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)

Beauty and the Beast 1946.jpg

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)

Free Fire: On All Cylinders

free_fire

Ben Wheatley keeps making films that I would like to make. His last outing, High Rise (2015) was an adaptation of JG Ballard’s infamous novella, one which I was morbidly enamored with after reading it and have since harbored a secret wish to adapt it to the screen, if I ever was in a position to do that. Well I can cross that one off, and now Mr. Wheatley has grabbed the crime film by the lapels and thrown it back into the limelight, in this tale of a gun deal gone wrong, taking away another cinematic desire of mine.

To be honest I’d probably be upset if he wasn’t doing it so goddamn well.

Free Fire is a film about scoundrels.  All the insects hiding on the underbelly of society, some prettier than others, some who prefer beard oil, but all of them hiding in the dark surfaces underneath the rocks. It’s characters spill all over each other, violently clashing and warring for their egos, and then for their lives. The whole film becomes something of a Chinese spinning plate act, as characters drag themselves around the floor of this abandoned warehouse, all of them slowly bleeding out from various wounds inflicted by the others (when most of them can’t hit anything anyway because shooting people is much harder than most Hollywood films portray). We bear witness as their chances and efforts to actually get out alive grow slimmer and dimmer, and we instead settle into a kind of cathartic rhythm of watching how they perish, and taking solace, joy, sadness and all the rest in between.

And what a cast of characters who pull themselves through it. Ben Wheatley’s ability to draw out the absurd in all of these performers, in Sharlto Copley’s lovable and irritating weapons dealer, Michael Smiley (a Ben Wheatley staple) deadpan old “Grandpa”, Armie Hammer’s smarmy oil slick demeanour, Sam Riley’s laughable smackhead and the list goes on with each actor involved leaving their mark in a way which makes you remember them. Special attention must be given to Brie Larson (the reasons are obvious once you’ve seen the film) and to Noah Taylor because well I just love Noah Taylor.

Honestly though this whole essay could be devoted to just a discussion on the richness and balletic complexity of the characters and their interplay throughout the film, but that would be doing a great disservice to the other elements at play here. The cinematography of Laurie Rose for example, Wheatley’s long time collaborator, helps to bring such a visceral intensity to the proceedings, as the camera keeps itself in the position of the players, low to the ground and confused. Constantly bouncing back and forth around the factory setting, it helps to set up a constant thread of anticipation and tension as you can never quite work out exactly where everyone is or how close they are to each other.

Not just that, but the colour scheme of the film, both in terms of its lighting and in terms of its costume design is gorgeous, this rich gold permeating throughout (even referenced in terms of “the golden hour and a half”, the time period in which medical treatment will likely prevent your death, which is also conveniently this films running time) while the costumes themselves are drenched in 70s style, open shirts and pastel colours abound. It’s just such a gorgeously designed world,  it’s vibrancy there to be looked at rather than just glazed over.

Obviously with a film so skeletal in comparison with some of its action film counterparts of today, there’s not much room for hiding, and if the film’s pace had slacked in any way, the whole ballet would have crashed to the ground. Thankfully this never occurs, mainly due to a clear script and some great manipulations in the editing and the sound design. In terms of its script (which I’d love to read mainly because the amount of “x shoots at y, y shoots at z, ad infinitum”) it’s a lot of pure cinema, just pure action, and Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump did a job which he explains in this clip as to how it feels so tight:

As with the editing and sound design, the pace is incredibly well executed, ebbing and flowing not necessarily where you would expect it, but allowing the time for the film to breathe in between its gasping for air shootouts. Really, the editing is the linchpin in a film like this and what a magnificent linchpin it is. Finally the sound design also must be extolled, the gunfire becoming this great cacophony of explosive echoes which are at points near deafening, only punctuated by elements of freeform jazz and a great use of John Denver.

Free Fire is not the most important film ever made, and that’s good because it’s not trying to be. All its trying to be is a good, well crafted film. It’s a film which you can really get lost in, because there’s nothing really outside of its own internal world. And it’s a film which owes its inspirations to other films, from silent cinema to the gangster flicks it evokes. I just think its great cinema, and beyond that, that’s not for me to say.

