Studio Ghibli (2/2)

Studio Ghibli Isao Takahata

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

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

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

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

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

Studio Ghibli Rest of 1Studio Ghibli Rest of 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

Studio Ghibli Cover

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

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

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

– Alex

Studio Ghibli (2/2)

Studio Ghibli (1/2)

 

Studio Ghibli CoverStudio Ghibli

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

Studio Ghibli Hayao Miyazaki

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Alex

 

Studio Ghibli (1/2)

Honey Boy (2019)

Honey Boy

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Alex

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Honey Boy (2019)

Mr. Nobody (2009)

Mr Nobody

It’s hard not to give up, with life I think. I felt that, as Jared Leto delivered a couple of lines about how the universe extends through entropy and the atoms of the world continue on a trend of disorder and disappation. Growing through time means more experiences, more ups and more downs. More edges to fall off, dead ends to get stuck in, whirlpools of life which you had not prepared for. The metaphor in Mr. Nobody (2009, Dir. Jaco Van Dormael) is life on tracks, different paths. Their intersections, their parallels, their different destination and journeys along the way. Life dances with increasing complexity each day, and it’s design pushes you into spaces and times that unravel around you dizzyingly. If you can hold on, you can. So you do.

But is that really it?


Sometimes we look up to the skies, and think. The reason we don’t do this all the time someone once told me, was so we could avoid being eaten by sabertooth tigers. There are no sabertooths now, but we still don’t stay in that state of contemplation today. Should we? Mr Nobody, concerns a man at the end of his life, in a future where death has been put on pause. Except for Nemo Nobody, a 118 year old man who is remembering his life. Except for the fact that he’s remembering possible versions of his life, experienced from the point of the present, when the human element of choice allows more than one outcome to happen. Which way does he go? Every way. Routes unfold along separate tracks simultaneously, and Nemo is along for every ride in a different form. His life is malleable, changed by the circumstances of chance.

Nemo has a lot of time to think, and several metaphorical sabertooth tigers to confront. It’s something of a cerebral house of mirrors, Leto’s performance reflected and transforming in the moment, across different lives and different experiences. Leto shifts like a true chameleon in a role which is akin to water, Nemo fills up whatever space and time contains him, taking on elements of their form. We’re asked to see Nemo in a perspective which cuts across our usual viewing senses, not to relate to him as a singular entity, but to relate to him in whatever adaptation his life has taken across multiple streams. Actions in childhood affect our older selves, which affect our oldest selves. The consequences are often unclear, distant, only revealed with time and reflection and even then maybe not. But the water of Nemo’s character fills the shape of the film itself, and we are asked to push beyond our normal understanding of time to see with greater clarity, the way life happens.

Nemo has big worlds to think in as well. The environments of the Earth (and beyond) fill up the screen, with VFX work which really blew me away. The visual aesthetic of the film is woven deep into the film in general. The cinematography is varied and dense, the codes of each world cinematically helping us to form understandings of different worlds. If “life is a playground or nothing”, then the artistic construction of the film lives up to it, as it plays effortlessly with different cinematographic styles. It’s music spills over at times, and gently accompanies at others. The stylistic expressions follow those possibilities, ebbing and flowing and evolving with where Nemo is, who Nemo is, when Nemo is. There is breadth and power in variety, and Van Dormael knew that when he stitched together the pieces of Mr. Nobody. 

Is there a great resounding answer I need to write here, to prove to myself and you the reader about the worth of what the film has to say? Life is there to make of it what you will, and holding onto its dizzying turns is a complicated procedure. Mr. Nobody wants you to know what life could mean, and it pushes through the very fabric of our understanding of the world to do so. It splits open the human experience in a way only the imagination can do, to show us the possible fruits growing at its core. But it’s a film, 2 and a half hours of a day which turns into a week into a year etc. Life is communicated through art. But life isn’t lived through art, it’s reflected by it. Art is our hall of mirrors, our water to fill up the forms of our lives. The reflections you see, only you can make peace with them. Van Dormael offers a path, one that doesn’t have to be taken. To him, they are all meaningful, whichever one is taken.What is important is that paths can be taken, life can be lived.

