A Ghost Story : Phantom Mechanics

Ghost Story

A Ghost Story (2017, Dir. David Lowery) is a bizarre experience.It’s a film which does its best to wrestle itself away from any genre conventions you might associate with it on first glance. Seeing the supernatural draws your mind to horror, but there is very little to be scared of here. Seeing the hype quotes around it, with words like cosmic” and another one I saw describing it as “meditation on the passage of  timemight prepare you for a mind bending cerebral brain melter, and while part of that’s true, a lot of the film is concerned with tiny, minute and gentle human motions, all very easy to grasp hold of.

That’s not to say any one element is better than the other, but seeing them combined together in such an unusual package such as this one, one which starts A-list actors spending most of their time simply being present rather than “Acting” in any traditional sense of the word. Seeing these elements in a film which inhabits a space much closer to still life photography than the frenetic technical wizardry of modern-day cinematography. It works together to make a film which is constantly forcing you to adjust to its rhythms, and re-adjust almost immediately again. For only 92 minutes, the structural and poetic complexity is honestly quite impressive.

I’ll try to break it down through its most noticeable element, it’s play with time. Much has been made of film’s ability to compress or extend time, it’s ability to make years, centuries or even millennia pass from one frame to the next, or to drag a single moment in time, a second or even a fraction of that, and drag it out to last seconds, minutes, even hours if you were bold/mad enough. A Ghost Story manipulates time for all it’s worth. There’s a very bold choice as we watch M (played by melancholic Rooney Mara) consume a pie in real-time for nearly 4 minutes, Lowery choosing to focus his lens on time which many other films would gloss over to focus on more “dramatic moments”. Or from one second to the next, an entire life flashes before C’s eyes (played by melancholic Casey Affleck under a sheet for 90% of the time). That’s messing around with structure, making the audience get lost and disorient from their usual understanding of time.

It does all sound rather cosmic when you start to write it down, but again lots of the film is devoted to very small, intimate details. C spends a large amount of time scratching at a nook in the wall where M left a note.  A beginning scene just involves C & M gently and sleepily kissing each other, which goes on for a while. There’s a lot more of these tiny moments, and each one adds up like tiny fragments of a shattered glass. And since so much of the film is image driven, the lack of spoken words drives the film into a territory where things are much more unfocused, but much simpler. It puts you in territory which is usually reserved for experimental films (which I guess this is anyway?), the territory of experience rather than precise understanding. You have to use emotional reasoning rather than logical processing here.

On it’s more surface levels, it’s still unconventional and produces strange effects. The film is framed by an aspect ratio which is something akin to looking through your camera’s viewfinder or as Lowery says here, like old photographs. Cinema screens have always favoured horizontal compositions over vertical ones (since the screen is usually wider than it is tall), so on one hand there are portions of the screen on the left and right completely unused, while on the other hand this also allows for what’s onscreen to be more focused, less distracted by the environment around it. It’s dialogue is often sound mixed into the orchestra, creating an organic soundscape in the film where music and dialogue mesh to the point where both are just as important, but also at times making dialogue difficult to hear. Honestly at times the film moves into music video territory, underscored by a serene but powerful score from Daniel Hart.

So too is the performances, muted and subdued and minimal to the point of going no further. I mean Casey Affleck as the ghost essentially becomes a blank slate for you to project onto in the second half of the film. Prevented from facial expression, and with body movement limited to only the barest, slowest movements, it becomes an intriguing and simultaneously frustrating experience. I don’t necessarily think it’s bad, but just the common film diet gives you so much more to chew on, characters with clear motivations and conflict and interplay between a whole big cast of people working for and against each other. This is so much leaner, the only way to reduce C’s role without annihilating it completely would be to prevent the ghost from moving at all, an even extremer choice which would have harmed the film more than it helped. Just in every way it’s mechanics are those often forgotten by more conventional cinema, the film requiring you to extend towards it a greater depth of understanding, a greater allowance and tolerance to idiosyncrasy.

It is a film about a guy under a sheet. There are moments where you laugh, where you laugh when you probably shouldn’t (I did that), moments where you are bored and wish it would hurry up, moments which instill you with melancholia, moments which are really quite profound. Really there’s just hundreds of different moments, fragments you could say, and once the film finishes you finally have a shattered glass which has been put back together again. It’s not perfect, but it’s deeply personal, and anything it lacks in conventional grace is made up for its unusual and deeply cared for mechanics.