-Alex

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Free Fire: On All Cylinders

Kino-Pravda Docs: #4 – Leviathan

leviathan_teaser

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?


Leviathan is a tough film to watch, both in its subject matter and the way it’s presented. The film is a surreal trip to the ocean onboard a North American fishing trawler, and the sensory recordings of several GoPro’s strapped to the boat, to the chains and winches, to the crew, to the fish. Like a true fly on the wall, the camera gets everywhere, presenting angles that jar and disassociate you from feeling fixed at any point. The cameras simply watch, for indiscriminate amounts of time at various places; one of the crew members falling asleep in the kitchen area watching television, coursing through the sea alongside the ship as fish guts and waste are dumped  just ahead of it, watching hungry seagulls upside down or watching nets be hung out  from the top of the ship. Maybe watching the crew behead fish or watching a bird try desperately to clamber over a wooden board too tall for it.

This is the film you’re going to watch, for its one hour and twenty-eight minute running time. It is not the best film I’ve ever seen, nor is it the worst. I’m sure it will have its fair share of detractors for being an abstract, completely unconventional experimental work that lingers on far too long (even my patience was stretched a little thin by its last scene), and maybe the detractors are right. But that’s not what this series is about. This is about documentaries that promote that ethos that Dziga Vertov was aiming for back in the 20s, of the camera being used as a way to show the deeper truth behind what we regularly saw. And Leviathan (Dir. Lucien Castanig-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, 2012) does that, phenomenally.

In a world where most of the food we eat is seen only on our dinner plates, the brief visions of the food industry we are shown can be quite alarming. I do not just mean the mass industrialised slaughter of animals that makes up the fast food industry, I mean the inherent necessary cruelty that comes with the killing of any animal for food. Especially in the Western world, there is a strong distance between the actual production of food (the raising and slaughtering of animals), the preparation of food (i.e cooking) and the eating of the food. A chicken unfortunately, does not come pre-breaded and pre-deep fried, already separated into drumsticks, breasts and wings.

Leviathan, if anything shows the pure visceral nature of an industrial process of catching and killing fish. In a spirit more akin to body horror than nature documentary, stunning and graphic scenes of the catches of the day being prepared (read: having their heads chopped off and being gutted, or with skate having their wings hacked off with a machete) are shown close up, in detail. The knee-jerk in all of us wants to say that it’s being exploitative, just using the power of the camera to shock us, to show us what’s really going on behind our freshly battered fish and chips. But as the shot lingers, I for one began to see the mechanical efficiency one must develop when working with animals as supply. In the same way a master carpenter knows how to hammer a nail perfectly, these fisherman who work for 20 out of 24 hours a day must be masters at what they do, the fearsome nature of the job leaving little room for ethics or compassion. The sea is not compassionate, and those who take to it must do what it takes.

I am not either implicitly endorsing or condemning what they do, and neither is the film. It’s not interested in the why, merely the here, now and how. As we watch the thick industrial duty chains coming out of the deep, the clank and din of machinery in motion, ugly dissonant noises fighting against the constant thrash of the sea, the whole film ends up functioning as an abstract immersion tank (perhaps this is not a coincidence, the two directors working at Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab) as the camera becomes a proxy for watching this profoundly alien seascape. Watching a scene attached to a crew helmet where nets are violently shaken out, before returning to the scene from the top of the mast of the ship, it evokes the curious ballet-esque nature of the machines, a link perhaps most famously exploited in 2001: A Space Odyssey (Dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1968).

If anything, the best metaphor I can imagine describing the experience is like watching CCTV cameras if the CCTV cameras were tripping out. It’s a testament to countering every notion we have of modern cinema. The shots are blurry, sometimes out of focus, the camera wildly rotating and dipping into the sea, often turning the world not just upside down but around the entire 360 degree axis. The whole world of the ship becomes a globe being viewed from the outside in, filled with extreme close-ups of unknowns to us. Ominous blood-red shapes rise suddenly out of the water, only to register slowly as a net. But the net floods the vision in bold colours and the sea floods the aural senses, so that its presence becomes no less disturbing even though we’ve managed to make out what it is. At other times, the hypnotic clatter of a crew member gathering masses of clams from on deck. Again, the immersion tank, stripped of all pretenses of narrative or overarching intellectual provocations, it becomes a chamber to best convey the raw sensory flood engaged  in this inhuman landscape.