Art is not going to be around forever, or maybe it is. We’re not going to be around forever, or maybe we are. The answers are what we seek, but we don’t live in answers. Most of our lives are spent searching for them, so that’s where we spend most of our perspectives. I know I’ve gone off on a tangent, but life can cope with that. Life copes with tangents, with edges and dead ends and whirlpools and whatever else is here in the playground. The variety of it all overwhelms any one particular answer, one particular life. Questions about life can only get you so far, answers can only get you so far. Thinking about life can only get you so far. What is meaningful is that life got us anywhere at all. And the sooner I can make peace with my reflection, the sooner I can get back to avoiding those sabertooth tigers. “If you never make a choice, anything is possible” goes the tagline for the film. Well, I’ll try make anything happen then.

-Alex

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Mr. Nobody (2009)

Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

Phantom of the Paradise

Things have been quiet on the site for a long time now. Life does it’s own thing. Here however, is a guest review from a very good friend of mine, @henryatthemovies.


With the lush colours, mad story, blend of soulful ballads and adrenaline boosting rock ‘n roll; it certainly can be said that Brian De Palma gave the Phantom of the Opera story a bump of coke and dressed it up in flares and a sequin cape. The 70’s re-contextualisation of Gaston Leroux’s original 1910 novel transforms the gothic mystery novel into a commentary on the music industry of the time, with a healthy mix of Faust and The Picture of Dorian Gray to bring a supernatural spin on the idea of selling your soul for rock and roll. Its’ inception came from De Palma hearing The Beatles ‘A Day in the Life’ transformed into elevator music; sad how this beautiful song had been turned into soulless corporate background music. This was the genesis of this crazy commentary on the 70’s rock scene and filled it with sexual manipulation, back stabbing and musical neutering.

A lowly songwriter, Winslow Leach, has his music stolen by the mysterious record producer Swan and is thrown in prison. After an accident leaves him disfigured, he becomes the thorn in Swan’s side as he tries to champion the talent of the timid singer, Phoenix. That’s the setup but it’s a plot that’s brimming with so much. Things get crazier as it goes on, the unpredictability of a plot that reaches an insane conclusion that feels suited to the film. It’s a very free adaptation of Leroux’s novel, taking a good portion from the 1943 Universal remake. De Palma isn’t bound to the source material; he adds so much to the story, using that base as a jumping board for his own creativity.

It still has echoes of the Phantom novel with the mysterious hermit dispatching an ostentatious singer and replacing them with his own unknown, timid muse. The Faustian aspects allows for critiques on the music industry; Winslow signs a contract in his own blood and there is a later Satanic twist involving Swan. There is not a single scene that drags, they all entertain and work in the grand scheme of things. My favourite is the ‘Upholstery’ car bomb sequence where De Palma pays tribute to the legendary opening sequence of Touch of Evil but with split-screen. The tension builds up off-stage as we witness the first of the Phantom’s sabotage attempts that builds uneasiness in the audience as one of the Juicy Fruits becomes paranoid about a ticking noise. Behind the scenes we see the exploitative nature of the music business hidden behind the fun music and bright colours.

I often hear comparisons between this film and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, both being rock and roll centred musicals with plain, normal characters thrust into a realm of freakishness. The two were also failures upon release but found new life as midnight cult movies, though Phantom beat Rocky Horror to the cinema by a year. Another fun connection is that Jessica Harper (Phoenix) played Janet in the sequel to Rocky HorrorShock Treatment (1981). Rocky Horror’s two leads, Brad and Janet, are very normal people who get sucked into the world of the mad scientist Dr Frank N Furter. Phoenix is the closest we get to a normal character in this film; our ‘hero’ Winslow shows from the beginning that he is unstable and can teeter between rationality and irrationality.

They’re really the only two main characters with any positive traits even though Winslow does resort to murdering people and violently disrupting the goings on at the Paradise. Winslow is a great anti-hero who can be both sympathetic and terrifying in the same scene. Finley’s bug eyes lend him a rather scary look that served him well in De Palma’s Sisters (1973) as it does here but it’s the dark avian look of the Phantom costume with the silver teeth that creates a menacing and iconic look. The bird look also pairs with Swan Songs dead bird logo – Swan has destroyed the songbird but this one rose up against him. Great work by costume designer Rosanna Norton and Finley for their aesthetic.

