Wolff, a cast of American talent in performances where they are trying at least. It’s Woodstock through a hollywood lens alongside a personal one. Woodstock is explored through the festival’s tourist trade and current situation, alongside generational conflict expressed between mom Keener & hippie Grandma Fonda. The film is painfully inoffensive, liberally indulging the ‘far out’ iconography of a generation it no longer really believes in, only to serve the needs of the story and the eventual familial re-union in drawn out dynamics. Keener and Morgan singing ‘The Weight’ is pretty cool though.

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[Highlights from the photographer being interviewed.] Still crazy that Santana was hallucinating while he was playing, seeing a snake on his guitar and eyes and teeth in the crowd. Max Yasgur got the best yield of corn after they replanted a crop at the end of the festival, probably because of all the human waste.

And for me, that’s been a real education, for sure. The whole thing with the movie and how they had to borrow money to get the film, you know? Things like that. 150 miles of film? 16-millimeter film?18 guys shooting 24-7, collapsing, having somebody take over for them when the collapsed and fell down, because of carrying that heavy camera around? Those are the real stories of Woodstock.

Baron Wolman, Rolling Stone

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RIP Carl Blackstead, who oversaw the recording and producing of the songs during the festival and for the 1970 documentary. Also RIP to Ravi Shankar’s master tapes, which to this day have never been found. The article linked here really dives into how much of the Woodstock documentary soundtrack was manipulated, warped into an artistic presentation of shape. Even in the mode of authenticity, hundreds of little changes have to be sculpted to make a film. There’s David Fricke’s sober take on the improbable accident of the festival, ‘a success and failure’ in equal measure is really important to take in. Events can escape themselves, becoming oversold and overexploited. Woodstock is on the cusp of the end, both year wise and culture. Altamont is coming. But Yasgur put up a sign saying ‘Free Water’ after he heard his neighbours were charging for it.

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I’ve been laying awake in the wake of watching Woodstock Diary (1994, Dirs. Chris Hegedus, Erez Laufer & D.A Pennebaker), a 3 hour day-by-day play of some of the other acts at the festival, unseen offcuts, and original interviews with some of the defining players. From the recording studio genesis, unseen performances from acts such as Bert Somner, Tim Hardin, Ravi Shankar, Quill, Mountain, Country Joe & The Fish, The Band, Johnny Winter, Paul Butterfield Blues Band (although I read this performance is actually a recording from an earlier gig in Whitelake), right up to Jimi Hendrix’s revelations on the guitar Monday morning. ‘Nightmare in the Catskills’, so said the New York times as the festival wound up.

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Shout out to the bank manager who flew in a helicopter at midnight to the bank to get the producers of the festival their cashier’s checks to pay the bands. To the Hog Farm Commune as well. The lady who fed everyone on granola as well, and refused to buy even sugar or salt! Hundreds of thousands of people. Mad. The people who marched on the fast food stand overpricing their food and burned it down! They still tried to help him out, but mad.

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I think I’m standing above a wide hill, in Yasgur’s farm, surrounded by people. I can hear the music. I can see the people. I can feel everything. It’s been a ride. – scene in Taking Woodstock where the people turn into the ocean.

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I’m out of this whirlwind now. Just like everyone else, I’ve left the festival, with only memories to keep me company. A friend told me that one of her family friend’s had left mid-way through a set performed by a “Mr. James Helix” (Jimi Hendrix), didn’t appreciate the guitar.

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Woodstock will exist forever. Untold recordings, footage from collector’s editions, autobiographical books, vinyl liner notes; they’re all artifacts from a memory of collective expression. Woodstock’s roots superseded its’ foundations. The town since thrives on the trade of American artworks to this day, for better and for worse. Peace, love and music for 3 days continuously, and genuinely.

And cinema has helped in innumerable ways to ensure a legacy of the festival’s essence. From searingly real direct cinema documentaries to varying levels of Hollywood artificiality; the authentically earnest to the sanctimoniously boring, they understand Woodstock ideals as they fit the confines of other drives, plot situations, and character motivations. All those feedback into the real world. The festival attendees had to do much of the same, filtering back from their natural exodus into American society.

From interviews I saw, the founders and makers seemed happy with how everything turned out. Heritage, safe in the glass case of the past can sometimes obscure the mechanics and engineering behind an event which sat at the crossroads of politics, art, music and business. The four points of a star which helped it manifest into a cultural meteor that hit the ground so hard we’re still feeling it’s reverberations. Woodstock being free was an accidental stroke of genius, and its rare that enough minds get together to will the conditions to make something that important. Later posts will deal with the legacy of anniversary concerts, Black Woodstock, and other associated materials. That is a more complex set of affairs, which deserves its own understanding. Woodstock’s limitations are duly noted sure, but for free I can’t think of a better concert to have not gone to.

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Woodstock & Cinema: Scrapbook Thoughts (Vol. 1)

Songs from the Second Floor

Brilliant thoughts about a brilliant film.

That's How The Light Gets In

Songs from the Second Floor is one of the most extraordinary films that I have ever seen.  Released in 2000, it represents  the Swedish director Roy Andersson’s surreal and disturbing meditation on the emptiness, absurdity and alienation he sees permeating western society at the turn of the millenium.

How to describe this film?  Monty Python meets Ingmar Bergman?  Jacques Tati meets Luis Bunuel?  Perhaps the easiest way to begin to explain this film is to say that it consists of 46 shots in which, with total precision, Andersson positions his actors as if in a tableau, their movements limited and always remaining within the frame. With a perfect sense of tragi-comic timing, Andersson presents a series of vignettes that each have the concentrated brevity of an advert, with all the associated visual imagination and surprise that is characteristic of a form in which you must grab and hold the viewer’s…

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Songs from the Second Floor

The French Dispatch + Exhibition Review

It’s been a long time since I’ve had time to write about a film. My friend and I got lost searching for The French Dispatch at the cinema, the screens split across two buildings. We sat down with the film already in introduction, its’ colour and verbiage already spilling over us. Divided into article sections of the fictional paper ‘The French Dispatch of the ‘Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun (which is also the full title of the film)‘, it works to provide a cinematic boiling down of the engagement with an artefact now more absent from our lives. What unravels from this yarn of spiralling articles, is a series ofshort successions of visually arresting films which play with minatures and scale to such an extent that most frames dance before your eyes. The French Dispatch is a satellite publication of its’ fictitious publishing house, but the whole film works as a satellite in the cinematic space we live in, sending out analogue frequencies and signals about a world just past.

Based on The New Yorker, a publication whose literary prestige and acclaim rival most levels of success, Anderson (who owns hardbound editions dating back to the 40s) sends his own erractically drawn and far flung stories flying out on coloured paper. Echoes of the May 1968 French protests fill the story of ‘Revisions of a Manifesto – by Lucinda Kremmenz’ (partly inspired by writer Mavis Gallant), while ‘The Private Dining Room of the Commisioner – by Roebuck Wright’ (partly inspired by writers A.J Liebling, James Baldwin and Tennessee Williams) draws deep midnight film noir blues across the fictional town of Ennui-sur Blasé, where most of the action is located. ‘The Cycling Reporter – by Herbsaint Sazerac’ (partly inspired by Joseph Mitchell, Luc Sante and photographer Bill Cunningham) is a gentle and humourous tour of the town of Ennui, conducted by Owen Wilson falling through the delicate French architecture of the streets, and their lovingly adored vices. The other main article is ‘The Concrete Masterpiece – by J.K.L Berensen’ (partly inspired by Rosamond Bernier), presented in the film as both article and art lecture (by an ‘art talker’). Here is a journey into the heart of the artistic process as it is seen from those who write about it, rather than trying to authentically mimic what that experience might be like.

If it sounds confusing and entangled, that’s because it is. It is a work which reflects how magazines unite perspectives into a single issue, not by making the film have a consistent singular ringing tone to its’ music, but by playing a range of harmonies and stacking a range of perspectives side by side to each other. I used the word verbiage earlier to take a swipe at it, but I can also see it is a work of deep lyrical mystique, one where the very act of listening is far more actively necessary to process the wit, intrigue and melancholy that so lovingly unfolds across the dimensions of Anderson’s canvases.

This film is “actually three things,” Anderson says: a collection of short stories (“something I’ve always wanted to do”); a tribute to The New Yorker and “the kind of writer” it is famous for publishing; and an ode to “French cinema.”

Zach Johnson, “The French Dispatch A Love Letter to the Written Word”

It is a phenomenal world, the circus of illusion and trickery in full display. The stellar cast is abounding in a world full of delicate little moments of visual ingenuity (filmed by longtime collaborator Robert D. Yeoman). Items burst in and out of frames continuously, entire tableauxs are arranged of dozens of figures posed left to right (or vice versa) as the camera drifts over them. The scale and shape of architecture is made malleable for gentle affectation of scenery by puppetmaster strings unseen. The film twirls with delight at its’ own magic, positively bursting with details. Few films world feel as lived in, so rich with supplementary material to enfold you, scattered book titles and snappy art references filling the film floor to ceiling. I admire his sense of place, his dedication to elaborately staged histories of characters; their lives and their prides. It takes remarkable skill to create such positions of cinematography and mise-en-scène, a keen eye for illusion and depth and the intimate boundaries between the eyes and the projections they witness.

Assembled too, with abundant glee, is a cast who go headstrong into the performance of the film, every actor whirled into the discordant winds of Anderson’s style. Subsumed are Benicio Del Toro, Léa Seydoux, Timothée Chalamet, Frances McDormand, Jeffery Wright, Saoirse Ronan, even Henry Winkler; while old favourites such as Jason Schwartzmann (who receives story credit), Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Adrian Brody and a continuous riot of actors and actresses. Apparently Wes Anderson even knows all his extras by name, curating with them canvases of a wry nature with a formal grace and precision. The techniques to display the human form are on display in a slim and subtle way, one eyebrow constantly raised at the missteps and bumbling figurines at work and play in a minaturised world. Although I experience issues with Andersons’ often extreme suppression of emotion in performance, this style continues to allow the performers room to shine lights into the dark spaces of their acting range; often requiring a demanding stillness with a shrewd and witty distance. This is then tempered with restrained, incisive breakthroughs of emotion, like bubbles reaching the water’s surface and then disappearing. The spaces and performers are laid out in architectural sectioning, portions of spaces (and the perspectives when viewing them) give room for the humans onscreen to tug at the strings of its’ loose cinematic reality, to the film’s benefit.