-Alex

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A Ghost Story : Phantom Mechanics

The Ghoul: A Tale of Divided Surfaces

The_Ghoul_UK_quad

I think it’s easy to forget three things in cinema.

1) Films are made by real people. Even though they often pertain to fictional events and involve a complex network of people who work in different departments who work to feed themselves or at the very least, be fed by the catering department, films are still spearheaded primarily by real people who have a significant stake in not just whether the film makes money, but whether its well received or not. They care is what I’m saying.

2) That by the time a film reaches distribution level, the creators behind it have often been sitting on the film for at least 1-3 years, pre-producing, actual production, and long periods of incubation in the edit. By the time it comes round to a director’s Q&A such as the one I attended when seeing this film,  the sparks which set off the idea are long since gone, resigned to the past. Film is always about creating a space and a time which doesn’t exist in reality, but it’s also important to remember that it often has a different relationship to the artist that you might immediately assume from the outside.

3) Almost every artistic choice is influenced by financial availability. Every acting performance, every part of a film’s mise-en-scéne, every camera motion and every cog it’s machine is in some way affected by the amount of money they have to play with. Things in films which can on first glance seem aesthetically motivated, choices by the director on how to convey this world, can often be simply issues of there not being enough money to do it any other way.


These three things informed my watching of The Ghoul (2017, Dir. Gareth Tunley),  as of writing a brand new low budget British independent psychological thriller. Attached to the project is Ben Wheatley as an executive producer, a name which surely helped to get the film’s status get above the water line of thousands of micro-budget produced features each year. But this is not Ben Wheatley’s film, and according to the Q&A he came onto the project at a much later date in the film’s lifetime, so let’s put that to bed right now.

The Ghoul is on first glance, a horror movie about a riddle which can’t be solved. By the end of the film, it is still that. Just in a very twisted, disorienting and unexpected fashion. See, The Ghoul is also about psychological issues, about people who construct realities around them, realities which become true to them. For example, if a person constructs a reality where they believe everyone really is out to get them, and then they find some evidence of that,  it reinforces that reality, it becomes more real. A chain of logic begins to develop, it’s just that logic can be at odds or it might fit in with what’s happening around you.

When you see someone who is mad, it is always hard to imagine “how” they can think like that. How someone can really think the whole world is made of eggplants, or that their own son is actually a secret service plant who also is an exact double of their son (thanks Human Traffic, 1999, Dir. Justin Kerrigan), or even those opinions I might find difficult to understand, like people who believe the Earth is flat or people who believe global warming is a myth. What I can never see, is the logical (but not necessarily correct) chain of events leading up to how that person can think in that way. The Ghoul is a class in how that happens, and at times it’s a very disturbing class. So it’s a film about madness.

But then, it’s also a film about dealing with issues. The main character spends large portions of the film in therapy, talking with those who engage with the mind in all manners of ways, psychotherapy and later mysticism and the occult. It’s concerned with those draining and intense psychoses which follow so many people around, cling onto them and build pressure inside their brains, feeding into our unconscious minds. And how to deal with them, and how to battle them, and the very scary fact that sometimes we could potentially lose. That not everything is a celluloid dream, sometimes it can be a nightmare. So it’s a film about psychotherapy, the unconscious and recovery.

But then, it’s also a film which has other film DNA in it. If you wanted to be mean and glib about it, you could say it’s a lo-fi and weaker Lost Highway (1997, Dir. David Lynch). None of the style, and half of the substance, but the themes and the structure and the content mirror each other in extensive respects. It’s also aping the detective genre, paranoid and nebulous mysteries to be revealed or perhaps not, like The Big Sleep (1946, Howard Hawks). Dangerous and confusing labyrinths which while desperately trying to sort out its pieces, only get more and more blurred together. So really it’s just a film about remixing old films.

But then it’s also a micro-budget film. So it has scenes where the seams come through. Portraying depression is always a filmmaker’s nightmare, because you have to convey someone doing nothing and somehow make it not boring. Sometimes The Ghoul gets away with it, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the production details hold up, and sometimes they don’t. And I felt the acute sense of pain that must come with every film made on a shoestring budget, as the director and producer discussed the fact that honestly there was so much which had to be parred back, shaved off and cut down just so the film could get made, let alone get made well. Entire scenes, production designs and even time when filming, which affects everything else, all the mechanical cogs in the production machine. So just due to financial restrictions, the film is about people because they didn’t have a bigger budget.

