Friday (1995)

Microcosma small place, society or situation that has the same characteristics as something much larger.

It’s been a long time, for all of us. A lot of days went by, in these seemingly godforsaken lockdowns. Life itself has become no less complex, but the pace of life and its’ focus seemed to dramatically shift. Suddenly the home became the space for various unexplored facets of our lives, our work and our long buried hobbies came scuttling out of the corners of our rooms, our kitchens, our beds. Certainly for some more than others, the dimensions of our spaces collapsing into the home has made day-to-day routines feel changed in ways too numerous to detail. Lives taking place across the smorgasbord of geography have been narrowed to the small pools and swamps of our localised environments; minature walks to the shops replacing dreams of distant lands or sun-drenched shores (unless you’ve been lucky enough to live near a beach).

Maybe this is why Friday (1995, Dir. F. Gary Gray) has resonated with me so, in a time of internal solitude. To be present with yourself from day-to-day is an immense achievement of self-awareness cultivated over time, and life’s distractions never cease to multiply around you pulling continuously on your attention, the endless possibilities of the day around you. In Friday, our day is spent with Craig and Smokey, Ice Cube and a relatively then unknown Chris Tucker. What Smokey and Craig want to do primarily is chill out and do nothing on a Friday; sit on the porch getting high and try to alleviate the monotony and malaise of modern living circa 1990s Los Angeles.. Craig’s brand new unemployment wraps itself around his face, his demeanor and energy. His family off to the side stand bemused, cereal with water fills up the belly of anyone not contributing properly to the household today. Smokey on flip side runs his mouth louder than he runs his brain, laziness overtaking his processes and running his small time weed selling into dangerous waters. Adrift in the urban sea, they take up their positions on the porch to chill out.

The problem with doing nothing though, is it doesn’t necessarily mean nothing is gonna happen. In a recounting of the film’s legacy, Ice Cube says that “Everything in Friday happened on my block at one point or another. It’s really a lot of different Fridays wrapped up into one day, so that’s why it’s so authentic – because it’s all real to an extent.” So while they try to put the brakes on life, life accelerates with fantastical abandon towards them, as a carnival of characters crash through the screen.

The film’s very inception was concerned with a more dynamic, richer and more human portrayal of hood culture, humour as the vehicle to reveal understanding and empathy. Ice Cube’s very own career had taken him through John Singleton’s Boyz in the Hood (1991) in his acting debut, which had left him marked in understanding the need for a vision of his own community which captured the humour of daily life, as opposed to its’ violence. What takes place then is a transformation of a film’s own internal confines, it’s guiding principles shifting the perspectives of the representation on screen. Suddenly the world comes to our doorstep, and we are on its porch. Being broke means the public spaces you can occupy are limited, ringfenced off, hidden behind locks, keycards, money, status, social standing and an endless array of other concerning factors. But the porch is both public and private, a seat in the audience and a stage itself. The street becomes theatre, neighbourly disputes and relations become observed, studied, amused and entertained by or working to instill fear. While we journey through a couple of locations (Smokey’s house, a liquour store etc.) poverty brings with it a stillness of space, a dimming of spatial potential. There is no real place to be, and not much point in going anywhere else.

But in this stillness comes clarity, and the expanse of time is stretched across one long revelatory Friday for both characters. The carnival comes to them, and its’ attractions are many. From moment to moment they adapt and change their archetypes, without ever leaving the same space. They are friends, getting high and hiding from their parents. They are Smokey, forced to break into a house at one moment and forced to relieve himself behind his own in another, his unwillingness the only binding factor to his moment to moment transformations. They are momentarily under assault from Deebo (former WWF wrestler Tiny “Zeus” Lister Jr.), only to potentially begin an assault on the little bicyclist Lil’ Chris (Jason Bose Smith) who keeps knocking over everyone’s trash cans. Craig is confronted with issues of masculine identity, on how to exercise power in a world filled with barely thought through violence. Smokey’s eyes bulge outside of his head not just from hilarious ad-libs and asides, but from the genuine fear of retribution, as his machinations only further sink the two into trouble with Smokey’s dealer Big Worm (Faison Love). The characters themselves are allowed to fill a whole expanse of our mind’s canvas, their place in the world only growing with each passing second. They are not characters unfolding themselves onto the world, but they are people who through the film’s unfolding begin to inhabit the various character masks of life.