I would not be honouring the film’s loose chronological style if my own writing did not take the form of a series of thoughts running parallel, as oppposed to any review. The French Dispatch is a world made of up of various chunks of creative grey matter splattered onto the walls, its’ intersections with the world of art, student politics, romantic ideology, food, crime and various perspectives of theatre is an explosion of tone, sardonic and genuine together. It is a smörgåsbord, various visual canapes and dishes served with treats. I can’t always find the film convincing and I can’t return easily to such a dense work, but I would struggle to find a moment in the film not twisted around some delightful root of creative growth, some optical interaction that at least attempts to engage a more cerebral part of the viewing experience.

It is best for me not to go on any longer, lest I overwhelm thee with any more expository information or analysis. Even the film is exhaustingly overstuffed, I found myself zoning out by the time we reached the third major story simply due to the sheer amount of information being processed; my brain just couldn’t fit any more in. Does that mean that the film is easily watchable, digestible, Wes Anderson’s best film? I don’t think those are necessary questions to entertain alongside a work which so spasmodically grips the rivers of culture and tries to transfer them (with spillage everywhere) into the form of a film, one hour and fourty-eight minutes. It gently remoulds history, art, politics, love, imprisonment, freedom; it weaves them together in a pastiche of newspaper atmosphere. The worlds’ stories are there for you to be entertained by, not to find them all entertaining. A collage of symbols gets worked out by the reader, and they decided whether it’s worth the paper it’s written on (or celluloid it’s printed on). It works like a deliberately charismatic attempt to see the tragedies and brutalities of our pasts to be off to the side of our lives not always front and center, which somehow softens their often corruptive blows. A collage, a maze, a scaffolding framework of how life is sometimes experienced and shaped by the circumstances around it, rather than assuming that any one story is “the truth”.

Here the characters engaging with the silliness of the world’s frayed edges to convey numerous sad exposures of the modern human condition. Here lies a cast in bedlam, a cinematography in a perfectly sculptured riot, skeletons and mechanisms and stageplay abound. It is a work by a master of his craft, so recklessly abandoning conventional filmmaking mechanics to create a work of shining lumosity, uneven in places burning hot.

Signing off from our broadcasting station,

Alex

(04/12/2021)

(05/12/2021)

Alex

Signing on from our broadcasting station,

These are some pictures I took at to day’s exhibition at 180 The Strand. Rarely do you get the experience to see the raw materials of set design and production on display as here. The level of detail on display is astonishing and I am struggling to put into words how exciting it was to be in a space of a film like this, after enduring the pandemic. Looping soundtrack sections accompany you through an extremely deep dive into the subterreanean sewers of a film’s actual construction, making my experience of the film far more visceral. At the end there’s a cafe done up in the style of the film’s one, and it is a bizarrely nice way to end the exhibition.

These paintings done by Sarah Knopp (except for the last one I believe) are astonishing, displayed here in this sequence is really breathtaking, and the full story behind their creation, their abstract collaging of paint and working on them right up until the moment the camera’s rolled for that scene, mark a beautiful intersection of sculpted art inside a film’s world. It is a titan-sized mural to the film’s fusion of artistic elements to create a convincing enough scale replica of a modern art genius’ ambition.

The post can’t handle much more information, and I feel like I leave this issue of my own publication in pictoral wonder, rather than continue to expound about the film’s minutae or merits or flaws. It is a vibrant, special piece of cinema in a time which often struggles to find people with enough vision to make the whole world their playground. It is a honorary tribute to the writers who inspired the film, names who are treated with the dearest life in his work.

Cut! Print!

Alex

The French Dispatch + Exhibition Review

From Dune (1965) to Dune (2021)

Original 1st Edition Cover of Dune

“To the people whose labors go beyond ideas into the realm of ‘real materials’ – to the dry land ecologists, wherever they may be, in whatever time they work, this effort at prediction is dedicated in humility and admiration.”

Dedication of Frank Herbert in Dune.

There has been a spectre shadowing me for almost as long as I can remember. In all my life, the name of Frank Herbert’s seminal science fiction epic has been impressed upon my mind. In the main bedroom of my family house, a few bookshelves sit mounted high on the wall. High enough for a child unable to reach, and residing there pressed inbetween a collection of my parent’s books, sat a copy of Dune and its’ sequel. The reason for this, is that as my mother was growing up here in London, into her lap fell what she called “her Star Wars”. The narrative threads of the House Atreides, the spice trade of Arrakis and the Fremen ecological struggle were to her, a fantasy world to be enveloped in. Those books still sit on that shelf, undisturbed as they ever were. But I used to stare at the spine of that book, and it left an impression on my mind, one that has been activated from time to time whenever I encountered the name across time. A copy of Lynch’s film sat in a neighbour’s house of mine, still in its shrink wrap. Years ago now, the surprise of that discovery helped dig up that clarity of impression the spine left on me.

So I found myself as of yet an unknown, barely disturbed knowledge of the world of Dune. The few fragments from cultural references and my mother’s own dim recollections from reading it in her youth. And where is here? Well “here” lies amidst the impending release date (already pushed back) of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, a projected two-part adaptation of the eponymous novel. With this on the imminent horizon, a copy of the first three novels graced themselves in my care under the umbrella of a gift from my mother, who had wanted me to get to grips with the story of Arrakis. It lay in my room, growing in the darkness and cacophony of a million distractions of everyday life. But if a seed is planted, with the right conditions, it will grow. By the time I had begun to submerge myself in the sweeping winds of Arrakis, it was rapturously clear that what I was reading was one of the most deftly constructed and intelligent pillars of literature I had laid eyes upon in a long long time.

Dune captivated me in a way that few stories have done, the wisdom of its’ presence breathing out through the pages. But it has also captivated plenty of others across time since its’ initial release, and its’ own internal history with film has been well-documented. Presented here then is a journey of my own; traversing from thoughts on the original novel, onto the well-documented ruins of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s attempt to transfer the novel to film (chronologically first) recounted in Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013, Dir. Frank Pavich), through the controversial adaptation masterminded by David Lynch in Dune (1984), arriving at the impending release of Villeneuve’s version. Much like Paul’s consciousness, the meaning and understanding of my relationship to the story will change with each new interpretation, what each artist chooses to take from the lineage of the imagination of Frank Herbert. So I will chronicle my perspectives as I arrive at each milestone, and leave them here as a testament to the enduring spirit of Dune.

The Novel

There is a tremendous amount to be said, regarding Dune. It is a work where the ambitions of the ideas at play encircle an atmosphere of intrigue, of struggles ranging from internal conflicts of the psyche to interplanetary diplomatic tensions. The pressing of Dune’s lens to the worlds of Caladan, Arrakis and co. is one of razor sharp intensity, as it steers a course through a desert sea of high court drama, grassroots rebellion. The complicated and ever-evolving nature of leadership and those who follow.

It orchestrates a veritable strata of layers that are traversed, the scope of action in play often matched to the environmental surroundings of the characters involved. This is not done by accident, as the dedication above helps to make clear. Where Dune seemed to lift above a lot of other literature I’ve encountered, was the sheer vibrancy and clarity on which these worlds were being spoken aboutThe tension lying inherently in House Harkonnen’s vice-like grip of Arrakis is that they may have a fist enclosed around the people, but they are not emeshed into the world or the culture they are living in. Like a hawk with prey wriggling in its’ talons, they can only consider how best to feed themselves from the spoils of war.

There are plenty of internal and external dynamics to be hooked on in the exploration of Dune; Atreides & Harkonnen, the Imperial forces & the Lansraad, the Guild & the Houses, the Fremen & the rulers of Arrakis, even the Bene Gesserit & their position in the ranking hierarchies. Herbert spent plenty of time sketching out these forces caught in the chaos of an environment working out its balance. The style conveys a sense of physicality to these forces, as their interests begin shifting and moulding the psychic and physical landscape around them. Carefully detailling life on Caladan and Arrakis conveys a collective weight of how the environment comes to be around us; something we can take so easily for granted.

The story constantly shifts through a more complex set of relations than what fantasy is often funneled through; good vs bad, righteous love vs evil hate. The binary position that most fantasy readers are placed becomes a more complex beast to tame, aligning yourself to either side of a struggle will still mean shedding blood. It feels more tribal, and this is only enhanced by the story’s shifting focus as it shifts from character to character in a very deliberate arhythmical way.

The men who have walked the sand teach Paul & his mother Jessica on how to navigate the dunes, “to walk without rhythm”, as they step and drag their way across the horizon to avoid alerting the maker worms to their presence. The asynchronous patterns are hard to keep up with, shifting beneath their feet, and the story scales up to a structural level. The focus whips between point’s of view, a lightning-fast sense of presience. The imagination is not just excited from the potential of what could happen, but how are the events are being seen across the space. This feature is not particularly unique to Dune, but it is amplified by the extraordinary nature of the characters. From the ground to the sky, the insight borders on colossal, vast swathes of knowledge about human relations and power flowing from all sources. And that is before the story begins to unravel the horizons of its’ vision.

Because as the environment and the ecological inhabitants churn in place, Paul and his mother Jessica are channeling a sense of vision across the pages. Jessica’s Bene Gesserit training becomes a focal point for extremely minute analysis of social conduct, dissecting layer after layer of psychological deflection, deception, privacy. These effects find their zenith however, in Paul’s gradual, shifting transformations as he grows on Arrakis. His prescients visions, dimmed and streaking through cracks in his consciousness, split open into a world where he can percieve everything around him in a way which is threaded with infinity. The mathematical undertones of analysis and investigation ripple outwards into the perception and alternate potential futures. Paul stands as a psychological crucible for the elements of the world, as they catalyse, combine and conflict around him. The plights of those around him are many, be they emotional or rational or long-term or short-term; and all of this earth is upturned in the negotiations of the land around them.

