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

P.S If you liked this please follow us on twitter here for updates. Also we have a DONATE button on the side and if you have any change to spare would be appreciated!

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)

Grit/Motion: Dogtown and Z Boys (2001) & Lords of Dogtown (2005)

Dogtown

I am finding that this year has turned up a lot of our earth, a lot of our collective soil which we’ve all grown in together. For whatever reason, I have felt that the time spent in these last months has allowed some of my older, more submerged roots to become visible again. Parts of my culture and my identity that used to shine so clearly at my forefront that have since been reshuffled into my psyche. 

It is also the first time in a long time I’ve thought about rewatching some films. Quite self-consciously, I’ve tried for a long time in my life to continually pursue films unseen, unexperienced. Especially when considering material for this site, I have tried to hold true to a quality of new and original experiences, and not allow the work to just become an expulsion of opinions on things I already like and why I like them. Great art can create waves of reckoning inside yourself, and I was concerned that in cinema I had already seen and liked, that reckoning had already since passed.

But in the spirit of this revealing of those hidden roots, I returned to a story which has captivated me for a long time, which made an impression on me at a young age, and whose tracks I can now trace through myself as a much older man. The first glimpses I saw of this story, was when Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001, Dir. Stacy Peralta) was playing wordlessly in a skateshop I used to visit, endlessly looping on a TV mounted on the wall at the back. I browsed the shop for a long time, long enough to get shouted at to hurry up by my mum who was sheperding me through this early experimentation with skate culture. I couldn’t grasp much from the silent frames, but the furious impression they seared into my mind was something that marked me. 

Skateboarding to me was a defining, sculpting part of my childhood. The concrete sprawl of my city was a spider’s web to get lost in, the gravel and the concrete became very close friends. Communal skating in underground car parks was so common to me that it was a real shock when I fell out of it, as my friendship group splintered and fractured apart around 13/14. It was also where I honed my first filmmaking skills, shooting clips through a shitty Sony Ericsson W810i and editing them through the in-built software. Skateboarding from the outside looks like a very simple barebones activity, but hiding underneath it’s griptape surface is a creative vibrancy and anarchic sense of invention and play which draws disparate elements and disparate people together.

There is a line to be traced however winding and convoluted, between myself and every other kid who picked up a skateboard since, and the Z-Boys of Dogtown. The sand of California’s grittiest beaches has been swept far by the wind, a legacy crossing through time and generations of disaffected youths.


For those coming to it fresh and unknown, the Zephyr Skateboard Team (a group of young, anarchic-spirited kids from the zone they marked as Dogtown) helped to revolutionise skateboarding into the modern phenomenon it has become today. To some that means very little, but to this ragged clan of urban guerillas it meant pioneering the use and invention of stylistic elements which changed the form in which the sport was experienced. Infusing surf culture and style into the concrete, their fierce and ecclectic personas bubbled above a churning cultural firestorm, as their exploits and stylistic experiments helped to reform the fundamentals of the culture itself.

What makes Dogtown and Z-Boys so special in its’ documentary experience, is the closeness and authenticness of its’ own creation. Stacy Peralta, the film’s director, was also one of the original Zephyr team. The cultural scene which the audience expects to be revealed, is guided by its’ key participants of the living history they catalysed into existence with an intimacy of subject matter that most documentarians would struggle to achieve. Skate culture and its’ relationship to filmmaking has been relatively fruitful, with a niche cottage industry of videos shot for the community of interested participants which can again be traced back to Peralta, director of the first ever skate video (The Bones Brigade Show, 1984).

The film is, more directly than others, born from the earth that made it. For those more cynically minded, it’s a lesson in self certified myth-making, but that is to mistake the understanding of what their story means. The spirit of this story is embedded in every fibre of its’ being, and its hyperactive gritty collage layers an experience onto its’ audience of what it is like to turn your junkyard into your playground. As fiery recollections swirl around footage of twisted skaters under a washed out sun, the private world of Dogtown is cracked open by those who helped set up its fortifications.

Roses grow from the shit, not from the petals. A documentary lens has always been more infused with that anthropological spirit, subjects and not actors. And to be opened to the world of skateboarding and its’ evolution, is to be opened up to the lives, dreams, catastrophies and successes of its key players. The atmosphere is on fire, collisions of turbulent adolescents meeting disorganised intoxicating adults who take them under their spray-painted wings. The blaze of success becomes an inferno, and in their different ways the documentary examines how each subject, each friend, ally and enemy coped with their own peculiar set of burns.