Up against Bill Finley as Leach is singer-songwriter Paul Williams as Swan. It’s genius casting having this embodiment of music scumbaggery being portrayed by a 5ft 2 soft-spoken, mop headed pianist known for writing songs for the Muppets (among others). It gives Swan an unassuming demeanour that hides his true malevolence. Originally called Spectre (in a not so subtle nod to producing superstar Phil Spector), we don’t see his face when we are first introduced to him, we only see who he is at the orgy scene. Discussing Winslow with Philbin, the faceless producer here begins to plot how to take Winslow’s pop cantata and manipulate it into something that suits the clean-cut Juicy Fruits. Gerrit Graham as glam rocker Beef is a part of Swan’s mutilation of Winslow’s music and is played with outlandish brilliance (his lip syncing not included). The glam rocker is this version’s Carlotta from Opera and his story beats are similar to her own, with an added ‘electrifying’ finale. A memorable moment between Beef and the Phantom is a drawn out homage to Psycho’s iconic shower scene with it’s own twist on the payoff. The glam rocker is a juxtaposition to the soft spoken Jessica Harper as Phoenix, who Winslow deems to be the only one who should sing his music. While not the most interesting character in the film, Harper makes up for it with her wonderful musical numbers and she is a strong actress.

Not only did Paul Williams take on the role of Swan, he was also responsible for the film’s fantastic score; writing the songs as well as lending his voice to ‘Faust’ and the ending song ‘The Hell of It.’ Due to the inclusion of the genre shifting Juicy Fruits/Beach Bums/The Undead, Williams proves his excellent song writing skills by managing to create three separate songs in different styles: doo-wop, surf and glam rock. ‘Faust’ is transformed from a soulful section of Winslow’s pop cantata into the superficial (yet incredibly fun) ‘Upholstery,’ replacing deeper emotions for a surface level summer romance with girls and cars – very reminiscent of early tracks from the Beach Boys. There are two songs that also share similar traits: ‘Life at Last’ and ‘Old Souls.’ The bombastic ‘Life at Last’ is performed by Beef with unashamed brashness and flamboyancy whilst Phoenix’s rendition of ‘Old Souls’ becomes a ballad that gives the song an emotional edge rather than a sexual slant. ‘Goodbye Eddie, Goodbye’ opens the film and it’s an upbeat doo-wop tribute about a rock star who kills himself so his album sells in order to help out his ill sister. An incredibly strong start for the soundtrack but it never falters afterwards, the songs only get better and better.

De Palma’s Phantom is a wonderfully delirious trip delivered in his trademark 70’s style with loud colours, split screen and crash zooms galore. The zany film is backed up with an incredibly strong soundtrack provided by one of the greatest songwriters of all time, each one as strong as the other. The often sad stereotype of dishonesty in the world of music is exaggerated with voice control and satanic pacts, but also among the flashiness is a glimmer of hope for the struggling artist to come out on top of it all. Certainly one of De Palma’s best and should be mandatory viewing for any fan of cult cinema. Check it out.

-Henry


 

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-Alex

Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

Kids (1995)

Kids

Kids get old. And kids get complicated. Children grow into older beings, they change over the course of life and develop. Into what? Whatever makes them, moulds them. The experiences they gather impress themselves on them; the conversations, the actions, the dreams and lies and everything else in between. All the time they spend moving through their own cities and their own social connections, it builds up like the pages of a book, one after another.

Kids (1995, Dir. Larry Clark) has gotten old. And the impression Kids leaves, it’s legacy, is still just as complicated and ambigious as before. Kids is not the unknown debut it used to be, it comes to any new generation with a different understanding of the one which existed with it in 1995. All the impressions it’s made on those who watched it, those who were inspired by it and revolted by it, its’ legacy which has built it up into a cult film have left their marks on the minds who’ve witnessed it.


It will always be complicated to talk about Kids, if only because its subject matter will always be provocative. Built into the film’s DNA is the idea of exposing a world which for most parents, and most of society, is invisible. It’s the filmic equivalent of turning over the rock to expose the underground world of creatures beneath it, to show what was previously hidden. It follows its characters through the streets of New York in a way which is rarely portrayed by glamorous, conventional cinematography. It spends time on the streets, not just to shoot B-roll or to exterior shots of faceless skyscrapers. Larry Clark’s background in street photography no doubt pushed this ethos from the beginning, but the camera work of Eric Edwards and Clark together is motion picture photography, it’s interested in how the figures in its landscape, move, act, see and communicate. It’s handheld, docu-drama/cinema vérité aesthetic pushes you to see the city from the kids’ level, bringing their perspective into focus and ramping up its intensity.