So Dune as a novel is a breathtaking, liberating experience to become drawn into. To read it is to encounter a superposition of thought which few stories find the time to be concerned with, an epic. It’s concerns cross from tiny, fleeting and delicate moments of time blinking across pages, right up to a muted understanding of a history of the environment so wide that it encompasses all imagined thought. The struggle for Arrakis and the control of the spice trade was reflecting a concern at the time of writing regarding oil and America’s supply/control of it, but the struggle for resources and their management has been a human concern for time immemoriam. There is a line by Stilgar, one of the Fremen leaders that Paul encounters, where he says “The leader is the one who is strongest, the one who brings water and security”. And in this line, like a pearl reflecting back the world around it, the concerns of Dune are laid bare alongside humanity’s existence. Water is a precious resource in Dune because it helps to bring life, and the struggle with how best to sustain life has crossed cultures, histories, peoples, has been part of our natural relationship to living in the world around us.

To draw from the well of Dune and drink in that perspective, it is a lot to ask for, but it reveals such sights, such dreams and there is something I admire in that greatly.

(28/01/2021)

The Film

Original Poster for David Lynch’s Dune

“I had such a great time in Mexico City, the greatest crew. It was beautiful. But when you don’t have final cut, why did I do it? I don’t know. When you don’t have final cut, total creative freedom, you stand to die the death. Die the death. And dying I did.”

David Lynch on Dune

It has been a while since I’ve returned to the story of Dune, even as it has carried me through this year in ways I am still learning to understand. Paul’s journey, the descriptions of his states of awareness in percieving experience and possible change around him, has mirrored an internal artistic flourishing of my own, as I have embarked upon the construction of a short film. It has inspired works of mine over these past months, as the climate has slowly reawakened into inhabited space and territory. The tremor of voices resounding in the cityscapes is becoming louder, and it is that siren song which drew me to a viewing of Dune (1984, Dir. David Lynch/Alan Smithee) on 70mm. Besides the story’s own impression on my life, I distinctly remember holding an unrwapped special edition DVD of this film in my neighbour’s house nearly ten years ago. To experience film is often an adventure into the unknown, and so I finally collided with the jagged peaks of Dune.

I say jagged, since Dune’s production is one of the most notorious in film history. Starting with an already interrupted attempt by Ridley Scott, famed Italian super producer Dino De Laurentiis contracted a young David Lynch (fresh of the set of his second film The Elephant Man) to make Dune.

”Mastodon” is Rafaella De Laurentiis’s word for the movie she is producing from Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel. The statistics and logistics could describe a war rather than a movie. There are 53 speaking roles, 20,000 extras, four separate planets to be created, nearly 70 sets to be built and torn down, 900 men and women who have worked on the crew at one time or another during the last year. Two hundred of those men spent two months crawling on their hands and knees over three square miles of desert to clear it of rattlesnakes, scorpions, and every inch of cactus. Nothing grows or lives on the surface of the deep deserts of the planet Arrakis…”

From “The World of ‘Dune’ is Filmed in Mexico” by Aljean Harmetz

The article is a delight to read, which is always the bizarre sad irony reflecting the truth of a hellish production. The desire to keep costs low led the film being made in Mexico, in a studio filled with the frenetic howls of chaos. Not only sharing set, crew and design materials with another running Di Laurentiis production (Conan the Destroyer, 1984 Dir. John Milius), Lynch encountered spaghetti delays, a shooting location uncovered as a dump for dead dogs, mechanical and electrical shortages, endless frustration. Illness plagued cast and crew, so said Francesca Annis (Jessica) ”You do not meet anybody here who isn’t ill, about to get ill, or just over being ill”. Not wanting to become a lecture on film history, but the phenomenon of Lynch creatively unravelling the tendrils of Dune, spilled through an tremendous amount of creative conflict in its navigation. Having accepted the role of director without having ever read Dune, or really being interested in science fiction, he signed a contract which did not allow creative final cut on the film. Working with Raffaella Di Laurentiis, the production was both unstable ground for Lynch’s artistic senses, and a battleground of director/production company concerns.

As a result the balance between artistic adaptation, production dynamics and directorial intent is one of an uneven nature. Where Lynch’s eyes and his vision are interested in exploring areas different to Herbert’s focus. The creation of a sci-fi so unconcerned with traditional science fiction imagery (the film was meant to be designed as a Star Wars for grown ups and as a result meant to be far beyond it) places it in a filmic space which inhabits neither of its’ aesthetic intentions satisfyingly. The bizarre Lynchian visions of the Harkonnen atmospheres are described by Kyle Machlachlan as being his secret focus, and it is here in which the surreal cuts of the unconscious knife run deep. Industrial spaces sick with diluted colours, bare walls and exposed pipework reflect back deliriously mad character intentions and performances. In the illustriously rendered dream imagery, the viscera of nature is matched by the delicate meditations on water. There are moments seen between the peaks of its mangled construction, where the synchronicity of those desert-drenched visions align.

Raffaella Di Laurentiis said when he finished making Dune, he “never wanted to make big movies again” and after this moved only onto small scale productions. To spend time detailing the film’s numerous frustrating choices in creative construction has been well-documented by others and I won’t add to the pile. Maybe the most agonising design choice is in how much of the Fremen’s struggle is collapsed, significance ripped from the generational struggle for the environment. That alongside more lies in the creatively sad void of Dune’s half-finished scaffolding. It is a film of ruins and unfinished mosaics; a vision half blinded by the sunshine of reality. Directing is a superposition to be put in, collapsing all the thousands of micro-choices down to a few selected canvases. As Paul walks his way through a world tearing at those precious gifts which can be corrupted; integrity, loyality, love, Lynch spent his time navigating his way through an overambitious production which collapses trying to orchestrate its own mad chaos. Dune will remain as an uneasy reminder of how difficult it is to orchestrate our expressions, in these maddening and chaotic times.

(06/07/2021)

Alternative Posters for ‘Jodorowsky’s Dune’ (2013)

The Document

Alejandro Jodorowsky’s encounters with Dune nearly destroyed him. Not many people can lay claim to having the creation of a work be so ruinous upon their ambitions, as he attempted to navigate bringing Dune to life on the cinema screen for the first time. It’s ruins lay scattered across the popular consciousness of cinema’s science-fiction obsession. The fabric of its’ artistic skin is woven and quilted into other works, other mediums across time.

And all of this, from a film which doesn’t exist.


Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013, Dir. Frank Pavich) is a document of Jodorowsky’s attempt in translating Dune to the silver screen long before Ridley Scott or David Lynch were ever approached to helm the project by Raffaella Di Laurentiis. In fact, H.R. Giger (famed biomechanical artist whose designs would be used for Alien) refers to her as the ‘woman who came along and took it from us’, an invisible sense of thievery in the ruins of Jodorowsky’s conceptual creation. For the documentary dives deep into the creative force behind Jodorowsky’s divine vision for the film, assembling a crew of ‘spiritual warriors’ to form the backbone to a transformative production. One which would impress upon the audience a new style of cinema; which would flood the audience with hallucinogenic impressions of a swirling tale of spice, consciousness, intrigue, power, transformation. All on the arid desert plains of Arrakis.

Jodorowsky himself describes the conception of the project as beyond Frank Herbert’s original story, and that thought lays in my mind also, as we approach the release of Villeneuve’s upcoming film. “I did not want to respect the novel, I wanted to recreate it. For me Dune did not belong to Herbert as Don Quixote did not belong to Cervantes, nor Edipo with Esquilo.” It is interesting even in this last year sitting with the story, how its’ influence has unfolded as I’ve known the story for longer, as more people around me become accquainted with its’ ripples. The story is steeped in the waves of legends; Arthurian, Bibilical & Messianic, Islamic to name a few. Those who might want their interpreters to remain more faithful to Herbert and any precious texts would no doubt have struggled with Jodorowsky’s blinding devotion to the artistic channeling of ideas, come hell or high water.

And under the spell of the acidic hazy early 70s, under the spell of El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973), Jodorowsky decided to create a tsunami of artistic undertaking, and the documentary takes us through the now empty canals Jodorowsky once carved. His producer Michel Séydoux rented a castle for him to stay in as he adapted the script. He brought onboard genius collaborator after collaborator, famed bande-dessinée artist Moebius, sci-fi cover design artist Chris Moss; both of them contributing fascinatingly detailed concept art. Orson Welles and Salvador Dali were both hunted down for their ostentatious talents, their salaries and demands rivalling each other in lunacy. Thrones of dolphins catching waste and a restaurant hired personal chef are the price of madmen. His son training six hours a day seven days a week for two years from nine years old was the price to pay lead character Paul Atreides. With the world at his feet, Jodorowsky was assembling an alarming array of talent who would go onto find success in Hollywood’s shining sun as Jodorowsky phantom moved towards it’s ill fated end. Dan O’ Bannon would later go onto to write Alien (1979, Dir. Ridley Scott), David Carradine and Mick Jagger both flew in and out of it’s orbit. Pink Floyd and Magma both signed up for the score in ecclectic meetings. Both the Algerian government and Charlotte Rampling were never able to assemble their talents (however willingly) to the making of Dune, which even supposedly including a scene involving 2000 extra defecating inf front of the palace (no really). The production heralded garguantuan horizons.

“I think that this is the most fully realized… This was completely storyboarded, completely cast, musicians, everything. His team of artists was ready to go in front of the cameras. That’s what makes it cool. It wasn’t something spoken about, it was actually something that was gonna happen.