All these perspectives are ways of looking at the film, and all of them make some good points but fail to capture any of the other ways of looking at the film, all equally valid in some respects. I like the film a lot, its intelligent and thought-provoking even if its ability to do so is restricted by real world problems. But that’s what marks out filmmakers, those who can at least work around their restrictions to create something. What marks out good filmmakers is getting around those restrictions and making something that doesn’t make you feel like you’ve wasted your time.

The Ghoul did not waste my time. For the sum of its parts, its a grounded and creepy genre film (kind of) that had moments of genuine dread. It may not have an unending legacy, but it was a film made by real people who did it with practically no money and have spent years trying to piece it together. And it was good.

That’s really important.

-Alex

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The Ghoul: A Tale of Divided Surfaces

The Beguiled : Fading Magic

The Beguiled

So in a recent episode of one of my favourite film discussion shows, Welcome to the Basement“, they briefly discussed the film Marie Antoinette (2006, Dir. Sofia Coppola), a Mr Craig Johnson declares the great theme of Sofia Coppola’s work to be “poor little rich kids”. I haven’t seen enough of her work to agree with this statement, but I can say this does run through The Beguiled (2017, Dir. Sofia Coppola).

Taking place in an etiquette school for “Southern Belles” (upper class Southern American girls), a deserting and wounded Yankee soldier, Cpl. John McBurney (Colin Farrell) is taken in by hardened headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman). Staying in the house is the softer teacher Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst), and a variety of students, key to them is the precocious and trouble starting Alicia (Elle Fanning), and the young student who first finds McBurney, Amy (Oona Lawrence). A handsome man, in a house full of women, things begin to get heated as the subtle competitions for affections kick off.

But this isn’t just an erotically charged drama. As the cauldrons boil over, and McBurney becomes grievously injured, his  arousing demeanour collapses and the sense of tantalising danger he presented is turned inwards, onto the girls. The big focus in this remake of the novel and 1971 adaptation (Dir. Don Siegel) is the presentation of the film from the female perspective, and so we witness McBurney from the outside as the women plot to deal with him, their fears and their conversations. The fluidity of this adaptation very well done, as I only found this information out after watching the film, and did not realise the roles had been somewhat reversed.

Honestly while I saw the film I was intensely caught up in the slow bubbling drama. The first half in particular for me, draws you in with a rope around your neck as you seek every single subtle hint, every glance of the eyes or subtle smile, the film becomes something of a Chinese plate spinning act and the tension builds and builds in this luxurious Southern chamber of a house. Combined with the impending sword of Damocles hanging over McBurney as his wound heals and the threat of being forced back into war, and you have a sleepy fire which is really absorbing.

The technical choices on display also work to convey a very tight if subdued style. The colour palette is one of sepia and pink tones, of dry suns and candle-lit oak rooms. So too is the watchful, voyeuristic camera which peers from corners and darkened spots to observe the comings and goings, the tiny verbal confrontations and competitions everyone is having. The editing too, builds at a steady rhythm, the cuts slow and precise and giving just enough time to be unsettled, to reflect on the possible motivations and outcomes of each power play.

Honestly reading this back there’s a lot to like about this film, and I can say for sure that while watching it I was pretty entranced, caught up in its action. And then in its last moments, I suddenly snapped out of trance and realised; I didn’t like it. Now liking or not liking a film is not a new phenomenon, but I think what was different about this was how rapidly the house of cards began to collapse in my mind. There’s serious pacing issues in the second half (and to a lesser extent the first half), characters make choices without really having enough of a relationship to justify their actions, the film’s droning score is ambient without setting a lot of atmosphere. Just it fell apart in my head from being a unified whole work to being parts of a puzzle which didn’t quite fit together.

I think one of the things I often forget about cinema being an adult is that it’s mainly a lot of technical choices, a lot of creative choices, and a little bit of magic. Cinema is magic because it casts a spell on you, makes you believe in worlds which don’t exist, makes you understand people who never existed, makes you believe that hundreds, thousands of different images made at different times in different locations are all part of one single linear world. And I think with The Beguiled I experienced both the spell, and the accidental reveal of the trick. Like a magician who accidentally reveals the rope behind the curtain, the whole thing drops to a level of mechanical functionality which you can never get back.