Because being a kid, especially in the world of Kids, is intense. The stories of Telly, of Casper, of Jenny, Darcy, Ruby, and every other figure which moves through the story, are stories which reflect the blurred, ambigious lines of the darker stories of a lot of kids growing up. A lot of stories have passed through my head, stories of friends and friends of friends, of people I’ve never met before. Stories of kids being exposed to things they shouldn’t do, doing things they have been told not to, exposing themselves to parts of life they are supposedly too young for. Harmony Korine went on record saying besides the AIDS storyline, pretty much everything in the film was events he’d seen happen. The questions and ramifications of Kids authenticity have caused debate and even the production of a new documentary by one of the cast members, but what Kids shows to those who have experiences which resonate with it, is a reflection of the stormy seas kids sail in their journeys of growing up.

The power of placing certain events in frame, certain stories, certain stylistic choices, is what makes up cinema. Watching Kids, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by its most pitch-dark moments. It is unrelentingly strung out, and the film often feels like a warped spiral downwards, as the haze of murky actions, murky behaviours, and murky consciences continues to bleed into your head too. Seemingly too young for self-awareness, the kids continue to charge forward not just with the recklessness of youth, but with a fiery combustibleness that often burns the people around them. But their lives are left darkly unreflected upon (save the ominous last line), the conventions of cinema do not twist around the story to make an audience feel satisfied that ‘justice was served’. Real life, all it’s ugly thorns and painful experiences are often left unrepented for, unexamined. For Kids to do justice to that world, to even lay any claim to authentic roots, it portrayed those events as the kids would handle them, whatever the cost.

I don’t have much more to say about Kids, simply because Kids does not have a lot to say. It is a film which shows, which spends time showing you what the lives of people you’ve never even met are like. The experiences of life are often disordered, chaotic, fragmented and more dangerous than we’d ever like to imagine, especially for our children. Humanity’s precious children, the little babes in our beds, grow into a world and take their place in it. Kids is far more honest about that world than so many coming-of-age tales, it bleeds through the cracks of society’s walls. It condenses the experiences on the fringes of young adulthood into an hour and a half of spiralling, fragmented faces and warped moralities. The lives, the experiences, the possible horrors of what it can mean to be a kid are kept here as a cinematic record.

Because kids get old, and they forget what being a kid was like. As an adult, the urge to nostalgise your childhood, to romanticise it and cleave from your memory all the unholy relics and thorns that actually being a kid can experience. Life may not be as high-octane, as chaotic and cruel as the life of the kids in Kids, but if you can’t see any part of yourself and the child you were in any of their faces, any of their smiles or their tears, you’re denying the life you once lived, thorns and all.

-Alex

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Kids (1995)

Midsommar (2019)

midsommar_ver4

Pagan cults in Horror filmmaking are one of those specific niches that very few people have nailed, there are only maybe two or three films which have remained staples in the canon whilst body horror or ghost stories have many variations. Pagan horror remains indebted to The Wicker Man (1973, Dir. Robin Hardy) and possibly Witchfinder General (1968, Dir. Michael Reeves). With Midsommar, Ari Aster and his cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski have created a vision of hell on earth bathed in sunshine and psychedelic imagery that will stick in the mind long past its first viewing.

Much like his last film Hereditary, Aster ties all the events of the film to a tragedy that happens in the first act and from there things spiral out into disturbingly strange territory. Dani (Florence Pugh) and her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) are on the rocks following this tragedy, and a trip to Sweden to visit one of Christian’s friends’ mysterious Swedish commune, and witness their Midsummer festival presents a chance for them to get away and possibly start afresh. This is of course a bad idea that we as viewers are intensely aware of as soon as we see the white robes and overly smiley faces of the members of the Hårga. I will let the film reveal the events that happen with the Hårga in Halsingland, as it is important to experience what they do first hand, just as the characters do. It is safe to say though that your initial impressions of these pagan oddballs are correct, and things go downhill quite drastically by the end of their trip.