Frank Pavich, Indiewire (2014)

Jodorowsky hadn’t read Dune before he picked the project, he called itdivine inspiration. To make a film ‘about a prophet’ is a surreal undertaking for a man navigating the experimental art world of the late 70s, strung out on cynicism and acid. The project seemed to exist like an optimistic vortex, beyond the cultural milieu of the time, sucking in those minds associated with it as it struggled desperately for financial life. It was not to be. Reluctance from Hollywood personnel left Jodorowsky’s vision encased in a tome filled with over three thousand concept drawings until Pavich’s excavations. Made with intense admiration, the original score by Kurt Stenzel is echoing of that void of wonder left behind in the meteor craters of this never-vision, this cinematic consciousness-raising cannon. Before the march of merch, Star Wars and sci-fi iconography as set dressing, it lived in the potential swirl of existence, spiralling patterns of art, its’ coils encased in amber for us to see. Arrakis as a planet entered a state of moving understanding through the universe, and Jodorowsky’s power of vision is to be respected as an artist. As a moving tribute to the spirit of artistic endeavour and Frank Herbert’s Dune.

(28/09/2021)

The Cinema

“All the sand! It was all just fucking sand!!”

Audience member

I lost my ring as I was descending the stairs after finishing Dune (2021, Dir. Denis Villeneuve), a tibetan circle of patterns. Into the red stairs it melted, as my friends and I left our premiere seats at Britain’s largest cinema viewing screen (20 metres high and 26 metres wide). I had wanted to ensure if we were to see Denis’ visions of Caladan and Arrakis, of spice and intrigue and terra, we should see it in the best possible way. To see it with clarity, nearly overwhelmed by the visions of sand dunes and sounds of sandworms crashing upon us, was important for me.

In the time of awakening, Dune represents a shard of a new future, just as it once did for David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky. Frank Herbert’s spirit is encased within multiple experiences now, a full Sci-Fi TV adaptation exists of the story through Dune Messiah and Children of Dune (the following books).It had become the brainchild of videogame developer Cryo Entertainment, who helped revolutionise tactical genres as well as create a work (Frank Herbert’s Dune, 2001, PC) which helped bankrupt them entirely. The ruins of Lynch’s and Jodorowsky’s expeditions lay foundations for this film, but Villeneuve has different priorities at work. Balancing the story’s in-depth character intrigue, parallel plotlines, and melody of language is a tough act with bringing people back to the cinemas at all.

One of my friends attended the Q&A with Director and Main Cast, and I wonder what they discussed as he holds up a potential vision of intelligent sci-fi in the shifting sands of culture. I say that, because Dune is a work which is tied to the mechanics of its’ own industrial creation. A joint venture between Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures, this monolithic entertainment release makes certain concessions to try and envelop the global audience. I want to make clear that I have a lot of respect for Villeneuve’s vision, and I think the film succeeds in adapting the story of Arrakis to the big screen. There is big money here, smart money sure, but nevertheless requiring of its’ own financial and capital investment to make a return.

This means that subtle guiding currents run through the film; the army of House Atreides has an eerie American-esque Gulf War/Iraq quality to them, that the Arabic and Islamic elements of the script are downplayed to an extent, that battle sequences take on a HBO style spectacle but also a structural narrative which demands battle sequences play out at a certain scale in a certain routine. These choices are like oil mixed into the water. These are choices and techniques which subtly shift and change the meaning of Dune’s language, its’ spirit, its’ poetry. That is not a word I use often, but the golden threads of Dune extend in such a way through the fictions around us and before us that is hard not to overstate its’ importance as an artistic work.

I don’t want this review to just be an analytical breakdown of what is lost in translation between the dunes of the last sixy years. Where is Dune located, in the life and death of this world? As time and writing pass, I have found that ring I thought I lost in the cinema. I have listened to Denis in interviews discussing the film, in his attempt at navigation and adaptation. Locations like the coast of Norway, Budapest, Wadi Rum (Valley of the Moon) in Jordan and sand seas in Abu Dhabi. Schedules and casting and VFX and set design, Villeneuve speaks of his attempt to capture Frank Herbert’s words in the desert for real; to capture the dreams of his thirteen year old self reading Dune. Our best fictions keep us company, and that is enough to be discussed in the cinema experience of us all, beyond any one piece.

Now with the greenlighting of Part Two in recent days, the possibilities of paths continue to unfold from a nexus of hallucinogenic politics of the earth. The soil which makes our faces, our dreams, our cinemas. Dune does not dilute its’ story presentation down, it is a dense piece to unfold across a mind first coming into contact with Arrakis (like my co-writer on the site, Ed). Chalamet is Paul, navigating an heady cocktail of spiritual music (composed by Hans Zimmer), politics beyond the average range of a fifteen-year old, and visions of a mystical nature balanced against naturalistic performances with actors in a range of roles above him. Stellan Skarsgård is a Colonel Kurtz-esque nightmare of oil and evil, while other characters and actors are subtly shaped and sculpted as the demands of massive cinema release in 2021 demand. I do not want to talk on the specifics, partially because of length, but also because of the texture of Dune‘s experience in the world right now. Some casting I feel misjudged in the film, and some I wish actors were playing alternate roles. But my general opinion on the shape of Dune is awe and notable admiration, and what it is trying to do for cinema I stand by more than any of it’s individual parts.

Where is Dune located? In Frank Herbert’s book? “Either too short to make sense, or too long to get made”, in one of those ruinous visions? Villeneuve is deeply moved by the text, by the symbols of arrangement which spark thought and imagination. The film is done with reserve sure, often dour and filled with ceremony. It hides behind jagged glass, whipped by the sands of commercial and artistic concerns. There is a large testament to the scale of the “spice opera” of Arrakis and melange, thrusted onto the screen with an immersive pool of unknown worlds. It speaks towards its’ own future, calling for the audience reaction to greenlight another sequel, but also to desire in their hearts and eyes to see more. A dune is not a spiral, it has a rise and a fall. I could dissect the timeline of Dune endlessly to locate its’ heart, but the life of it lives in the experiences conjured by it, the spice in the air surrounding us all.The book crashes into it’s own future, spiralling upwards towards an ending, so why not I? There will be an end to everything eventually, just as my year with Dune comes to a close. The rise and fall of my own internal apocalypse, matched only by the crazy conditions of the world which surround us, find some solace, peace and balance in accepting the organic growth of Dune in my life.

So from Herbert to Villeneuve, thank you.

(25-8/10/2021)

“To the people whose labors go beyond ideas into the realm of ‘real materials’ – to the dry land ecologists, wherever they may be, in whatever time they work, this effort at prediction is dedicated in humility and admiration.”

Dedication of Frank Herbert in Dune.

-Alex

From Dune (1965) to Dune (2021)

Friday (1995)

Microcosma small place, society or situation that has the same characteristics as something much larger.

It’s been a long time, for all of us. A lot of days went by, in these seemingly godforsaken lockdowns. Life itself has become no less complex, but the pace of life and its’ focus seemed to dramatically shift. Suddenly the home became the space for various unexplored facets of our lives, our work and our long buried hobbies came scuttling out of the corners of our rooms, our kitchens, our beds. Certainly for some more than others, the dimensions of our spaces collapsing into the home has made day-to-day routines feel changed in ways too numerous to detail. Lives taking place across the smorgasbord of geography have been narrowed to the small pools and swamps of our localised environments; minature walks to the shops replacing dreams of distant lands or sun-drenched shores (unless you’ve been lucky enough to live near a beach).

Maybe this is why Friday (1995, Dir. F. Gary Gray) has resonated with me so, in a time of internal solitude. To be present with yourself from day-to-day is an immense achievement of self-awareness cultivated over time, and life’s distractions never cease to multiply around you pulling continuously on your attention, the endless possibilities of the day around you. In Friday, our day is spent with Craig and Smokey, Ice Cube and a relatively then unknown Chris Tucker. What Smokey and Craig want to do primarily is chill out and do nothing on a Friday; sit on the porch getting high and try to alleviate the monotony and malaise of modern living circa 1990s Los Angeles.. Craig’s brand new unemployment wraps itself around his face, his demeanor and energy. His family off to the side stand bemused, cereal with water fills up the belly of anyone not contributing properly to the household today. Smokey on flip side runs his mouth louder than he runs his brain, laziness overtaking his processes and running his small time weed selling into dangerous waters. Adrift in the urban sea, they take up their positions on the porch to chill out.

The problem with doing nothing though, is it doesn’t necessarily mean nothing is gonna happen. In a recounting of the film’s legacy, Ice Cube says that “Everything in Friday happened on my block at one point or another. It’s really a lot of different Fridays wrapped up into one day, so that’s why it’s so authentic – because it’s all real to an extent.” So while they try to put the brakes on life, life accelerates with fantastical abandon towards them, as a carnival of characters crash through the screen.

The film’s very inception was concerned with a more dynamic, richer and more human portrayal of hood culture, humour as the vehicle to reveal understanding and empathy. Ice Cube’s very own career had taken him through John Singleton’s Boyz in the Hood (1991) in his acting debut, which had left him marked in understanding the need for a vision of his own community which captured the humour of daily life, as opposed to its’ violence. What takes place then is a transformation of a film’s own internal confines, it’s guiding principles shifting the perspectives of the representation on screen. Suddenly the world comes to our doorstep, and we are on its porch. Being broke means the public spaces you can occupy are limited, ringfenced off, hidden behind locks, keycards, money, status, social standing and an endless array of other concerning factors. But the porch is both public and private, a seat in the audience and a stage itself. The street becomes theatre, neighbourly disputes and relations become observed, studied, amused and entertained by or working to instill fear. While we journey through a couple of locations (Smokey’s house, a liquour store etc.) poverty brings with it a stillness of space, a dimming of spatial potential. There is no real place to be, and not much point in going anywhere else.