Films are often compared to dreams, and this one is no different. It’s hypnotic elements are just as likely to send you to sleep as they are to induce a strange dissonant zen state in you, so the experience you will find in watching this, I honestly cannot say. But Leviathan is a film which documents without words and language, in more pure cinema, the seafaring life of these fishermen. It also is a sensory experience which, separate from a critical appraisal or damning, is one which stays with you. And finally, it is a film which provokes awe and curiosity and strangeness and repulsion and fear and boredom and more. It expresses elements of the world film can gloss over, and by allowing us to linger in these emotions that stories often do not have time for, it creates a reaction which cut me far deeper than any traditional documentary might have.

It will not be for everyone, but its a work of cinema. Whether it provokes rapture or boredom or anger, it’s a piece of the world that wouldn’t work in any other medium, and that makes it something I appreciate here. Like the best cinema, words don’t do it justice, it needs to be seen to understood. Even the trailer doesn’t do it justice, because the whole film is an experience that requires you to be immersed, just like its camera, in the raging leviathans on the deck and under the sea.

-Alex

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Kino-Pravda Docs: #4 – Leviathan

Come And See

Come_and_See_poster

Come and See (1985) is a descent into hell on earth the like of which I have never seen. I am saying this just to warn those of you who haven’t seen this film that it really is a heavy watch. This is possibly the hardest film to watch at points that I’ve ever seen, not because it’s bad but just because of the sheer weight of the events unfolding onscreen.

Now before I continue I must admit that it’s been about a month and a half since my first viewing of Come and See. Whilst this may seem like a long time to leave a film to review the film felt like it deserved more than a snap judgement of it. It is a film which commands and deserves respect, not only because of the artfulness of its direction or its value as a film, but also because of the attention it draws to a particularly overlooked event in the Second World War.

Come and See charts a young boys journey in the German occupation of Belorussia and the horrific treatment of people as the Nazi’s cleared the countryside’s small villages. This obviously dark and difficult subject matter which could easily be handled badly is handled with a level of care unprecedented in other war films. Instead of merely replaying the incidents on screen to show us what happened, Elem Klimov seems to try to put the audience in the events. This is just as uncomfortable and challenging as it should be, war should not always be handled lightly as it has been often. This is especially the case with the Second World War which has enough tales of heroism and scope to inspire a wide range of features from Inglorious Basterds to Schindler’s List, both arguably great in their own way. However Come and See stands in a league of its own in my mind. Instead of being bogged down by clear narrative form and character development, Klimov aims to just show the harsh reality of what war is.

Aleksey Kravchenko is absolutely astounding as the young boy who leads us through the landscapes of horrors that dot this film. He gives a performance both filled with emotion and also at points completely detached from events unfolding in front of him. One standout scene sees him climbing through a bog in an attempt to escape from the realities of what he has seen. This scene is etched in my brain, the despair that you can see on screen is palpable. Klimov choosing to frame the films ‘narrative’ (if it can even be called that) around a child makes the films aim even more pointed. This is what war does to people, these are the people that it effects.

This film is without a doubt the truest depiction of what war brings and how it feels to be within the midst of a human atrocity. There are many ways to pinpoint why it is that this is the greatest war film of all time. Instead of any kind of music there is just a low constant white noise throughout the film which grows and subsides with the events being depicted, the louder the noise the more horrible the scene. There really is no way to describe the experience of watching Come and See as it is a completely singular film in my mind. The discomfort you feel throughout just serves to add more to the films quest to depict these events, it’s as close as I’ve come whilst watching a film to just wanting it to end because of the heavy burden of human suffering forced at you.