The day unfolds around their world, and their place in our world comes into focus with a cool organic momentum which grows and grows. Friday still subscribes to the narrative archetypes of fiction which keep stories strung together as easy to understand nets; good triumphs over evil, hero over the villain etc., there is no reason to even disparage Friday for doing so. Friday turns hood culture inside out to walk along comedy’s left shoulder as opposed to tragedy’s right arm, but it does that wrapped up in the archetypes of a fable; lessons are learned by the journey’s end.

In it’s production perspective, Ice Cube’s image and persona was locked into media consciousness as a member of N.W.A, and he had long been living in the crossroads between the media, violence, culture and both self and othered representation. It took conscious effort to conjure Friday’s archetypes of people in the hood, portraits filled with authenticity which could communicate a world not well media travelled outside those who lived in its’ streets. It takes vision to ground them in the narrative frameworks that echo across dividing lines of history, cultures, nations and peoples, and integrity to do it in a way which elevates those characters to become more human over time not less. Craig may stray closer to a mythic hero when he finally slams that trash can down on Deebo’s head, but it is only because he has strayed from the fringes of his community’s doorstep right into the heart of a matter which puts them at risk and him at its crossroads.

What do we need champions for, who do they work for and why? Who knows whether questions like this ever troubled those who actually made Friday, but as the world begins to figure out how best to step outside again, I find a tremendous amount of understanding wrapped up in a tale so effortless that on its surface seems barely noticeable. A Friday, one of many caught up in a calendar of even more. Days can just slip into nothing like that. But then, what is the nothing they slip into? Maybe they are worlds of real moments; of underappreciated gems and the peoples always around us in our lives; champions of spirit who live amongst material poverty. Communities and stories which can exist in their own right and which validate themselves by their own presence and joy. Perhaps this is far too an esoteric understanding of what has largely lived as a cult-classic stoner comedy from the mid-90s, but then perhaps there is more to this which lies underneath it’s casual surface.

And that makes me laugh. A lot. Even if I wrote this on a Thursday.

-Alex

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Friday (1995)

Kino-Pravda Docs: #10 – Close Up

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

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

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

—Wikipedia Entry on ‘Kino Pravda’

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

All sorted?


It is very easy at any point to tune out of Close Up (1990, Dir. Abbas Kiarostami) if you so desire. Usually this is a mark against a film’s quality, as it often points towards a lack of necessary engagement needed to enjoy a film work, fiction or otherwise. Something in the design of the film might be constructed in such a way that it doesn’t excite the imagination vividly, the material doesn’t resonate with the human experience convincingly or with enough clarity. What I found in Close Up, was the impulse to tune out of a cinematic experience which seems profoundly anti-cinematic, or rather yet extremely anti-spectacle. The visual representation of space and time found in cinema has found dominant and alternative modes of expression, of visual languages which compete with each other in the cultural clouds which pass over our world. The language of spectacle in cinema has been one of it’s strongest ways of speaking, everything from explosions to sexual appeasement to even the close up itself. Often employed as an exploitative camera move to communicate as much visual information regarding character’s communication cues as possible. Faces are relentlessly seen, studied, given full dominance over the screen as we empathise, understand, align and re-align ourselves in an imaginative world, the spectacle of the human reaction given to the canvas over and over repeatedly.

Kiarostami is not concerned with the language of spectacle, and so it becomes very easy to fall out of it’s gentler, more delicate grip. Spectacle is a language of grabbing your attention, of a screen filled with such visceral reaction provoking cues that you do not need to jump into a film, for the film jumps into you. This has been one of cinema’s most invigorating tools in it’s history, a catalyst for some of its’ most incredible shots, scenes and films. But it also a language which can scream so loud it can simply drown out the other voices around it, not through malice or intention; simply through presence. Perhaps this is a very elegant way of saying that at times, watching Close Up can feel like and can be boring. In a cinema of spectacle, the mundane is often barely worth commenting upon. Nothing more than a quick set up before the extraordinary events begin to occur, the “real” journey begins etc. The mundane in awkward and shabby clothes, stands off to the sides of cinema quietly waiting for a turn which never seems to fully arrive. The fear of boredom is a cultivator for this language, and cinematic constructionists have spent a long time on the run trying to create ever newer, ever more dazzling scenarios to fill audiences with spectacular elation and leave them for lack of a better term; unbored.