But in this stillness comes clarity, and the expanse of time is stretched across one long revelatory Friday for both characters. The carnival comes to them, and its’ attractions are many. From moment to moment they adapt and change their archetypes, without ever leaving the same space. They are friends, getting high and hiding from their parents. They are Smokey, forced to break into a house at one moment and forced to relieve himself behind his own in another, his unwillingness the only binding factor to his moment to moment transformations. They are momentarily under assault from Deebo (former WWF wrestler Tiny “Zeus” Lister Jr.), only to potentially begin an assault on the little bicyclist Lil’ Chris (Jason Bose Smith) who keeps knocking over everyone’s trash cans. Craig is confronted with issues of masculine identity, on how to exercise power in a world filled with barely thought through violence. Smokey’s eyes bulge outside of his head not just from hilarious ad-libs and asides, but from the genuine fear of retribution, as his machinations only further sink the two into trouble with Smokey’s dealer Big Worm (Faison Love). The characters themselves are allowed to fill a whole expanse of our mind’s canvas, their place in the world only growing with each passing second. They are not characters unfolding themselves onto the world, but they are people who through the film’s unfolding begin to inhabit the various character masks of life.

The day unfolds around their world, and their place in our world comes into focus with a cool organic momentum which grows and grows. Friday still subscribes to the narrative archetypes of fiction which keep stories strung together as easy to understand nets; good triumphs over evil, hero over the villain etc., there is no reason to even disparage Friday for doing so. Friday turns hood culture inside out to walk along comedy’s left shoulder as opposed to tragedy’s right arm, but it does that wrapped up in the archetypes of a fable; lessons are learned by the journey’s end.

In it’s production perspective, Ice Cube’s image and persona was locked into media consciousness as a member of N.W.A, and he had long been living in the crossroads between the media, violence, culture and both self and othered representation. It took conscious effort to conjure Friday’s archetypes of people in the hood, portraits filled with authenticity which could communicate a world not well media travelled outside those who lived in its’ streets. It takes vision to ground them in the narrative frameworks that echo across dividing lines of history, cultures, nations and peoples, and integrity to do it in a way which elevates those characters to become more human over time not less. Craig may stray closer to a mythic hero when he finally slams that trash can down on Deebo’s head, but it is only because he has strayed from the fringes of his community’s doorstep right into the heart of a matter which puts them at risk and him at its crossroads.

What do we need champions for, who do they work for and why? Who knows whether questions like this ever troubled those who actually made Friday, but as the world begins to figure out how best to step outside again, I find a tremendous amount of understanding wrapped up in a tale so effortless that on its surface seems barely noticeable. A Friday, one of many caught up in a calendar of even more. Days can just slip into nothing like that. But then, what is the nothing they slip into? Maybe they are worlds of real moments; of underappreciated gems and the peoples always around us in our lives; champions of spirit who live amongst material poverty. Communities and stories which can exist in their own right and which validate themselves by their own presence and joy. Perhaps this is far too an esoteric understanding of what has largely lived as a cult-classic stoner comedy from the mid-90s, but then perhaps there is more to this which lies underneath it’s casual surface.

And that makes me laugh. A lot. Even if I wrote this on a Thursday.

-Alex

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Friday (1995)

Kino-Pravda Docs: #10 – Close Up

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?


It is very easy at any point to tune out of Close Up (1990, Dir. Abbas Kiarostami) if you so desire. Usually this is a mark against a film’s quality, as it often points towards a lack of necessary engagement needed to enjoy a film work, fiction or otherwise. Something in the design of the film might be constructed in such a way that it doesn’t excite the imagination vividly, the material doesn’t resonate with the human experience convincingly or with enough clarity. What I found in Close Up, was the impulse to tune out of a cinematic experience which seems profoundly anti-cinematic, or rather yet extremely anti-spectacle. The visual representation of space and time found in cinema has found dominant and alternative modes of expression, of visual languages which compete with each other in the cultural clouds which pass over our world. The language of spectacle in cinema has been one of it’s strongest ways of speaking, everything from explosions to sexual appeasement to even the close up itself. Often employed as an exploitative camera move to communicate as much visual information regarding character’s communication cues as possible. Faces are relentlessly seen, studied, given full dominance over the screen as we empathise, understand, align and re-align ourselves in an imaginative world, the spectacle of the human reaction given to the canvas over and over repeatedly.

Kiarostami is not concerned with the language of spectacle, and so it becomes very easy to fall out of it’s gentler, more delicate grip. Spectacle is a language of grabbing your attention, of a screen filled with such visceral reaction provoking cues that you do not need to jump into a film, for the film jumps into you. This has been one of cinema’s most invigorating tools in it’s history, a catalyst for some of its’ most incredible shots, scenes and films. But it also a language which can scream so loud it can simply drown out the other voices around it, not through malice or intention; simply through presence. Perhaps this is a very elegant way of saying that at times, watching Close Up can feel like and can be boring. In a cinema of spectacle, the mundane is often barely worth commenting upon. Nothing more than a quick set up before the extraordinary events begin to occur, the “real” journey begins etc. The mundane in awkward and shabby clothes, stands off to the sides of cinema quietly waiting for a turn which never seems to fully arrive. The fear of boredom is a cultivator for this language, and cinematic constructionists have spent a long time on the run trying to create ever newer, ever more dazzling scenarios to fill audiences with spectacular elation and leave them for lack of a better term; unbored.

Kiarostami cares a lot less about catering to the sense of being entertained. Spectacle is a part in the multi-faceted language of entertainment, but what about cinema whose aims are beyond that of conventional entertainment? The mundane is something very ordinary and therefore not very interesting, but why have we deemed it common law that ordinary things are not interesting? If something is common, we deem it of having little value, praising only the rare as excellent. But what is ordinary is not set in stone, and the language of boredom is one which is shaped by our cultural concerns and perspectives. Cinematic logics can be varied and idiosyncratic, but the language of entertainment is that of the circus; keep the people fed and keep the people happy.

So Kiarostami takes us into a different world; the one much similar to ours. But one of the main differences here between the language of spectacle and the language of the film he builds is that spectacle is often a witness; the camera is a cypher for the witnessing of spectacle, voyeuristic and eyes drawn open but silent. Here the camera is an intervenor, a camera whose existence is central to the entire film. It is complicated to place Close Up in the “Docs” series, because its’ origins are intimately tied to the reality of the events but also the guiding vision of Kiarostami’s imagination. Hossain Sabzian is a man who impersonates Mohsen Makhmalbaf (a famous Iranian director) when meeting a woman on a bus. His lie leads him to a continuing stream of contact with the Ahankhah’s (her family), which culminates in his revealed identity, an arrest and subsuqent legal proceedings. But this is interventionist cinema, and Kiarostami after reading about the story in an article in Sorush magazine met Sabzian, and began to develop a film about these proceedings. After gaining access to film the trial, Kiarostami convinced the participants of the story; accused, accusors, judge, journalist even Makhmalbaf to participate and even recreate scenes around the encounter as it was unfolding. A film whose existence is inexorably tangled into the real life DNA of the story it portrays.

Is Close Up a false documentary, or a true fiction? So often lines we draw to categorise and segment our experiences can’t survive exposure to the elemental powers of cinema and the world. Kiarostami’s involvement in the film is highly visible highly emotional highly subjective. It is not a witness, it is a direct instigator and intervenor of the events itself. In effect, “the film is not one in which documentary is blended with fiction but one in which an intricate fiction is composed of real-life materials”. So why does it land here, in a category concerning documentaries? Well, what is ‘Kino Pravda’ and what is Close Up, if not fragments of actuality which when organised together, show a deeper truth not visible to the naked eye? A witnessing camera must be invisible, it must not draw attention to itself. But like Dziga Vertov in his Man With A Movie Camera (1929), Kiarostami does not need to hide a camera which seeks to be an active part in its’ own construction of a film. In fact with a sense of empathy which stretches into the extraordinary, we are journeying with the camera and its director as they actively try to navigate the course of their own stories as they unfold. The artificialness of their staging or their re-dramatizations is meant to be taken into account as part of the experience, not something that needs to be imaginatively bought into to create entertainment. Like the recreated experiences of those encountered in The Act of Killing (2013, Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer), their positions in their own experiences are highlighted for you to witness, not with the awe of spectacle, but with the bewilderment of considering the fundamental complexities of the human condition.

The mundane will never be the shining glittery jewel of cinema, and never asked to be. But the mundane contains such a world of gentle, intimate and powerful concerns which so often than not dwarf the imagined heights of fancy that our extraordinary counterparts seem to live in. Our lives are filled with the atmosphere of the mundane, the invisible conditions of our everyday visible concerns and issues. And here at this nexus of art, truth, reality, imagination, film, life, suffering, justice, compassion and understanding, stands an extraordinary film. One which reveals fragments of truth about our world. Maybe the truth is boring and needs to be tuned out. Maybe.

Maybe the truth is interesting and it needs to be tuned into.

-Alex

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Kino-Pravda Docs: #10 – Close Up

La Vie Nouvelle (2002)

WARNING: BELOW CONTAINS FRANK DISCUSSIONS OF A FILM CONCERNED WITH MATURE THEMES: SEXUALITY, SEXUAL VIOLENCE, HUMAN TRAFFICKING, BODY HORROR AND EXISTENTIAL HORROR. PLEASE PROCEED WITH CAUTION AND AT YOUR OWN RISK.

It is difficult to start any discussion of La Vie Nouvelle (2002, Dir. Philippe Grandieux), because it is difficult to even begin comprehending it. Often in writing for this site, I have earnestly sought to seek out cinema which reaches for the boundaries of artistic thought, but also cinema which is unique to its’ own medium, where my words about the work are the jumping off point into the film’s experience. Cinema is a unique visual language, which can be explained and partially translated through words, but I have found myself comfortable writing about films which I felt were at the limits of language and the powers of written explanations. In short, films which need to be seen to be believed but also seen to be understood.