Come and See is both surreal and brutally realistic, angry and sad, horrific and beautiful. The film defies genre as it is more horror film than war film. This may all seem very breathless and hyperbolic but I really do think this about Come and See. As soon as it was over I was sure it was one of the best films I have ever seen and it may seem like this is a film that you shouldn’t ever watch, and I can’t lie there really is no good time to stick on a copy of Come and See. However I would say that you owe it to yourself to watch this film because it really is enlightening despite how hard it can be to watch. Elem Klimov said of this film that it was his last because he had ‘nothing left to say’, a sentiment you totally understand after watching it. Everything from the plot to the characters to the cinematography feels like a filmmaker making their final statement. This film is undeniably a masterpiece.

-Ed

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Come And See

Cloud Atlas – Mapping Faith

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Cloud Atlas is tough to grasp. I don’t just mean in terms of its scope, its ambition or its lofty sense of grandeur. I mean it’s tough to grasp, because everything about it forces you to think in terms of the universe. To zero in to any one particular element or any particular story seems equivalent to marveling at the banquet laid out in front of you, only to fill up on bread. Maybe if you assembled every singular review of Cloud Atlas, and put them into a single experience, you’d get something similar, a mirror response of the film’s structure. In fact even the production of the film takes this into account, having not one but three directors, the Wachowskis (of The Matrix fame) and Tom Tykwer   ( A Hologram For The King, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer).

Cloud Atlas (2012) follows a recent trend of ever-present but increasingly noticed genre films I can only describe as “philosophical epics”. Cloud Atlas can hang its hat next to such films as, Interstellar, The Tree of Life, and The Fountainhead. Epic, sweeping narratives which transcend space and time to help illustrate and universalise their themes. Rich, densely textured pieces which press on the higher faculties of your mind, zone out and you might miss important thematic illusions, dialogue packed with ideas and subtext, or visuals bursting with splendour. Usually all three at once.  And if that doesn’t whet your appetite, a film which contains a period piece,  a seventies political thriller, a bohemian composer, a neo-Seoul almost directly birthed from Blade Runner, and a post apocalyptic future/past fusion surely will.

But the real core at the heart of Cloud Atlas, like the core of the other films referenced, is that they all focus intensely on the endeavour of the human spirit.  Especially Cloud Atlas, on the transcendence of our acts outside of their specific space/time context by the ways we can speak to each other through the generations, through the same thoughts and ideas, but transmitted from handwritten journals, to letters and music, to film scripts and holovids and through that ancient but tried and true technique, oral storytelling, round the metaphorical (and literal in the case of this film) campfire. As a species, we’re constantly rediscovering the truths that keep appearing to us, that are dredged up only to be submerged again in the streams of human day-to-day, year-to-year living.

Truths like the irrepressible will for freedom.  In four of the six stories, the desire for freedom, from entrapment, imprisonment, enslavement is omnipresent. It manifests in different forms, in the story of the stowaway slave in 1849, in the story of the composer who is blackmailed into losing credit for his work in 1936, in the story of an aging publisher imprisoned by his brother in a nursing home as cruel penitence for having an affair with his brother’s wife. In 2144, as a Fabricant, a human cloned for slave labour discovers the true nature of her existence and fights to let the world know the truth.

This truth, the same desire to be free, manifests itself inside the story inside the context of the location and the time period, but the essence of the character is the same. Besides David Mitchell, author of the book confirming that each character is the same soul reborn throughout time, it’s visually conveyed through the possession of the birthmark each main character shares, a small comet. The whole film works as a testament to that eternal journey, that eternal cycle of the human spirit which struggles against forces that are not its own, as they encounter worlds they had no part in shaping, but are inexorably at the same time forced to create their own futures.

If that sounds heady and impenetrable, that’s because it is. If that sounds preachy, it’s that too. But it’s unbearably honest in its aims, and as a result, everything that springs from that well will either taste like honey or poison. Because the dialogue is very straight, there are no ulterior motives, no hidden machinations to any of the characters. They all speak honestly and truthfully, which can easily come off as one-dimensional and creaky and more importantly, unbelievable to many. Because human beings often don’t talk like this, we shroud our intentions behind language, often trusting our subtext to communicate what we’re really saying, only saying what we really feel in times of great emotion, when the barriers unfold inside of us, and the torrent of the truth comes out.

And this can very easily come off as grating. It’s uncomfortable to listen to people talk so plainly about what they think; people often describe it as stilted and awkward. But Cloud Atlas occupies the same space that our myths occupy, that it’s not what they say, but what they mean when they say it.