If you can see the strings, it can still be excellent, it can still work, but it’s never magical again. I had to write an essay for my university course last year deconstructing the cinematography in another of Sofia Coppola’s works, Lost in Translation (2002), and even through an extensive deconstruction process, I never once lost sight of it being anything but a film I believed in.I know that seems a messy distinction, but its hard to define this kind of feeling since its so mysterious and nebulous, so I’m doing my best. Furthermore I’d still recommend a watch, because a film like this, of a director with a distinctive style whose films are neither shining masterpieces nor grubby trash, work which can be both enjoyed and/or criticised, is what makes up the interesting middle ground of cinema.

I was beguiled by The Beguiled I will confess, in that I was charmed and enchanted by it. I was totally caught up and drawn into it’s world. But it’s almost a victim of its own success in that respect, because, like the characters in the film itself, you can’t be beguiled forever. Eventually you see through the masks we wear, you see the natures and real faces underneath, and once you’ve done that it never quite looks the same. The mysterious aspects disappear, and so does some of its’ magic.

-Alex

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The Beguiled : Fading Magic

The Human Condition (2/3) : Nostalgia/The Fog of War

the-human-condition-film-poster

Masaki Kobayashi’s monolithic trilogy, The Human Condition (1959-61) is a legend in cinema history. Based off of the six part novel by Junpei Gomikawa (which has never been translated into English, fun fact), the 9 hour trilogy is an epic chronicle of one pacifist’s journey through the last years of Japan’s involvement of WWII and its defeat, while exploring and navigating the brutal heart of darkness of the governing systems of imperialism and aggression, alongside its often vicious and intolerant perpetrators. Seen through the eyes of Tatsuya Nakadai who plays Kaji, we take an ardently non-conformist journey through Japan’s savage heart.

Using the recently re-released Arrow Films version (found here) I will be detailing the experience of the 9 hour epic in three parts. Each film is divided according to its Japanese version into two parts, making for six parts in total, the names of which title the entry.


Why is this story called “The Human Condition”? It is impossible to encapsulate all the infinite variations and possibilities of conditions a human being could go through. Even if everyone is linked through six degrees of separation, can you really claim to build artworks which speak of the experience of every human, of their conditions? A claim in that direction could be the absence of colour in the film, since its tones are only that of the white-black spectrum. Technical choices aside though, what gives this story its right to lay claim to the experience of the “human condition”?

Entry two, Road to Eternity (1960, Dir. Masaki Kobayashi) has its own answer, just as its previous installment did, No Greater Love (1959). To crudely reduce the films to a single word and a single theme, if No Greater Love was about resilience, resilience in the face of an entrenched corrupt and mismanaged system of factions, then Road to Eternity is about survival, and surviving those systems. Kaji’s fate and his soul has been darkened by his previous encounters, his already innumerable failures to protect his ideals and himself through pacifism. Here Kaji’s pacifism is pushed to its breaking point, as the desire to survive eventually forces Kaji into the corner; to fight or to die.  And while he does his best to fight power with non-violence, to martyr himself for those around him at his own physical and mental expense, even Kaji must come to terms with the violent and brutal conflict which drives every human.

The technical choices I don’t have much to say on, simply because what has been said before continues to be the case here. Kobayashi (in an interview found in the Arrow release booklet) said he found the best cinematographer in Japan to film the series, Yoshio Miyajima, and his deep-focus multi-layered compositions continue to fill your eyes, arresting images through placement of the action in front of the camera, rather than any mechanical wizardry of the camera itself. So too does the music and soundscapes remain austere and sparse, the ambient noise of the world minimal, with the dialogue continuing to take precedent. Even the battle scenes are a far cry from the dense muddy clashing landscapes of sound and vision in say, Saving Private Ryan (1998, Dir. Steven Spielberg).

There is no spectacle of war here, no feast for the eyes, not in my opinion at least. Is this because of directorial intention, or simply the cinematic limitations of the time? After all, the way of shooting film by the time of Saving Private Ryan, not only the technology but the psychology and methods of directors nearly 40 years later would barely have been imagined in 1960. Not only that, but the psyche of the Japanese, and the way they viewed their war is miles away in the psyche of how Americans viewed their involvement in the war. Disentangling this issue seems fruitless, since it’s probably a mix of those two elements and more.