In a way, La Vie Nouvelle is a manifestation of this ethos, and walks well beyond the boundary gates of even conventional visual language. It is a film so beyond the confines of normal experiences found in cinema that the experience of watching it fills you with a tremendous perception of the void or a void, of an internal abyss filled with answers we cannot understand the questions to. To bring your film to such a place, to allow it’s own internal mechanics to become so subterranean raises questions of perception which are mostly kept out of view of cinema’s conversations. To make a film so lost in an exploration of the unconscious elements of the human elemental experience; it splits open cracks in the psyche on how a film is watched, what a film gives to you, what interpretations to draw from its’ own source. To craft a journey through experiential means, especially one which could be interpreted as a hellish descent into the moral pools of evil, requires tools and a frame of understanding which we rarely have need to sharpen.

So consider this, for better and for worse, an attempt to sharpen those skills. Beyond that I just don’t think I’m qualified to say any more.


“My perception of the film was physical and intimate, like for a shaman. I just had to be a conductor for the flux, the music, the rhythms— the body exists to transmit all this.” – Philippe Grandieux, interview with Nicole Brenez.

It’s hard for me to remember La Vie Nouvelle, and yet it seems impossible to forget. The actual experience of watching the film presents you with a piercing and vivid clarity, and when I had finished my first watch I was left with a monstrous flood of impressions to try and seek some kind of meaning in. I wanted to write about it the moment I had finished it, desperate to capture and distill some of the feeling of the film’s immediate presence. There is a whole dedicated industry both academic and hobbyist dedicated to discussing what a film may mean, but it is a lot harder in a sense to convey what a film can make you feel. A film may have a separation from our world, but the real-time presence of watching a film is meant to evoke our senses, our empathy, connect us to an imagined world or representation of our own. Films activate our eyes, our ears, our minds, while the rest of the senses are taking up with the experience of what it is to watch a film in your living room/bedroom/cinema (these days?) etc.

Life flowed on unfortunately, and what most likely would have flowed would have been a torrential stream of thoughts purely trying to piece together any fragmentary sense of understanding about what I had just watched. For La Vie Nouvelle is often beyond the normal visual identifiers and signposts we use to help guide us through these emotive experiences. The dialogue is extremely minimal, the location is undisclosed, the characters are drawn in ways to allow precious little access to them or their internal states. Exposition, one of cinemas oldest allies in allowing audiences to understand what is happening, is all but abandoned. There is no frame of a written/spoken language boundary to help “make sense” of this cinema, you can read the visual language on display as both more abstracted and more primal.

So upon reading about the film, in a search for understanding, I came to access a clearer picture of what the film was made for. The viewing of the film was so overwhelming that I had lost any ability to “find” or locate myself in this world, I was lost in it without anchor. The guidance of the literature, of other far more intelligent writers offering perspectives and provoking ideas on what a cinema like this exists for, helped ground my understanding of the film and allowed me to reach a point where I was no longer reckoning with the chasm of confused darkness unguided. But in doing so, my experience of the film was expanded beyond those initial impressions, a profound sense of being lost. What is even more curious however, was that even though this information had helped me contextualise the film, understand some of its guiding motivations, exploring its’ relation to a film environment which has rarely ventured into this territory; none of that helped me remember what happened in the film.

To be present when faced with horror, our minds seem to take part in a curious trick. We must be more present than ever when faced with something dangerous, our natural ideal for our own preservation battles between fight and flight. But we cannot live in the space of horror, of fear, we would go mad. The impressions of horror carve deep lines into our minds, and in turn we repress some of that cognitive load; file it away under “Do Not Touch”. We cannot rid our minds of the potential of fear, of horror, but it seems we also cannot live with it either in it’s unbearable true presence. In the experience of the film, in this formless and near shapeless world, the psychological boundaries of cinema are stripped back even more so than usual. And the presence of these images is so shocking, so violently intense in comparison to the conventional current of film production and exhibition, that a confrontation with a sense of abject horror left me unable to even understand or remember what had happened.

I do not want to tell you reader, “what happens” in the film. There are plenty of places and plenty of ways to spoil/prepare yourself for the unknown of a filmic world. If I give form, the boundaries of words to what I saw, you will engage with it through a lens of information that the film is uninterested in providing to you. It is a world filled with deathly, guttural reflections of the human condition. Images here are of an almost physical nature, reflecting a language which speaks from body to turbulent minds. Bodies and characters and events climb and writhe all over your experience, emeshing you in a web which burns through your moral frames of reckoning with the world. Judgement has fled from the confines of the screen, turned its back on a world which seeks only to pull you down and through its’ own darkness. Time is stretched beyond our recognition, and such violent pressure is applied to it when encountering dread, encountering horror. Moments of eternity seem to almost become actualised here, as the witnessing of the film makes you unable to turn away from it’s seemingly malovent power.

The malovence of the film’s intent darkly cuts through the experience, but that is also a testament to our current use and understanding of film. A book asks you to imagine events, but a film often represents them; has the power to show them back to us. Perhaps it is only my fatigue with current cultural practices, but the sanitisation and infantilisation of violence on-screen has been one of my long-standing upsets. Sex and violence have sold so well for so long, that it is easier than ever to create a psychological distance and numbing between violence we permit on screen and violence we perpetrate in real life. To normalise the effects of violence creates a numbing to it, even if done to make stories more palatable.

There is something profoundly devastating then, in creating an experience where violence is not only brutally depicted in a form closer to a real understanding of its’ actions and consequences, but also in having that film’s morality cut and torn away from the cloth of conventional piety. Maybe the good guys fight, but they do it to defend our honour, protect and serve. Humble servants of slaughter. But in La Vie Nouvelle, we are not protected because the characters are not protected. The moral shield of “good” is limp, pathetic in the face of its’ own hypocrisy regarding this world. Here violence is not just heroic goodies and nameless, near- faceless baddies designed for the cultural grinder. Here violence parades nakedly across the faces of its’ victims, its’ perpetrators, its’ witnesses and intermediaries. If films have commonly existed and been seen as cultural escapism, are we escaping the real evil we can’t bear to look at in the world? Do we take flight into our films, our private reveries where the vanquishing of evil is not only easy but cheap?

As a culture, as human beings what does it mean for us to be continually running from the glare of evil’s dark presence, because as awful and degrading and horrifying the events are in La Vie Nouvelle, they can only be so because of their relation to the real world we live in. How could they scare us if we did not think there was a chance they could happen to us? Or worse, because we know somewhere deep in the recesses of our minds, that they are already happening, continue to happen, and have already happened in the world we live in? To philosophically investigate evil through film, creates an inversion of its’ common effects. To be validated by lies feels fulfilling in the moment, and that might only come from us feeling unfulfilled, discontented by the truth. If that gap, that disconnect is not addressed, it can only grow larger and more looming, a void to become lost in without end; without a light at the end of the tunnel.


Perhaps reader, this has done nothing to reveal much concerning the film. If that is true, then it speaks to the astounding depths of our unconscious lives and minds, as well as my own failure to communicate. Who knows what might have been if I had written this at a different time, in a different place, in a different state. If what is said regarding the film’s nature is forever unknown, forever lost among it’s blurred shadows and distorted figures, then I would not be surprised; especially due to its’ highly experiential features this is precisely what I was trying to communicate about it. It is a film which lives in its own moment, own momentum. To even begin to grip it’s amorphous edges, requires looking with eyes beyond language, beyond any words I could string together here to make sense of them.

Our perceptions of the world can be so fragile, and to spin them out of control only takes just a few turns of the dancer centred on stage in front of us. With the right combination of sensory impressions, a film can crash and whip against your knowledge of the world, its’ tide dragging you under whatever inky waters it may contain. It may even sweep it away entirely, leaving only the shattered debris of your understandings in its wake. Maybe that is good. Maybe that is bad. Maybe that is beyond good and evil, in a colossal realm of conscious and unconscious experience, reverberating throughout our own lives and something we can, maybe even should reckon with.

At the very least, it might darkly liberate us from the confines of our own collective demons. Maybe that is a good place to begin anew.

-Alex

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La Vie Nouvelle (2002)

Eros + Massacre (1969)

Eros + Massacre

“The fundamental theme is: how to change the world, and what is it that needs to be changed? Reflecting on the present situation through the medium of an era already past, I came to believe that Osugi’s problems continue to be ours.” – Yoshishige (Kiju) Yoshida, Cahiers du Cinema, Oct 1970.

Writing on Eros + Massacre, Yoshida’s 1969 abstract epic, will be an incomplete task by its’ end. I say this not only due to my own limitations as a writer to grapple fully with the range of historical context and the extremely intricate construction/style. I say this because Yoshida’s film is like a maelstrom in the sea, the currents of past, present and future swirling around each other in an ocean which contains them all. If an artwork or a film begins to sprawl out, it becomes tougher to comprehend; to remember, to be sure or confident in the judgements you make concerning any analytical or emotional responses/interpretations. Conventional cinematic viewing can often lead to two responses to material which you don’t understand; hostility or reluctance to speak at all. For several reasons I’m sure, Yoshida’s films have travelled in high places but their release and exposure to the wider mainstream of cinema and it’s viewers has been largely invisible throughout common film education. In fact, until I saw Eros + Massacre, I was not aware a Japanese New Wave in cinema even existed.

So I am grateful to Arrow Video’s work in restoring the film (alongside others) in a 2017 release. I am also grateful that Yoshida’s work has managed to travel continually in some form, because that maelstrom you experience when watching the film is reflective of the same one we live in continously. By design, Eros +Massacre takes the alternating streams of conflicting histories, narratives we tell ourselves, and half-remembered reveries and unleashes them through the screen, releasing a dam of cinematic forms that has been continually choked by the need to fix a singular narrative in place, a singular plot with a singular story. In a film concerned with what it means in the present when we try to construct ‘a usable past’, it is difficult to cope with a visual presentation closer to the real life experience of our own, consciously navigating ourselves through societies different conflicting accounts of “what really happened”, “who really did what”, “why did that happen the way it did?”. History is built from the ruins of the present, interpretations from different arenas of society (with differing amounts of pressure), and the narrative channelings of any one human writer looking to find out why things are the way they are. To put this onscreen is no easy task.