Kiarostami cares a lot less about catering to the sense of being entertained. Spectacle is a part in the multi-faceted language of entertainment, but what about cinema whose aims are beyond that of conventional entertainment? The mundane is something very ordinary and therefore not very interesting, but why have we deemed it common law that ordinary things are not interesting? If something is common, we deem it of having little value, praising only the rare as excellent. But what is ordinary is not set in stone, and the language of boredom is one which is shaped by our cultural concerns and perspectives. Cinematic logics can be varied and idiosyncratic, but the language of entertainment is that of the circus; keep the people fed and keep the people happy.

So Kiarostami takes us into a different world; the one much similar to ours. But one of the main differences here between the language of spectacle and the language of the film he builds is that spectacle is often a witness; the camera is a cypher for the witnessing of spectacle, voyeuristic and eyes drawn open but silent. Here the camera is an intervenor, a camera whose existence is central to the entire film. It is complicated to place Close Up in the “Docs” series, because its’ origins are intimately tied to the reality of the events but also the guiding vision of Kiarostami’s imagination. Hossain Sabzian is a man who impersonates Mohsen Makhmalbaf (a famous Iranian director) when meeting a woman on a bus. His lie leads him to a continuing stream of contact with the Ahankhah’s (her family), which culminates in his revealed identity, an arrest and subsuqent legal proceedings. But this is interventionist cinema, and Kiarostami after reading about the story in an article in Sorush magazine met Sabzian, and began to develop a film about these proceedings. After gaining access to film the trial, Kiarostami convinced the participants of the story; accused, accusors, judge, journalist even Makhmalbaf to participate and even recreate scenes around the encounter as it was unfolding. A film whose existence is inexorably tangled into the real life DNA of the story it portrays.

Is Close Up a false documentary, or a true fiction? So often lines we draw to categorise and segment our experiences can’t survive exposure to the elemental powers of cinema and the world. Kiarostami’s involvement in the film is highly visible highly emotional highly subjective. It is not a witness, it is a direct instigator and intervenor of the events itself. In effect, “the film is not one in which documentary is blended with fiction but one in which an intricate fiction is composed of real-life materials”. So why does it land here, in a category concerning documentaries? Well, what is ‘Kino Pravda’ and what is Close Up, if not fragments of actuality which when organised together, show a deeper truth not visible to the naked eye? A witnessing camera must be invisible, it must not draw attention to itself. But like Dziga Vertov in his Man With A Movie Camera (1929), Kiarostami does not need to hide a camera which seeks to be an active part in its’ own construction of a film. In fact with a sense of empathy which stretches into the extraordinary, we are journeying with the camera and its director as they actively try to navigate the course of their own stories as they unfold. The artificialness of their staging or their re-dramatizations is meant to be taken into account as part of the experience, not something that needs to be imaginatively bought into to create entertainment. Like the recreated experiences of those encountered in The Act of Killing (2013, Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer), their positions in their own experiences are highlighted for you to witness, not with the awe of spectacle, but with the bewilderment of considering the fundamental complexities of the human condition.

The mundane will never be the shining glittery jewel of cinema, and never asked to be. But the mundane contains such a world of gentle, intimate and powerful concerns which so often than not dwarf the imagined heights of fancy that our extraordinary counterparts seem to live in. Our lives are filled with the atmosphere of the mundane, the invisible conditions of our everyday visible concerns and issues. And here at this nexus of art, truth, reality, imagination, film, life, suffering, justice, compassion and understanding, stands an extraordinary film. One which reveals fragments of truth about our world. Maybe the truth is boring and needs to be tuned out. Maybe.

Maybe the truth is interesting and it needs to be tuned into.

-Alex

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Kino-Pravda Docs: #10 – Close Up

La Vie Nouvelle (2002)

WARNING: BELOW CONTAINS FRANK DISCUSSIONS OF A FILM CONCERNED WITH MATURE THEMES: SEXUALITY, SEXUAL VIOLENCE, HUMAN TRAFFICKING, BODY HORROR AND EXISTENTIAL HORROR. PLEASE PROCEED WITH CAUTION AND AT YOUR OWN RISK.