It can be difficult to get accustomed to people talking so frankly, that we are so used to the subtle unconscious social navigations that surround us, as we constantly do our best to perform the version of ourselves that is appropriate for the context; the way we act at work is not the way we act in front of our family is not the way we act in front of strangers etc. But the way our characters act, think and talk is a representation of their ideals, and their ability and integrity to follow them. Time and time again, the same soul of Cloud Atlas sacrifices itself for higher causes. In 1973, Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) sacrifices her safety to expose the story of the unstable nuclear reactor.  In 2321, in a post apocalyptic Hawaii, Zachry (Tom Hanks) battles dangerous tribesmen and his own mental state to help Meronym (Halle Berry) send a message to the off-world colonies for help. The young composer Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) sacrifices himself for his music.

Of course the film is far from perfect. Any film that wants to tackle this kind of subject matter will ultimately throw of the shackles of a rigid, consistent formula which satisfies us, for something ultimately more baggy, where characters flit in and out, loose end are never really tied up, nebulous thematic links are put in place of concrete, ‘real’ ones. And if it is not your cup of tea, then the film makes no concessions to its opposite. It is ambitious, or it is pretentious depending on side of the coin you fall on. But then, if human beings are constantly locked in a battle to find meaning in their lives, do they not occupy the same space? It’s heavy-handedness is a by-product of its earnestness, you can’t have one without the other.

There are more examples, but the consistency of the actions of the same soul is what’s paramount here. Not that this is not important in works outside of this, but here its precedence is built on a spiritual level, not just a logical level, because the actions of the soul of all of the characters are consistent across the whole spectrum, even if each character might react differently if they were placed in the experiences of their other time placed counterparts. Even more importantly, is the consistency of the forces the soul faces. In each world there is always good, and always evil, locked in a never-ending struggle of infinite instances.  The cast of thousands in the film is populated by the same returning faces, most of the main cast appearing in at least three out of the six of the stories, often more. They all play different parts on the spectrum, different sexes, different genders, and different paths of morality. Their faces are transfigured by facial morphing, by their period costumes, by the very different worlds they inhabit. But still they recur, to help illustrate the universality of it all.

That ultimately, the spirit will endure. The victory of the spirit’s endurance is one often ignored in the face of the overwhelming odds of the world we live in, whenever we live in it. But the spirit never stops. How much you take that to heart, or how much you reject it, ultimately depends on how much faith you have in humanity.  And love it or condemn it, Cloud Atlas is a very hard film to ignore, simply because it has so much faith.

-Alex

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Cloud Atlas – Mapping Faith

The War of Knowledge/The Knowledge of War: Embrace of the Serpent

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“Embrace of the Serpent is a mesmerizing feat of cinema. Guerra had me at frame one.”

-kogonada, Sight and Sound Magazine

It has been two days since I watched Embrace of the Serpent. I read a review of it in today’s newspaper, The Times (UK) film section, where they used the word “preachy” and awarded the film 3/5 stars. Arbitrary numbers out of numbers aside, I am fixated on this description of the film. The term preachy carries some very negative connotations with it, patronizing, condescending, essentially having someone openly and authoritatively explain things to you, without treating you as an independent free-thinker, but rather as a blinded fool who hasn’t seen the light.

Or maybe it doesn’t, maybe preaching is the act of teaching convinced by belief. The nature of preaching is up for discussion. The aching soul of Embrace Of The Serpent is not.

In its original tongue, El Abrazo de la Serpente is a story about the Amazonian orphan/outcast/shaman Karamakate, as he encounters two explorers 40 years apart, whose separate journeys intertwine and weave together along the winding river and maddening jungle world they inhabit. It’s also a densely textured work which questions the morality and ethics which drove the interactions between the invading colonial ‘whites’ and the indigenous inhabitants of the Amazon. I use its original name, due to the film’s highly placed importance on language as being one of the key frontiers on which battles of culture and knowledge can be fought on ( the list of languages found in the film can be noted as such; Cubeo, Huitoto, Ticuna ,Wanano, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Catalan, Latin and English).