Midsommar is an ambitiously long film running at over two and a half hours long, but the visuals alone were enough to carry the film to another plane for me. It is not a snappy, fast paced, shock a minute film, but this is clearly a conscious choice by Aster. He is ambitious in his focus on horror storytelling and has obviously set out to create a lethargic rhythm to the film which will draw you in and challenge you. The film is probably closer in tone to Gaspar Noe’s Climax (2018) than a conventional horror narrative. There is more story at play here, but the tone and pacing help mirror the disorientation of the central characters to you, pulling you in whilst not being sure what is happening.

The fact that you can stick with the film as easily as you can is in a large part in testament to the cinematography and vivid colour of the film. The film is beautiful at points, with Halsingland’s green grass and beaming blue sky contrasting with the creeping horror on screen. There has clearly been a concerted effort to make the experience of watching the film as visually pleasing as possible, despite many people in my screening having to look away when the Hårga really let rip in their pagan ceremonies. The natural beauty of the setting and the strangeness of the events which take place within it make the feeling of increasing dread even more palpable. A strange unease comes over you when you see such disturbing things happen in full daylight, Aster gives you nowhere to hide and you see every element of whatever horror he is showing you. There are multiple moments throughout the film where Aster employs the same dead eyed long shots of his characters going through hell that he used in Hereditary, not giving the viewer a chance to escape from the emotions within the scene. The film even harks back to Bergman at points; it’s hard to imagine a character being named Ingmar is unintentional. Think Wicker Man (the original obviously), mixed with Climax and maybe a little bit of the human angst in The Virgin Spring (1960, Dir. Ingmar Bergman) and this is quite close to what you get.

Leaving the film on first viewing I wasn’t quite sure what I made of it, however having sat with it in my head for a while now I can appreciate just how original an experience I felt it was. If you go into this film expecting to be terrified from beginning to end you could be pretty disappointed. The thrill for me came from Midsommar’s slowly unravelling sanity, until Aster finally releases the tension and the Hårga are shown for their true colours. Of course, there is much to be drawn in terms of meaning from the events on screen, especially about the film and its relation to theories about toxic masculinity and relationships in the modern world. However, for me I just really enjoyed the darkness Aster conjured in broad Swedish daylight, and the slowly building power of its images.

-Ed

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Midsommar (2019)

Kino-Pravda Docs: #8 – Three Identical Strangers

Three Identical Strangers

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?


‘Fragments of actuality’.

That’s the driving force often behind documentaries, to weave together the fragments of actual life and present them to us in only a way a film can. Life weaves its own path, with no regard for anything other than what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen. It can be frustrating though, to try and map the complex nexus of life onto a couple hours of experience.

Especially with a story such as this one.

Because sometimes stories in the real world, though they may not reach the operatic heights of fiction, matter and reveal a lot more to the world, simply because they’re true. They’re true, but more importantly they need to be seen to be believed. The story of Edward Galland, David Kellman and Robert Shafran is one which should be logged in humanity’s ‘bizarre’ folder indefinitely. Three identical brothers separated at birth for reasons which rapidly are revealed to be ominous at best, who come to know and meet each other at the age of 19, before their lives take off into a media whirlwind and into a spider’s web of secrecy, pain and scientific investigations. The film circles deeper and deeper into an ethical maelstrom of human nature which eventually spins you out back into the world, drenched in the knowledge of a story which is real, and shocking.

But a documentary is not just a 1:1 representation of real life, and director Tim Wardle delicately sutures the entire story together, drafting and redrafting the story as it continues to unfold. Each interview is a Russian doll, exposing the secrets and the hidden figures lurking in the wings of the story. Archival news clips are strung together under a common narration, emphasising the audience to see what is necessary at the time, only for those same clips to be reconstituted later under a deeper layer of understanding. What is beautifully drawn out of the film’s subjects, not through any particularly intense interrogations, is the continued revelations of information becoming part of the story. The events and timeline of the case are not depersonalised, it is not a maze to be solved.

One of the reasons for this is simply because the film is so earnestly concerned with the real tragedy, the real existential story of the brothers themselves. Audiences love thrillers, and conspiracies are notoriously tantalising, but the film really only goes as far as to show how the mechanisms at work have so deeply affected and grown the colossal void or absence that being separated did to the brothers as a whole. More than anything, the film frames their experiences, their resilience and sense of loss as the centrepiece of the story. It’s documentary 101: show the humanity, whatever the form, and it pulls it off in a deeply moving, mind-boggling way.