It is difficult to start any discussion of La Vie Nouvelle (2002, Dir. Philippe Grandieux), because it is difficult to even begin comprehending it. Often in writing for this site, I have earnestly sought to seek out cinema which reaches for the boundaries of artistic thought, but also cinema which is unique to its’ own medium, where my words about the work are the jumping off point into the film’s experience. Cinema is a unique visual language, which can be explained and partially translated through words, but I have found myself comfortable writing about films which I felt were at the limits of language and the powers of written explanations. In short, films which need to be seen to be believed but also seen to be understood.

In a way, La Vie Nouvelle is a manifestation of this ethos, and walks well beyond the boundary gates of even conventional visual language. It is a film so beyond the confines of normal experiences found in cinema that the experience of watching it fills you with a tremendous perception of the void or a void, of an internal abyss filled with answers we cannot understand the questions to. To bring your film to such a place, to allow it’s own internal mechanics to become so subterranean raises questions of perception which are mostly kept out of view of cinema’s conversations. To make a film so lost in an exploration of the unconscious elements of the human elemental experience; it splits open cracks in the psyche on how a film is watched, what a film gives to you, what interpretations to draw from its’ own source. To craft a journey through experiential means, especially one which could be interpreted as a hellish descent into the moral pools of evil, requires tools and a frame of understanding which we rarely have need to sharpen.

So consider this, for better and for worse, an attempt to sharpen those skills. Beyond that I just don’t think I’m qualified to say any more.


“My perception of the film was physical and intimate, like for a shaman. I just had to be a conductor for the flux, the music, the rhythms— the body exists to transmit all this.” – Philippe Grandieux, interview with Nicole Brenez.

It’s hard for me to remember La Vie Nouvelle, and yet it seems impossible to forget. The actual experience of watching the film presents you with a piercing and vivid clarity, and when I had finished my first watch I was left with a monstrous flood of impressions to try and seek some kind of meaning in. I wanted to write about it the moment I had finished it, desperate to capture and distill some of the feeling of the film’s immediate presence. There is a whole dedicated industry both academic and hobbyist dedicated to discussing what a film may mean, but it is a lot harder in a sense to convey what a film can make you feel. A film may have a separation from our world, but the real-time presence of watching a film is meant to evoke our senses, our empathy, connect us to an imagined world or representation of our own. Films activate our eyes, our ears, our minds, while the rest of the senses are taking up with the experience of what it is to watch a film in your living room/bedroom/cinema (these days?) etc.

Life flowed on unfortunately, and what most likely would have flowed would have been a torrential stream of thoughts purely trying to piece together any fragmentary sense of understanding about what I had just watched. For La Vie Nouvelle is often beyond the normal visual identifiers and signposts we use to help guide us through these emotive experiences. The dialogue is extremely minimal, the location is undisclosed, the characters are drawn in ways to allow precious little access to them or their internal states. Exposition, one of cinemas oldest allies in allowing audiences to understand what is happening, is all but abandoned. There is no frame of a written/spoken language boundary to help “make sense” of this cinema, you can read the visual language on display as both more abstracted and more primal.

So upon reading about the film, in a search for understanding, I came to access a clearer picture of what the film was made for. The viewing of the film was so overwhelming that I had lost any ability to “find” or locate myself in this world, I was lost in it without anchor. The guidance of the literature, of other far more intelligent writers offering perspectives and provoking ideas on what a cinema like this exists for, helped ground my understanding of the film and allowed me to reach a point where I was no longer reckoning with the chasm of confused darkness unguided. But in doing so, my experience of the film was expanded beyond those initial impressions, a profound sense of being lost. What is even more curious however, was that even though this information had helped me contextualise the film, understand some of its guiding motivations, exploring its’ relation to a film environment which has rarely ventured into this territory; none of that helped me remember what happened in the film.

To be present when faced with horror, our minds seem to take part in a curious trick. We must be more present than ever when faced with something dangerous, our natural ideal for our own preservation battles between fight and flight. But we cannot live in the space of horror, of fear, we would go mad. The impressions of horror carve deep lines into our minds, and in turn we repress some of that cognitive load; file it away under “Do Not Touch”. We cannot rid our minds of the potential of fear, of horror, but it seems we also cannot live with it either in it’s unbearable true presence. In the experience of the film, in this formless and near shapeless world, the psychological boundaries of cinema are stripped back even more so than usual. And the presence of these images is so shocking, so violently intense in comparison to the conventional current of film production and exhibition, that a confrontation with a sense of abject horror left me unable to even understand or remember what had happened.