The truth is shown in Dogtown and Z-Boys, or rather through a ragged and incendiary collage, the truth is assembled and presented as best as it could have from those who witnessed it from the inside out. The area between South Santa Monica, Venice Beach and Ocean Park,  gave lightning in a bottle to a bunch of 11 year old kids and they smashed it open to grab hold of it. The instinctual urban play of poorer, spiky youths in the blazing sun leading to sponsorships, rifts, careers, mistakes and drifters. A scene is catalysed, but it is never evenly generous to its’ makers. And who better to understand that than its’ own participants? 

Lords of Dogtown (2005, Dir. Catherine Hardwicke) was knocking on doors for a long time, and it was only when the documentary landed that it’s creation began. But it’s creation is just another point on the long journey from those original bankside turns carved into moments of space and time, circa 1970something. Stacy Peralta was the screenwriter for the film, and the film’s authenticity in reconstructing the gnarled history of Dogtown is cut close to its’ bones.

In recreating the film, the now outdated 70s style of skating had to be resurrected, which also meant the cast had to learn how to skate in the first place. Sets were built closely to the original specifications (the Zephyr Shop for example), and the original Dogbowl swimming pool was resurrected from its’ grave to provide a new location that had already been an old home. The layers of history run deep and collide over each other, the real Zephyr skaters guiding their fictional counterparts to play themselves in the locations where the real skaters made these marks. “Under the paving stones, the beach!”

An anthropological experience is one thing (one almost reminiscent of Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing), but Hardwicke’s direction takes point on delivering the feeling of this world, the truth that this skate crew lived out. The camera work is an urban guerilla too, frantically crashing against waves of editing to a mellow roll in brief, clear moments of peace. The skating sequences flow through the air, their motion exquisitely captured in balance with the environment around them. The purity of the pursuit of skating is presented with the same genuine reverence that the Z-Boys expressed in their documentary. And that balance, which is only found fleetingly, is the binding invisible thread tying together their world as it explodes from its centre.

For sure, their history is more glamorised here, their counterparts more chiselled and handsome and made more palatable in their aesthetic to the cinema world we are used to. The scuzziness however, is never hidden away or betrayed by that often cultural compromise we make when we make fiction out of our history. To watch origins become truth become record become myth is something we are constantly doing as humans, editing and re-editing endlessly the stories of who, what, when, why and how did all that happen. The intermediaries along the way sometimes have good judgement, but often the boiling down of history to fit a feature length timeslot kills a lot of the deep truth of the events. For better and for worse, the Dogtown crew had some input into how their history, their myth was presented. First in their own lens, and then in the lens of a sympathetic, closely aligned in artistic spirit director. This allows the films to be alive in a deeper way, to be unified with that anarchic low to the ground pursuit which fills the imagination of the screen.

Roots are important because they support what grows, even if their presence becomes invisible to the naked eye. To spend time in the mud is to understand it, become accustomed to it, see what the world looks like from the ground. Skateboarding in my life has meant a lot to me, and it has in general always been defined antagonistically towards general society. A refuge for many continually painted as danger, a threat. Society spends a great deal of time outcasting its’ subjects, and navigating the world these days feels more complex than ever. Perhaps I feel that call again to pick up a board and just experience the grit under my feet and the motion of the air around me.  The same wish, same spirit which traces haphazardly through the past to the present of 1970s California.

The urge to feel free.

-Alex

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Grit/Motion: Dogtown and Z Boys (2001) & Lords of Dogtown (2005)

Studio Ghibli (2/2)

Studio Ghibli Isao Takahata

The tangled and vibrant exuberance of Miyazaki’s world are clear, waves of a surreal ocean washing over the audience. But water in moments of stillness, provides a reflective surface too; a mirror we can stare into, wash ourselves with.  Isao Takahata’s Ghibli filmography is not drenched in dynamic surrealism which excites the imagination in fantasy. He uses the richness of the animated medium to create a lower-key of intimacy with the fabrics of the stories he adapts. Here in Takahata’s pools, the characters are enveloped by the gentle unfolding atmospheres, tones and moods which echo throughout impressionistic environments. Clouds of memory drenched in the fog of forgetfulness, flights of imaginative fancy, daydreams lurking in melancholy wishes; the reflectiveness of Takahata’s surfaces pull us into the nature of our imaginations when they relate to the reality of the world around us.