But another reason for this, is that the film is also hampered by (and excellently shows) the process by which legal institutions and places of power protect themselves, not through any obvious displays of power, but simply by abusing the regulations and understanding of the law. The documentary process usually does its’ best to not make you aware of its inner skeleton, of all the boring record hunting and the other parts of the production process. Usually all the information is streamlined into the documentary, with some nice appealing visual aids and appealing narration. But a documentary is always limited by how much information the story and its participants will reveal, and the legal entrenchment of power and silence hurts the truth of many, many stories. So by Wardle displaying that process, that invalidation and silence and refusal to partake in the story’s necessary revelations, it takes the story and the film beyond that of a conventionally great documentary, and highlights a deeper, more disturbing truth of the world that is being reflected; that it doesn’t have to give you the answers you’re looking for.

With a story such as this it’s always best to take it with a pinch of salt anyway and not buy into it 100%, simply because it so complex, so tangled, and still open-ended. In fact Wardle does seem to encourage it, keeping the film more balanced towards to the human truths of the brother’s experience as opposed to any irresponsible speculation or hypothesis making. The indictments it makes are more delicate than damning, but the film doesn’t play down the colossal scope and weight of the story. Most importantly it speaks truth to power, it exposes the internal workings of a story too surreal not to be real, and it uses self-aware and acrobatic documentary techniques to sculpt the story into something stylistic, beyond just the straight raw material of life.

What more could you want from a documentary?

-Alex

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Kino-Pravda Docs: #8 – Three Identical Strangers

Palindromes (2004)

Palindromes

Films are easy, but that’s only because they’re hard. They’re easy because you can put them on and no matter the film, whether it is a light piece of popcorn fare or an intense vertiginious dizzying rollercoaster through the very depths of human experience, everyone (with exceptions) gets the same assembled piece of film to draw from, the same well to drink from. Hundreds and thousands of individual choices; lines, shots, sound effects, takes and performances, they all sculpt a film from thin air, from a story inside someone’s head to a written, formatted text, to an audio-visual chain/superstructure which is packaged and shown and most importantly, seen.

But they’re hard, films are not the same. The eyes and minds of the world are many, and the films which are sculpted into being are not always of the same shape, the same order, the same schools of thought or design. Films are experiences which resonate with people, and the resonations that ripple outward from any film great or small affect people differently. And those affects are not simple and isolated, but films often evoke a great deal of perspectives, feelings, and movements simultaneously, engaging like an explosive rippling out onto the suspecting and unsuspecting alike.

So we come to Palindromes (2004, Dir. Todd Solondz).


 

I’m struggling already with Palindromes, simply because I always feel that no matter what I write about it, I’m not properly capturing the vertigo-inducing complexities of it. In short, Aviva (played by eight different actresses of race, gender, and age) is a 13 year old Jewish girl, who wants to have a baby, and falls into a dark Americana labyrinth, crossing the landscape and the people in a journey which stares unblinking into a world of abortion,  Christian evangelicism, and underage and pedophilic sexual encounters. Aviva travels down a polluted river, and stares innocently into it for most of the film’s runtime.

Having Aviva played by different actresses is the film’s mechanical wondershow for the audiences, forcing most people to interact with a constructed film world which people rarely encounter. The film’s construction forces you to keep Aviva constant even as everything about her physical appearance changes. It creates a relationship to the film which at once distances you and brings you closer. Watching different physical bodies portray the same character created more than just an internal resonance with Aviva, it pushed me to start thinking about how we can carry different versions of ourselves inside us. How our past selves can stay with us, old clothes stuffed inside the new ones. The film never does more than wryly comment on the technique once or twice, and by taking itself seriously it punishes an audience which would like to turn its head, to try and create some distance from the uncomfortable closeness to the dark heart of America.