I do not want to tell you reader, “what happens” in the film. There are plenty of places and plenty of ways to spoil/prepare yourself for the unknown of a filmic world. If I give form, the boundaries of words to what I saw, you will engage with it through a lens of information that the film is uninterested in providing to you. It is a world filled with deathly, guttural reflections of the human condition. Images here are of an almost physical nature, reflecting a language which speaks from body to turbulent minds. Bodies and characters and events climb and writhe all over your experience, emeshing you in a web which burns through your moral frames of reckoning with the world. Judgement has fled from the confines of the screen, turned its back on a world which seeks only to pull you down and through its’ own darkness. Time is stretched beyond our recognition, and such violent pressure is applied to it when encountering dread, encountering horror. Moments of eternity seem to almost become actualised here, as the witnessing of the film makes you unable to turn away from it’s seemingly malovent power.

The malovence of the film’s intent darkly cuts through the experience, but that is also a testament to our current use and understanding of film. A book asks you to imagine events, but a film often represents them; has the power to show them back to us. Perhaps it is only my fatigue with current cultural practices, but the sanitisation and infantilisation of violence on-screen has been one of my long-standing upsets. Sex and violence have sold so well for so long, that it is easier than ever to create a psychological distance and numbing between violence we permit on screen and violence we perpetrate in real life. To normalise the effects of violence creates a numbing to it, even if done to make stories more palatable.

There is something profoundly devastating then, in creating an experience where violence is not only brutally depicted in a form closer to a real understanding of its’ actions and consequences, but also in having that film’s morality cut and torn away from the cloth of conventional piety. Maybe the good guys fight, but they do it to defend our honour, protect and serve. Humble servants of slaughter. But in La Vie Nouvelle, we are not protected because the characters are not protected. The moral shield of “good” is limp, pathetic in the face of its’ own hypocrisy regarding this world. Here violence is not just heroic goodies and nameless, near- faceless baddies designed for the cultural grinder. Here violence parades nakedly across the faces of its’ victims, its’ perpetrators, its’ witnesses and intermediaries. If films have commonly existed and been seen as cultural escapism, are we escaping the real evil we can’t bear to look at in the world? Do we take flight into our films, our private reveries where the vanquishing of evil is not only easy but cheap?

As a culture, as human beings what does it mean for us to be continually running from the glare of evil’s dark presence, because as awful and degrading and horrifying the events are in La Vie Nouvelle, they can only be so because of their relation to the real world we live in. How could they scare us if we did not think there was a chance they could happen to us? Or worse, because we know somewhere deep in the recesses of our minds, that they are already happening, continue to happen, and have already happened in the world we live in? To philosophically investigate evil through film, creates an inversion of its’ common effects. To be validated by lies feels fulfilling in the moment, and that might only come from us feeling unfulfilled, discontented by the truth. If that gap, that disconnect is not addressed, it can only grow larger and more looming, a void to become lost in without end; without a light at the end of the tunnel.


Perhaps reader, this has done nothing to reveal much concerning the film. If that is true, then it speaks to the astounding depths of our unconscious lives and minds, as well as my own failure to communicate. Who knows what might have been if I had written this at a different time, in a different place, in a different state. If what is said regarding the film’s nature is forever unknown, forever lost among it’s blurred shadows and distorted figures, then I would not be surprised; especially due to its’ highly experiential features this is precisely what I was trying to communicate about it. It is a film which lives in its own moment, own momentum. To even begin to grip it’s amorphous edges, requires looking with eyes beyond language, beyond any words I could string together here to make sense of them.

Our perceptions of the world can be so fragile, and to spin them out of control only takes just a few turns of the dancer centred on stage in front of us. With the right combination of sensory impressions, a film can crash and whip against your knowledge of the world, its’ tide dragging you under whatever inky waters it may contain. It may even sweep it away entirely, leaving only the shattered debris of your understandings in its wake. Maybe that is good. Maybe that is bad. Maybe that is beyond good and evil, in a colossal realm of conscious and unconscious experience, reverberating throughout our own lives and something we can, maybe even should reckon with.