The phenomena of the jungle landscape has been a partial obsession throughout cinema history, both Werner Herzog and Francis Ford Coppola saw something beyond comprehension and utterly compelling there,  and they conveyed that through their films, Herzog with Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982), Coppola with his opus Apocalypse Now (1979). As has been reiterated many times in the promotional interviews for this film however, the difference lies in the central viewpoint being that of the native, rather than the ‘civilised’ explorer descending into an exoticised portrait of  savage jungle life. Possessing incredible nuance gives it the ability to shift in and out of multiple viewpoints however, and imagining the film as a one-sided defense against the evil invading white people is a view which is only briefly held onto, by Karamakate himself.

Honestly I’m scratching my head talking about this, because I feel woefully unprepared to do so. I’ve managed to coast by on some earlier films, simply just winging it and talking about whatever I could conjure up. Here however, I’m confronted with a profound lack of sharpened tools to deal with such a work of poignant human exploration.  Scattershot seems to be my current approach.

The title of this piece came to me mid-way through the film, so I’ll try to investigate this. The film on its spiritual journey comes into a series of isolated conflicts. One particular conflict lies in a brief stay at a tribe, as a young Karamakate is taking  Theodor Von Martius, a sickly German explorer, to find the sacred yakruna plant which supposedly can cure him. Theodor spends good time in their company, taking advantage of their hospitality. He then shows the chief his compass, a device not encountered since their system of navigation relies on the position of the stars. When they go to leave the next morning, Theodor realises he does not possess his compass, and believes some children have stolen it. He pleads for it back, then demands, them grabs one of them. The exchange escalates as the chief reveals he has kept it, and refuses to return it, offering items in exchange. Theodor, hopeless and wounded, returns to his boat to leave. Karamakate chastises him for being ‘nothing but a white’. Theodor explains (paraphrasing) ‘that if they possess knowledge of the compass, their system of navigation will be lost, it must be preserved’ and I found myself shamefully agreeing with this in knee-jerk reaction, without thinking twice about it, because Karamakate replies ‘you cannot forbid them to learn, knowledge belongs to all men’.

That line induced a partial devastating effect on me, because it possesses such a high truth value. Theodor is happy to take advantage of them, but from a position of privilege and looking downwards on them, because the moment they try to steal the fire of the gods, in a Promethean act, he rationalises how dangerous it would be to let them learn, at the expense of preserving them like figures in a glass bottle. And it does open up that sphere of thought, because where does the act of preservation end and repression begin? Arthur C. Clarke, the great science fiction writer wrote ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ so is it right to even expose people without the historical insight the West gained from building these advances step by step, to a tribe which has no historical context to justify it? The point is not whether or not I can find an exact answer to each question, but to lay bare the ideological forces at work, colliding with each other.

This all sounds very heady and mystical, and as a result can feel very isolating to those who haven’t experienced it or had the same connection. But that battle is fought in the film as well, the battle of how willing you must be to surrender yourself to unknown forces. Caapi, a hallucinogenic drink in the film, is used to cross the boundaries of those who want to speak to the jungle, to the gods, to the primal spirits supposedly outside of ourselves. And Karamakate fights this battle in two fronts, in two different histories, in two different explorers who are spiritually linked. Both cannot dream, cannot properly transcend or surrender themselves. To what? Karamakate thinks its to the jungle itself. Theodor does not dream at all, and Karamakate eventually condemns him for it, before realising that he has to teach ‘the white’, embodied in the 1940s as Evan, an ethnobotanist, how to properly transcend and become a Coihauno, a member of Karamakate’s dead tribe and a warrior. But by doing this, he addresses us as well, Karamakate calling us to be a part of this, to understand the language of the jungle beyond anything we can imagine.

Reading that back it’s almost incomprehensible.

Another portion exists in a spanish missionary, where the kids have been taken in after rubber barons destroyed their homes. The father is a callous zealot, who persecutes the kids if they even speak their language, and are forced to speak Spanish or Latin. The troupe in the 1900s come by, and Karamakate, knowing its a sinful transgression in the eyes of the christian faith shows a few of the children some of his ‘pagan’ knowledge of the old ways. This leads to the kids being whipped hideously, before Theodor’s travelling partner assaults the padre, possibly killing him and they are forced to leave, liberating the children while the rest stay, torches burning.