Because portraying the world through Aviva’s eyes and truly being committed to it, means experiencing her world without the kind of moral stabilisers and framework that the adults would like to believe they possess (which sometimes they do, sometimes). Aviva is a child, and Solondz was never interested in constructing a how-to-guide for society why all of the things Aviva sees are wrong. In fact, Solondz stays truthful to Aviva’s point of view in that as a child, it is often hard to fully understand why adults do the things they do, and the consequences of their actions. This leads to what feels at first like a moral vacuum, as Solondz’s script doesn’t blink at how truly ugly life can be, but also leads to a perspective of life from inside what society has deemed evil as it is experienced in life. The unplanned pregnancy is an act which nearly tears Aviva’s family apart, and the ironic cruelty of events after is not a replacement for being confronted with the murky murky depths of human life.

Palindromes understands that everything stays the same, even if you think it gets different. But also everything is different, even if you think it stays the same. It is locked in its’ own paradox, just like films being both easy and hard. Because Palindromes is not the film you walk out of, raving about it’s obviously gorgeous cinematography, or any of it’s more conventional stylistic flourishes. It is uninterested in Hollywood stars, or facades of reality which cash in on cheap entertainment values. I’m not saying those things are inherently bad either, merely that the perspective it contains is one which travels a less well-trodden path. But it is a film anyone would come out of with lots to say, a film which provokes and presents the world around it in a light devoid of a romantic sheen. And the thing about Palindromes is that it might occupy the same space, the same time as many many other films. It’s only one hour and forty minutes, and there are hundreds of thousands of films which run for the same amount of time. Palindromes, like every film, is just a film. Palindromes, like every film, is so much more than just a film.

And that is the end of what I have to say about Palindromes. And it is also only just the beginning.

-Alex

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Palindromes (2004)

War and Peace (Voyna i Mir – 1966-7)

War and Peace

Cinema. Cinema, in all its forms is an unusual thing. Because what can you do with it? Bring images, captured from the real world or made from other sources, to the eyes. Bring sounds, made in studios or recorded on location, into the ears. You can cut the images together, or you can play a singular shot. A “film”, can be a short that is shown to friends or yourself, or it can be a spectacular Hollywood blockbuster with rip-roaring effects. Hell if you’re wild, you can do one of those 4-D experiences, which have 3-D spectacles as well as some activating some of the other senses, the spray of the sea with a mist of water or the smell of something in particular.

Or maybe, with the backing of an entire nation’s government, you use cinema to create an adaptation of what is considered one of the finest artistic and literary achievements in human history. And you do it in four parts. And you spare no expense. And it’s just under seven hours.

Sergei Bondarchuk did that with cinema.


When you have epic literature, and by extension epic cinema, the world becomes a different place. Main characters exist, but they exist in an encompassing world, a world which has multiple levels of orbit. Characters exist in multiple levels of strata, of layers of social status or decorum or class or gender or faith or in fact, all of them. Epic literature is not viewed from the ground, it is viewed from well…everywhere. War and Peace as a story, while it may not literally view the world from God’s eyes, certainly does its best to force you to surrender yourself to such an experience. The shift of the world and all its inhabitants, is one of great moments of voluminous experience, and the gradual unyielding shift of time slowly but surely moving on. War and Peace takes place over the scope of 10 years or so of Russian history in an extremely volatile period, that of the Napoleonic Wars. 7 hours doesn’t seem so big when you consider that amount of time to force into the frame of a film.

What catalyses in the brain of any reader or viewer of any true ‘Epic’, is the sheer scale, the sheer volume of what occurs. An epic may not need 10 years (Homer’s Iliad doesn’t take more than 55 days), but what is needed and what is conveyed, is a true sense of the story beyond any one individual. A story of people, not a person. Because life from the fixed perspective of any one person, can only see so far. So by far, the best and most breathtaking technique employed throughout the film, is scale. And Bondarchuk had an opportunity like no other. Thousands, thousands of extras fill up the space for miles on end, armies moving across the landscape like little blocks, seen from a commanders perspective. But the sheer volume of them is something unseen, something which I can only imagine being matched by the experience of modern-day stadiums of just physically seeing that many people. But those marching blocks soon are involved in the hideous, fascinating art of war. The seemingly endless bloody fields of soldiers, a number in the film so small in comparison to the real battles (At Borodino, 70,000 men died in a single day) is not only unrelenting, but they push you to see the war only as a force, like the wind. The merciless slaughters are only accentuated and revealed by time, never made better.