At the very least, it might darkly liberate us from the confines of our own collective demons. Maybe that is a good place to begin anew.

-Alex

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La Vie Nouvelle (2002)

Eros + Massacre (1969)

Eros + Massacre

“The fundamental theme is: how to change the world, and what is it that needs to be changed? Reflecting on the present situation through the medium of an era already past, I came to believe that Osugi’s problems continue to be ours.” – Yoshishige (Kiju) Yoshida, Cahiers du Cinema, Oct 1970.

Writing on Eros + Massacre, Yoshida’s 1969 abstract epic, will be an incomplete task by its’ end. I say this not only due to my own limitations as a writer to grapple fully with the range of historical context and the extremely intricate construction/style. I say this because Yoshida’s film is like a maelstrom in the sea, the currents of past, present and future swirling around each other in an ocean which contains them all. If an artwork or a film begins to sprawl out, it becomes tougher to comprehend; to remember, to be sure or confident in the judgements you make concerning any analytical or emotional responses/interpretations. Conventional cinematic viewing can often lead to two responses to material which you don’t understand; hostility or reluctance to speak at all. For several reasons I’m sure, Yoshida’s films have travelled in high places but their release and exposure to the wider mainstream of cinema and it’s viewers has been largely invisible throughout common film education. In fact, until I saw Eros + Massacre, I was not aware a Japanese New Wave in cinema even existed.

So I am grateful to Arrow Video’s work in restoring the film (alongside others) in a 2017 release. I am also grateful that Yoshida’s work has managed to travel continually in some form, because that maelstrom you experience when watching the film is reflective of the same one we live in continously. By design, Eros +Massacre takes the alternating streams of conflicting histories, narratives we tell ourselves, and half-remembered reveries and unleashes them through the screen, releasing a dam of cinematic forms that has been continually choked by the need to fix a singular narrative in place, a singular plot with a singular story. In a film concerned with what it means in the present when we try to construct ‘a usable past’, it is difficult to cope with a visual presentation closer to the real life experience of our own, consciously navigating ourselves through societies different conflicting accounts of “what really happened”, “who really did what”, “why did that happen the way it did?”. History is built from the ruins of the present, interpretations from different arenas of society (with differing amounts of pressure), and the narrative channelings of any one human writer looking to find out why things are the way they are. To put this onscreen is no easy task.

So my writings on Eros + Massacre will forever remain incomplete, and I think Yoshida would be contented to know that. At the very least, love and its’ limitless potentials combined with its’ consequences, is a good place to start.


It feels strange to pick a starting point when discussing the film, if only because it’s reflecting the film’s own obsession over how malleable the temporal world that we navigate can be. Eros + Massacre starts in the 1960s, but it’s tracing a circle back to the 1910s/20s, where the principal characters are displaced by their visions of the future, and the actors of the present are grasping the sands of the past running through their fingers.

Pinning the story to the wall reveals some facts, Eiko (Toshiko Ii) and Wada (Daijirō Harada) are two students in the late 60s, adrift in the modern cosmopolis of Tokyo. Beginning with an interview, Eiko spends much of the runtime trying to make sense of her past, and her relationship to her mother Itō Noe, who was involved in the feminist and social upheaval happening in Japan in the late Meji and Taishō periods of history. She was also involved with Ōsugi Sakae (Toshiyuki Hosokawa), a radical Japanese anarchist who entertained three simultaneous couplings; one with his wife Yaruko Hori, one with journalist Kamichika Ichiko (played by Yûko Kusunoki, she is referred to in the film as Masaoka Itsuko due to the real Ichiko attempting to sue Yoshida for violation of privacy which led to a theatrical recut for release), and one with Itō Noe (played by Mariko Okada). He did this through a radical profession of free love, in the denial of the self and of the social pressures enforced on society through monogamous coupling and private property ownership. His philosophy was in conflict with the state pressure and forces of Japanese politics, but also at odds with the desires of each of the women he was in relation to. It is from this pool of love, politics, philosophy and time that Eros + Massacre spends it’s time swimming in.

To try and separate the stories in order to make better coherence of them, is precisely what Yoshida’s construction is designed to resist. The histories of this time are thrown together in parallel, at times bleeding into the reality of each other with such actuality that the timelines and their characters quite literally unify together in the same space on screen. Eiko is subject to the role of the interviewee from the beginning, the camera (and by extension its’ operator Wada) becoming a cypher for our own way into this world, but Eiko also becomes the interviewer and tries her best to get answers from her mother, who’s enigmatic appearance reveals only enigmatic answers.