Fast forward 40 years, and Karamakate returns with Evan, only to find the harvest he tried to sow, a perverse cult where one of boys has become the Messiah in this madness ridden Eden. Our troupe from the 1940s are believed to be ‘The Wise Men From The East’, and are forced to help the incurable wife of Jesus, a young girl suffering from an ailment I cannot recall the name of, but looks hideous. Eventually the madness ends with Karamakate crushing a potent plant into the drink of celebration, and the insanity that ensues leaves our Messiah being consumed by his followers as they “Eat the body of Christ!”.

The Latin is delivered wrong, because no one knows how to pronounce it correctly. The signs and symbols of their mutated Christianity and mutated ‘jungle knowledge’ (for lack of a better term) are summed up as Karamakate, lying on his bed in a state of loss, mourns “They are the worst of both worlds.” Even when trying to win their battles, the ravaging of time and the human instinct to misinterpret is ever-present.

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I’m reminded of a sect of Islam known as Sufism, known primarily for its strong mystical slant. Over at this website they explain the ideas behind Sufism, but also the ideas which are the backbone of any mysticism;

“Sufism is a school for the actualization of divine ethics. It involves an enlightened inner being, not intellectual proof; revelation and witnessing, not logic. By divine ethics, we are referring to ethics that transcend mere social convention, a way of being that is the actualization of the attributes of God.

To explain the Truth is indeed a difficult task. Words, being limited, can never really express the perfection of the Absolute, the Unbound. Thus, for those who are imperfect, words create doubt and misunderstanding. Yet:

If one cannot drink up the entire ocean,
     one can drink to one’s limit.

Philosophers have written volumes and spoken endlessly of the Truth, but somehow their efforts have always fallen short. For the sufi, philosophers are those who view the Perfection of the Absolute from a limited perspective; so all they see is part of the Absolute, not the Infinite in its entirety. It is indeed true that what philosophers see is correct; nevertheless, it is only a part of the whole.”

A large part of Sufism is devoted to discussing your experiences of transcendence. Since you can never truly be part of the One/the Truth, the best that can be done is discussing the transcendent glimpses you can grasp onto, the scraps, and sharing them with anyone else who might have encountered the same thing. Which really seems the best way to talk about this film, because a straight analysis of it just doesn’t give much out.

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I mean this is the thing, every time I try to write about what is going on in this film, I find my words to be like sand running through my fingers. It’s so hard to even convey just what exactly happens, and I think that marks a thumbprint of true experiential filmmaking. It literally needs to be seen to be understood, and even when its seen, one can only glimpse the truth its trying to express. It’s Plato’s “Metaphor of the Cave” at its highest form, because even when we stare at the sun, at the truth, we’re only glimpsing the highest truth, never being one with it.

One thing I can compare it to is Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. Embrace of the Serpent even comes equipped with its own ‘Stargate’ sequence, though it’s expressed differently.But both films must be seen to be believed first, and then must be infinitely explored to even try to understand them. And whether we do fully understand them or not (which we won’t) is irrelevant, what’s relevant is the embrace of the powerful images, the symbolism imbued in them, and the thought they provoke in us.

I mean I haven’t even talked about embracing or serpents yet. Well if you’re followed me this far, there’s one more sequence I’d like to discuss in the film. Karamakate explains when he first drinks caapi, that a boa constrictor spoke to him, and told him to kill Theodor. A jaguar told him to protect Theodor. The anaconda, the snake descended from heaven and gave birth to the world. The jaguar is the symbol of the Coihauno. Later in the film, a jaguar watches a boa constrictor. It bares its teeth, and approaches slowly. The serpent hisses. The jaguar strikes, killing the snake and holding it in its jaws. By the end of the film, the white man finally has encountered the spirit of the jungle, even though he came to exploit it, through Karamakate.

My question is this (the same one I asked at the end of 2001);

“What does this all mean?”

-Alex

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The War of Knowledge/The Knowledge of War: Embrace of the Serpent