The characters which rise through these surfaces, swimming along its canals are ones which are pure of heart, at least in their intentions. The concerns they face might be deeply personal, such as Taeko’s gentle manoeuvring through her own half-faded memories as she walks a path of re-discovery as to who she is and who she wants to be in Only Yesterday. In an even more impressionistic and incomplete space, we see the family of My Neighbors the Yamadas navigate the intimate familial push-and-pull of existence, as the relationships of the family are knotted together through the experience of the world around them in a series of haiku-style vignettes. Their personal events become spaces for interaction, for reflection and growth of the oldest and deepest kind, as kids, parents and grandparents all move through space and time.

Or perhaps the characters face a more deeply embedded external issue. Seita’s turmoil and exile from the world around him in Grave of the Fireflies, which leads to some of the starkest and most painful consequences depicted in animation, is rooted in the uncaring and unmoved society which surrounds him. A supposedly civilised and right world which allows him and his sister to slip through its’ cracks. In Pom Poko, a whole range of external issues submerge the tanuki as their forest home comes under the threat of redevelopment. With only an ominous and impending danger the group is awash with inter-personal conflicts; debates and motivations which pulls their minds and their bodies in different directions, all the while the pressures of the human world closing off their space, their time. Choosing to stay distant from any one perspective, the events and characters of Pom Poko are viewed through a prism of viewpoints, allowing the audience to understand the events as they affect the world on a macro-level, beyond the micro-personal events of his other works.

Isao Takahata was Studio Ghibli’s wildcard, a man developing new structures of expression and animation which infuriated even his own Studio. Growing bored of cel-animation (the image Ghibli has managed to help transport across the world), his development of an impressionistic incompleteness in the animation of his work threw the Ghibli production process into chaos. So much so, that after work finished on My Neighbors the Yamadas, Miyazaki upon returning to the upheaval declared that Takahata “would never again make a film at Ghibli”. His character and story structure has always deftly sidestepped more obvious concerns, continually refocusing on gentle and intimate moments of expression which culminate in resonating moments uninterested in forced plot or character development which pulse throughout modern filmmaking. For Takahata, to see the world was enough, and the artwork he made reflected a sense of patience and time that is hard to understand, but important to have been exposed to.

And in his long-gestating and long-awaited final film, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, all of these concerns and experiences culminate in a film which turns even the ideas of Japanese animation on its’ head, ideas he helped to formalise with the very studio he founded. The lines of the film are wild and rough, the impressions of the world fade into beautiful watercolour dreamscapes which stream through your mind. It swirls with a sketched immediacy, unconcerned with the precise perfection of traditional cel-drawn animation. Kaguya’s compassionate expressions portray a personal conflict rooted in an anguish, a longing for a past never to be recovered. While her very existence in the world of medieval Japan is a catalyst for a plethora of societal issues: her nature as a princess, as a growing woman, as a lost child, a mythical being. Her human condition is unravelled to us as a tale of beautiful magnificence, and heart-breaking tragedy. The same can be said about the works of Isao Takahata.

Studio Ghibli Rest of 1Studio Ghibli Rest of 2

I don’t mean to denigrate the other works of the Studio by addressing them here as a singular grouping, but rather just for the sake of structure and clarity. Here in the realms of Tomomi Mochizuki, Yoshifumi Kondō, Hiroyuki Morita, Gorō Miyazaki & Hiromasa Yonebayashi, we see the worlds of Ghibli expand beyond the auteur visions of the studio’s founders. And here it is important to talk about the cost of that expansion. Animation demands an almost overwhelming surrender to its’ creation, to continually conjure a world which does not exist beyond the frames it is drawn on. That level of demand, of engaged precision must take a tremendous toll on any animator, any director. To direct an actor is a taxing job in itself, but to constantly render that actor to life in every detail of their design even through a team, is a task which must seem relentlessly tough as these films can have be made of over a hundred thousand storyboards (to give examples, Gorō Miyazaki’s From Up On Poppy Hill contains over 70,000, while his father’s Ponyo contains over 170,000).

Animation is a brutally time and energy consuming process, and the effects on the creators themselves can be hard. The production of Ocean Waves, a television feature whose ethic was to design at a much  faster rate, still ran considerably over budget and over schedule taking a serious toll on those who designed it. Yoshifumi Kondō, who had spent considerable time working in Ghibli films as a key animator and character design staff, died from an aneurysm at 47 brought on from overwork, as the toll taken on his health finishing production on his directorial debut Whisper of the Heart and his work on Princess Mononoke proved to be too much to bear.  In a different side to animation’s personal cost, Gorō’s fractured relationship with his father has been well documented, as both have spent their lives dealing with the consequences of an artistic industry and process which demands nothing short of total absorption. Besides the familial and intricate personal consequences of Gorō’s childhood and subsequent adult life, their own artistic shadows and ambitions have led to serious production issues during the making of his two features under Ghibli’s umbrella.