No doubt as to how Kobayashi and the story’s original progenitor, Junpei Gomikawa see the war though. Kaji swaps labour supervision for military ranks, and is exposed to a system which creates even more hostility and bitter resentment. Japan’s imperialistic mentality flaunts itself here, as cruel veterans and vicious commanding officers punish the recruits, to weed out the weak and create soldiers “worthy of Japan”. The suffering reaches its peak as a soldier Kaji was looking out for, Obara (Kunie Tanaka), commits suicide. Kaji presses for condemnation, but it’s no use. What changes in Kaji is his despair turns outward, as he begins to become willing to take matters of retribution and justice into his own hands. And hanging over all this, is the dream of the Soviet Union and socialism, a world which treats its men “like human beings”. Kaji’s hope no longer lies in reforming the world, but in a world where his reforms have already taken place.

But a martyr refuses a quiet death, and he continues to resist, taking over command of a battalion to prevent the same cruel treatment inflicted upon him happening to others. And his punishment at the hands of veterans climbs and climbs, until even unflinching defender Kaji breaks, in one of the films most powerful and well shot scenes, a man with nothing left to lose. Finally finding himself on the battlefield, undernourished, unprepared, and facing certain death, Kaji reaches the end of his transforming, as reality’s crushing weight comes down finally on him. Running into the wasteland of the scarred battlefield, Kaji screaming “I’m a monster, but I’m still alive” is mutely blood-curdling. Many more violent deaths have been filmed, been shown to us onscreen, but few have carried so much weight, not in narrative terms necessarily, but in terms of morality. Kaji’s beliefs are sundered apart from his actions, as his pacifism submits to the most primal instinct; the desire to survive, at any expense.

All this is naturally, bleak and depressing and tough to sit through. Suffering is a natural part of living. so why would you make a film, three films, or write a six volume novel about the relentless suffering endured by a single figure, to compound it happening to a single figure, watching him come apart at the seams under an unendurable weight, like Atlas holding the world?

Because Road to Eternity, is about “the human condition”, and its refusal to let up or compromise on the suffering endured by Kaji, and Obara, and everyone in the film is a reflection, a reflection of every act of cruelty and unfairness that worms its way into the hearts and minds of every man in every society, regardless of who you are. The painful reckoning is that what happens in the world so often, is not right. It’s not right, it’s not kind, and it’s not fair. But it happens regardless. It has to happen. It’s a game that everyone is rigged to lose.

What is noble is to try to win anyway. To battle the impulses of nature, to try to be more despite the stains of living, that’s what is admirable.

-Alex

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The Human Condition (2/3) : Nostalgia/The Fog of War

Zardoz – Oblique Hell and Bleak Heaven

Zardoz

It opens with a meta-commentary of the illusory nature of film itself, and a giant stone head spitting guns from its mouth before Sean Connery rises from the dirt inside the head, in a red loincloth and shoots God with a revolver. That’s within ten minutes.

If you take Zardoz (1974, Dir. John Boorman) seriously, it’s a strange and disorienting fantasy journey through, philosophy weirdness and sexual politics. If you look at ironically, it’s a blithering mess filled with ridiculous and embarrassing moments bursting from it in every frame.

If you’ve read any other essay on this site, you’ll know which lens I saw this film through. But I’m not blind. This movie is baffling and weird and there are design choices which have dated it to sometime before dinosaurs existed, even if it is set in the future. Sean Connery does indeed wear a loincloth. If you don’t get on-board, it’s a prominent and uncomfortable reminder of the film’s failings. Luckily it only took me about six seconds to get on board, and once I did I was locked into one of the films which most deserves the adjective “crazy”.


Zardoz is about…lots of things if I’m honest. Immortality, death, God (or Zardoz’s equivalent, the “Tabernacle” which google also tells me was the Hebrew portable meeting place to communicate with God, so it’s kind of God anyway?), human nature and all the fictions and facts which come with it; class conflicts, ethical conflicts, aesthetic conflicts and more. If there was ever a film designed to collapse under its own ambition, this is it.