To be living in the present means you do not have full access to the past, and cinema for a long time has carefully glided over that fact by creating an external frame to witness the events of the past, which are in fact only interpretations filtered down through the creative process that any film crew embarks on when producing a film. So the film continually investigates and re-investigates itself, freed from trying to pretend that the past is both fixed and fully accessible, the film is continually reflecting on the impressions and echoes of the positions we place ourselves in in our spatio-temporal existences, the echoes of the paths previously tread and the imagined ones we have yet to walk.

All of this sounds very metaphysical, and that is perhaps because it is. One of the struggles of trying to give shape to writing about this film, is the very fact that it wants to be oriented in this tangle of metaphysical tensions. It’s revolutionary bent in style and substance means the film is a chaotic mass of roots growing downwards, it’s divisions only allowing you to see the more complex relations between each strand. Take the monumental work of cinematography in the film (fulfilled by Hasegawa Genkichi), which contains some truly exquisite and deft compositions. It’s long focus and depth of field means the surroundings are filled with an atmosphere of the Japanese architecture, a sense of understanding is built between the environment and the people who inhabit it. The compositions themselves then not only possess a treasured sense of environmental scale lost in modern cinema, but the compositions are radically de-centred; they resist being images easy to process, reflecting the turbulent and complicated relations between the characters they are not easily found on screen, lurking in the corners of frames or partially shielded from view.

This grows as the architecture becomes an active element in the environment; characters are reflected through windows and mirrors as they speak to each other heightening their fractured distance; they burst continuously from shōji (Japanese paper-style walls) appearing from hidden pockets and frames within the cinematic one. But this is the cinematography only of the earlier period, and the shooting style of the 60s era embraces the nouvelle vague‘s more confrontational camera work, of a more direct exposé of the characters onscreen. Here Wada and Eiko are not just subjecting themselves to the looming stare of the long spiral of history, but they are in the throes of confronting themselves and their own gazes. So the cinematography expands here, visual extremism as the analysis digs and digs in the ruins of time. Eiko even has the past projected onto her literally through a screen projector, as she confronts Wada on notions of love, manhood and the gap between desire and fulfillment of them.

As the film progresses, that visual extremism or dynamism starts to affect the more traditionally composed cinematography of the past sections building upon it even further. The film’s most reknowned sequence is a tri-part replication of the Hikage Teahouse Incident, where Kamichika Ichiko stabbed Ōsugi Sakae after discovering him living with Noe. The tri-part, comes from it going over different depictions of how the event could have taken place, each version of events with its focus and dynamics shifted. Here the camera bleeds through an abstraction of archaic stage-play kabuki theatrics, classical cinematography and the more experimental angles of it’s present day focus and artistry. The past becomes the present reflected through the past, and all of these complicated tensions never unify into a single position; the variants and perceptions of history are shrugged off by Eiko (complaining that the incident may never have even happened), and so too the cinematographical strands are left untied into a neat knot. The cinematography fuses together in the moments of brilliant experience when the story is being encountered, but it refuses to contain itself to the limits of past/present/future. It is all those at once, and more.

Do you see why it is difficult to talk about Eros + Massacre? Even now I’m reflecting back the film’s own concerns with its’ presentation. As Eiko and Wada submerge themselves into the stream of the world around them, the film does the same. It concerns itself so much with its’ own construction it even exposes it, a sequence where the director and camera set up is shown initiating Eiko and Wada into their next scene. Their world is inextricably linked to the celluloid reality they’re being burned onto by Yoshishige and his editor Yasuoka Hiroyuki. By the end of the film, not only have all the characters come together across space and time to be preserved in a photograph (“a monument for the future”), but characters in both the past and present have simultaneously commited suicide and reached death and still possess life onscreen, one even hanging themselves with the celluloid and embracing that reality to a deliriously surreal conclusion. The film opens out like a puzzle box, where not even the conventions of mortal life need to necessarily be respected or entertained as they so often are in conventional cinema. You cannot throw off these boundaries, it is not that Yoshida’s work isn’t interested in them. It is more that the work approaches them and explores them intimately through film, a form which isn’t necessarily bound by the limitations of the human form.