So my writings on Eros + Massacre will forever remain incomplete, and I think Yoshida would be contented to know that. At the very least, love and its’ limitless potentials combined with its’ consequences, is a good place to start.


It feels strange to pick a starting point when discussing the film, if only because it’s reflecting the film’s own obsession over how malleable the temporal world that we navigate can be. Eros + Massacre starts in the 1960s, but it’s tracing a circle back to the 1910s/20s, where the principal characters are displaced by their visions of the future, and the actors of the present are grasping the sands of the past running through their fingers.

Pinning the story to the wall reveals some facts, Eiko (Toshiko Ii) and Wada (Daijirō Harada) are two students in the late 60s, adrift in the modern cosmopolis of Tokyo. Beginning with an interview, Eiko spends much of the runtime trying to make sense of her past, and her relationship to her mother Itō Noe, who was involved in the feminist and social upheaval happening in Japan in the late Meji and Taishō periods of history. She was also involved with Ōsugi Sakae (Toshiyuki Hosokawa), a radical Japanese anarchist who entertained three simultaneous couplings; one with his wife Yaruko Hori, one with journalist Kamichika Ichiko (played by Yûko Kusunoki, she is referred to in the film as Masaoka Itsuko due to the real Ichiko attempting to sue Yoshida for violation of privacy which led to a theatrical recut for release), and one with Itō Noe (played by Mariko Okada). He did this through a radical profession of free love, in the denial of the self and of the social pressures enforced on society through monogamous coupling and private property ownership. His philosophy was in conflict with the state pressure and forces of Japanese politics, but also at odds with the desires of each of the women he was in relation to. It is from this pool of love, politics, philosophy and time that Eros + Massacre spends it’s time swimming in.

To try and separate the stories in order to make better coherence of them, is precisely what Yoshida’s construction is designed to resist. The histories of this time are thrown together in parallel, at times bleeding into the reality of each other with such actuality that the timelines and their characters quite literally unify together in the same space on screen. Eiko is subject to the role of the interviewee from the beginning, the camera (and by extension its’ operator Wada) becoming a cypher for our own way into this world, but Eiko also becomes the interviewer and tries her best to get answers from her mother, who’s enigmatic appearance reveals only enigmatic answers.

To be living in the present means you do not have full access to the past, and cinema for a long time has carefully glided over that fact by creating an external frame to witness the events of the past, which are in fact only interpretations filtered down through the creative process that any film crew embarks on when producing a film. So the film continually investigates and re-investigates itself, freed from trying to pretend that the past is both fixed and fully accessible, the film is continually reflecting on the impressions and echoes of the positions we place ourselves in in our spatio-temporal existences, the echoes of the paths previously tread and the imagined ones we have yet to walk.

All of this sounds very metaphysical, and that is perhaps because it is. One of the struggles of trying to give shape to writing about this film, is the very fact that it wants to be oriented in this tangle of metaphysical tensions. It’s revolutionary bent in style and substance means the film is a chaotic mass of roots growing downwards, it’s divisions only allowing you to see the more complex relations between each strand. Take the monumental work of cinematography in the film (fulfilled by Hasegawa Genkichi), which contains some truly exquisite and deft compositions. It’s long focus and depth of field means the surroundings are filled with an atmosphere of the Japanese architecture, a sense of understanding is built between the environment and the people who inhabit it. The compositions themselves then not only possess a treasured sense of environmental scale lost in modern cinema, but the compositions are radically de-centred; they resist being images easy to process, reflecting the turbulent and complicated relations between the characters they are not easily found on screen, lurking in the corners of frames or partially shielded from view.

This grows as the architecture becomes an active element in the environment; characters are reflected through windows and mirrors as they speak to each other heightening their fractured distance; they burst continuously from shōji (Japanese paper-style walls) appearing from hidden pockets and frames within the cinematic one. But this is the cinematography only of the earlier period, and the shooting style of the 60s era embraces the nouvelle vague‘s more confrontational camera work, of a more direct exposé of the characters onscreen. Here Wada and Eiko are not just subjecting themselves to the looming stare of the long spiral of history, but they are in the throes of confronting themselves and their own gazes. So the cinematography expands here, visual extremism as the analysis digs and digs in the ruins of time. Eiko even has the past projected onto her literally through a screen projector, as she confronts Wada on notions of love, manhood and the gap between desire and fulfillment of them.

As the film progresses, that visual extremism or dynamism starts to affect the more traditionally composed cinematography of the past sections building upon it even further. The film’s most reknowned sequence is a tri-part replication of the Hikage Teahouse Incident, where Kamichika Ichiko stabbed Ōsugi Sakae after discovering him living with Noe. The tri-part, comes from it going over different depictions of how the event could have taken place, each version of events with its focus and dynamics shifted. Here the camera bleeds through an abstraction of archaic stage-play kabuki theatrics, classical cinematography and the more experimental angles of it’s present day focus and artistry. The past becomes the present reflected through the past, and all of these complicated tensions never unify into a single position; the variants and perceptions of history are shrugged off by Eiko (complaining that the incident may never have even happened), and so too the cinematographical strands are left untied into a neat knot. The cinematography fuses together in the moments of brilliant experience when the story is being encountered, but it refuses to contain itself to the limits of past/present/future. It is all those at once, and more.

Do you see why it is difficult to talk about Eros + Massacre? Even now I’m reflecting back the film’s own concerns with its’ presentation. As Eiko and Wada submerge themselves into the stream of the world around them, the film does the same. It concerns itself so much with its’ own construction it even exposes it, a sequence where the director and camera set up is shown initiating Eiko and Wada into their next scene. Their world is inextricably linked to the celluloid reality they’re being burned onto by Yoshishige and his editor Yasuoka Hiroyuki. By the end of the film, not only have all the characters come together across space and time to be preserved in a photograph (“a monument for the future”), but characters in both the past and present have simultaneously commited suicide and reached death and still possess life onscreen, one even hanging themselves with the celluloid and embracing that reality to a deliriously surreal conclusion. The film opens out like a puzzle box, where not even the conventions of mortal life need to necessarily be respected or entertained as they so often are in conventional cinema. You cannot throw off these boundaries, it is not that Yoshida’s work isn’t interested in them. It is more that the work approaches them and explores them intimately through film, a form which isn’t necessarily bound by the limitations of the human form.

Once you move through that, you then can see the huge chasm that is being carved into the psyche when the film communicates on love, on politics, on the massacre between them. Yoshida’s position on these matters is a culmination of the thought and ideals of those real historical figures for sure, but they are also very much his own. Grown from the environment of the 1960s, a time when across the globe cinema was experiencing an internal revolution in how to portray itself. So the theories of Ōsugi on free love are placed in chronic opposition to his undermined sense of self, as well as his betrayal of revolutionary ideals to become an informer. Itō Noe’s genuine desires of self-realisation are undercut by her inability to free herself from the tangles of her own pride and her love with Ōsugi, or rather than undercut they are simply challenged by. Itsuko (real life- Ichiko) listens to Ōsugi’s words, we can hear her agreeing with his philosophies even though you can see in her face that she does not believe them and it drives her to madness. Eiko’s ambition to make sense of her past can’t be fully reconciled with the impossibility of ever fully knowing what happened or even why. And all of this takes place against the barely visible backdrop of that metaphysical conversation of being both in society and of it, the white gloved hands of the state slowly grasping tighter around the necks of those who radically rebel against its’ structures.

I’m sure there are plenty of “answers” out there written by critics and academics alike on what the content of Eros + Massacre means, and I’m sure that plenty of those reasoned pieces provide valuable insight into how the film manifests meanings that are difficult to explain in language. But Yoshida’s masterpiece is a contemplation on the limits of love without end, and it is designed to flow through you and fill you with understanding, before closing it’s doors until you decide to enter again (quite literally!). For me to have written a piece which could ever claim to answer these questions in full, would be blind to the negation of self that Yoshida seems transfixed by in this film and the answers that can be felt when moving beyond the ego. There is wisdom in the film, but it is on you to define and shape it into a usable experience for your world, just like Eiko wants to create a usable past out of the infinite fragments and permutation of the human experience.

I would never fully claim to understand it, and I don’t need to claim to mindlessly agree with the full extent of its politics and discourse to show you it is worth watching. It is a film born in a maelstrom, its’ characters whipped and thrown through the seas of time and culture and memory and dreams. They are placed in the infinite set of tensions created by our own complex and ever-evolving desires; our reason, our regrets and our ambitions. All of which continues to evolve moment-by-moment against or with the society around us, and the lies and truths we tell to each other, to ourselves, to the world. Even in love, one of our most freeing feelings we can experience, we still cannot make sense of its’ complicated edges, the way our personalities can hold conflicting dissonances and enable us to repress our desires through multiple layers of filtration (society, lover’s egos, our own sense of self and how honest we can be etc.). If Yoshida’s film was the defining statement on these matters, we could all go home and rest easy, but Eros + Massacre is borne of a restless current, of a train surging forward from one side of the screen to the next.

So I leave the work here, incomplete and in ruins. And there is a humbling sense of peace in that, like Tsuji Jun (Etsushi Takahashi), Itō Noe’s second husband who she leaves for Ōsugi. He weathers this storm of life in the film, retreating into his shakuhachi (Japanese flute) playing as a way to cope with love leaving his world. Maybe there is more wisdom in this path, maybe less. Maybe the value of his choice is not dependent on how good or bad it is, but simply that it is at all. Maybe that is all we should ask from ourselves, from our art. It might not answer every question, and it might demand more from us in the future, but perhaps that at least might be a good place to start.

-Alex

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Eros + Massacre (1969)

Soul (2020)

Soul

Where are we these days?