In a future where Earth has essentially reverted to pre-industrial living but with guns, we are following Sean Connery, a “mutant” human from the class of Executioners (who essentially rape, kill and pillage the “Brutals” in the name of Zardoz, their “God” who travels in a massive stone head), who kills Zardoz and lands in the heaven of the “Immortals”, humans who figured out how to stop dying. But Heaven and immortality are actually not perfect, sex doesn’t exist and people want for nothing except for the ability to die. Which they can’t do because the technology they built has (on their orders) erased their knowledge of how it works, so they can never go back. Instead they continue on in “bliss”, become so numb that they are the “Apathetics”, or cause trouble and are aged significantly (without dying) and become “Renegade”.

I don’t want to walk you through the entire plot of Zardoz, because for those of you who have seen it, you know what I’d be spoiling, and for those who have not, know that you are still in for considerable labyrinthine twists and turns before its 106 minutes are up. Explaining its narrative density and elaborate structures is only one part of its madness however,  as so much of what makes Zardoz arresting is in its visuals; its psychedelic sets, it’s de-saturated pastel colour palette (worked on extensively by the film’s cinematographer,  Geoffrey Unsworth who shot 2001), it’s absolutely insane sequences of touch teaching and inside the Tabernacle’s hall of mirrors.

Not just that, but its thematic elements and philosophical implications are really worth engaging with. Questions of immortality and the strange “death drive” that psychology has so concerned itself with really are on display here. This isn’t just a “high-concept” film, a film that has structural intelligence but still remains at its core a very simple story (read: Inception 2010 Dir. Christopher Nolan). Zardoz refuses to compromise any kind of narrative simplicity, as Zed undergoes a philosophical evolution throughout, taking him into mythic proportions by the end of it.

Even if you consider the film a spectacular failure, my admiration of Boorman at least attempting to grapple with these themes is commendable as it is admirable. Film’s don’t always have to be easily digestible, easily understandable and easily consumed. Sometimes they’re allowed to be difficult, ambiguous and confusing because often life is too. Cinema is not just escapist entertainment, that’s cheap and it does a disservice to what cinema could be. Cinema which fails spectacularly playing a bigger game will always be respected and remembered more, even if it takes time.

It’s a bleak film. It’s an oblique film. It’s hard to keep up with it, elements continue to get introduced pretty much from start to finish. It never stops whizzing by, and if you get off the train it all falls down (according to a story told by the production designer, at one point during a break one of the sets did fall down). It’s a walk through a singular, surreal and chauvinistic vision on a threadbare budget, and the modern psyche can split you into thinking its just campy trash with severely outdated sexual politics. The critical narrative will tell you to watch this film with a keen eye to take the piss, that there’s not much here besides silly sci-fi trash and the mad whims of an indulgent director. And that interpretation is valid if you want, but you cut so much of the meat of the film away just to enjoy scraps.

Good films take you on journeys you remember. It has not aged well, but I won’t forget Zardoz, its good and its bad. It’s ambivalent, bored heavens and it’s bizarre, weirdly engrossing hells.

-Alex

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Zardoz – Oblique Hell and Bleak Heaven

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

The Act of Killing

Our eyes see very little and very badly – so people dreamed up the microscope to let them see invisible phenomena; they invented the telescope…now they have perfected the cinecamera to penetrate more deeply into he visible world, to explore and record visual phenomena so that what is happening now, which will have to be taken account of in the future, is not forgotten.

—Provisional Instructions to Kino-Eye Groups, Dziga Vertov, 1926

Working mainly during the 1920s, Vertov promoted the concept of kino-pravda, or film-truth, through his newsreel series. His driving vision was to capture fragments of actuality which, when organized together, showed a deeper truth which could not be seen with the naked eye.

—Wikipedia Entry on ‘Kino Pravda’

In this series, which will run sporadically and when the material presents itself, I will cover documentaries which eschew the traditional forms of documentary style in favour of a more abstract (but not necessarily poetic) presentation of its subject matter, which seems to speak on a greater level than the sum of its parts.

All sorted?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It means to see.

-Alex

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

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

Beauty and the Beast 3

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

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

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

CINEMA CLASSIC (1946)

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

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

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

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

LITERARY CLASSIC (2014)

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

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

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

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

DISNEY CLASSIC (2017)

Beauty and the Beast 2017

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

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

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

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

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

SO WHAT DID I FIND?

Warwick_Goble_Beauty_and_Beast

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

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

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

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

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

-Alex

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