Once you move through that, you then can see the huge chasm that is being carved into the psyche when the film communicates on love, on politics, on the massacre between them. Yoshida’s position on these matters is a culmination of the thought and ideals of those real historical figures for sure, but they are also very much his own. Grown from the environment of the 1960s, a time when across the globe cinema was experiencing an internal revolution in how to portray itself. So the theories of Ōsugi on free love are placed in chronic opposition to his undermined sense of self, as well as his betrayal of revolutionary ideals to become an informer. Itō Noe’s genuine desires of self-realisation are undercut by her inability to free herself from the tangles of her own pride and her love with Ōsugi, or rather than undercut they are simply challenged by. Itsuko (real life- Ichiko) listens to Ōsugi’s words, we can hear her agreeing with his philosophies even though you can see in her face that she does not believe them and it drives her to madness. Eiko’s ambition to make sense of her past can’t be fully reconciled with the impossibility of ever fully knowing what happened or even why. And all of this takes place against the barely visible backdrop of that metaphysical conversation of being both in society and of it, the white gloved hands of the state slowly grasping tighter around the necks of those who radically rebel against its’ structures.

I’m sure there are plenty of “answers” out there written by critics and academics alike on what the content of Eros + Massacre means, and I’m sure that plenty of those reasoned pieces provide valuable insight into how the film manifests meanings that are difficult to explain in language. But Yoshida’s masterpiece is a contemplation on the limits of love without end, and it is designed to flow through you and fill you with understanding, before closing it’s doors until you decide to enter again (quite literally!). For me to have written a piece which could ever claim to answer these questions in full, would be blind to the negation of self that Yoshida seems transfixed by in this film and the answers that can be felt when moving beyond the ego. There is wisdom in the film, but it is on you to define and shape it into a usable experience for your world, just like Eiko wants to create a usable past out of the infinite fragments and permutation of the human experience.

I would never fully claim to understand it, and I don’t need to claim to mindlessly agree with the full extent of its politics and discourse to show you it is worth watching. It is a film born in a maelstrom, its’ characters whipped and thrown through the seas of time and culture and memory and dreams. They are placed in the infinite set of tensions created by our own complex and ever-evolving desires; our reason, our regrets and our ambitions. All of which continues to evolve moment-by-moment against or with the society around us, and the lies and truths we tell to each other, to ourselves, to the world. Even in love, one of our most freeing feelings we can experience, we still cannot make sense of its’ complicated edges, the way our personalities can hold conflicting dissonances and enable us to repress our desires through multiple layers of filtration (society, lover’s egos, our own sense of self and how honest we can be etc.). If Yoshida’s film was the defining statement on these matters, we could all go home and rest easy, but Eros + Massacre is borne of a restless current, of a train surging forward from one side of the screen to the next.

So I leave the work here, incomplete and in ruins. And there is a humbling sense of peace in that, like Tsuji Jun (Etsushi Takahashi), Itō Noe’s second husband who she leaves for Ōsugi. He weathers this storm of life in the film, retreating into his shakuhachi (Japanese flute) playing as a way to cope with love leaving his world. Maybe there is more wisdom in this path, maybe less. Maybe the value of his choice is not dependent on how good or bad it is, but simply that it is at all. Maybe that is all we should ask from ourselves, from our art. It might not answer every question, and it might demand more from us in the future, but perhaps that at least might be a good place to start.

-Alex

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Eros + Massacre (1969)

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

Dogtown

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The urge to feel free.

-Alex

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

Studio Ghibli (2/2)

Studio Ghibli Isao Takahata

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

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

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

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

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

Studio Ghibli Rest of 1Studio Ghibli Rest of 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

Studio Ghibli Cover

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

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

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

– Alex

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Studio Ghibli (2/2)

Studio Ghibli (1/2)

Studio Ghibli CoverStudio Ghibli

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

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

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

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


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

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

Studio Ghibli Hayao Miyazaki

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Alex

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Studio Ghibli (1/2)

Honey Boy (2019)

Honey Boy

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

-Alex

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Honey Boy (2019)

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


Follow @henryatthemovies here as well if you wanna read more of his thoughts on cinema!

-Alex

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

Phantom of the Paradise (1974)