Even though this post is more concerned with the artistic expressions finalised in their feature forms, it is important to give respect and understand the consequences of the creation of these works. In animation it is even easier to hide the human cost of these productions, as the work is built into its’ own inseparable reality. The directors’ name shrouds hundreds of staff in the invisible shadows of the work; animators, colourists, technicians and design engineers. This is true of regular filmmaking also, but when there is no physical reality to connect to it can often be harder to see.

What can be said about these works is that the spirit of Ghibli burns as brightly through their veins, even as their visions shift from the autocratic eyes of the animators who created the production studio. Hayao Miyazaki wrote the scripts for both Whisper of the Heart and From Up On Poppy Hill, but both films have a uniqueness about them that goes beyond his work, as Kondō and Miyazaki Jr’s own auteurist visions develop throughout. Ocean Waves shirks off the shroud of the surreal that would later define the studio, a tale of simpler fragile hearts caught in a love triangle at school. Yonebayashi, now at work in his own Studio (Studio Ponoc), developed a duo of films concerned with the same intricate themes often expressed in the founders’ work; the innocence of childhood, the memories and transformation of environments, the fantastical dangers of a fantasy world. But they are also films which express those themes in subtly different ways, highlight subtly different and unique visions of those same ideas.

It is both a blessing and a curse that these films live in the shadow of Ghibli’s two mythical animators. Like Haru in The Cat Returns, there is a double-edged nature to even the gifts and good things in the world. These films will always be judged against the towering filmographies of the studio’s founders, because they have been the one’s to establish that identity, an identity which even they can’t agree on. Miyazaki semi-seriously dismisses Takahata’s work in The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, calling it “foolish”. Takahata grew so bored with the Studio’s animating style that he set fire to previous working methods, throwing the studio into chaos through uconventional and painfully slow production processes. The directors working under the Ghibli umbrella have found their own way, perhaps with sometimes less assured footing, to carve their own paths through the gauntlet of the animating process, and they deserve to be commended for it.

What’s even more special is that every one of these films has heights of animation and vision which do more to mesmerise you than most modern filmmaking can achieve. Little gems of artistic perception which glisten in your mind’s eye. The Cat Returns has the moment where Haru and Muta are caught by a spiralling whirlwind of crows. Arietty’s grappling hook excursions through the kitchen carry a beautiful range of emotions associated with adventure. Tales from Earthsea, long derided as unworthy of appreciation, has an existentially mature tone which falls into uncharted territory for most of the Studio’s work. When Marnie Was There has a darkly haunting sequence involving a silo that still haunts my memory. These films, even at their weaker moments still express visions of the world which truly excite the imagination, which use animation to inspire moments of artistic alchemy and to allow entrance to the gates of magic in a way that physical reality-based filmmaking hardly ever crosses through.

Studio Ghibli Cover

In an interview in 2002 regarding Spirited Away, Hayao Miyazaki expounded on the concept of “ma”, the moments of visible emptiness before an event or happening, using the time before a clap as an example. This philosophy is embedded into his own works, moments of happening which are like connecting tissue between the skin of his films. They aren’t structural story devices or cogs in a fictional machine, they’re moments where the characters simply exist in the present, to be. This whole experience of working through the Studio’s artworks, has allowed these moments of ma to flourish in a world currently off-kilter and violently oversaturated with media noise. The first time in my life I saw My Neighbour Totoro, it astounded me how a film could be so interesting while having so little happening, and that feeling has only compounded with each new Ghibli perspective I’ve encountered.

The moments of ma have resounded and echoed throughout these months of research and writing in a way that has allowed me to see the world in a way which animators do, as a place filled with a timeless shifting nexus of dreams, played out on a canvas of the world. You can dive into any of these works, and find those invisible resonances. In Only Yesterday, there’s this captivating moment where the whole family gather round to gently prepare and enjoy a pineapple in a quiet silence. There’s nothing overtly said or expressed, but the whole scene has a quiet and moving joy in its’ frames, in its’ heart, that speaks volumes to what those at Ghibli want us to see.

They want us to see life, and they want to see those living it.

– Alex

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Studio Ghibli (2/2)

Studio Ghibli (1/2)

Studio Ghibli CoverStudio Ghibli

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

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

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

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


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

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

Studio Ghibli Hayao Miyazaki

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Alex

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Studio Ghibli (1/2)

Honey Boy (2019)

Honey Boy

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

-Alex

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Honey Boy (2019)