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)

Sorry To Bother You (2018)

Sorry To Bother You

Usually I approach watching films with as little background knowledge as possible. Sorry To Bother You (2018, Dir. Boots Riley) is not one of those films. I have been a passenger on its hype train since my friend showed me the trailer last year, and I have been waiting with bated breath for it to make its long-awaited, just-about-made-it landing in the UK (distribution is complicated). I still did my best to keep myself in the dark about it, but I have been amped for a long time.

What I  couldn’t expect however,  was how amped Boots Riley would be. Because Sorry To Bother You is a molotov cocktail into your cinematic consciousness.


Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), is a newly employed telemarketer. Poverty, and all its trappings, hang over his world like a gloomy cloud in the sunny sky. But after some tutelage, Cassius uses his “white voice” (overdubbed by David Cross) to climb the corporate ladder, while the socio-economic tensions in his life become amplified by him “selling out”. Cassius’s enemy, the villain which parades through the film is the invisible relationships of capitalism and the pressures it creates and enforces. Friendship, financial stability, self-worth and self-“progress” all become complicated by Cassius’s elevation. And then the rest of the film spirals out, into a whacked-out and cerebral movement through some of current society’s most brutal and bizarre corners. In case I didn’t convey it properly, the film is a lot.

In short, the film has ambitions, and is very clear about you knowing them. Boots Riley wants you to be aware, of the subtext and sub-conscious forces operating in the world around you. The news is not just the news. Blackness is not just blackness. The corporate environment of the highest echelons of our society does not exist in a vacuum, and it does not exist in stasis. Everybody wants things done, from the poorest to the richest. Often their aims conflict, and Riley drops that image in the form of a brutal strike action combatted by anti-riot police, with added extras. The mechanisms of our lives have layers of meaning, and layers of action. Cassius’s “white voice” is a tool which elevates him, not just a fun party trick.  What people present, and how they present it, is an idea which keeps recurring during my watching of the film.

And there are moments where the film goes beyond my understanding. There’s elements of misé-en-scene, of character interactions and scenes which left me a little unsure of what was happening. And I think that’s good, because Riley has purposely presented a world which is dense, complicated, full of ideas bursting and spiralling off from the main plot. Comments on late-stage capitalism, the role of the media, the role of art and performed whiteness and blackness. Riley’s script comes through like an avalanche, ideas and critiques shifting and falling onto even the most politically aware viewers, saturating you with the complicated images of the world. Which is fantastic, because a complicated and unresolved world is the one we live in. To make a satire really function, it has to reflect the world it’s satirising. And for Boots Riley not to capitulate to a sense of order, to keep things purposefully complex, I think is really cool.

More importantly, while Sorry To Bother You may not possess any sense of “classical unity”, it is still a unified film, and it doesn’t forget to be entertaining. Devilishly funny cinematic moments occur, and Cassius’s internal struggle is one which resonates, even if the landscape he navigates is highly surreal and exaggerated. The score by The Tune-Yards and The Coup (Boots Riley’s band), is one which singes the edges of the film with a cool fire, one which feels just as alive and playful as the films ideas. It’s cinematography aswell, shot mostly under the hot Californian sun in Oakland, prevents the film from any sense of gloominess, only fiery anger and fiery hope. I’ve talked more about what telling dark stories in sunlight can do, in Brick (2005, Dir. Rian Johnson), and Riley’s situating of most of the action in the bright sunlight makes everything feel more exposed, the darkness uglier because there’s no shadows to hide it.

The film’s chaos and order is channelled through the performances aswell. Lakeith Stanfield as Cassius seems to surf through the world and it’s inhabitants, waves overlapping and washing over him. Detroit (Tessa Thompson) is fierce, and her radicalised agenda grates against Cassius’s apathy, but that soon becomes complicated too. Squeeze (Steven Yeun), is less cool but more politically organised, a potential path for Cassius to walk. Langston (Danny Glover) is an elder, a compromised father/elder figure who’s help is double-edged. And Mr Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), does his best to convince you that you’ve got it all wrong. After all, power is rarely won virtuously.

Sorry To Bother You is a lot, I said that earlier. Because it is so conscious, so hyper aware of the interconnectedness and links between an individual and the society they live in, it can be thrown about for hours, for Riley has a lot to say, and even more for you to think about. But in a film where everything is compromised, by insecurity which ranges from personal to moral to worldwide, an aware acknowledgement and genuine wrestling with those insecurities is incredible to watch in a film, especially one that’s got a kerosene kick of style to boot. It’s a radically political film, it’s unashamed of its political leanings in a world which is not politically neutral, it’s a film which will leave you with mixed feelings, a film which pushes you as a viewer. It will not sit easily with everyone, and that’s good.

It’s at once a warning cry, a rallying cry, and a bitter and despondent cry. But most of all its courageous. To make a film like this, takes courage. And to watch a film like this, you get some of the fruits of that courage. So be brave. Track it down.

-Alex

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Sorry To Bother You (2018)