I suppose that question can always be asked, whatever the time or place. Those of you reading this near the time of writing will find that question looming like a stormcloud across our day-to-day life, but this question has always been relevant no matter when you’re living. Perhaps this collective vehicle we’ve built called society needs a collective maintenance check-up from time to time. ‘An unexamined life is not worth living’ is a phrase which jumped from Socrates’ mind across a vast abyss of time, culture and history, and has landed here in the discussion of Soul (2020, Dirs. Pete Docter and Kemp Powers) Pixar’s newest animated feature released exclusively on Disney+, the company’s streaming arm extending into our television sets and our lives.

So that’s where Soul is. It’s right there as a large (soon to be smaller) promotional icon on Disney+, a little windowed adventure on the collage board of choice. But on where we are, on where our souls are in these hyperactive unstable times, then where is Soul? What strands of animation have been woven together in an attempt to resonate with us, as art is so often intending to do? And if we can’t find out where we are, can we find out where we’re going?


This may be a lot to put on any one film, but perhaps a film which deals with the abstract should also be approached in an abstract way. And a warning note for those who continue to read, since the production process, exhibition and distribution of Soul has gone through one of the biggest corporate monoliths in entertainment, what this will head into is a reckoning with the internal tensions between Soul and its very existence in a part of a larger entertainment schema. The film (in an over -dramatic and yet very real way) is caught in the midst of the battle for cinema’s soul, as the turmoil over streaming vs the big screen entered an existential crisis during this pandemic. Slated to originally release on June 20th this year in cinemas, its’ exhibition and release is another sign that the times are changing.

Switch to another perspective however, and things take a very different view. Pixar Animation Studios has long been a brilliant jewel in Disney’s crown (or tiara), and has been filled with a rich display of artistry in both its’ own technical achievements and in its’ fable-esque ability to imbue stories with wisdom meant for children and adults alike. In doing so the studio has become one of the founding cornerstones of Western cinema in our time, their work plumbing the depths of human imagination through undeniably exquisite computer animation. It has done this however, under the eyes of no doubt the biggest entertainment company releasing film media for children (and some would include adults in at this point). The shining jewel of Disney’s crown has stayed polished and near immaculate through decades, but it is fixed in its’ position by a million different corporate hands holding it in place. Art usually stays allied to power, and it is important to get a lay of what that landscape means when it comes to thinking about Soul.

The film follows, the life and death and re-life of Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx); a jazz musician, a teacher, a son, a friend, a human being. Lost in the motions of daily life in a teaching job he doesn’t find fulfilment in, Joe dies suddenly and unexpectedly. Encountering the ethereal spectrum of the afterlife (referred to as The Great Beyond/The Great Before), Joe is paired with an as yet unborn soul, in an attempt to mentor them into existence by finding their spark, their reason to live. What we witness in the running time is a meditative journey through the consequences of Joe’s life, as it becomes reimagined through the eyes of 22 (voiced by Tina Fey) who careers like a wrecking ball through Joe’s built up frameworks and perspectives on getting through life. 22 is an unborn soul; cynical, reluctant and fearful of understanding life, but also free of the cultivated limitations we can impose on ourselves and have imposed on us when we live on Earth long enough.

So, a metaphysical dialogue bounces back and forth between the two, as both interrogate each other on what it even means to live an existence. A spiritual rainstorm falls from above, courtesy of Docter and Powers’ vision. To try and deny the depth of their work, to try and reduce it to just another light silly Disney film, is to also miss the point of what has made the regular work of Pixar so universal, so accessible and so beloved by its parent company. We live in a world where it has become more paramount than ever on handling the mental health aspects of our lives, and it is not by accident that the emotional resonance of Soul guides towards a healthier understanding of what it means to be alive.

Soul grounds its’ story in the African-American experience, but Pixar’s modus operandi has always been about recognising the humanity and the experiential qualities of life in whatever world you may find yourself in. Docter’s last film asked you to find humanity in anthropomorphised emotions (Inside Out, 2015) and Pixar’s output for a long time eschewed human animation (as a technical/logistical choice as well as an artistic one since computer generated animation of human figures was considerably more complex). The black experience is given a spotlight here so rarely gifted to modern media, and is enhanced (or used as window dressing and gutted depending on how cynical you are) by Pixar’s continual drive for universality and accessibility.

Especially in the media world we live in today, Soul will mean a lot more to a lot of people simply for what it represents than what it is. I’ve always worked hard on this site to try to experience films as their own internal experiences, to see what a film means in its presentation and in its knowledge; ‘Style and Substance’ and why/how it does both. But what sits at the crux of Soul, is a disconnect between its own substance and the very company which is responsible for its’ existence. Soul breathes the integrity of true art, of fables told throughout time to show us wisdom and enchantment.  It is about striking your own understanding of the world alight, away from responsibilities or weights which your spirit might be carrying unnecessarily. Perhaps that sounds too magical or ridiculous, but this is the very world Soul is predicating itself upon, a magical reality of fantasia.

But that magical reality is warped hard by the concerns of the real world. A limitation is reached, when exploring these issues in only a kid-friendly environment. In a way, am I grateful simply because Soul has figured out a way to get these questions to adults at all? One of the reasons the film will resonate significantly across audiences is because in part a lot of us may feel like this, lost and crushed by the weight of expectations which are only half our own, mixed in with the highly fractious expectations of ourselves and others. In a Disney film however, Soul can only tackle these issues in a de-fanged world, one who’s relation to the real world is at once very close but also very far since it can’t address the more complicated socio-economic reasons we may find ourselves trapped in jobs we don’t find value in. It can only address these matters through the personal, Joe’s relationship with his mum, a student, a soul. Not necessarily because it’s mistaken in doing so, but because to entertain any idea beyond the pale of palatable, personal relations would harm the earning potential of potential markets. The corporate dance to step on as few toes as possible de-fangs Soul‘s ability to speak. It is not Disney’s responsibility to educate the world, but their designed monopoly of entertainment inevitably will have an effect like that. Our own internal desires are constantly navigating a struggle in a complex architecture of many layers we have designed together to channel, guide and sometimes suppress us all collectively in various ways. Soul’s great release of understanding life is so generous, but it can’t ever say that the world around us is working hard to keep you distracted from realising its preciousness. On that Disney remains silent.

Why would a company like Disney want something like that? Primarily because it’s ethos as has been to dominate entertainment with a succession of good-return sequels and story continuations, stretching material over and over again because financially to greenlight a sequel is a much sounder investment than financing an unknown project. From Toy Story’s (1995, Dir. John Lasseter) first release, it would be another 16 years before Pixar would release any other sequels. Perhaps through their striking originality and success, they have managed to preserve an ability to still meaningfully cultivate original material in this domain, but they have certainly fallen more into step with Disney’s corporate line in the last generation or so.  Sequels are not inherently evil, but the focus on continually milking established intellectual properties has created an overwhelming current towards prioritising repeated slim variations of similar stories to make sure merchandise continues to get sold in vast quantities.

Corporate control extends further though, when Disney’s abilities and resources allow it to commandeer and marshal the resources of art at a level most can never understand. In short, this made itself apparent as I witnessed the hippie iconography of Moonwind and his ship, sound tracked to Dylan’s ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’. Sanded down as much as possible, Docter is free to lift the imagery of a counterculture movement and fold it into his world, while using one of the most revolutionary rock songs in a tiny snippet to allow credibility (and representation!) but without allowing any of the lyrics to be played, removing the songs tumbling context to provide glamorous set dressing. On the flip side of this, is the knowledge that the original incarnation of Mickey Mouse as Steamboat Willie is still copyright protected until 2024 nearly 100 years after its own inception, thanks in large part to the machinations of those involved at Disney. More so than any company, they have worked to shape the flow of the artistic domain we all reside in to put commercial concerns above artistic freedom or experimentation, a pool that Disney spent a great deal of time drawing from in establishing most of their own early works (most fairytales are public domain). Artistry can be pulled up into the Disney experience, but it has to be streamlined to be as inoffensive as possible. And heaven forbid trying to integrate Disney’s work anywhere else into the pool, even as their lobbying has helped create a void of artistic culture dominated by IP law. In my mind, does Disney function as a film company who sells toys, or a toy company who makes films? Of course it can be both (if not more), but where do the priorities point towards in its’ art? And what might those priorities mean for film culture outside of the film as merchandise feedback loop?


Soul to me appears caught in an existential bind, another film caught in an abyss of cognitive dissonance being carved out by Disney. Usually, I want to describe how all the elements of a film can work in tandem or against each other to create a unified vision, but in Soul a unified vision is only apparent on the surface, and it seems to be tearing itself apart with an irrepressible desire to elucidate on the human experience while having to toe the line of corporate-approved storytelling. I guess I do slightly admire this psychological dance between these poles, it is so easy to get lost in a dichotomy of anything corporations do being seen as evil, and what Disney and Pixar have continually built upon is the genuine integrity of the human endeavour to live, to love, to be fulfilled in a world which has the potential for magic bursting from all its seams. That is especially true in their films always being such spectacular feats of exquisitely rendered animation, objects and space imbued with talking fish, monsters, cars, toys, and now our own souls and their mentors.

But the integrity of the film’s soul is compromised by its’ own mentor, and moving into a world where Disney’s ambition of endless repeatable stories inside selected worlds for maximum audience retention and maximum profitability is siphoning off air to the very creative spirit it supposedly champions and wants to inspire in us through this film. The patronage of the white gloves of Mickey comes with a heavy burden, a burden perhaps that even the directors may not be fully aware of. Soul can just as easily be seen as a unconscious cry for help from its internal developers as an urgent plea for us to awaken into our own lives more readily and freely. Soul asks you to learn what it means to be free, but without ever asking you to acknowledge those who are benefitting from you staying caged. What Soul illustrates so well is how the complexity of the world can allow you to lose yourself, and how even those close to you can misalign what it means to love and care for each other in a world of day-to-day experience. For that it should be admired. But I’ve heard before that the devil covers with one hand and uncovers with the other, and what this film doesn’t say maybe should be feared, or at least understood and reckoned with.

Because if we don’t take care of our souls right, who will?

-Alex

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Soul (2020)