But the scale of the warfare is only half, albeit an unbelievable, colossal and deeply deeply overwhelming half. The nature of the story can only reach its fullest heights, when war is complemented by its intertwined sibling, peace. And the scale of peace is not something to be brushed aside in favour of the sticky blood spilled across the fields. For the world of this story, is operating under a grand sweep of time across its landscape on all its levels. The rich, vast halls of the aristocracy tower over the parts I & II, an environment for gods and giants to exist in, where every room is a chasm and a theatre simultaneously. Palatial estates are only complemented by the extravagant and unending decorations; the food, the clothes, the ornaments and chandeliers and furniture and more, endless endless arrays of the excesses of the well-to-do of history. The scale of their wealth is staggering, and overwhelms the senses. To really capture extravagance, there is nothing else to do besides show it, and Bondarchuk’s infinite reservoirs of it are a wonder to behold.

A story and a film which runs along the knife-edge of history, especially an aristocratic one, can only do so much for the poor underneath them. For most of history has been written for those above that level, and the voiceless left without a coin to wish upon in history’s fountain. But war, and peace, affect everyone. And the scenes where Pierre spins through Napoleon’s war-torn Moscow, encountering the masses, hold the same spiritual resonance they must do in the original story. For the only thing the poor truly possess in these times is held up as a valuable, dusty and grimed covered object; their spirit. For a story as grand as this, more than blood must be seen, we must look at the chamber that holds it. The heart.

And the film more than many I’ve ever seen, possesses such a wealth of spirit. The story itself is by far the baseline of all that resounding human experience, Pierre and Natasha and Andrei and everyone cascading through your mind and imagination. But also Bondarchuk’s cinematic spirit, is so fantastic to be a witness to. Although often the camera is convinced to play a scene straight, long shots for rooms and close-ups for important conversations, there is some beautiful cinematographic experimentation bursting through the edges of the story. Camera shots which run vertically forward across the battlefield, deep expressionistic smoke-filled backgrounds, completely absorbing you into the gun-powder hell of cannons and mud. A location jump through a transition through a rainy window says so much. One of the most dreamlike and quietly painful executions to ever fall into an image. The camera roves through the landscape, searching among the blown out ruins and palatial spaces picking up whatever it can find, occasionally finding time to ballet around its elements. Covered in blood, it dances.

What more can I ask of War and Peace? What more is there to get from a film? It charts a journey across time, love, war, peace, and everything in between which makes up the rich feast of life. It manages to capture most of the eternal human spirit, it shows us the most significant stories we encounter during a lifetime on Earth. And it does it with such a dizzying, magnificent spectacle of various elements. Of space in its vast expanses of world. Of riches and extravagances, or of poverty and the unyielding mud. The film’s hands pick up the gemstones and the soil alike, and hypnotises and absorbs you into the deeply reverential, deeply mythical, but ultimately deeply human world. And like life’s arching and winding course, it ebbs and flows along a current of events where varying degrees of fate and free will collide and intermingle with each other.

To do this with the mechanics of cinema, to use it to reveal the greatest highs and greatest lows that we can understand, not necessarily through any one particularly overpowering element, but a continual blend and mix, foundations building upon foundations, is cinema on a level that personally I have nothing but the deepest admiration, and reverence for. I could never commit to some of the inevitable brutalities of the film’s arduous and gruelling creation, but Bondarchuk’s sweep is a vast expanse which makes the world feel infinite, overflowing on all sides with the wealth of human lives, ugly or not. Stories and films can exist for infinite reasons, but I find it so brilliant that a film this tectonic, a film which pushes cinema to its absolute limits, really exists at all. It elevates cinema to the highest point of art, to reveal and reflect our understanding of the world, and to take us beyond it.

Truly, what more is there to say with cinema, than to take us on that journey? To make us part of their company, to make us walk through their halls in fine footwear, and walk in soldier’s boots through the mud into the abyss. To climb a mountain, step by step upwards and upwards as life begins to take on a greater and fuller meaning until the story itself ends, regardless of whether any of its characters continue to live and die. For it is cinema. And it is life. And in a rare moment, in this beautiful piece of art, they are the same.

-Alex

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P.S – This post will be updated in the future, once I take the time to watch the new Criterion Release with Janus Films, a 2K restoration of the entire project. It can be pre-ordered here, don’t hesitate to pick up a copy if you can!

 

War and Peace (Voyna i Mir – 1966-7)